Photos in my last blog of the Squilax General Store inspired a surprising response from some readers. Assuming that no one would relate to the old brick building I was surprised it had been part of other’s lives as well. Go figure! The little store sat in the shadow of a high, long wooden bridge which took travellers over the Little Shuswap River to the upper reaches of big Shuswap Lake and also to Adams Lake and remote locations beyond. Place names like Scotch Creek, Celista, Anglemont, and Hard Scramble come to mind. There was a spattering of summer homes and a marina. It was an area essentially undiscovered to the outside world… then.
I had come to the area due to a strange series of circumstances. I found myself working on a ranch belonging to a religious organization. I soon moved over to a neighbouring ranch and have indelible memories of life and all that I learned up in Turtle Valley. I sometimes wish I’d never left. At the bottom of the steep dirt road was the location of Squilax Station on the CPR mainline. The ranch family I worked for had bought the old station building, put it on log skids and dragged it behind the ranch bulldozer all the way up into the valley and set it on new foundations. That was over fifty years ago and other ranchers are still peeved about ripped-out portions of fence, wandering cattle and general mayhem. Country folk are often quite parochial and that event is part of the fabric of local legend. The old building is still there so far as I know, still in it’s very faded, peeling railway burgundy paint. There is a novella lurking about my rich experiences there. Looking back, everything seems larger than life, including the Squilax Store.
At the bottom of the Turtle Valley Hill was a looping ramp which rose from the Trans-Canada highway and made a three-quarter turn to the long wooden bridge across the Little Shuswap River. There was a traffic light at either end of the single-lane bridge. Invariably there was a long wait for the light to turn green. I drove a ‘64 Buick like a maniac on the daily trip to work at the Holdings Sawmill on Adams Lake. A co-worker had financed a brand-new Datsun 240Z and insisted on pushing his sports car to the limit. He rolled it over on that approach to the bridge. The old abutments are all that remain of that bridge now. They stand beside the replacement bridge, a two-lane concrete affair with no character but a necessary concession to modern times and a growing population.
The store sat beside the highway on the south bank of the river. I do not know who had built the red brick construction but it stands as solidly as ever. Fifty years ago it already looked as if it had been there forever. Old Mr Herring claimed that he had been a young man working on a British whaling vessel off the coast of Kamchatka. That was where he had met his wife. I recall how everything was priced by hand and all sales were recorded in a ledger. She wrote in cyrillic alphabet which to me was an exotic mystery. She was an elegant silver-haired lady, always in a bright flowered-print dress. He was a bald old man with tiny round-rimmed glasses and sparkling eyes.
They lived in the back of the building, the store in the front was very small but offered a wide variety of goods and obviously they had enough trade to provide themselves with a living. There were accounts of another store which they first operated in Fort St. John. I so wish I’d paid more attention. The Squilax store was lined with glass cabinets which had rows of wooden kegs sitting in in front of them. A hinged plank covered the kegs of nails and other hard ware, foodstuffs sat inside the cabinets. You could not buy a piece of cheese from one of the huge blocks without first being offered a sample. The product was cut, weighed and wrapped in brown paper and then tied with string which hung from a spool suspended from the ceiling. The price was carefully marked in cyrillic on the package and also in the ledger. Even then, it was a step far back in time which I did not appreciate. It is long-gone, forever.
I remember the tinkle of the bell whenever the door was opened and closed and believe I recall a small round wood stove in the storefront. For years I treasured a telescopic fishing rod which travelled with me in my backpack and I still have a splendid axe which has served me well through the years. They both came from that store. One day Mr Herring took a phone call. (Yes, it was one of those old crank-up style phones) There had been a suicide on the Shuswap reserve across the river and the inquiry was for some muslin cloth to prepare the body. There was none in stock but the old shopkeeper had cheesecloth and assured the caller that it was perfectly acceptable to use what was on hand. That led him into a story about a too-small coffin in their former store and how they managed to cram the body into it by sitting on the lid so it could be screwed down.
Well, that’s not much for memories from over half a century ago. Maybe with more dredging I’ll come up with more. I’d love to hear other’s accounts of the Herring’s and their business. Whomever the owners now are, they have heaped the old store with junk and clearly do not appreciate what they have. Such is life. The traffic whizzes by on the highway, and as is so often the case, few appreciate the significance of one obscure place.
At home I’m settling in while I make repairs and upgrades to my RV. There was a tremendous welcome from Jack but it is hard to admit how he is aging. He still has a sparkle in his eyes but his old body is clearly worn out. He can barely walk. I took him to visit friends. A spectacular lunch was prepared and say waiting on the table while we visited. Through the corner of my eye I caught Jack, slowly but deliberately, pulling on the table cloth and inching lunch off the edge of the table. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.