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Bill Barlee, pioneer

July 19th, 2012

Bill Barlee: 1932-2012

“Bill Barlee, was a nugget, pure gold, remarkable in more ways than can be described.”
— Randy Manuel, illustrator and former Penticton museum director.

“If any recent B.C. politician deserves a historical plaque, it would be him. Given how he knew, loved and chronicled so many places in this province, the hard part would be deciding where to put it.” — Vaughn Palmer, Vancouver Sun

Neville Langrell (Bill) Barlee was one of the foremost historians of the B.C. Interior and an inspiring force in the evolution of B.C. publishing.

A former trail high school teacher who became a publishing pioneer, Bill Barlee was born in Grand Forks in 1932 and partially raised in Rossland.

“My paternal grandfather went up north for the Klondike Gold Rush,” said Barlee, “And my maternal grandfather owned a general store in Cascade City, which is now a ghost town. I guess that partly explains, why I’ve been so interested in history.”

Self-described as a descendant of Canadian pioneer writer Susanna Moodie and a distant relative of Margaret Atwood, Barlee first entered the writing game when he published 6,000 copies of Similkameen, Pictograph Country in 1963.

After selling out his print run with the help of his own roving sales trips (he loved to drive around the backroads with a trunk load of his books), Barlee produced local history titles such as Gold Creeks and Ghost Towns, A Guide to Gold Panning and West Kootenay: Ghost Town Country.

Authordom encouraged Barlee to leave his teaching career and establish Canada West Magazine in 1976. In its first few years, the magazine reputedly grew from a subscription base of 36 people to more than 1600. Early issues of this quarterly publication about B.C. history are now collector’s items. The magazine was eventually sold to publisher Garnet Basque.

Barlee was an intrepid collector of historical artefacts related to B.C. and the Yukon for much of his life. Private investors were once interested in a scheme to build a museum in Penticton to house Barlee’s collection, during which time Barlee stored his prized artefacts in at least five different secret locations.

In a 1988 by-election, Bill Barlee was first elected as an NDP MLA in the traditionally conservative riding of Boundary-Similkameen.

As a self-described ‘moderate New Democrat’ and ‘an entrepreneur with a social conscience,’ Barlee was able to draw votes away from other parties with his local reputation as an author and as a popular teacher of gold panning classes.
As B.C. Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food from 1991 to 1993, Barlee introduced the “Buy B.C.” campaign, resulting a Buy B.C. logo that appears on food products from B.C. He also served as the provincial Minister of Small Business, Tourism, Culture and Film in British Columbia, 1993-1996 within the NDP government of Mike Harcourt, during which time he successfully advocated for the restoration of many historical provincial sites, including the Kettle Valley Railway.

Mainly known as N.L. Barlee as an author and editor, he published under the name Bill Barlee for his Canada West series.

With Barlee always dressed in his “Canadian Tuxedo” consisting of a denim jacket, Barlee was the lone interview guest for a long-running B.C. history program for Kelowna’s CHBC-TV called Gold Trails and Ghost Towns, hosted by interviewer Mike Roberts. It ran from 1986 to 1996, on five different networks, and continues in re-runs on various channels.

“He was a wonderful writer,” says Roberts. “You can hear his voice in his writing. But what always impressed me the most was the way he checked his sources. He used to tell me there are hundreds of great stories out there, but 99% of them are b.s. He wasn’t interested in just spinning yarns. He wanted to serve and preserve history.”

Barlee told Roberts his penchant for collecting stories arose at age six when he befriended an old ex-miner in Rossland. Some of Barlee’s extensive mining research collection is stored at UBC Rare Books and Special Collections. Samples of his valuable collection of more than 15,000 Old West artifacts, valued in the area of $1 million, have been shown on loan at the Museum of Civilization and other museums.

After he moved to Osoyoos from his long-time base of Kelowna, Barlee tried unsuccessfully to enter federal politics for the Liberal Party in the Kootenay-Boundary-Okanagan constituency in 2000.

“Basically he was a social democrat,” says Roberts. “He had quarrels with some aspects of the NDP and he had quarrels with the Liberals. But mainly he always wanted to help the little guy, people like farmers.”

Barlee was always keenly interested in preserving historical mining sites at small communities such as Sandon, Hedley, Beaverdale and Quesnel Forks.

Tributes to bill barlee’s career as a writer, historian and politician were numerous after he died in Victoria on June 14, 2012.

“I first met Bill, as a wide eyed 12-year-old,” says Randy Manuel of Penticton. “In 1959 he was my art and gym teacher, yet he still managed to hold us all in the palm of his hand with tales of British Columbia’s past. The most obnoxious student in any other class was held spellbound in Bill’s room. There were no ‘bad kids’ when Bill had control.

“Bill encouraged my drawing ability… the subject matter, of course, was always historical, no bowls of fruit, but artefacts from Bill’s western collection, thus tales could be told while the techniques of artistic style were learned.

“It was a pleasure to work with Bill in the creation of the Kettle Valley Steam Railway, The Mascot Mines at Hedley, and my favourite, the historic ships at Penticton, S.S. Sicamous, Naramata, Okanagan (stern saloon section) and the CN #6 tug, all now part of the Okanagan Inland Waters Marine Museum.

“I will always think of Bill Barlee, a nugget, a treasure in the life and times of British Columbia.”

Barlee was a catalyst for the growth of Sandhill Book Marketing of Kelowna, a successful book distribution company for independent authors such as himself, owned and operated by Nancy Wise.

It was Barlee’s Canada West Magazine that directly inspired Howard White to produce his own regional publication, Raincoast Chronicles, giving rise to Harbour Publishing, one of the foremost publishing houses of British Columbia.

Essay Date: 2012

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