Delving into a small town’s secrets

The Klu Klux Klan, communists, a hydrophobic newspaper editor, kidnappers and thugs – also the indomitable spirit of striking coal miners.

The Klu Klux Klan, communists, a hydrophobic newspaper editor, kidnappers and thugs – also the indomitable spirit of striking coal miners.

They all lived in Princeton, B.C. And it was only 80 years ago.

Soviet Princeton: Slim Evans and the 1932-33 Miners’ Strike is a carefully documented and well-textured chronicle of a class’ dangerous struggle for livable wages set against a landscape of political and social unrest.

Authored by historians John Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat, Soviet Princeton was released this week by New Star Books to an appreciative buzz in a broad cross-section of academic and political circles.

Already a BC BookWorld Editor’s Pick, Soviet Princeton will be discussed Sunday on CBC’s North by Northwest. The book’s official launch takes place in Vancouver this weekend, and Bartlett and Ruebsaat will be at the Penticton Museum Nov. 24 at noon, as part of the museum’s Brown Bag series.

Events in Princeton in the early 1930s have nearly disappeared from living memory. Still, sensational tales of the miners’ strikes – when police on horseback bludgeoned picketers and crosses burned on hills – have passed through the town’s generations like sepia portraits.

While there is no shortage of drama and intrigue, do not look for gossip, rumours or half-truths in the pages of Soviet Princeton.

“In small towns such as Princeton there is often knowledge which is ‘secret’ or shared among a few people. Sometimes it means that A hasn’t spoken to any member of B’s family since 1947, when … you can draft the plot in your own mind,” says the authors in their introduction. “Often they are libelous, never actually complete, such knowledge can poison the atmosphere between new and old residents of the town.

“We suspect that there are memories in our town which will be dislodged on reading this book, and perhaps the memories will not be pleasant ones. For that reason, we have not included in the book any oral histories: our sources are all public documents, either the presses (pro and con), court documents, or specialist books.”

In 1932 the town’s population was 1,000. There was a theatre, six cafés, a bowling alley and an undertaker. Copper Mountain Mine had recently closed, throwing hundreds of men into unemployment. Workers at the Tulameen coal mine earned $4.50 a day and worked one day a week, while a newly constructed federal relief camp housed 130 men and paid them $7.50 a month for – among other things – building the airport.

Princeton’s branch of the KKK was formed on the eve of the coal miners’ strike for the purposes of routing out subversion in the working classes and intimidating labour union supporters.

However the book is redolent of broader themes. It sets the struggles of B.C.’s small town interior within the fledging communist movement across the country, the advancement of organization labour and how those events were perceived and influenced by the press.

Soviet Princeton follows the activities of Arthur Herbert “Slim” Evans, a powerful union organizer and proclaimed communist who was invited to Princeton by workers at the Tulameen mine after management backed out of a promise to reinstate a 10 per cent wage roll back. Evans was twice kidnapped and forcibly shipped out of town, warned to not return. He was later convicted of advocating the overthrow of the government by force.

Soviet Princeton is Bartlett and Ruebsaat’s second book based on local history. It was while the couple was collecting material for Dead Horse on the Tulameen, (2012) that they unearthed information about the strike from the pages of the Princeton Star.

The ensuing research was compelling for two people who have devoted much of their lives to social justice through music, activism and education. The importance of telling the story today, they agree, is to examine the still-relevant questions about how class interests form tension between management and workers, and how those dynamics impact a community.

Bartlett, an admitted “red-diaper baby” adds, “Of course we have a point of view. You can’t write history without a point of view. If you do that, why are you even writing history?”

Had Bartlett lived in Princeton in 1932?

“Oh, I would have been right there with Slim,” he chuckles.

Ruebsaat connects particularly with the stories of intimidation within Princeton’s borders.

“Something that set off sparks in me were the threats from the KKK. I imagined what it would be like to be in a community where people were threatening me and in terms of an emotional resonance, that was a moment for me. I felt it was really sick.”

Ruebsaat and Bartlett are now embarking on an ambitious promotional calendar for Soviet Princeton. In the next three months they are scheduled to appear at libraries, museums and schools.


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