Tag Archives: parkhurst

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.

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Life at the Parkhurst Logging Camp

A season working in Whistler can mean many different things.  For some, a season means spending as much time as possible on the mountains; for others, it can mean settling for the next few decades of your life.  For those who came to work on Green Lake in the 1930s, however, a season in the area usually meant hard work on most days and recreation on Sundays.

When Parkhurst Mill opened, it offered seasonal work only since the mill could be closed for up to five months a year due to snow.  The mill continued to offer seasonal work into the 1930s.

Jack Nebel was one of the men who came to work for a season in 1937, the year before the mill burned down.  At the time he was, as he described it, “four years out of high school, living in North Vancouver, and still looking for my first steady job.”  Nebel was hired by Northern Mills as a greenhorn (meaning new and inexperienced) logger under Denis DeBeck, the “logging boss”, and his first assignment was to ride the logs down the river and keep the logs moving towards the mouth on Green Lake.

Red standing in the doorway of the “river rats” cabin at the logging camp. Photo (and post-it): Jack Nebel

When Nebel arrived at Parkhurst, he was taken over to the logging camp on the western side of Green Lake, which included a bunkhouse, a cookhouse, a Caterpillar shed and a small shack where Nebel and “Red”, the other “river rat”, would stay.  The camp was connected to the mill at Parkhurst via the Queen Mary, a “crude box-like cabin cruiser” with enough power to tow logs across the lake.

Conditions at the logging camp weren’t quite as comfortable as a stay at Rainbow Lodge may have been at the time.  On one occasion during Nebel’s stay, the river rose and overflowed its banks, making his morning walk to the cookhouse more like a wading trip through knee-deep water.  The water rose to the level of his cabin floorboards and he and Red discovered hundreds of insects taking refuge under their cots.  Fortunately for them, the water subsided after just a couple of days, taking the insects with it.

The Hiking Crew, including Ward DeBeck, Red and Keary DeBeck. Photo: Jack Nebel

Life at the logging camp wasn’t all work.  One evening each week, some workers would hike about 8 km (5 miles) through the woods and along the railway to Alta Lake to meet the mail train.  On Sundays, a day of recreation for those in the logging camp, a group would go hiking around the mountains and up towards the glaciers.  This group included Nebel, Red and Ward and Keary DeBeck, two younger brothers of Denis DeBeck who Nebel remembered were university students working over their summer break.

A Sunday game at the fields of the old Lineham’s mink ranch. Photo: Jack Nebel

One Sunday a baseball game was organized between members of the logging camp and members of the sawmill crew on a field near the Lineham’s old mink ranch.  As Nebel described it, “I don’t remember who won the game, so I guess the loggers lost!”

Shortly after the game Nebel was transferred from the logging camp to the sawmill at Parkhurst.  The sawmill was much livelier, housing a mix of singles and families, though it didn’t offer much more in the was of recreation than the logging camp.

Having been hired in early spring, Nebel left the mill around midsummer after working for Northern Mills for only a few months.  By the time he returned almost 50 years later the mill at Parkhurst was no longer operating and the area was well on its way to becoming the ghost town it is today.

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.

Family Life at Parkhurst: Before the Modern Kitchen

With the holiday season upon us many people will be heading to their kitchens to create the meals and treats associated with this time of year, or, alternatively, enjoying the labours of others who head into the kitchen.

Today the standard kitchen in Whistler usually includes running water (hot and cold!), electric refrigeration and an oven of some kind.  Eleanor Kitteringham, however, prepared meals in a very different kind of kitchen.

Parkhurst when the mill was operating in the 1930s, taken before the Kitteringham family’s time at the site. Debeck Collection.

The Kitteringham family (Olie, Eleanor and their children Ron, Jim and Linda) lived at Parkhurst from 1948 until the mill shut down in 1956.  During that time Parkhurst employed about 30 men, including millwright Olie.

For the first few years the Kitteringhams were the only family to stay at Parkhurst through the winter.  They made extra money shovelling the snow off the mill’s buildings so that they wouldn’t collapse in the spring when the rains made all that snow very heavy.  According to Eleanor, Olie hated snow for years after their time at Parkhurst.

Though the Debecks lived at Parkhurst before the Kitteringhams, their photos are some of the few we have of the site as an operational mill. Debeck Collection.

The Kitteringham kitchen was equipped with a sawdust-burning stove, a convenient fuel when living at a sawmill.  Sawdust was loaded into the hopper attached to the side and then fed through the hopper into the burn pot.

The stove took eight large pails of sawdust a day, a daily chore for Ron and Jim.  The winter supply was hauled up before the mill closed in the fall and stored in the back of an old log cabin near the house.

Although a sawdust-burning oven may sound like a lot of work today, when one can just push a few buttons or turn a dial, Eleanor seemed fond of her stove and remembered it making wonderful bread:

This old stove also had a wonderful warming-closet, on top of the back of the stove – perfect place to put the bread to raise.  I used to bake 10 big loaves every other week, between grocery orders.  You could smell the bread baking when coming up the trail from the tracks.  What a wonderful smell on a cold winter day.

The grocery order arrived on the train every second Thursday so any special meals had to be planned in advance.  With their closest neighbours two miles away it was next to impossible to quickly run over through the snow and borrow a missing ingredient.

After the stove, the two most important parts of the kitchen were the icebox and the root cellar.  Ice cut out of the lake in the winter and stored in sawdust provided refrigeration through the summer.  Bins of sawdust underneath the house held potatoes, carrots and other vegetable grown in the summer.

The root cellar also had shelves to hold cases of canned goods (and apparently made an excellent dark room).  Not adverse to advancements, Eleanor wrote, “Later on we got a fridge run by kerosene – it was beautiful.”

Alf Gebhart’s house in the 1930s. The houses at Parkhurst did not change too much between then and the 1950s. Debeck Collection.

Water came from a creek near the house, first using a flume and then piped in by Olie, who could “fix or do anything that was needed.”  He got Ron and Jim to help dig down through the bush at 5¢ a foot.  A water-jacket that lived on the stove provided hot water for washing dishes.  Those washing up after holiday dinners this year should enjoy just how easy running water make it.

Exploring Parkhurst, Whistler’s “ghost town”

If you hike into the former site of Parkhurst on Green Lake today, you will find a few falling-down log cabins, and some rusted pieces of machinery that barely hint at its past as a booming logging community. There are also some more recent relics, including a once-white corvette with red leather seats, left behind by those that squatted at the site in the 1970s.

In November, Sarah Drewery, the Museum Collection Manager, interviewed Norm Barr, whose parents owned Parkhurst Mill from 1926-1930 and then stayed on to manage it until 1938. Although he was born in 1932, and was just six years old when they moved on to Brackendale, he was able to provide some interesting pieces of information to help fill out the story of the mill and settlement at Parkhurst.

Norm Barr and neighbor Jack Findlay in 1936

Alison and Ross Barr were married in 1923, and lived in Mission, where Ross and his brothers William and Malcolm were running the Barr Brothers’ Logging Company. When they ran out of available timber, they began looking for suitable property elsewhere. Initially, they went to Vancouver Island, but ultimately found there was more potential in the area around Green Lake.

As luck would have it, there was a prime piece of land available right on Green Lake – the property had a point jutting out into the water, making it a perfect location for a steam-operated mill. This land belonged to the Parkhursts, who pre-empted the property in 1902. When Mr. Parkhurst passed away, Mrs. Parkhurst put it up for sale, along with the small log house they had built on the point. In 1926, it was purchased by the Barrs, who got to work building a mill and a camp for workers (including both bunkhouses and a few family homes).

When the mill opened, they named it after the former landowners. It had three crews, with the total number of workers fluctuating between 60 and 70. Due to the snow, the mill had to close from two to five months of the year, resulting in seasonal work for the crews. Workers came from Vancouver and elsewhere, but most stayed only temporarily.

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.

The Barr’s Parkhurst Mill was a very successful business, shipping lumber as far away as Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. However, when the Great Depression hit, the price of lumber plummeted, making it impossible to cover the cost of transport. In 1930, the business went into receivership. According to Norm, the receiver hired Ross and Alison to remain on as watchmen while he worked to get the property sold. They were able to stay living in the house, but all they got for their work was $50 a month and a barrel of coal oil to burn for their lamps.

They were the only ones that stayed. All of the crew members left immediately, hoping to secure other work at a time when jobs were extremely scarce. As for the Barr brothers, Malcolm had met an unfortunate end in 1928 when he fell off of the boat they used to pull logs around into Green Lake and drowned. William moved to Vancouver when the business went under, worked some odd jobs, and got married.

In 1932, the operation was sold to Byron Smith and B.C. Keeley, and it was renamed Northern Mills. The Barrs remained on as managers of the thriving company until a spectacular fire burnt the mill to the ground in June of 1938. Although the mill was rebuilt and eventually reopened, the Barrs had moved south to Squamish by November of that year.

Immediately following the fire, what remained of the mill itself was moved to a site at the north end of Lost Lake. This was a somewhat shortsighted maneuver, and after 1939 it was moved back to Parkhurst, since the location next to the railway was significantly more convenient. The new mill was as big as the original one, and the settlement grew with more family homes added, a small store, and eventually a school. The mill operated until the 1950s.

If you want to get a glimpse of the past, we recommend paddling a canoe across Green Lake and spending some time exploring – while you’re there, imagine what it was like when the mill was operational. For more details on the later years of the mill, see the article “Family Life at Parkhurst Mill” here.

Family Life at Parkhurst Mill

One of the greatest criticisms of mainstream and academic history is that it focuses on, and thus legitimizes  “dominant” narratives from the perspective of societies most powerful figures such as politicians, business leaders, and so on. A lot of this has to do with the materials that historians have traditionally used to craft their stories: written and printed documents.

To correct this imbalance social historians began employing different sources and methods, most notably oral history, to help preserve and interpret the perspectives of society’s more marginalized and oft-forgotten members such as ethnic minorities, working-class families, and women.

The Whistler Museum is fortunate to hold in its archives dozens of oral history interviews and written correspondence conducted since the early 1980s that tell important and insightful aspects of our valley’s history that would have otherwise been lost with the passage of time.

Between 1948 and 1956 Olie and Eleanor Kitteringham, along with their children Ron, Jim, and Linda (born Valentine’s Day, 1949), called Parkhurst their home. Thanks to a 1989 letter written to the Whistler Museum by Eleanor entitled “Our Family Life at Parkhurst” we have insights into the tight-knit community.

Eleanor’s recollections are full of details about the seemingly endless work it took to raise a family in this remote mountain outpost, but she clearly looked back fondly upon those trying years.

Surviving three changes in ownership and one full-fledged fire, a lumber mill operated more or less continuously from 1923 to 1966 at the Parkhurst site (named after the original landowners) on the north-east shore of Green Lake. Afterwards, the remaining structures were occupied by ski bums during Whistler’s squatting heyday, and the collapsed remains of a dozen or so houses (along with a few decaying vehicles and the squatters’ garbage heap of broken bottles, rusty tin cans and the like) can still be found on the largely grown-over site.

Of the roughly 30 men who ran the mill from May to November, (up to fifty had worked at the older, less efficient mill), only about one third were family men, and at first, the Kitteringham’s were the only ones who lived at Parkhurst year round. While daily life entailed constant labour, even more challenging was dealing with the inevitable illnesses that come with raising three young children. Unconventional healthcare strategies became essential, as Eleanor recounted:

I always said to the family, if you are going to get sick it has to be on Wednesday, Friday or Sunday, that’s the days the passenger train went on through from Lillooet to Squamish… (Once) Ron was delirious for 3 days with a very high temperature. My doctor book said it might be bronchial pneumonia, so I phoned the doctor [there was a hand-dial phone in the mill office] and asked that I have some Penicillin thrown off by the next freight train at our station – it worked.

Winters were isolated, but not completely alone. Their nearest neighbours were the Greens, 2 miles to the north, and the MacKinnons, roughly the same distance to the south. Along with the Greens the Kitteringhams formed a band called the Valley Ramblers, often playing benefit dances around the country to raise money for the Squamish Hospital. Musical get-togethers with their neighbours were a weekly highlight on the Kitterringham’s social calendar:

We walked the tracks in the winter with [baby] Linda in a clothes basket tied onto a sled … We played canasta, drank homebrew. Pretty hard to have to wake the kids and walk the two miles back. Those nights were quite beautiful though, when you can touch the stars and everything sparkles and glistens and that “crunch” of dry snow.

Schooling for the children was a makeshift affair. Only in 1956, their last year at the mill, were there the requisite 11 children for a proper school to run at the mill. In other years the children were home-schooled by Eleanor, while for a few years the boys made the daily trek to the trek to the Alta Lake schoolhouse. The day started with a 6am ride on the Queen Mary tugboat down to the end of Green Lake – often driven and docked by the eldest brother Ron! After moving back to Vancouver, Eleanor proudly reported that all three children graduated high shool with “high standards” despite ” a somewhat sketchy education.”

Middle child Jim later settled in Emerald Estates – the only original Parkhurst resident to live in Whistler. He took his mother for a tour of the old mill site three decades after they lived there. By then most of the site had been flattened by neglect and and persistent winter snowpacks, but she could still identify the remains of the family chicken coop, rabbit pen, children’s playhouse and the single-log wharf they swam from in the summers.

Despite the hard work and the obvious lack of modern creature comforts (Eleanor singled out disposable Pamper’s diapers and a TV for the children to watch Sesame Street as wished-for items), Eleanor sums up her 8 years on the quiet shores of Green Lake fondly: “Life was very peaceful, no traffic, crowds, etc., beautiful country all around us. [We had no idea} that anything like Whistler and Blackcomb would develop.”