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Mattie Gunterman and the Williams sisters

Updated: Apr 1, 2018

The photo below is probably the second most-reproduced image ever taken in West Kootenay (next to R.H. Trueman’s vertigo-inducing shot of a train stopped at Payne Bluff on the Kaslo and Slocan Railway).

This early selfie shows photographer Mattie Gunterman being punished for some transgression at the Nettie L cookhouse near Ferguson by sisters Annie and Rose Williams, ca. 1903. It has appeared in numerous books and magazines since it was first published in Bruce Ramsey’s Ghost Towns of British Columbia in 1963. (Ramsey was there when the glass plate negative was salvaged from a barn in Beaton in July 1961. It’s now held by the Vancouver Public Library.)

Mattie Gunterman (on stove) and Ann and Rose Williams, Nettie L mine cookhouse, Ferguson, ca. 1903. (Vancouver Public Library 2276)

At the turn of the 20th century, portraits were usually stiffly posed and subjects showed no emotion or frowned (smiling was either illegal until the 1920s or hadn’t been invented yet). So humorous images from that era are something of a revelation.

Gunterman and her amazing pictures of life in the Lardeau are the subject of my favourite West Kootenay history book, Flapjacks and Photographs, by Henri Robideau. Two short films have also been made about her in recent years that you can watch online. The first, by Nelson’s Amy Bohigian, was part of the Dreamers and Dissidents series for the Knowledge Network:

The second is a segment of BC is Awesome, wherein Bob Kronbauer tries to recreate some of Gunterman’s photos: (You get to see what the original negatives look like — including the famous stove shot.)

But while Mattie Gunterman has been justly celebrated, I was curious about the Williams sisters, who appear in several shots and have an interesting story of their own. They were born in Dalton-in-Furness, Lancashire, England to William Williams, a Welsh miner, and Jane Curry of Cornwall.

Less than two years separated them: Ann Jane was born Oct. 15, 1885 and Rose Ellen on Sept. 6, 1887. According to Just Where is Edgewood, p. 231-34, the family immigrated to the United States while the girls were toddlers. They had two brothers, Alfred, born in 1890 in Colorado, and Bill Jr., born in 1892 in Wakefield, Mich.

“The altitude of the mining camps [in Colorado] didn’t agree with the family’s health, so the young parents packed up lock, stock, and barrel, and moved to Rossland,” the book says. “They had just nicely settled down when Mr. Williams heard of mining possibilities at Burton City on the Arrow Lakes.”

In October 1897, the family landed at Burton, where the Williams siblings were the settlement’s first children. Bill Sr. began placer mining while Jane cooked at the Kootenay Hotel, one of three such establishments in Burton.

Rose Williams, date unknown. (Arrow Lakes Historical Society 2016-013-10-75)

Again from Just Where is Edgewood: “The first Christmas spent in Burton, little Rose really believed that Santa Claus had brought a present for her on his southward trip on the sternwheeler the day before.”

In February 1898, while Bill worked at the Chieftain mine, the rest of the family moved to Mineral City, about seven miles up Cariboo Creek. Although still being promoted as a coming mining town, its brief heyday had already passed.

Driving there by horses and sleigh they found they were to live in an uninhabited huge log hotel, which had been used for only a few months. There were nine bedrooms upstairs and two downstairs, plus a dining room, kitchen, and bar room.

(The book doesn’t make it sound like they actually operated the hotel, but Clark Marshall, in Whistle Stops Along the Columbia Narrows, p. 44 suggests they did.)

The kids loved it, but not their mother, who left a light burning all night to discourage them wolves from coming through the windows. The hotel was already home to mice and weasels. On weekends, Bill set mouse traps, and once they were gone, so were the weasels.

The children loved to explore in the abandoned buildings and one day they came home with a beautiful red corset, which their mother quickly took away and threw in the stove … 
The children spent most of their time in the spring, summer and fall playing at mining. They panned gold and actually found colour in the pan …
Two Christmases were spent in this solitude, where Mrs. Williams made the traditional egg-nog and plum puddings. The family didn’t have a Christmas tree, just stockings hanging at the foot of each child’s bed. Times were hard, but the children were always delighted to find a small gift along with oranges, nuts, and candies.

In 1900, the family moved again to Edgewood, first to a shack on the Scaia brothers’ property, and then to the Dairy Ranch. The book doesn’t mention the sisters working as Mattie Gunterman’s flunkies at the Nettle L cookhouse, but it must have been around this time.

The Williams family ran the Edgewood post office from 1903-09. From the ranch, Rose rode horseback to pick up the mail from the sternwheeler landing. It was during this time that she met her future husband, Walter Wright, then a mate on the lake boats, but soon to be a captain. They married in Nelson on Oct. 15, 1912 and settled in Nakusp. Walter was 33 and Rose was 25.

Capt. Walter Wright and Rose Williams married in October 1912.

(Arrow Lakes Historical Society 2016-013-10-76)

Annie, meanwhile, met a miner named Jack Ennest. According to Milton Parent’s Port of Nakusp, p. 168, Ennest co-discovered the Oyster-Criterion mine, one of the major producers in the area. He used part of his earnings to build the Hotel Criterion in Camborne where Annie and Rose waited on tables.

Annie and Jack married in Victoria on Oct. 7, 1905. He was 36 and she was 20. Their return to the area was described in the Camborne Miner, as quoted by Parent in Circle of Silver, p. 182-83:

Jack Ennest arrived from the coast a few days ago bringing with him a bride who prior to the marriage was Miss Annie Williams. As soon as it became known that the newly married couple were in town, the members of the tin can brigade held a hasty consultation, and gathering the various instruments from the many places where they had been thrown after the last demonstration, the brigade repaired to the Hotel Criterion and commenced playing a tattoo that would have done justice to a Chinese celebration. Just as the brigade was working up to the final movement of the tattoo, the bridegroom appeared bringing with him the “necessary wherewithal” which caused immediate suspension of operations. Ordering “the best in the house” the health of the bride and groom was drunk once, twice, thrice, aye so often that keeping count was out of the question, and some of the celebrants became so filled with joy that one would have thought they were the “lucky fellow” instead of being “the other fellow.” Next morning all that remained to mark the scene of the previous evening’s merrymaking was a pile of empty cans. Mr. Ennest upheld his reputation as a “jolly good fellow,” and we wish him and his bride all kinds of luck and trust that all their troubles will be little ones.

They moved east in early 1906. Their first son, Ernest William Alfred, was born on April 30 of that year in Nipissing, Ont. This portrait of Annie holding him appears in Circle of Silver.

Annie and Bill Ennest. (Arrow Lakes Historical Society/

Milt Parent collection H30-01-05)

A second son, Francis (Frank), was born in January 1908 in Nelson. The 1911 census shows the family back in Nipissing, where Jack was a prospector. Although Just Where is Edgewood says Annie was widowed in the next few years, in fact she and Jack separated. Family trees at suggest he died in 1937 somewhere in BC, but the death was not registered.

In any case, Annie became a cook at Shaughnessy Military Hospital in Vancouver, and in 1918 met Fred Stevenson, a soldier nine years her elder. He had served in the merchant navy and US marines, and during World War I was a quartermaster in the Canadian army. They married on Feb. 18, 1919 in West Point Grey. On the registration, rather than listing herself as divorced, Annie put “spinster.”

They moved back to Edgewood, where Fred became manager of W.J. Banting’s store. In 1924, they returned to Vancouver where Fred became an accountant. They moved to Nakusp in 1946, where Fred ran his own business. He died there in 1956, age 80. Rose Wright’s husband Walter, meanwhile, died in 1947.

In 2008, Margaret Williams, who married their brother Alfred, told me Rose was “a wonderful person. A good sister-in-law. Ann was too, but she and her husband lived up the coast most of the time, so I didn’t see her that often. The sisters were different looking and different characters. Rose was always in the water like her husband. In the summer holidays we used to go up to Lightning Peak country, up in the mountains. Rose liked playing bridge.”

Ann Ennest and Rose Williams with Ann’s son Bill, early 1910s.

(Arrow Lakes Historical Society 2016-013-10-71)

In 1958, the two sisters moved to Nelson for the winter, finding a suite at the Terrace apartments on Vernon Street. They planned to return to Nakusp in the spring, but Ann took ill and died on March 6, 1959, age 73. Her cremains were buried in the Edgewood cemetery in the same plot as her husband.

Ann didn’t live to see herself immortalized by the rediscovery of Mattie Gunterman’s photos — but Rose did. She was surprised when Mattie’s photos were featured on a CBC TV program a few years later. The Vancouver Public Library has a copy of a letter she wrote to the producers.

Nelson BC
Jan. 29, 1963
Producers of Bazaar
Dear Sir –
Your programme Bazaar of last evening really took me back to the dim and shadowy past of 61 years ago where history almost loses itself in Legend. I was having dinner in the home of a friend when I suddenly heard the name of Gunterman. I was all ears.
Yes, Mattie Gunterman, as we called her, really was a wonderful photographer and a more wonderful person. All those pictures brought back many memories.
I remember Mrs. Gunterman taught my sister and I to dance the two-step which in that era was much more risque than the twist or mashed potato of today.
At the beginning of your program you requested anyone who recognized these pictures to write you, so as I am the little girl with the long black hair who is helping hold Mattie Gunterman on the big camp stove and my sister Ann Williams is on the left, these pictures were taken at the old Nettie L mine near Ferguson.
Mrs. Gunterman had a son Henry and I presume it is from him that these pictures came to you. I have many of these pictures in an old trunk in the attic of my former home at Nakusp.
They were really happy days! And I was so thrilled to live them again via your Bazaar programme.
Very truly,
Mrs. Rose Wright
302 Vernon St.
P.S. I have lived 65 of my 75 years here in the West Kootenay and have loved every day. My late husband Capt. Walter Wright was for 46 years on the boats on the Inland Lake and River Service of CPR.

Rose eventually moved to Willowhaven private hospital at Willow Point, where she died on Nov. 20, 1974, age 87. Her cremains were buried in the Edgewood cemetery. She had no children but was survived by her brother Bill and three nephews.

Ann’s two sons have both since died. Bill Ennest was raised by grandparents after his parents separated. He worked on the SS Minto in 1922, left Nakusp for a while, then returned for a second stint on the Minto in the 1940s. He was also a provincial park warden. He and wife Vera Laidlaw had five daughters. He passed away in Powell River in 1996, age 90. Frank Ennest had no children of his own, but his wife had children from a previous marriage. I don’t know where or when he died.

The Williams family at Edgewood, early 1910s. Top row, from left: Ann Ennest (nee Williams), Jane Williams, Alfred Williams. Bottom row from left: Bill Williams, Frank Ennest, Bill Ennest, Rose Williams.

(Arrow Lakes Historical Society 2016-013-10-68)

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Henry Gunterman
Henry Gunterman
Feb 15, 2020

A very nice memory of the Sisters that my grandfather, Henry and father, Avery spoke about fondly. Henry Gunterman

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