Okanagan Falls Heritage & Museum Society
Okanagan Falls Heritage Place is home to treasure trove of community’s history
It’s easy to drive past Heritage Place in Okanagan Falls and be unaware that its buildings contain a treasure trove of the community’s history.
The collection of buildings includes the Bassett House, an early 20th century prefab house; a thrift store; a museum dedicated to rodeo star Kenny McLean; and a larger museum containing numerous century-old local artifacts.
The facility dates back to 1983 when the Women’s Institute of Okanagan Falls purchased the property, said Grant Henderson, vice president of the Okanagan Falls Heritage and Museum Society.
The property had been a camping ground and was bigger than it is now.
Soon afterwards, the Bassett House was moved to the site from across the creek where it had been part of the now-defunct Mystery Village. That former tourist attraction was where Tickleberry’s is now.
The Bassett House was ordered from the 1906 Eaton’s catalogue by Richard Bassett and shipped in pieces by rail from Winnipeg. From the rail connection at Okanagan Landing near Vernon, it was sent by a stern wheeler boat to Penticton. From there, it made the rest of the journey by horse-drawn wagon.
Bassett was active in the stagecoach and freight hauling industry, so he was a man of means. Still, the house, more of a cottage, is less than 700 square feet, and it lacked a bathroom. In those days, outhouses were the norm.
Visitors can see the rooms with furnishings more than a century old.
Henderson is concerned about the condition of its roof, especially since the volunteer society that runs the facility can’t afford the estimated $10,000 to replace it.
“We’re afraid that the Bassett House roof may begin to leak,” he said, adding that he hopes a benefactor will step forward to help. “Without some influx of either in-kind donations or financial contributions of some kind, we will find that the buildings will deteriorate faster than we can keep up. That would be a real shame. Because it has lasted 116 years, that house, there’s no reason in the world with proper care that it shouldn’t last another 60 or more years.”
Heritage Place has received occasional grants in the past, but it receives no regular ongoing funding. Its only revenue comes from the operation of the thrift store and from rental of a suite above the museum.
The Bassett House and museum are open from the May long weekend to late October.
The thrift store is open year-round from Wednesday to Saturday, depending on availability of volunteers. Which points to another challenge – attracting and retaining the volunteers needed to run the operation.
“Without volunteers, there’d be no thrift store, there’d be no tours,” said Henderson. “I need 20 [volunteers] and I’m down to about eight. The eight are working pretty hard.”
Volunteers are only asked to work two and a half hours per week, Henderson said. He also needs volunteers willing to conduct tours during the summer.
The thrift store is a popular spot, however, and shoppers can buy lightly used clothing for next to nothing.
In the back of the store is an attached log building that houses a small museum dedicated to Kenny McLean, a local rodeo star most active in the 1960s and 1970s.
McLean, 1939-2002, was born to a Syilx mother and Scottish father in Penticton, the youngest of 10 children. He grew up on a ranch at Okanagan Falls.
He started riding horses at age two, was breaking colts at age 12, and entered his first rodeo in Keremeos at age 17.
He went on to win saddle bronc riding championship after championship, winning the world saddle bronc championship in 1962. He was the only rodeo cowboy inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame, and later became the only cowboy to receive the Order of Canada.
The museum contains some of his many trophies and saddles that he won over his career, along with photos and news clippings.
“He was absolutely astounding,” said Henderson. “Every time he won a championship, he received the saddle, like the one I’m standing next to right now,” he added, gesturing to a 1969 saddle in the centre of the room.
Behind the other buildings is the main museum containing hundreds of items from around the beginning of the 20th century. These include numerous household objects and tools and implements from various professions.
There are musical instruments such as an old organ and piano, and old telephones and an early switchboard. Old Bibles, many photographs and even dried pressed flowers round out the exhibits on what life was like in Okanagan Falls a century ago. There’s even a wedding dress of the first woman married at Blasted Church in Okanagan Falls.
Henderson is impressed by an old photograph of a baseball field in which it appears half the community attended a game.
“It was a day where people actually cared for and looked after each other,” he said. “It was a day of community and small town, big family.”
Looking at the tools used a century ago, Henderson said has made him appreciate the difficulties people of that day faced in developing their land and surviving the cold.
“I’ve got to take my hat off to the pioneers,” said Henderson. “There’s a soft spot in my heart now for OK Falls history, even though I’m not from here.”
Henderson believes local history is important, both to see where we came from, and the kind of challenges people faced at that time and to encourage us to learn from our history.
“I am warmed to see young people coming here and asking for a tour,” he said. “I see teachable opportunities to really get the kids involved. When you realize that this [Bassett] house is 100 years older than you are, all of a sudden, it’s outside their comprehension and they come in with a more open mind.”
Story and photos by Richard McGuire
Heritage Place and Okanagan Falls Heritage and Museum Society
1145 Main Street
Okanagan Falls, BC V0H 1R0