Canada Day celebrations take on historic theme in Keremeos

Grist Mill operators hope Canada Day event will help boost the fortunes of struggling heritage site

  • Jun. 26, 2012 12:00 p.m.
Mill groundskeeper Celia Pattenden (right) explains to German tourist Barbara Weiss how the mill works. The mill has seen a decrease in foreign visitors

Mill groundskeeper Celia Pattenden (right) explains to German tourist Barbara Weiss how the mill works. The mill has seen a decrease in foreign visitors

The people of the South Okanagan are being invited to celebrate Canada’s future by immersing themselves in its past.

On Sunday, the Grist Mill Heritage Club is holding its fourth annual Canada Day event at the Keremeos Grist Mill and Gardens.

The purpose of Canada Day is to celebrate the country’s past, said Dave Cursons, event organizer and treasury-secretary of the club, and to do it at a site with as much history as the mill just makes sense.

Cursons said the event will be featuring entertainment such as French-Canadian balladeers March and Jaques Durand and country-rocker Robert Robertson.

There will also be a barbecue serving up hotdogs and hamburgers, as well as refreshments like soft drinks, coffee and tea. The event is entry by donation, and runs from 1 p.m. until nightfall.

The Canada Day celebration is usually widely attended, seeing 150 to 200 guests, said Cursons, but people shouldn’t be worried about the event being too crowded, as it’s a big area.

The B.C. Heritage site includes the original mill, which was built in 1877, a Victorian-style garden, a tearoom and an apple house.

While the site doesn’t make that much money, Cursons said in an interview with CBC that there is a different kind of value in the site. Rather than an economic value, Cursons argued, the site, along with other historic sites, has a heritage value that should be maintained and preserved to remind British Columbians about where they came from.

While the mill isn’t charging for admission, the Canada Day event is still very important to the mill.

“Financially, they’re not significant, but in terms of raising the awareness of the community and the region and keeping a shine on it, they’re very important,” said Cursons.

“I will say one has to struggle very hard to attract the tourist dollar because the current economic climate and the amount of travel that is being done by ordinary folk has been affected by the overall economic situation.”

John Millar, volunteer manager of the mill, has seen firsthand the effects of both the U.S. recession and the European economic troubles. He said business has been disappointing.

“It’s slower than last year, last year was slower than the year before, so business is very much, I could use the word plummeting I guess,” he said.

He estimated that the heritage site has seen an 80 per cent drop in European visitors, who represented a large number of those coming to the mill.

“It’s amazing, the people from Germany and Holland know more about us than the local people do,” he said, pointing out the mill was featured in a German magazine about Canada. “I was always impressed by the European visitors.”

As for locals using the site, Millar said he doesn’t know why more residents don’t visit the 135-year-old site, although he has heard complaints about the price of admission.

“We charge $6, and they feel this is expensive,” he said.

The mill is sustained by $160,000 a year from government funding, as well as revenue they bring in. Millar estimated that the site could take care of much-needed repairs and become self sustainable with an income of $2,000 a day. He guessed that, currently, the site makes $40 to $50 a day.

Tourists aren’t the only groups that have stopped coming to the mill, said Millar. School groups have stopped coming as well.

He said he still recalls one of the groups that visited the mill from a Penticton school, saying “It was the best day I had at the mill. Best day I’ve had at a lot of places. I’d love to see every school class in the local district at least one day here. I think it would be a great benefit to the kids.”

With the government renewing the contract to operate the mill on a year-to-year basis, Millar said he is unsure if they will be awarded the contact again next year.

While Millar and the other operators of the mill have discussed ways for the site to make more money, so far nothing has worked.

However, Millar said they have been batting around a number of ideas to put the mill back on the map.

“There’s historical evidence that Barrington Price, the founder of the mill, operated an illegal distillery and made and sold illegal bootleg whiskey. We’d be historically correct to put our own distillery in here to sell bootleg whiskey,” said Millar with a laugh.

As well, the mill society opened the discussion to the public realm this week, holding a workshop where visitors to the mill could share what they valued about the mill, and where they saw its position in the community in the future.

For more information on the mill, visit www.oldmillgardens.com.