This is a riches to rags story (being a twist on things) with a heaping of dignity in the end. It is the remarkable story of how a home for old men, mainly prospectors, came to be in Kamloops long ago.
British Columbia at the end of the 18th century, and through the first half of the next, had a large population of “Lonesome Prospectors.” In 1901, overall, there were 177 men to 100 women in B.C. For many there was no retirement. In those days, government pensions did not exist. The old-timers found what work they could, lived in rough shacks, and hung on until desperately old or sick. “Poverty and ill health rather than freedom and independence marked the lives of elderly lonesome prospectors.”
In 1893, the provincial government passed an act to establish a provincial home for the aged and infirm. Just two years later, in September of 1895, the home opened in Kamloops. For decades after, most knew it as the Provincial Old Men’s Home or, sometimes, the Old Man’s home on Columbia Street. There was a steady stream of old fellows. By 1922, the need arose for a nearby cemetery, so that was built on the once Ussher family farm, along 6th Avenue just below the present St. Andrews church. The home existed until 1974 when they tore it down to make way for what is now Ponderosa Lodge.
There were 65 beds on opening day. The furnishings cost the grand sum of $3,423 ($105,032 in today’s dollars). There were some concessions to the free spirited old-timers. Residents could take leave on occasion. Many worked in orchards or took to the bush for a spell. While in care, they abided by strict rules, although one historian commented that they were often unconventional in an extremely conservative era. Accordingly, they all agreed to “to keep up the respectability and tone of the establishment.” One smiles at the thought. It is also pleasing that these pioneers had some dignity in their final years.
Some of the old men were instrumental in creating the province and many had astonishing stories. Take James Moore, a Californian, who with six companions stopped for lunch on the Fraser River just above Yale. It was Moore’s twenty-sixth birthday. He noticed a sparkle at his feet. That glimmer turned out to be gold. The small sand bar they rested on eventually produced two million dollars worth of gold. Young Moore had set off the gold rush and much of what eventually shaped our province. Moore, some sixty-years later talked about all that unfolded in the then rough colony, by stating, “We laid the foundation of British Columbia.” A reporter, David Higgins, at the Kamloops Old Men’s Home, recorded his sage remarks.
“It was at this home that James Moore showed up in 1914 at the age of 82. He was described then as broken and penniless.” (With gratitude to author Darla Dickinson, “Colorful Characters in Historic Yale.” Courtesy of the Yale Museum. 03 Gold Rush.)
These days, few people notice the lovely, old cemetery. Under its verdant, undulating surface lie the remains of men from thirty-two countries and ten provinces. Moved by the poignancy of the many stories, and glad of this outstanding heritage, the Sagebrush Neighbourhood Association proposed, in the spring of last year, that the city create a memorial arboretum by planting trees representing some of the nations these pioneers came from. Thankfully, the city is enthused with the idea and planning is underway. The association, for its part, is providing a set of magnificent, wrought iron gates. A renowned Falkland based blacksmith has created them over this summer. They will replace the existing, somewhat derelict ones. The association hopes to install them, supported by graceful columns, early next year in time for the 100th anniversary of this remarkable, hallowed ground in 2022.
The Sagebrush Neighbourhood Association has recently been encouraged by a very generous grant of $1,000 from the Colombo Lodge. (Of the many buried at the old cemetery, eighteen came from Italy.) The hope is to raise an additional $5,000, to match the $5,000 committed from their savings. If you or your organization could assist, please visit the Facebook page or speak with board member Frank Dwyer at 250-374-5477.