Bygone era returns at the Kilby Historic Site


After daffodils and tulips fade in the fields surrounding the North Fraser Valley hamlets of Agassiz and Harrison Mills, blossoming orchards take their turn, carpeting the side roads in a blizzard of pink and white petals. Of particular significance is a Gravenstein apple tree planted in 1926, the oldest of its kind in the region. The tree stands propped up in all its gnarled glory beside the equally venerable Kilby General Store.

In rhythm with the vernal season, the gates at the Kilby Historic Site on the banks of the Harrison River swung open once again in April, offering a window on both the valley's past and, thanks to spring's vibrant renewal, an incipient future as lively as a newborn lamb. As it has for the past three decades since being acquired by the province from the Kilby family, who set up shop in Harrison Mills in 1904, the historic site hums with life thanks in large part to the commitment of local volunteers from the Fraser Heritage Society. For fruit-pie lovers, chef Vera Point of the local Chehalis First Nation is back at the helm of her kitchen in the Orientation Barn's Harrison River Restaurant, where the smell of fresh-baked goods wafts out the windows of the former stable and into the grassy area that surrounds the imposing heritage store and former hotel complex. The restaurant is housed in a reconstruction of a wood-planked barn that was raised in 1917 alongside the Kilby General Store.

Long before the construction of a dike system sturdy enough to hold back the waters of the Fraser River, whose confluence with the Harrison lies a short distance downstream, the Kilbys wisely mounted their two-storey enterprise on pilings high above the floodplain. Nothing else akin to its quaint grandeur remains from the glory days when, in the wake of the Cariboo gold rush and the advent of the transcontinental railway, sawmills sprang up at riverfronts like Harrison Mills and spurred settlement in the valley. For over 70 years, goods from the Kilby General Store's well-stocked shelves filled shopping baskets, while rooms in the Manchester House Hotel housed workers.

These days, day-trippers journey to Harrison Mills and the nearby farming centre of Agassiz for recreation at Kilby Provincial Park and to go on a self-guided circle farm tour of the region in search of locally created crafts and artisan produce. Much of this is on sale in the Orientation Barn's Waterloo Farm Gift Shop.

That's where Pique talked to Jo-Anne Leon, the historic site's sales and marketing manager. "There are all sorts of unique holes-in-the-wall around Agassiz where we source everything on display here, including a whole range of farm-fresh products, which Vera and her staff use to bake from scratch," Leon said. "Visitors to Kilby are inspired by a way of life from the past that we're moving away from. It represents values and traditions of a day gone by that people feel good about and like to be reminded of, a history that's still close but which represents a totally different way of living than today-a slower lifestyle."

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