The Story of Tom Abriel

Written by Rosemarie Parent. This article, in two parts, appeared in the Arrow Lakes News, November and December 1997.

A Young Tom Abriel
A Young Tom Abriel

In 1892, a remarkable young man arrived in the fledgling town of Nakusp – a man who was destined to become the most influential and energetic leader the town has ever known. Tom Abriel fell in love with Nakusp at first sight.

Born in Nova Scotia, he started working in the pulp business there before moving to Portland, Oregon to continue in this field. He became foreman in a plant there. Unfortunately, the fumes from the processing plant caused him health problems and he was advised to move to a climate where clean, fresh air was offered.

Hearing of the Kootenay development, he decided to venture into this new territory. His first job was cutting firewood for steamboats. While he was helping to unload a scow with the first lumber into Nakusp, he learned it was to be used to build a hotel. He approached Hugh Madden – the owner – about obtaining work there and thus learned how to hang wallpaper in the rooms. This would become the Grand Hotel, which was across from the Leland Hotel. It was destroyed by fire in 1925.

In a short period of five years, Abriel went from paperhanging to becoming a leading businessman in the community. In time, he became involved in real estate and insurance, as well as in mines and customs work. He had a general store and insurance/real estate office on Bay Street in the lower part of town – now covered by high water.

He then decided to build a first-class building to accommodate a rental office and an office of his own, uptown on Broadway Street. With this structure, Abriel furnished the townspeople with facilities for commerce and a place for social activities.

Broadway was an undeveloped street at that time, and the move was a bold one. Abriel always forged ahead, intent upon his goal.

Tom Abriel's Office
Tom Abriel’s Office

Abriel’s building was shared by the Dominion government Custom’s office. The hall upstairs was first used by the Independent Order of Foresters. The hall was named the Woodsman’s Hall because of this association.

In Glenbank, an exceptional pre-emption belonging to Lyle McDougald became available, and Abriel took possession in 1903. In 1905, he employed a man to clear a section and planted an orchard. His goal was to ship fruit by the carload. The name he gave this property was the Home Ranch – now owned by the Schneebergers.

Abriel was an innovative man. He patented a garden cultivating tool and was always experimenting to find better varieties of fruits and vegetables. Using horticultural methods, he produced a new species of rhubarb called Strawberry Rhubarb. He sold tons of it over the years – in one year alone he sold 20 tons of rhubarb off his ranch.

Early in the 1900s, he purchased some lots where a superb spring produced the coolest, clearest water in Nakusp. The property is where the Seventh Day Adventist Church is now, beside the Wanstall house. He had the spring cribbed in to make a pool about 10 feet square and three feet deep. A barbed wire fence enclosed the perimeter of the lots. A gate was fashioned on one side, while a bucket and hook were placed near the well for use by anyone who wished to carry their own water. He also ran a pipeline from there to his office on Broadway, to the Grand Hotel and to the Leland Hotel. He then hired a man to deliver the water around town in a large wagon with several barrels on it. Most houses put out flags if they required water. For 25 cents you could have your 40-gallon barrel filled.

In 1904, a collection was started to build a Catholic Church. Abriel, who was an ardent follower of this faith, provided a twelfth of the cost to build the Our Lady of Lourdes church, which was completed in 1905. This building still stands today, and is the only one left that was build at this time and is still being used as a church.

A drama club was started in 1905 called the Nakusp Dramatic Club. Again Abriel was involved in the productions that were held in his Woodsman’s Hall. He also supplied many items and props for the group and became their honorary president.

Abriel was appointed agent for the Frontier Fruit Lands Co. in the spring of 1907. Many people – especially from the United Kingdom – were now coming into the area because of the enticing advertising.

Also that year, the Arrow Lakes Farmer’s Institute was formed and Abriel was made chairman while Bob Baird was secretary.

A Sidewalk Committee was formed in Abriel’s office in 1907 and again, Abriel was appointed chairman. This committee became the forerunner of the town council that was needed to obtain improvements for the town, to procure a doctor and hospital and to address problems as they arose.

In 1908, meetings of the council were established and they tackled the building of roads which were required as more settlers arrived. Another matter that needed attention was the building of a proper government building to provide official services. The Court House was completed in 1910 and is still one of the finest heritage buildings in Nakusp.

By this time, Abriel was a notary public, a justice of the peace and had been a magistrate for many years. He and the other prominent men who had the job of solving disputes and keeping order and peace in town were happy to see the first policeman arrive.

It was not until 1909 that they discussed the forming of the Nakusp Board of Trade. Again, Abriel was instrumental in the development of all facets of the work done in the following years, either on the executive or on the committees to do any work that needed to be done.

In 1910, Abriel had the opera house built – where the Selkirk College is now – beside his office – where Wylie’s Pub is – on Broadway. His motto was “If people are happy and having fun, they will spend money.” The first fall fair was held in the opera house and was a huge success. Once again, Abriel was the first president of the Annual Fall Fair Organization.

In March 1910, Dr. Mossman cabled to the Nakusp Board of Trade accepting the resident physician position in Nakusp. Later that year, a cottage hospital was established. Sandy and Dave Markholm now live on the location on 1st Street across from Kal Tire, although the building is now gone.

It was a great day when this small town had its own doctor and hospital. Not many towns of this size could afford such a luxury at this time.

Abriel continued in his role as chairman of the Farmer’s Institute and it was decided that a much bigger and more accommodation center was needed for the fall fairs, to reflect the status of farming in Nakusp and surrounding areas.

The government responded to their request for financial assistance and a wooden frame building with a metal roof was build on land owned by Abriel. It was part of the Home Ranch property and was situated about where Gordon and Tracey Roberts live now. The site included a compound where livestock could be exhibited and were sometimes sold.

The title was not given to the village and it is presumed that Abriel also paid the taxes for the building along with his ranch taxes.

This building must have had great benefit to the community because it offered a place where people from other areas could come to socialize, gossip and exchange ideas. Children were encouraged to enter into the many categories and it offered incentives to the local farmers to try new ways and learn from others.

In the fall, the shavings were removed from the floor and it was flooded to produce ice for skating and hockey. Other small towns came to compete with the local team in future years. The building was used year round and provided enjoyment for the whole community.

Abriel built a barbershop and pool hall – where the Chickadee CafĂ© is now – for the local barber Eugene Leveque. He continued to help others whenever he could and always for the betterment of the town.

By 1914, the trend was to move businesses up from Bay St. to Broadway and Tom Abriel decided to relocate his general store as well to the spot where the Bank is now located. (2005) He had purchased these lots earlier, probably about the time he built his office across the street in 1897.

Also in 1914, Tom, who had always been interested in establishing a newspaper for Nakusp, persuaded a printer and editor, Robert Barrett, to set up the essential equipment. The paper was named the Advocate and the first edition came out that October. However, the lack of commercial participation contributed to the eventual demise of the paper. It only lasted nine months. The Nakusp Ledge had a newspaper here for 16 months from October 1893 to December 1894; Nakusp had to wait until 1922 for the Arrow lakes News to come on the scene.

Next, Tom realized that the Opera House was a little too large for many of the small social events such as meetings, concerts, weddings and dinners. He had a vacant piece of land (where the Liquor store is now, 2005) and built the Small Hall. There was a spacious second floor included, and later, a long lean-to style kitchen was added on the ground floor, equipped with a large number of dishes with the Abriel name embossed in red across each piece. It was an important addition to the town but was never given any other name than the Small Hall.

Electricity was the next improvement to the town that was tackled. In 1916, a newcomer to town, George Horsley, explained to the Nakusp Board of Trade how he could establish an electric power system for the town. It took four years and Tom Abriel was at every meeting to help get power going for Nakusp.

Tom was chairman of the school board for many years and they were instrumental in the building of the school in 1912. This is the Centennial Building that now houses the Library and Museum (2005). Another tremendous task was to improve access to the Nakusp Hot Springs with negotiations between Mrs. Ellen Gayford, the owner of the mineral claim and the Nakusp Board of Trade. The nine mile trail to the springs, the grounds and the primitive accommodation all needed upgrading.

A proper protected water system was tackled with the first meeting in 1915 when the Board met with the Government Water Commissioners. Tom was made chairman of the Nakusp Development District and boundaries were defined. It took years to work out the problems to install the system but it was work that had to be done.

Tom Abriel had been a member in the early days when the provincial organization, the BC Fruit Growers Association was formed. This group represented the large fruit growing interests of the Okanagan and Kootenays. His knowledge of the industry and his connections with other agricultural bodies, made him a logical choice as president, a position he held for most of the 25 years he was a member.

Through this association, he convinced area growers to unite, and by 1922, a large addition to the Cannery Association building at Home Ranch was constructed, where boxes were produced and fruit was received from the various fruit farmers of the district. There were four packers continuously at work, trying to keep up to the fine fruit arriving daily. The CPR had run a spur road from the main track to the packing house, which reduced their workload.

Large wholesale houses and distributors in the east wielded great power and Tom Abriel was unyielding in his determined stand to help the small fruit farms survive through the BC Fruit Growers Association, and mounted a unified attack to obtain a fair return for the BC growers. This postponed the end of orchard farming on the Arrow Lakes for many years. Tom Abriel was in his element, meeting, conferring, writing, and planning, in an effort to improve the farmer’s lot wherever possible.

He managed his own farm and shipped six to seven carloads of fruit per year, plus tons of blueberries and fruit from three acres of strawberry plants. He also supplied the mines with meat, at one time averaging a carload every two weeks.

The Home Ranch was used later by the University of BC for experimental farming. Tom worked closely with other influential men to establish the Department of Agriculture at UBC. Through his connection with the CPR, he assisted in getting the UBC Endowment Lands set aside, as well as a large tract of land in the Peace River developed for wheat growing.

One wonders how Tom managed and survived on the schedule he set for himself. With his involvement in the Conservative Party, his real estate business and agricultural investments, and the constant executive responsibilities he had volunteered for, he needed to find some help. In 1909, he invited his sister, Bessie, who was ill with TB and living in Nova Scotia to come to Nakusp, offering her a position as his secretary. He also hoped that the fresh air of the mountains would be beneficial and even cure her. She slept summer and winter in a tent-covered platform outside that Tom had constructed for her. She became very proficient at her duties and he missed her help greatly when she passed away in 1920. The loss of her companionship must have been hard, for he led a lonely life.

However, in 1911, he housed a boy of six, Dave Fulkco, and his two sisters overnight en-route to an orphanage in New Westminster. He kept in touch with their situation and when he discovered that one of the girls had died of diphtheria and the other had been adopted out, he decided to offer Dave the opportunity to come to Nakusp. The Children’s Aid Society allowed Dave to come in 1918 and Tom became his guardian. This must have lightened his lonely life and gave him someone to help with chores on the farm, which Dave thoroughly enjoyed. Later, he became a guardian to Dick Blyth, who came to stay in 1924. His niece, Ellen Abriel came to stay in 1926; it was rather fitting that Dave and Ellen would eventually marry.

Dick used to help also with work to be done. He took produce to town and had an aptitude for fixing things. He maintained the many houses that Tom had, including papering and painting them. He learned some plumbing and electrical work as well. Both boys attended school and grew up to be good citizens in Nakusp.

Tom had always enjoyed good health, but in September 1935, he broke an ankle. He had come home from hospital and seemed to be recuperating well.

On the 20th of September, he was found dead by friends who had come to visit. His death came as a profound shock to his many friends. He was 68 years old.

This ended the life of one of the most industrious men in the early days of Nakusp. He could have had any position he wanted in provincial politics because he was so well respected, but he chose to remain in Nakusp, always hoping the town he had helped build would grow and become prosperous. It would not have been unreasonable for Nakusp to have been named Abrielville to honor this incredible man.