Tag Archives: Betsy Henderson

DeBeck Letters: Life After Parkhurst

When going through accounts of life at Parkhurst one name that keeps coming up is Denis DeBeck.

Denis DeBeck poses with some ties and the dog Micky. Photo: DeBeck Collection

Denis DeBeck was the eldest of six siblings.  Two of his younger brothers, Ward and Keary, also worked a few summers at Parkhurst.  It was during those years that their mother brought the younger three children, Betsy, Nedra and Fred, to stay on Green Lake as well.

The DeBecks came from the Marpole neighbourhood of Vancouver where the children all attended school.  Denis graduated from Magee High School in 1928 and got his first job at Coast Quarries.  Over the next few years he worked various jobs, including a stint as his father’s office boy.  In 1932 he began working for B.C. Keeley (who bought Parkhurst in 1933) at his mill in Marpole.  A year later Denis was on the train bound for Parkhurst (in a snowstorm, according to his letters) where he would work on and off for the next five years.

Dorothy DeBeck outside Parkhurst. Photo: DeBeck Collection

During these years he married Dorothy, a friend of his cousin Barbara.  After the original mill burnt down in 1938 the DeBecks left Parkhurst and in 1940 Denis and his partner John Brunzen opened their own small portable mill at 43.5 Mile on the PGE Railway.  This was also the year Denis and Dorothy had their first daughter, Wilma.  Their second, Barbara May, came after they moved the mill to 48.8 Mile.

We are fortunate at the museum to have copies of letters written by Denis to his brother Keary between 1943 and 1944, when Keary was serving in the RCAF overseas.

The letters provide a glimpse into life in British Columbia during the Second World War and into the DeBeck family.  Denis provided his brother with family news and commented on the updates Keary sent about their brother Fred who was recovering from a plane crash.  When Fred returned to Canada their roles switched and Denis provided the updates.  While living at 48.8 Mile the DeBeck family appears to have communicated often through letters and visits, described once by Denis as “a three week raid on Victoria” where their parents had moved.

Wilma DeBeck and another girl on the PGE tracks. Photo: DeBeck Collection

Denis also sent his brother news of the mills in the area in his first few letters.  By November 1943 he was already looking for the next location for his portable mill, expecting to finish the timber at 48.8 Mile by the next April.  Locations mentioned were Nita Lake, D’Arcy and Squamish.

Alf Gebhart’s house in the 1930s.  The Gebharts had a mill in the valley, but weren’t necessarily having the best year. Photo: Debeck Collection

From his news, mills did not appear to be having the best year.  As Denis put it, “Poor old Parkhurst.  Same old story, out of logs.  They are only running a 7 hour day and still run out of logs.”  There was also trouble with logs at Lost Lake and for the Gebhart’s mill.

In a letter from March 1944 Denis describes the new tool being used to fell the last of the timber at 48.8 Mile.  “We bought one of those power chainsaws and it works pretty good but not as well as we thought it would.  Very good for falling but no good for bucking in the woods.”  Despite taking awhile to start up, he claimed the sawing was “4 or 5 times as fast as hand sawing.”

Despite his predictions of moving soon, the DeBeck family was still at 48.8 Mile in October of 1944.  Though the letters we have stop there, the family moved to Squamish in 1945 and Denis continued to operate his own sawmills.  He lived there until his death in 2007 at the age of 96.

Parkhurst Before the Ghost Town

Parkhurst may now be known primarily as a ghost town, but it was once the site of the first large and permanent mill operations in the valley.

Mr. and Mrs. Parkhurst pre-empted the land on Green Lake in 1902 and built a small house where they lived with their family.  It is unclear whether they ever operated a sawmill on the property, which was sold in 1926 after the death of Mr. Parkhurst.

The property was purchased by the Barr brothers of Mission who had been looking for a new source of timber.  William, Malcolm and Ross Barr built a mill and a camp for their workers and began operating Parkhurst Mill, named for the previous owners.

A mill at Parkhurst operated on the shores of Green Lake from 1926 to about 1956. Barr Collection

In 1928 Malcolm drowned after falling into Green Lake and then, due to the effects of the Depression, the mill went into receivership in 1930.  William moved on from the valley while Ross and his wife Alison stayed on at Parkhurst as watchmen hired by the bank until the property could be sold.

Logging operation at Parkhurst, late 1920s. This photograph shows a railcar, a spar tree and the steam donkey. The man standing on a log in the foreground is Ross Barr. Barr Collection

In 1932 Parkhurst was sold to B.C. Keeley and Byron Smith who reopened the mill under the name Northern Mills in 1933.  Ross Barr and Denis DeBeck were hired by Keeley to manage the mill and worked together until it burnt down in 1938.

Norm Barr and neighbour Jack Findlay in 1936. Barr Collection

The museum recorded two oral histories in 2011 that include many stories and a lot of information about Parkhurst during this time: one with Norm Barr, the son of Ross and Alison Barr, and another with Betsy Henderson, sister of Denis DeBeck.

Betsy Henderson had a very different experience at Parkhurst than those who worked and live there.  She, her mother and two more of her siblings stayed near Parkhurst at what had been the Lineham’s mink ranch during the summers of 1936 and ’37.  Her three older brothers, Denis, Ward and Keary, were all working for Northern Mills and, as Betsy recalled, their mother decided she’d like to stay with all six of her children for the summer.

As she was not working, Betsy was able to explore the area around Parkhurst and got into some rather potentially dangerous situations, such as taking a dip in fast-running Fitzsimmons Creek and crossing the Blackcomb glacier with her brother Keary.

The glacier was full of chasms and on one crossing, Keary asked her to take a picture of him on the upper side of a huge crevasse.  Betsy maneuvered around to set up the photo and, as she remembered, “when I looked up to take the picture I found that Keary was sitting on just a shelf of ice.”  Needless to say, the picture did not get taken.

The Northern Mills operation on Green Lake before it burned down in 1938. It was later rebuilt at the same site. DeBeck Collection

After the fire Northern Mills moved to Lost Lake for a year before deciding to rebuild at Parkhurst.  Though the mill would continue to operate into the 1950s, neither the Barrs nor the DeBecks went back to the mill.  This was not the end of the DeBecks’ association with the area, however, as Denis DeBeck continued working in what is today Whistler until 1945, when he followed the Barrs to settle permanently in Squamish.

Over the next few weeks we hope to bring you more stories from the DeBecks, the Barrs and others who worked in forestry in the valley.

Tales of Whistler’s Early Water Supply and Sanitation Facilities

This year I spent thanksgiving with a group of new friends. As tradition goes, we went around the table and said what we were thankful for. This has got to be one of the most beautiful holiday rituals, as the room generally goes from silly and sarcastic to completely genuine as soon as the first person says their thanks. This sincerity and gratefulness got me thinking about Whistler’s early days when there was a bit less to be thankful for in terms of amenities–more specifically, regarding Whistler’s water supply and sanitation facilities.

Whistler’s early settlers had to locate their homes near rivers, creeks or lakes in order to have access to water. Rainbow Lodge and Hillcrest Lodge had holding tanks of water pumped from Rainbow Creek and Alta Lake, respectively; however, most properties weren’t so fortunate. Some residents used flumes to direct water from the source to their property, though this method was quite unreliable.

Betsy DeBeck recalls her and her father constructing a flume for her brother and sister in-law, Denis and Dorothy DeBeck. Denis and Dorothy had recently built a house on the shores of Green Lake, and Betsy and her father figured they could ‘help’ the new homeowners by providing a more convenient water supply system. The two got to work, building a V flume that reached approximately 100 yards up the slope from Green Lake, right into Denis and Dorothy’s backyard. This would prevent them from having to go down the stream to retrieve buckets of water. While great in theory, during the winter months the flume and all the water in it froze and they were left with this ‘huge big iceberg,’ as Dorothy describes. Dorothy quickly grew to curse the flume.

By 1925, the town installed a water line from Scotia Creek in order to service new subdivisions on the west shore of Alta Lake. It operated on the gravitation principle, by which water flows downward from a large wooden holding tank built up on a hill. In 1954, Dick Fairhurst of Cypress Lodge received the rights to Scotia Creek and took over the system.

Along the railway line at the main stations, public outhouses were build for passengers' convenience. Someone with a sense of humour added the sign.

Along the railway line at the main stations, public outhouses were build for passengers’ convenience. Someone with a sense of humour added the sign.

Early sanitation systems were nothing to write home about either (because people write home about their plumbing all the time). Whistler’s early sanitation systems consisted of outhouses and, in later years, septic tanks. Surprisingly, the outhouses were considered quite the establishments and are remembered fondly by many of the first skiers to live in the valley.

Jean McDevitt in front of Petersen's old outhouse, 1968.

Jean McDevitt in front of Petersen’s old outhouse, 1968.

These outhouses brought many tales of hilarity. One in particular is the sizzling story of Charlie Chandler. Charlie Chandler, a local trapper, had been given a small amount of high-grade aircraft fuel by a kindly visiting floatplane pilot, which he used to clean some of his exceedingly grimy overalls. When finished cleaning his clothes, Charlie felt that the best way to dispose of the remaining fuel was to chuck it down the ‘biffy.’ He went on with his day as usual, and when it came time for his next visit to the outhouse he sat down and lit his pipe, as was his habit. The explosion was heard from miles away. Charlie’s nearest neighbour, Phil Tapley, rushed to the scene where he found a singed but otherwise unscathed Charlie with his pants around his ankles, wondering what had occurred.

An Unlikely Pair: The Story of Molly the Bear and McGee the Pig

Have you ever found yourself in an unlikely relationship? Perhaps a friendship with someone you thought you’d despise, a romance working against all odds or an interspecies partnership with your pet that you never expected to grow so strong. Most of us at some point in our lives have been pleasantly surprised by an unexpected yet beautiful relationship.  Conceivably, the most unlikely duo in Whistler’s history is Molly the bear and McGee the pig.

So how did a pig and a bear come to be such great friends? Well, McGee the piglet was bought by a young girl named Betsy (DeBeck) Henderson at a farmer’s market in New Westminster, while Molly the bear cub was adopted by Betsy’s father. Molly was originally from Bella Coola – where Mr. DeBeck worked – and went by the name, Crisco (because she loved to break into cookhouses and eat shortening).

Betsy spent two summers at Green Lake in 1936 and 1937. During this time, Betsy’s brothers worked in the logging industry, also at Green Lake. Determined to keep the family close, Betsy’s mother insisted the family rent a cabin on Green Lake. They did just that, and with them came the whole family – including a cow, McGee the pig, Molly the bear and a Springer Spaniel named Freckles.

So began the unwavering bond between pig and bear. Neither of them took to the other animals the same way they did to each other. The two would play, eat and nap together. It’s safe to say that they rarely left each other’s sites. Even when the family would play a game of baseball, McGee would watch Molly as she’d try to grab the players and stop them from running from base to base.

After spending two summers at Green Lake, the DeBeck family continued their journey and moved to Victoria. What we know of Molly and McGee ends here. However, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, perhaps this strange and dynamic duo will inspire all of us to be especially appreciative of those inexplicable relationships in our lives, approaching them with nothing but warmth and love.

Molly & McGee

There’s a photograph in the Museum collection of an unlikely pair of friends: a bear cub and a piglet, leaning into each other as they happily lay on their backs. Until very recently, we assumed that the bear cub in the picture was none other than Alta Lake’s most famous bear cub: Teddy.

The photograph in question. If you look deep into the background you will see a dog looking on – his name was Freckles and he preferred to keep to himself. The original print belonging to the Museum was very faded, so we weren’t able to see that this bear does not have a distinctive white patch on its chest. This print came from former resident Norm Barr, and the bear’s lack of markings is easy to spot.

For those of you who have never heard the story of Teddy, it goes like this: In 1926, Whistler pioneer Myrtle Philip was out picking berries to make a pie with some Rainbow Lodge guests in the woods when they heard a whimpering sound. They soon discovered it was coming from a lone bear cub, whose mother was nowhere to be found.

Eventually, they decided to take the bear back to Rainbow Lodge, where he was given the name Teddy and spent the summer happily playing with lodge guests. By the fall, Teddy was getting too big to remain at the lodge, and was taken to the Stanley Park Zoo, where he lived out his days. Myrtle continued to visit him at the zoo over the years, where he would run up to the bars to greet her.

Teddy the bear in 1926 – note the white patch of fur on his chest.

Teddy is the subject of many photos in the Museum collection, so it was easy to surmise that the bear in the photograph with a piglet must be Teddy as well. Recently, Archivist Sarah Drewery interviewed Norm Barr, the son of former Parkhurst owners Ross and Alison Barr, and discovered that there was another bear cub in the Alta Lake area, a decade after Teddy. This bear was named Molly, and Molly’s best friend was McGee – a piglet that had been purchased in New Westminster by a teenage Betsy Henderson (née DeBeck).

Betsy was interviewed this past month about the two summers she spent at Green Lake with her family, in 1936 and 1937. Her brothers worked in the logging industry, and her mother was eager to get the whole family together, so they rented a cabin at what used to be the Lineham’s mink ranch, prior to the Depression. According to Betsy, the remnants of the mink ranch remained, in the form of cages all over the property.

Making their way to Green Lake, the family of six didn’t travel lightly. At a time when travelling meant you had to take the train, the DeBecks managed to bring what might as well have been their own zoo with them: a cow, McGee, Molly, and a spaniel named Freckles. Not to be limited to four animals, they also rented two horses, and had a third horse which her brother Denis apparently found. Not one of them had prior experience riding a horse as they led their rentals away from the barn, but that’s another story altogether.

So if McGee came from a farmer’s market in New Westminster, where did Molly come from? Apparently Molly formerly went by the name “Crisco,” after her penchant for breaking into the cookhouse in Bella Coola, where she lived, and eating Crisco to her heart’s content. Betsy’s father Edward was working in Bella Coola, and decided to bring the bear cub to his family, staying at the mink ranch. As you can imagine, her owners were not remotely reluctant to give her away. Although Betsy’s mother initially said she would leave the instant the bear cub arrived, she was easily swayed when Molly got off the train and promptly wrapped her arms around her legs.

Molly standing on her hind legs. She looks quite different from Teddy in this photograph.

The travel from Bella Coola included taking a ship to Vancouver, and then the train from Vancouver to Alta Lake. While onboard the ship, Molly spent her time in Edward’s sleeper cabin. When Edward ran into a friend who had a rough night on the boat and needed some sleep, he promptly turned over the keys to his cabin, neglecting to mention that Molly was fast asleep on the couch. It seems that the friend initially thought he was hallucinating, but was a bit of a jokester too, so he quickly saw the humor in the situation.

After the second summer at Green Lake in 1937, the DeBeck family was moving on to Victoria. While they had a large lot in New Westminster and were able to keep animals, they were moving to a small city lot in Victoria, and had to say goodbye to their motley crew of pets, save for Freckles the spaniel. The DeBecks approached the Alaric family, who had a logging operation on Green Lake, and sold them the cow, Molly and McGee.

Molly and McGee enjoy a meal together in 1937.

The story of Molly the Bear highlights how easy it is for something to take hold and then continue to be perpetuated until it becomes an inextricable part of the history, taken to be true. One such tale is that Teddy and the piglet (now know to be Molly and McGee) were the best of friends until one day Teddy got a bit hungry and decided to eat the piglet. There is no truth to this, but it was repeated so many times it became easy to believe. Even when we learned that the piglet wasn’t consumed, we no longer questioned whether the bear in the photograph was Teddy. It’s amazing to realize the power of a single image.

By collecting oral histories, we are working to build a stronger understanding of Whistler’s history – Molly is just a small (and cute!) example of how effective these interviews are proving to be. Perhaps there are other photographs in the collection like this one, waiting for the story behind them to be unlocked as we speak with early residents of the valley.