Thirty-second in a series of pioneer profiles
As long as there’s been a Longbeach, Eric Smith’s family has been part of it.
His uncle Henry arrived first in 1904 — more or less by accident — at what was then Clubb Landing, after emigrating from England on the CPR’s dime. Following a year’s hard labour on a Manitoba farm, he intended to go to Vancouver with a friend, but at Medicine Hat discovered the mainline was closed, and on a whim took the train to Nelson instead.
Before he’d finished breakfast the next day, Henry bought 90 acres on Kootenay Lake, sight unseen. It boasted a shack put up by the eponymous Joe Clubb that was then occupied by Hong Ming Chong, who continued to clear land and plant strawberries.
Henry was sufficiently impressed to write his brother, Commodore Burrard A. Smith.
“He said what a wonderful country and climate it was out here in the Kootenays,” Eric explains. “So my dad took early retirement from the British Navy and joined him.”
According to a family history, Burrard — then in his early 30s — was “surprised to find potatoes and slips of fruit trees growing in poorly prepared soil among the stumps,” but it was fine country with “many congenial men,” so he stayed.
AT HOME AT OWASSA
When Henry married, the brothers divided the property. The newlyweds got the shack and Burrard took the eastern, uncleared portion and built a two-room cabin he called Owassa, reputedly a native word for “all alone,” but later renamed Craigend, after a Scottish castle.
In 1909, Burrard was introduced to Edith Winifred Goodwin, out from England to visit her brother, a Crawford Bay rancher. They married three years later.
Winifred’s aunt remarked: “Winnie had always been so delicate, but she goes out to Canada and suddenly becomes as strong as a horse.”
She was also credited with suggesting the name Longbeach for the area when the government wharf was built in 1913. (The other finalists were Cottonwood Point and Connaught Bay.)
“Everything went fine and dandy,” Eric says, “until the Great War.”
Henry joined the 54th Kootenay Battalion and died in France. Burrard was loaned to the newly formed Royal Canadian Navy and was stationed at Alert Bay, Halifax, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the Shetland Islands. His wife went with him and Eric and his brother David were born overseas. The family returned to Kootenay Lake in the spring of 1919 to reinvigorate the dormant Craigend.
ERIC OF ALL TRADES
The Smith boys were among the first to attend the new Longbeach school that opened in 1923. However, Eric describes his schooling as “a fiasco.”
“When I was young, every time I got nervous — cut my finger or anything — I would pass out,” he says. “When I went to Procter to take the Grade 8 exams, my nerves got the better of me. The second year was even worse. I didn’t even start. I turned my paper upside down and managed to get out the door before rolling down the steps and ended up covered in bruises. That was the end of my education.”
Despite those anxieties, Eric took a diesel marine engineering course in Vancouver and even stayed on as an instructor before landing his first job on a deep-sea tugboat that plied the west coast of Vancouver Island. He was rewarded with food, accommodation, and experience — but no pay.
With few prospects during the Depression, he returned home and did many odd jobs, including a summer as skipper of the forest service boat Amabilis on Kootenay Lake. (The one that burned behind the Nelson museum several years ago.)
He landed an apprenticeship with Dominion Welding Engineering of Montreal at 17 cents an hour but hadn’t quite completed it when war began. He enlisted in 1940 with the RCAF and went overseas with 419 Squadron as an airframe mechanic.
While stationed near Darlington, Yorkshire he went to a party thrown by a girl named Greta Harrison, and invited her to the movies a few days later, sweetening the offer with a box of chocolates. They married in 1944 and the following year came to Longbeach, where their first home was a fixed-up shack formerly used by relief camp workers.
Although a welder by trade, Eric had a varied career. He built houses. He bought the first rubber-tired tractor in Nelson and offered custom plowing and cultivating. One day he came into Finning Tractor looking for a part but instead they gave him a job.
He worked for Mac’s Welding in Nelson, which had the John Deere agency. He spent a year as a deckhand on the Kootenay Lake ferry, and also worked at the Bluebell mine, the HB mine, and for Kootenay Forest Products.
He used his mechanical know-how to build woodstoves, sailboat stoves, Adirondack chairs, and a cement sailboat. (The latter — the Kendra II, named for his first grandchild — took eight years and was launched on a marine railway he devised using old track scavenged from local mines. The boat has since been sold, but is still at Longbeach.)
GOOD GENES AND GOOD LIVING
Eric, 94, isn’t the only member of his family with longevity: his father lived to 99 and his mother to 96. His brother is 95. An aunt came from England to attend his daughter’s wedding and flew for the first time — by herself — at 96.
Asked the secret to long life, he shrugs, but Greta, 91, offers: “Have a good wife.”
Daughter Valerie adds: “Good genes, no smoking, and good healthy eating — they grew their own vegetables and almost lived off the land.”
Although they moved to Nelson two years ago, Eric and Greta can still be found almost every day in summer at Longbeach, where five acres remain in the family. Last year they turned the property over to their four children, heirs to a Longbeach legacy.
Previous installments in this series