TIME WINDOWS: Riverview: Beginnings
After the completion of its Columbia River railway bridge in 1902 CPR shifted its focus to Castlegar Junction and severed its rail connection with Robson, although the sleepy village continued to be visited by steamers of the CPR’s BC Lake and River Service.
In 1906 Robson received a new lease on life when a Nelson syndicate acquired three large blocks from the CPR and consolidated the roughly 3,000 acres into a new subdivision that was marketed as fruit-growing land. The new lots created were mostly 250 feet wide and very long; of 254 such lots, perhaps half were suitable for the end use for which they were promoted. Most of these had frontage on what later became Broadwater Road, much of it built on the original railway grade that had served Robson for a decade.
Leading the early agricultural pioneers was the partnership of Dr. A.P. McDiarmid and Charles Squires. Records indicate the first deposit was made in August 1906, before the survey was even completed. Instalment payments followed over the next three years. Eventually, the partners owned two parcels of largely flat land, whose northern portions ran into steep terrain. Block 32 was destined to be developed primarily as an orchard, and Block 33 would see their dwelling, gardens, and more orchard.
To establish a financial return as soon as possible, work commenced in Block 32 first: the land was cleared of trees and brush, stumps were dynamited, rocks were hauled to the boundaries, and fencing was established. A water supply was brought in. As the partners were still living in Manitoba, hired labour did the initial work, managed by McDiarmid’s cousin.
The first wave of fruit trees was planted in the spring of 1909; it was supplemented that fall and during the following year. By the end of 1910, the orchard contained 456 apple, 18 pear, 20 plum, 12 peach, 12 apricot, seven cherry, and six nut trees. Additional plantings followed to replace failing trees, try new varieties, or cater to changing demand. As a decade was required to realize sizeable returns, income was derived from berry crops and flocks of chickens. Game, of course, also put food on the table.
Once the orchard was established, work commenced on a residence. Their house was built at the south end of Block 33, on a spot that overlooked the roadway and the river directly below it. It offered fine views both upstream and downstream, as well as over the developing orchard and its backdrop of the rocky forest. After an initial visit in 1910, the new owners settled permanently in the summer of 1912.
Doctor Archibald P. McDiarmid had just retired as Baptist minister and principal of Brandon College. He had been instrumental in raising the funding for the construction of the first college building in 1901 and had directed its operation until his retirement. Previous to his work with the college, he had been Foreign Mission Secretary for the Baptist Church and was successful in encouraging missionaries to serve in India and Bolivia, at times contributing his personal funds to cover deficits. The heavy burden of responsibility accumulated over the years and led to mental exhaustion that was undermining his health:
“Dr. McDiarmid has laid down the responsibilities of his office and sought much-needed rest and freedom from care on his fruit farm in Robson.”
Charles Squires managed a drug store in Brampton, and also was a practising optometrist. It may be that that combination of professions nurtured his hobby, which was photography, demanding in those days some knowledge of lenses and chemicals. He would be a faithful recorder of events and offer up to posterity a visual record of the paradise that their collective labour would produce. His direct connection to McDiarmid was through the marriage of the reverend’s daughter Eva. A girl, Eleanor, was born to the couple while they were still in Brandon.
The new family group that resettled in Robson in 1912 consisted of A.P. McDiarmid and a sister, his unmarried daughters Ruth and Edna, Charles and Eva Squires, and four-year-old Eleanor. One wonders how they managed with the four bedrooms that were available upstairs. Edna eventually married Gordon Stovel, reducing the resident population by one. The house still needed some finishing touches when they first occupied it: the front veranda looks pretty rough and lacks a roof in Charlie’s photos. It is surrounded by weeds and piles of rocks. The passage of time and human energy would alter the scene dramatically.
To be continued
Walter Volovsek’s website can be found at trailsintime.org
Previous installments in this series