Twentieth in a series of pioneer profiles
Dr. Kenneth Morrow, who turned his hardscrabble memories of growing up in Nelson in the 1930s into a local bestseller, has died at 83.
Morrow was a well-regarded ophthalmologist who practiced for decades in Ashland, Wisconsin and Bellingham, Washington before becoming an author in semi-retirement. His first book, A Boyhood in Nelson, was published in 2003.
Morrow said it was inspired by his grandsons, who never tired of hearing about the pranks he and his brothers pulled as kids.
“Their appetite for stories led me to think about my family’s life in Nelson during the Great Depression,” he wrote in the foreword. “And so in other words, this book began with some dirty trick stories, and then turned into the tale of my childhood.”
Born in Trail as the youngest of four children, Morrow never knew his father, who died shortly after his birth. A few years later, his strong-willed but fun-loving mother moved the family to Nelson, where they had a modest house on Latimer Street.
The Great Northern Railway’s station was two blocks up, and Morrow and his siblings loved to help unload the baggage car — especially Friday nights when it contained gold bars — and to hike along the tracks into the mountains, where lakes, streams, and old mines beckoned.
“Our biggest fear was being trapped on Second Bridge, the longest and highest bridge, where an oncoming train could catch us by surprise,” he wrote. (Eventually they lost that fear, with near tragic results.)
The family grew a garden, raised chickens, and the boys spent up to three hours a day selling newspapers. They also scrounged the alleys for anything they could use or sell.
“Life was a never-ending struggle until the start of World War II,” Morrow wrote. “But economic hardship doesn’t affect young children the way it does adults. We children knew we were poor, but never thought we were failures.”
Busy as they were, they always found the time and energy for play. In winter they skated on a backyard rink and sledded down the city streets. In summer, they swam in Kootenay Lake and played simple games.
Morrow paints a vivid, honest picture of Nelson in the Depression, including the prejudices of the era — “some of it racial, some religious, and a lot of it just plain personal.”
Poverty was also rampant. The city was full of destitute men who literally arrived on boxcars and often knocked on their door seeking meals — which were always provided, though the family could hardly afford to do so. (Only years later did Morrow realize how the hobos knew his home was a good place for a handout: a rock balanced on a cedar fencepost was the sign.)
Morrow’s account of tasting his first chocolate bar at age 11 — eating it agonizingly slow to make it last over an hour — is particularly affecting.
The first edition of A Boyhood in Nelson quickly sold out, necessitating two reprintings. All proceeds went to the Nelson museum.
Other books followed: Leaving Nelson: Beyond Toad Mountain traced Morrow’s training at UBC and long career in medicine. Ladies of Easy Virtue in the West Kootenay looked at the history of local prostitution, inspired by his boyhood experiences delivering newspapers to Nelson’s Lake Street brothels. His final work, The Doukhobor People: A Tribute to Good Citizens, was launched in 2010 at a breakfast attended by many old Nelson chums.
Morrow died May 25 in Seattle. His wife Dorothy, to whom he was married 60 years, will be in Nelson this summer with their three children to sprinkle half his ashes from the Great Northern’s Second Bridge.
Previous installments in this series