Tag Archives: museum musings

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.

Taking history outside the classroom

This is a re-post of the June 23rd installment of the Whistler Museum’s weekly column in the Whistler Question newspaper, Museum Musings.

As Leah Batisse is currently frolicking around in jolie Paris, the arduous task of writing this week’s Museum Musings falls to me, one of those three summer students she mentioned in this column a few weeks ago. If this is what she had in mind by “diabolical plans” for us seasonal reinforcements, I’ve got more than a little sympathy for the devil.

If the whole point of summer job programs like Young Canada is to provide valuable on-the-job experience to complement our academic background, then my few weeks at the museum have so far exceeded expectations.

Studying history in university, I developed an appreciation for how important knowledge about the past is for socially engaged individuals and vibrant, healthy communities. And while I also believe that universities should serve as more than mere job-skills factories, the fact of the matter is that the basic skills taught in most Canadian history programs — reading, writing and archival research — have hardly changed over the last century. While I consider these to be valuable, under-appreciated skills, the curriculum is becoming a little old-fashioned for anyone who doesn’t intend on a career as a university professor.

In my first few weeks here at the museum my overlords have provided me with a good mix of pre-defined tasks such as writing PR releases and delivering walking tours (which we offer every day, all summer long, departing from the Whistler Visitor Center at 1 p.m.), as well as the opportunity to develop some self-directed projects such as designing and creating content for our new blog (blog.whistlermuseum.org).

In the process I’ve been gaining first-hand experience in how to make historical research more relevant beyond university, not to mention a crash course in a variety of practical, in-demand skills such as graphic design and web publishing. This experience will be crucial in my hoped-for jump from over-educated snowboard instructor/carpenter’s assistant to a challenging career that builds on the skills and knowledge I gained in school.

Meanwhile, Bridget (events) has been neck deep in crafts and event planning, while Brad (collections) has had a full run of archival work from transcribing audio interviews to poly-wrapping furniture in our super-secret underground lair. Glorified coffee runners we are not.

In other news, in the vein of community engagement we are excited to announce three upcoming events. First, the Whistler Museum’s annual general meeting will be taking place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday (June 29). Come get the inside scoop on what happened in 2010 and what we will be focusing on in 2011.

All are welcome, though only members have voting privileges. If you aren’t a member yet, you can always purchase a membership for just $25. Our AGM is a night to mingle with your friends, meet the museum staff and board of trustees, check out the exhibit, eat fantastic grub — there will be a free barbecue and a cash bar — and generally celebrate with us.

The festivities continue the following night (June 30, from 6:30 to 9 p.m.) during the ArtWalk reception. This is the best time to come see some great work by Pemberton-based action/landscape photographer Andrew Strain, but the art has already been mounted so you can check it out anytime, all summer long.

Our three-day bender culminates on July 1 with Whistler’s annual Canada Day celebration. As always, we will be entering a float in the parade, and we aim to win! Afterwards, come visit us at our tent in Village Square for an afternoon of arts and crafts. The museum will remain open all day long by donation in celebration of our national holiday.

Stay tuned to this column, our website, blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed for up-to-date info regarding upcoming events and our ongoing efforts to make the museum as innovative, engaging and relevant as possible for the local and global communities that we serve.

Jeff Slack is the summer program coordinator at the Whistler Museum.