Fennell Ranches: Celebrating 121 years of agriculture

A 121 years of agriculture were celebrated on July 27, 2019, on the Fennell Ranch in Chu Chua.

Today the ranch that was started by George Fennell in August of 1898 has continued to be operated through the years by his son and daughter –inlaw Bud and Grace and their family.

Relatives and friends gathered at Dunn Lake to celebrate this milestone. This was fitting, as over the years members of the Fennell Family have swam, had picnics, and skated on the lake. Relatives and friends traveled from Onaway and Turner Valley Alberta, Fort St. James, Prince George, Williams Lake, Kamloops, Barnhartvale, Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Heffley Creek, Louis Creek, Barriere and Chu Chua to help The Bud Fennell Family celebrate and mark 121 years in agriculture.

A delicious beef in a bun with salads catered by Dustin Rainer was enjoyed by all. For dessert, chocolate cupcakes made and decorated by Kathleen Pilatzke (great grand daughter) and ice cream generously supplied by Care Ice Cream (Ryan Simmons who is married to a great grand daughter). Of course every meal needs to have delicious chocolate milk supplied by Blackwell Dairy, which is owned and operated by the grandson, great grand daughter and great great grandchildren of George and Maggie.

Many photos were on display depicting the family and the changes that have come over the last 121 years. It was fun to determine who was who, which aunt or uncle and see how ranching and agriculture has changed over the years. George’s great grandchildren who help on the ranch are glad of the modern day tractors and haying and irrigation equipment rather than horse and pitchfork and shovels and ditches for flood irrigating.

In spite of a few showers and wind it was a great day of sharing of good food and stories by friends and family.

The history of

Fennell Ranch

by Lorene Fennell

George Fennell travelled from Newberry, Ontario, to Colorado to visit his sisters. In Colorado he learned about minerals. When his sisters returned to Ontario, George headed north to British Columbia. He traveled up the coast by boat to Knights Inlet. He then walked overland with two other companions heading for the Cariboo and the Goldrush. His journey overland was arduous. A story told by grandson Robert, was that they could not find game to eat and were starving so they ate one of the horses. He then followed the Brigade Trail to the North Thompson. He came out on bench land south of Dunn Lake and decided that Chu Chua was the place to live. He went to Kamloops and filed on Lot 937 on August 19, 1898. He then built a small log cabin. The cabin did not have a door, only windows, as George figured the wolves could not come through the windows.

Margaret Ann Struthers was born July 8, 1884, in Thessalon, Ontario, and moved to the waterfront town of Vancouver at an early age with her family. Her father, a lumberman, was killed while felling a tree. She was 11 when the family moved to the 25 Mile at Vinsulla. This place became known as the” Twenty Five Mile” where travelers stopped on their way up and down the North Thompson Valley. In her teens, while working at the Dominion Hotel in Kamloops, Maggie met George. A story that Maggie told to granddaughter Peggy, was that George invited her to a concert. However, he did not to show up to take her, so she went with a friend. Her seat was next to George.

George and Maggie, Grandma and Grandpa, were married on June 16 1903, and lived in Kamloops while Grandpa was a partner with two other men in a sawmill at the south end of the old red bridge.

When they moved to Chu Chua, Grandma didn’t like to stay alone in the log cabin with a dirt floor so she went to help Grandpa clear land. What he wouldn’t have given for the excavators and bulldozers his grandkids and great grandkids operate today.

In 1906 Grandpa built a small store and trading post. He would walk or ride horseback to Kamloops. This 50 mile round trip took three days, one day to get there, one day to do business, and one day to get home. If Grandma came with him, the journey took a bit longer as they would overnight at 25 Mile.

The first house Grandpa built was near where Bud Fennell’s house is. A barn for the stage coach was also built here as well. A dining room was built onto the house and Grandma fed 100 men every day while the railway was being built from 1910 to 1912. At the time she also had six small children to look after. In total Grandma Fennell had 16 children, 11 of which survived. She was a modern woman ahead of her time. Although she could not read or write, despite the best efforts of her children, she learned how to develop her own photographs and had a dark room in her house.

This log house burned down and the white house on the hill was built in the early 1920s. The new house was fully modern. It had running water, indoor plumbing, and an electric light system. This house was built closer to the tracks and to the new store next to the railway station house.

In 1912 Grandpa built the red school house at Chu Chua. It was used until 1957, when the new school was built at the bottom of the hill. During that time children from the families of the Beddingtons, Bodies, Casimirs, Celestas, Diakiews, Dodges, Donalds, Eustaches, Fennells, Florences, Fortiers, Honeys, Johns, Josephs, McDiarmids, Olesons, Pickerings, Sauls, and Wenlocks attended the school.

Grandpa, in addition to building his ranch, was a mining recorder, deputy sheriff, magistrate, school board chairman, justice of the peace and postmaster. He built a big store with a basketball court upstairs, a pool hall, a dock for the paddle wheelers, and the school. He planted potatoes, sunflowers and had an apple nursery (some of the trees are still producing today) and had pigs and cattle. Dad tells a story of going up to the Paxton in the early spring to get hay and the hay stack was filled with sows and their piglets.

Dad tells a story about the time Grandpa got word of bank robbers from the Caribou heading towards Little Fort. He got together a posse and then laid in wait near the ferry at Little Fort. When the robbers got across the river they shot all of the robbers, except one, who got away with the gold. They caught up with him at McLure where they shot him. Unfortunately the robber had buried the gold somewhere between Little Fort and McLure. When I was a kid there was a bunch of outhouse sized holes at the road junction above the ferry. Dad said that’s where people were digging for the buried gold.

George Fennell also had a sawmill north of Avola in the 1920’s. He built a bridge across the North Thompson to access his timber berths. This was done by cutting a holes in the ice then hauling rock and timbers to build the piers. He also had a silver mine on Foghorn Mountain. On Gold Hill he mined a carload of high grade ore. It was transported by horse, pulling a rawhide sloop down the mountain.

Grandpa was known far and wide. Aunt Frances told a story when she went to Vancouver and checked into a hotel. She signed her name and the hotel clerk asked her if she was related to George Fennell. She replied that he was her father. She was told that any relative of George Fennell could stay at the hotel for as long as they wanted. The man at the desk was Mr. Wells.

It was a cold January morning in 1935 when Grandpa was killed by a stove explosion. The water jacket on the stove froze and as the ice melted, steam built up in the reservoir and exploded. The shrapnel from the stove hit Grandpa causing his fatal injuries. Grandma was hit in the face and was able to recover from her injuries. She was now a single mom to several young children in the middle of the dirty 30’s. Times were tough.

After Grandpa’s death, eldest son Marston took over running the estate. He had a very difficult job to do in very difficult times, but due to hard work and perseverance was able to hang onto the ranch and keep things running. Marston was also justice of the peace, performed marriages, and arrested criminals. I don’t think he had to shoot any though.

It was decided in 1950 that the ranch would be split amongst the four boys – Marston, Sandy, Charlie and Bud. Dad also bought a large parcel from Bert Popp. In 1970 Mom and Dad purchased Sandy’s section from Art Langley. Over the years other parcels were purchased from others such as, Norman Johnson, Olsen, Jordan.

On a dry hot dusty day in late August of 1951 Grace Gibson arrived in Chu Chua. She was the new teacher in the little red school house. She had just finished Normal school and was ready to teach. She was 19. Grace never left the valley, much to the chagrin of her family.

During the 1950s, Norman, known as Buddy or Bud, and our Dad worked for the Forest Service. Farming was done at night with the help of Cliff Dodge and Chris Donald. Chris was hired in the winter to feed the cows. When the herd got bigger, Dad quit the Forest Service and ranched full time.

In 1957 Mom and Dad were married. In 1960 Norman was born, then Lorene, Timothy, Kerry, Evelyn and Darrell. We lived in the small two room house by the red school house until 1966 when Dad finished the present farm house. In 1969 Mom went back to teaching school. When she got her first paycheck we all went to town and we all got to pick out a new pair of shoes, and any kind we wanted.

Mom and Dad worked together and supported each other in their endeavors. Mom helped Dad during haying. This was challenging with six young children. She would leave us under the big hawthorn tree in the middle of the field and check on us every round while baling or raking hay. When we got bored, some, or all of us, would wander off or go home. Mom would have to quit and round us up or go home.

Dad’s philosophy was to buy land, because they don’t make it anymore, and added it to the ranch whenever he could.

During this time, as his kids were young, Dad hired Chris Donald, Felix John, Allan Williams, Eddie Fortier and Clarance Fortier to help on the ranch. Many other local youths had their first driving lessons on a tractor during haying season. Family members from the Celestas, Donalds, Eustaches, Lampreaus, Fortiers, Josephs, Jules, Hallers, and Mathews worked on the farm during haying season. Many also helped drive cows up to Green Mountain and Baldy Mountain. We were fortunate to have their help. One time on the drive up Green Mountain the bulls were fighting on the trail as usual and they came crashing down through the back end of the herd. Luckily Larry Eustache was there and he yarded Evelyn out of the way, likely saving her life. She was only eight or nine years old at the time.

Slowly over time changes occurred. Whereas Dad grew up on a horse, we had them, but found motor bikes quicker to scout around the mountain looking for cows. Dad also changed from four legged transportation to two wheeled, and then to a quad for looking for and at cows.

The loose hay hauled in by horse and wagon gave way to square bales hauled in by tractor and wagon by a crew of four or five, then to automated bale wagon. The tractor size increased (as did the price), and square bales switched to 1800 pound round bales. Now one person can easily mow or bale 50 acres in an afternoon.

Now the great grandkids of George Fennell are walking and working the very same land that he walked and worked. These grandkids are operating machinery and exposing their views on what to do or not to do.

Fennell Mountain is still the spring range. We still put our cows up on Green Mountain, or Cattle Mountain as it was called back then, using the trail that was built over 100 years ago. Back then the mountain was burned off and cattle grazed the alpine areas. Most of that open alpine is now filled in with timber and our cattle now graze the tree plantations. Dad started putting cows up on Baldy in 1960 after sheep had grazed there. The 25 mile trip used to have the tractor and wagon hauling food, salt and hay for the horses following behind the cows. Supper and breakfast was cooked over a campfire. Stew and chili made by Mom hung in syrup cans over the fire. We camped overnight on the trail waking up to the sound of “slurp slurp” a cow was licking salt on the wagon. Now the trip is done in one day with a four wheel drive pick up hauling coolers of food and salt for the cows, providing a place to rest. No longer do we have to ride the horses home after chasing the cows to the top of Baldy. We no longer get to visit the Look Out perched on the rocks at the top of Baldy.

The ranch still uses irrigation ditches engineered by George Fennell to supply water to the hay fields changing from flood irrigating to wheelmoves and sprinklers.

George Fennell had a vision and he married a woman who helped and supported him.

Bud Fennell had a vision and he married a woman who helped and supported him. As the kids have grown, they too with their families have carried on the vision and legacy.

Through a lot of hard work and determination by all, we have been able to keep the ranch in operation for the past 121 years.

Agriculture is our future. If you want to eat good food – support local agriculture.

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