Reminiscences of Joseph Colebrook Harris

with an Introduction by Cole Harris

Early in 1944 my mother, who had a morning show on CBC Radio, asked my grandfather, Joseph Colebrook Harris, to write about his early years in British Columbia. She hoped that his accounts would serve as the basis for school broadcasts and take his mind off his wife’s recent death. He responded over the next several months with more than a hundred typed, single-spaced, foolscap pages. They treat his year at Guelph Agricultural College in 1887–8 where, a young son of a numerous and prosperous industrial family in Calne, Wiltshire, and judged to have no head for business, he was sent to study agriculture; his summer as a guest of the Musgrave family on Salt Spring Island in 1888; his several years of pioneer farming at Westholme in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island; and his coming to the Slocan in 1896. In different mailings to my mother, he tended to repeat himself, but his memory was good, his writing lively. As far as I know, none of it was ever incorporated in school broadcasts.

Here I reproduce his account of coming to the Slocan Valley, looking for and eventually acquiring land, and establishing the Bosun Ranch. I have assembled and lightly edited it into an approximately chronological narrative from the many installments he sent to my mother. Where two accounts of the same event could not be compressed into a single narrative, I locate one in brackets.

This narrative describes his search for and acquisition of agricultural land in the Slocan in 1896, his brief return to the Cowichan Valley near the end of that year and return to the Slocan in the early spring of 1897, and his first year-and-a-half on what came to be called the Bosun Ranch. Unfortunately, it stops—save for some comments about the Bosun mine—in the fall of 1898. There is nothing about my grandfather’s trip back to England later that year,

his marriage with the Scottish beauty he met on the ship, she also returning home for a visit, but from an edge of high society in New York rather than a charred clearing on a Kootenay mountainside. There is nothing about their first son who died at birth, nothing about their other children, nothing about the planting of a sizeable orchard and life on the Bosun Ranch during the years when English money and hired hands were available. But there is an account of why my grandfather came to the Slocan, of the possible farm sites he investigated, of why he purchased land where he did, and of how he began to develop it.

Embedded in this account is the energy, zest, and enthusiasm that brought a privileged young Englishman to a remote mountain valley in a remote corner of the British Empire. After favourable reports of the opportunities for farming, and after seeing Slocan Lake, my grandfather’s mind was made up. He would leave the Cowichan Valley and settle in the Slocan, and when, among limited options, he found the land he wanted, he probably paid too much for it. Moreover, even in these first years there was evidence, had my grandfather chosen to heed it, that a secure local market for agricultural produce could not be assumed. In a valley opened to the outside world only five years before by a speculative mining rush, the future was particularly uncertain. To establish a sizeable farm in these circumstances was hardly prudent, but when one was twenty-five, brimming with energy, and accustomed to good fortune, enthusiasm easily overrode prudence.

And who is to say that he was wrong? He lived a thoughtful, generous, and happy life on the Bosun Ranch, and his descendants have long thanked him for choosing as he did.

Cole Harris, Vancouver, B.C.

February, 2015