Updated: Sep 11, 2020
Seven rare postcards of Fruitvale have been sold on eBay over the last few months by four different dealers, for a collective price of $673 Cdn.
Although only one of them has not been reproduced in a book, they’re all very attractive and four are extra special because they belonged to the Van Varseveld family, pioneer sawmill operators, and have notations in Dutch on the back.
The first card, which sold for $20 US, is an amazing bird’s eye view that shows the fledgling settlement in 1910, including the first Fruitvale hotel, two or three bridges across Beaver Creek, and smoke rising from a series of slash burns.
It was postmarked Fruitvale, Nov. 28, 1910 and mailed to A.M. Campbell of Ottawa. The message reads:
Nov. 26, Fruitvale, BC: I have actually once more changed my plans! Having been persuaded to stay on here over Xmas. So am finally sailing on the Canada on Jan. 14th. So I hope this will catch you in time lest you go to enquire for me at Montreal. I get my ticket through Cooks’ though glad you have had success with silver mines at last [or out east?]. D. Aldersmith
The next card, taken by W.G. Barclay of Nelson, sold for $211 Cdn. It shows a general view of the town in 1911, during some sort of celebration, perhaps Victoria Day.
We see the Fruitvale Trading Co. as well as the Fruitvale Hotel and adjacent W.R. Mellard store and post office, plus other buildings. An X denotes the Model Ranch, which the Fruitvale Ltd. used to demonstrate the worthiness of the area to prospective fruit farmers. It was also a place where new settlers could stay while building their own homes.
The message, translated, reads: “This is the townsite of Fruitvale. The cottage (Model Ranch) marked with an X is the place where Johanna lives.”
Next, an exceptionally clear shot that sold for $98 Cdn shows the Varseveld Bros. office, plus one of the Beaver Creek bridges and the first St. John’s Anglican Church in 1913.
The message reads: “Office in/at the back of the yard.”
There were five Van Varseveld siblings: Martin, George, Johan (Jack), Francois (Frank), and Anna, along with their parents Jan and Anna. (Several family members dropped the Van and just went by Varseveld.)
The family emigrated from Holland to England in the 1890s, and then to Canada in 1904. They came to Fruitvale in May 1911 from Port Arthur, Ont., where they operated a mill that burned down after being struck by lightning. (The same seller who offered the Varseveld Fruitvale cards sold a 1904 postcard of the family farm in Port Arthur for $62 Cdn plus 16 family photos, also taken in Port Arthur, for $13.50 Cdn.)
“Down east the timber was much shorter,” Frank Varseveld recalled in a 1978 interview. “We heard stories from people who had visited here of the tremendous long timber. So we got curious.”
Eldest brothers Martin and George came west on reconnaissance, first checking out an area near Ymir. They found it too steep, so next went to Fruitvale, where they bought timber limits from the Great Northern Railway. They initially cut railway ties, worked on a new Kelly Creek bridge and built a church basement (more on that below) before erecting a sawmill on Beaver Creek, using machinery from Reilly, Ont.
The mill was first mentioned in the Nelson Daily News of Nov. 17, 1911:
Varseveld Bros. are busy getting in the preliminary work for their sawmill, which will be working next spring. During the fall they have cleared a large tract of land on the bank of Beaver creek near Kootenay Avenue bridge and are now well on with the foundations for the erection of the buildings in which the machinery will be installed.
(While the office was near the corner of Kootenay Avenue and Beaver Street, the mill itself was a block to the west, on Laurier Avenue.)
There had been an Anglican congregation at Fruitvale since 1908, but it took several years to raise enough money to build the church and complete construction. The Varsevelds were awarded a contract for the basement in September 1911, but work was halted due to cold weather and didn’t resume until late March 1912 using volunteer labour.
The building was sufficiently ready that the first service was held May 19, 1912, but it was not officially dedicated until Nov. 20, 1913. The building was used until April 28, 1963 when it was closed and torn down, replaced with a new, much larger church on the same site. This church in turn was used until being deconsecrated on Oct. 2, 2019. It’s now for sale.
As for the bridge, which looks quite steep, it may or may not have been the one referred to in the Nelson Daily News of Oct. 3, 1912: “A fine new bridge, 260 feet long and 16 feet wide has just been constructed over the Beaver and replaces the old structure adjacent to the Hyslop ranch. This is the third bridge put in at the cost of the provincial government during the last year.”
I don’t know how long the bridge was there, but by 1967, it had been replaced with a footbridge and set of stairs, which were pictured in Cominco Magazine alongside the same postcard seen above.
But in the fall of 2002, the stairs were removed and the bridge was closed, much to the dismay of locals.
Then-mayor Libby Nelson explained that village council felt they attracted an “unhealthy mix of young adults and very young teens.” After protests from residents, the footbridge reopened, but I don’t know when — at a glance, I could only narrow it to sometime between 2003 and 2013.
The next card, which sold for $109 Cdn, is a great shot of the Varseveld mill and log yard.
Frank wrote the message on the back on Dec. 19, 1912. It reads: “Dear Brother and family, Our best wishes for 1913. We hope you are all doing well. We also suffer from arthritis. Find enclosed a picture of the sawmill. This is a view of the log yard, alongside Beaver Creek. Letter to follow. Greetings from home to home. Frits Van V.”
Here’s another view of the mill that sold for $90 Cdn. The X marks the jack ladder, and the numbers helpfully identify 1) Martin, 2) George, and 3) Jack Van Varseveld.
The message says: “The back of the sawmill on this side of the creek. The logs go through the water where the sand and little rocks get washed off to avoid breaking the teeth of the saw. X ‘Jack’ ladder to get the logs on the ‘rollway’ for the saw.”
The Varseveld mill operated on Beaver Creek for less than four years before it was moved to the brothers’ timber limits at the head of Kelly Creek in the winter of 1915-16. Frank recalled they had a hard time over the next few years.
“We had some bad accounts. We’d send out a car and wouldn’t get paid for it. We had quite a struggle … In the meantime we had to have some kind of money to pay off our debts. I went to the Prairies to sell lumber.”
I’m not positive when the mill was finally silenced, but it was last listed as a going concern in the 1923 civic directory. That year the brothers advertised the mill and 1,280 ares of timberland for sale.
By 1932, Frank was working for the Pacific Lumber Inspection Bureau in Vancouver when he decided to return to Fruitvale and try the sawmill game again. But he’d go it alone, as by now brother Martin had moved to Nelson to become manager of the Nelson and District United Farmers Co-op Association — which later became Nelson and District Farmers’ Supply. George was in Trail running a machine shop. Jack died in 1917, after a short illness, only 36.
“I got the thing started up by myself; it was a bit of pride,” Frank remembered. Of the original mill, only one thing remained: “Although the old steam plant was there, it was too big of a job to get it going. It’s been idle for many years. So I started with a portable, a gas engine. I worked it for about two or three years. Then I got electricity in. I improved the mill and I cut quite a bit of timber up there. But I got a fire that wiped the whole thing out!”
For six months, Frank was sick to his stomach. He had no insurance. He rebuilt his mill downtown, but by this time had hurt his back and wasn’t able to do much work. He eventually sold the operation to Atle Nelson, who ran it for a few more years. The last mention I can find of it is from 1960.
Frank also ran F.A. Varseveld lumber supply and hardware in Fruitvale. Oddly, however, there is no street, creek, nor other geographic feature named after the family.
The old Varseveld mill boiler was still in the bush at Kelly Creek as of 1967. It later became one of the centrepieces of Don Endersby’s Valley Museum at Meadows Junction, displayed immediately alongside Ross Spur-Erie Road. Although the collection was auctioned off in 2017, the boiler remains on the farm, awaiting relocation to Salmo to join an outdoor display of mining artifacts.
Of the remaining Van Varsevelds who originally settled at Fruitvale, patriarch Jan died in 1931 and his wife Anna in 1919; Martin died in 1941, survived by his wife Mary and four children; George also died in 1941, survived by wife Ann and three children; and Anna married Albert Bath and had eight children. She died in 1984.
Frank outlived them all. He died in Richmond in 1991, age 101, survived by his wife and son.
The next postcard, which fetched $77.76 Cdn, has an image of Main Street I have not seen elsewhere. We can date it fairly precisely because it depicts the present Country Roads store, built in 1934 (the two-storey building at centre) but not the present Fruitvale Hotel built next door in 1935 (partly on the site of the original hotel, which burned down in 1916).
Also visible are the H.C. Davis store and gas station at far left and the South Kootenay Farmers Co-Operative Association at right.
The last card, which sold for $46 US, shows the Muir ranch sometime between 1908 and 1913.
This image was taken by a mystery photographer whose identity I have been chasing for years without luck. In 1916, W.W. Krammer sold both Muir and Home ranches to Fred and Lillian Barrett of Rocanville, Sask. The Barretts lived in Fruitvale the rest of their lives — Lillian died in 1959 and Fred in 1963. As of 1951, their farm, east of town, was operated by their son Victor.
— Updated on Sept. 10, 2020 to add translations of the Dutch messages on the postcards, for which I am indebted to Eric and Bouk Schaap, and to Mark Forsythe for forwarding this post to them.