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Slocan Park upbringing inspired cowboy author

There’s a character in Jake Conkin’s trilogy of children’s books called Pearl Crebbin, based on his eccentric childhood neighbour.
Jake Conkin in Lonesome Dove

Seventh in a series of pioneer profiles

There’s a character in Jake Conkin’s trilogy of children’s books called Pearl Crebbin.

She’s the “old spinster of the hills,” who’s “small and gnarly and weighs about 90 lbs. A puff of strong wind would probably lift her off the ground.”

She hunts her own game and is heard to remark “Bear fat makes the best pie crust!”

She’s based on an eccentric neighbour from Conkin’s childhood in Slocan Park named ... Pearl Crebbin.

“She was such a special person in our lives,” says Conkin, 73. “She and my mother were good friends.”

Crebbin lived in a cabin on a hill above them, and her 160-acre property “was the centre of our existence ... We did everything there: bobsledding, skiing, hiking, picking hazelnuts.”

The literary Pearl matches her real-life counterpart in every way.

Conkin says in the summer, she was often seen walking down the road in her bathing suit, carrying a parasol, and “every so often the wind would grab her, and you’d think she was levitating because she was so light.” Kids would follow her to the river, pied piper-like.

Pearl was handy with a rifle — but had to balance it in the crotch of a tree.

“Often you’d find after she fired, she got the bear, but she’d be lying flat on her back because the recoil knocked her over,” Conkin says. “She actually used the bear fat for making pies.”

During storms, she insisted on leaving her cabin doors open — reasoning that lightning would pass through the house instead of hitting it.

Crebbin was also briefly Slocan Park’s postmaster — a duty she inherited from her late mother, then relinquished to Conkin’s mother Lola in 1945. At first, the post office was in Conkin’s bedroom. (He remembers people coming to buy stamps while he was still asleep.) Later, his parents added on to the house and opened a combination store and post office.

Later still, he helped his father Sam disassemble several Japanese internment shacks at Lemon Creek, and the lumber was used to build the new Slocan Park store and service station.

There was finally enough traffic to justify the expansion: previously it was so quiet, fewer than a handful of cars rattled along the gravel highway each day.

Conkin, who was in the second graduating class at Mount Sentinel, became a teacher. His first assignment was at Perry Siding, and he went on to spend 18 years as principal in Winlaw.

Taking early retirement, he pursued his passion for cowboy culture — which he traces back to a childhood incident where he heard “whooping and yelling and hollering” outside.

“Before I knew it, there were 15 to 20 horses coming down the road, and behind them were cowboys all dressed in their finery. As they went by, I thought: that’s what I want to be.”

The notion never left his mind.

Conkin worked on some of Canada’s largest ranches, penned a book of cowboy poetry, and with wife Carol toured schools with The Buckaroo Jake and Calico Carol Show.

He also wrote the Little Jake series, about a young boy growing up on a ranch in the Nicola Valley, based on his experiences riding with the Douglas Lake Cattle Company.

His stories have since been adapted for the Aboriginal People’s Television Network as an animated show and even an iPad game.

It’s here that Pearl Crebbin figures. In one of the books, she serves Little Jake cookies — and then gives him a treasure map that belonged to train robber Bill Miner.

The real Pearl died in a 1974 fire that consumed her cabin. But thanks to Conkin’s stories, her memory lives on.

Previous installments in this series:

Walt Laurie

Eric and Peggy Denny

Ray Kosiancic

Lois Arnesen

Cameron Mah

Fran Horan