Twenty-eighth in a series of pioneer profiles
Nelson’s Harriet Christie, who turns 100 next week, comes from a remarkable family.
Her ancestors include Dr. Stephen Hopkins, governor of Rhode Island and signatory to the US Declaration of Independence; Edith Page Harrison, a prominent suffragette who married a descendent of American president Benjamin Harrison; and passengers on the Mayflower.
But Harriet’s own story is also remarkable.
Born August 16, 1912 in Peace Dale, Rhode Island, she was the third of Chester and Mary Elizabeth Page’s seven children. Her father was a successful owner/operator of woolen mills, and she enjoyed a privileged upbringing.
When she was 12, her family was displaced by the creation of the Scituate reservoir; somehow they ended up in the Oregonian capital of Salem, where her father rebuilt his business and became one of the city’s leading citizens.
Harriet graduated high school there with honours in 1929, having skipped a grade. Although it was the start of the Great Depression, she had her own car and was working as a secretary when she met husband-to-be Frederick Christie. He was a West Kootenay native, born in Trout Lake City, who ran away from home at 15 to fulfill his fantasy of becoming a sailor.
“By the time he got to the Panama Canal,” says daughter Carole, “he found it wasn’t such a dream vocation.” Fred jumped ship at Seattle and came to Salem, where he had grandparents.
He was a chef when he met Harriet — but her parents didn’t think much of him.
“No way their daughter was marrying a Canadian,” Carole says. “They thought of Canada as a place of dogsleds.”
Eleven days after Harriet’s 20th birthday, she and Fred eloped to Vancouver, Wash. — far enough away that her parents wouldn’t find out. Upon returning home, she kept the marriage a secret.
“She was still scared,” Carole says. “My aunt remembers mom would always say she was going to the bathroom and then sneak out the back window.”
Once Harriet was well along with first daughter Julie, the jig was up — although Carole doesn’t think her father and grandparents ever reconciled.
In 1934, Harriet and Fred came to Creston, where his parents lived. Harriet was excited. “She thought it was going to be an adventure,” Carole says. “I’m sure she’d never seen a wood stove.”
Fred became a forest ranger and the family moved around the Kootenays, including New Denver, Slocan, Marysville, and Parsons. They finally retired to Salmo before Fred died in 1996, after 64 years of marriage.
Harriet now lives at Mountain Lake Seniors Community, where a party is planned for her centenary. Her only surviving sibling, Mary Torland, 84, is coming from Portland, while a grandson is coming from Fort McMurray.
Asked the secret to Harriet’s longevity, Carole notes her mother knew more about nutrition than most, and “watched her diet like a hawk.” When boiling vegetables, she’d save the water to drink. Her peak weight was about 95 lbs. — her children were all bigger than her by the time they were ten.
Good genes must have helped too: her sister Helen lived to 98.
However, as a young child Harriet suffered polio in her left leg, which required her to wear special shoes, and prevented her from running, though she loved swimming. (It also kept her from chasing after her children.)
She sold Studio Girl beauty products, was something of a seamstress, and was crazy about the royal family, which Carole finds a bit odd since Harriet was American-born. (She should be delighted to receive birthday greetings from the Queen.)
Harriet’s own family includes four children, 13 grandchildren, 19 great grandchildren, and one great great grandchildren — all continuing a distinguished line.
Previous installments in this series