Bill Barlee quit a good teaching job to become a writer. In 1969, he launched a history magazine called Canada West. It had just seven paid subscribers.
The magazine was produced on a typewriter with covers illustrated by Old West typography. Mr. Barlee’s articles included such titles as Beaver Tokens, Abandoned Bluebell, and Gold Pool of the Similkameen. It sold for 75 cents. He refused to mail copies to the United States, because he felt rapacious Americans were pillaging British Columbia’s historic sites.
The magazine allowed Mr. Barlee to share with readers his great passion for the province, its people and its history.
He wrote popular history books and appeared on a long-running television show before winning election to the provincial legislature. As tourism minister, he helped preserve the Kettle Valley Steam Railway, correctly figuring it would make a spectacular attraction for the Okanagan. The province has had some good tourism ministers – it is not the world’s toughest sell – and Mr. Barlee might have been the best.
Over the holiday weekend, his family announced his death earlier in June. He had been sick for several years, disappearing from public view, a storyteller silenced by a cruel disease.
A marvellous raconteur, Mr. Barlee spun true tales of British Columbia’s wild past on Gold Trails and Ghost Towns, a television program that aired for more than a decade. A distinctly low-budget affair, shot on a set featuring jugs, lanterns, a bear skin and other bric-a-brac salvaged over the years, the program featured host Mike Roberts interviewing Mr. Barlee, who spoke eloquently and off-the-cuff about fortunes won and lost by forgotten characters of the gold rush.
A similar spirit fuelled Mr. Barlee’s self-published book, Gold Creeks and Ghost Towns, which sold an astonishing 100,000 copies over the years, not the least because Mr. Barlee seemed to travel everywhere with books for sale in the trunk of his car. Mr. Barlee held claims of his own and taught his daughters to gold pan. He released a book on gold-panning techniques just as the rising price of the mineral infected others with gold fever.
He came by his own gold lust as a birthright – his grandfather had been a Klondike prospector. Born in Grand Forks in the Depression year of 1932, Neville Langrell, whose father called him Bill, was raised in Rossland, later moving to the Okanagan, where he became a popular teacher at Penticton High. He coached track and basketball, and once wound up in the principal’s office with a student after she met his challenge one morning to ride to school on her horse.
He wandered the back roads with his trusty metal detector in tow, seeking to explore forgotten mines and abandoned hamlets. His daughter, Gwen Barlee, today the policy director for the Wilderness Committee, remembers scavenging for coins beneath the weather-beaten boardwalks of Sandon, once a silver boom town of 10,000 reduced to a few derelict buildings.
One of Mr. Barlee’s great finds was the papers of John Morgan Harris, known as The Virginian, who found the silver vein at Sandon. Mr. Barlee bought the documents from the widow, whose plan it had been to burn them. (Her animosity might have been fuelled by her discovery that he had bequeathed her precisely $1.)
Mr. Barlee also bought banker’s notebooks, mining-company papers, ledger books maintained by Chinese-Canadian merchants, and other invaluable documents that might otherwise have been destroyed. Some of these are now held by the University of British Columbia.
He amassed a spectacular collection of more than 15,000 artifacts, some of which were displayed in Penticton at an attraction known as Bill Barlee’s Museum of the Old West. Pieces can be found in museums throughout the province. For years, he employed a watchmen to protect Sandon.
Kathleen Barlee remembers purchasing with her husband a small cannon. As they carried the prize from a dealer’s shop one day in the late 1960s, she asked him how much it had cost.
“Four-fifty,” he said.
“That’s a good price,” she said. “Four dollars and fifty cents.”
“No,” he replied. “Four-hundred and fifty dollars.”
Mr. Barlee considered himself “an entrepreneur with a social conscience.” He contested a 1988 by-election in a seat that had been held by Social Credit for decades. Outspent 2-to-1, Mr. Barlee upset the political landscape by winning. The riding of Boundary-Similkameen going NDP was as shocking as if the Vatican decided to go Protestant.
He won re-election and served as a cabinet minister, launching the successful Buy B.C. campaign, a joint marketing initiative by government and private industry for agriculture.
He lost his seat by 27 votes in the closest race in the close 1996 election. Four years later, he ran unsuccessfully for the a seat in Parliament as a Liberal. He and his wife, who holds a masters degree in archival studies, then retired to Victoria.
For all the gold he panned, for all the artifacts he preserved, for all the stories he unearthed, the feeling among those who care about B.C. history was that Bill Barlee was the real treasure.
Special to The Globe and Mail