The History of My Father Preston Charles Coates (1881–1960)

Hello! This is May 7, 1994 and a lovely spring day here in the South Okanagan – not a cloud in the sky. The flowers are blooming and the birds are singing and the garden is growing.

At the gentle, persistent urging of the family and well meaning encouragement from my good friend of 60 years, Dorothy, this may be the beginning of the Coates family history as I know and remember.

At the mature age of 85 (1994) and being a procrastinator, I must not delay too long if my knowledge of the family is to be recorded.

I will caption this, “The History of My Father Preston Charles Coates (1881 – 1960)”, with assorted ramblings.

My father was the son of John Ableson Coates, the oldest son of a family of five, three boys and two girls.

John Ableson, my grandfather, whom I knew and remember quite well moved from Ontario with his young family in the 1880's and filed on a pre-emption on Vancouver Island near Sandwich P .O. not far from Comox, which became absorbed by Comox in later years.

There were no schools in the area at the time so Grampa and Grandma were the family school teachers. I have one of the school books in my possession -it is a Latin text book "Invenalis Satirae" purchased from E. Galloway News Dealer in Vancouver second edition 1873. Grandfather's attractive signature is on the front page.

Latin was considered essential at that time. As there was no school available, my father was not able to attend school until the age of 14 but was a good student and was awarded the Governor General's medal for excellence in Latin.

Grandfather had been in the sawmill business in Ontario, the mill being burned down as told by one of my aunts. He was a short, stocky man. Strong, healthy, friendly and smoked a pipe. I admired him as a boy.

I became acquainted with him in Prince George about 1924. He was an outdoorsman, carpenter by trade, hunter, fisherman, trapper and interested in mining.

Eventually he died at the age of 83 in the mountains on Vancouver Island while searching for a fabulous mother lode. Grandma Coates died in Victoria about 1920 from heart problems.

I am not sure of how it was managed but my father attended the University of Toronto and graduated as a Civil Engineer in 1904. His first work in Ontario was in the rich silver mining area of Cobalt. He had some large samples of silver ore. He was married to Edith Kate Roper, eldest daughter of a large and well respected Baptist family in Toronto. He had met Mother in the College St. Baptist Church that the Roper family had founded. They were married on December 21, 1905, Mother was 32 years of age and father 24. This union produced 5 children - Jean, John, Preston, Kathleen and Winnifred.

Winn, Kay, Pat, Jack and Jean with Aunt Kathleen, 1936

My father is listed in one genealogy as an engineer, a scientist, a high school teacher and in later years a fruit rancher.

Upon coming to B.C. he was engaged in survey work in the Columbia Valley where I was born in 1909 at Golden. Surveying took him to various outlying areas, one of which was Lake Athabasca in Northern Alberta and Saskatchewan. The family admired the souvenirs he brought home from various trips such as ornamental snow shoes and beaded moccasins from Athabasca and large pieces of pure silver from Ontario. Answering the call of the west he bought a home in Victoria on Fernwood Road where he was engaged in survey work. -I remember him talking of his experiences on Quadra and Cortez Islands. He traveled by motor launch to remote areas and dealt with the native Indians. Mother accompanied him on some of these expeditions. Mother said she was nervous with a young family, as the Indians were often asking for tea and tobacco, and they were not to be trusted completely.

While in the Golden area he used pack horses to reach remote areas often camping in the mountains. His survey crew travelled by whatever way necessary to reach the survey sites. I have pictures of him with pack trains, and on snowshoes and rafting rivers. I remember him talking of the Canoe River and the Blaeberry. Much of this area is now under water. He was always interested in the outdoors and as a family we had some interesting trips fishing and while at the coast berry picking expeditions. His sister, Aunt Kathleen, accompanied us on some of these trips. There were plenty of raspberries and huckleberries, particularly in the logged off areas around Sooke. Old logging roads made hiking easy. Rusty donkey engines were not uncommon. Deer were plentiful and bear tracks kept everyone alert!

Most of our trips at the coast and in the Okanagan later were hiking trips. There were not many roads into the back country and not many cars either in the late twenties. .

About 1912 or 1913 the family moved to Victoria where father had an office and bought a house on Fernwood Road. His stationery reads: P.C. Coates, Dominion and British Columbia Land Surveyor; Timber Limits, Purchase Lands, Subdivisions, Mineral Claims.

About 1913 he purchased a lot, about half an acre, on Violet Avenue in the Saanich area. The inter-urban railway to Brentwood had just been completed. He built a nice home on the property and it was still in good condition when I visited there in 1992. Father was interested in agriculture and was happy having a nice jersey cow {where I learned to milk), pigs, chickens, a fox terrier dog to terrorize the rats, and a good vegetable garden. He also built a good grass tennis court where he entertained friends. A big event was the purchase of a Ford car about 1920, a special model with a one man top and no self-starter. We were driving on the left side of the road at that time.

I recall the move from Fernwood Road to Violet Avenue in Marigold, one of my earliest memories when I was about four years of age. The move was made on a wagon pulled by a team of horses, and filled with trunks and family possessions on a muddy road to a nearly finished house. One of my early memories was the teamster carrying me from the wagon to the board sidewalk at the gate.

The Marigold house was about 1 1/2 miles from town. Father rode a bicycle until acquiring the Ford car. When the Great War broke out in 1914 there apparently was a demand for school teachers. Father acquired a position at Victoria High School where he taught until 1923. As a result of a shuffle of teachers at Victoria High at that time he accepted a position as principal of a school in Prince George, B.C.

Prince George was a pioneer town and still is the hub of the north. I would estimate the population at seven or eight hundred at that time. Today it is 75,000. It was not unusual to see several canoes and Indians travelling on the Fraser River. They came to the house with a haunch of moose meat occasionally. During berry time, small bands moved through the district picking saskatoon berries and cranberries. You could hear wolves howling across the river on winter nights.

Roads were gravel with wooden sidewalks and plain wooden buildings. It was not unusual to see trappers with dog teams on Main Street during the winter. Winters were cold, wool socks, moccasins and mackinaw coats were the norm.

During the summer of 1924 father had an unfortunate accident. Wood was the usual fuel for heating the home in the cold winters. On a summer expedition, while cutting the winter supply of wood, he fell and injured his hip. The local doctor diagnosed it as a sprain. There were no X-rays there at that time. After a spell in bed he graduated to crutches and eventually a cane and continued teaching in the fall, but in much discomfort and pain -so the decision was made to move to a teaching position in Penticton for medical reasons where X-ray was available.

X-rays showed a piece of bone about two inches long had broken and his leg mended that much short. The bone had been absorbed causing the slight limp for the rest of his life. He was endowed with a strong body and a determination to carry on.

1926 was a great year in the annals of religion. The United Church was finally formed combining many Baptists, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Methodists. My father and mother were interested and quite active in the church. (the Methodist at that time) The principal of the Penticton High when my father taught was L.B. Boggs, who was a dedicated fundamentalist Baptist. The fact that my father was a scientist and a great convert of H.G. Wells caused some friction.

Father was a man of strong conviction and most people will agree today that he was right, but not his principal L.B. Boggs.

The South Okanagan Lands Project was getting a lot of publicity at that time and father was always interested in growing things and in agriculture generally. He did not have any trouble making up his mind. I was fifteen at the time and not enjoying school that much (three school moves), so when he asked me if I would go to Oliver and help get started I was flattered to be asked. One little piece of advice I will offer regarding education is that it is not fair to students and teachers to be related. Not father and son anyway.

Mr.E. W. Munch was a land agent for the B.C. Government and showed us around the Southern Okanagan Lands Project. Would that we were endowed with hindsight. Lot 164, about two miles south of Oliver was finally chosen, level ground, apparently good soil and adjacent to the highway. Living quarters the first summer were a tent and a future chicken shed until a small house was constructed. Water had to be carried from a neighbouring well. Strictly pioneer conditions, accepted with hope and faith in the future.

We cut wood for the winter, supplemented our diet with venison in the fall and pheasants were plentiful. It was not long before father had a good jersey cow, chickens, pigs and a good garden, so to some extent we were self supportive.

While waiting hopefully for the fruit trees to bear, we grew ground crops, tomatoes and cantaloupe. Summers were hot. There were no trees for shade and the water supply in the summer was irrigation water

Father took an active interest in the community, being one of the organizers and promoters of the Oliver Credit Union which has now assets of 80 million dollars. He and mother both took an active interest in the United Church. He also promoted and took an interest in the Oliver Co-op Store and the Co-op Packing House. He organized the first Boy Scout movement in Oliver with the assistance of R.O. (Bert) Hall.

Politically he was a staunch C.C.F.'er, (now N.D.P.), and he was very active locally in that party. There were many unemployed and precious little money in circulation. If you were very fortunate you could get a job at 30 cents per hour. He did some substitute teaching in Oliver and taught at Blakeburn near Princeton. While father was working I was left with the responsibility of the farm - caring for animals, irrigation, etc.

It did not take many years to realize that the family farm was in a frost pocket. Almost every spring fire pots were set out and loaded with briquets and kindling. Instruments recording temperature and humidity were of necessity watched and frost warnings were listened to each evening in the spring. With a north wind and a clear sky we would be up in the wee small hours ready to light up the fire pots to ward off the killing frosts.

At times several nights in a row the fire pots had to be re-filled and re-lit. Often the fruit blossoms were killed or damaged producing deformed and lower grade fruit. Some orchardists purchased property on ideal sites for air drainage while others unfortunately purchased in frost pockets and were at a distinct disadvantage. Some of this land should never have been sold for orchards.

Father had high hopes for his family and inspired his children with ambition and ideals in spite of the adverse conditions.

He looked to me for advice and help as the years went by. In 1960 I took over the place, paid off the government and settled with the family. I sold the place at the first opportunity -orcharding is not an easy way to make a living under the best circumstances.

How true is the saying "Behind every good man is a good woman"? Mother was a real martyr, deserving of much credit for the love and care of her family. A feat in itself, bearing and caring for five children and not married until the age of 32. Mother was much loved and admired by the family and neighbours. She was an accomplished piano player and loved to sing. She played the piano and organ at several of the churches that the family attended. Regular attendance at Sunday school and church was the accepted way when the family was young.

In the early days of their marriage they were on the move --northern Ontario, Columbia Valley, Salmon Arm, West Coast, etc. and living was under pioneer conditions. Some hesitation about telling this story -my father told me he ran 14 miles one night to visit mother. Which one of the family was the happy result?

Father told me he had a mastoid when young and was fortunate to survive, as many in those days did not. The family will all remember the episodes of his short temper, all of us bore the brunt of it at different times. Understanding Mother was the balance wheel and calmed the troubled waters.

Father became quite deaf and progressively worsened as the years went on. At the age of 70 he had an operation on the lower bowel, which was somewhat demoralizing. He was a student and great believer in the value and importance of good food, an interest that he passed on to the whole family.

After an adventurous life experiencing their share of trials, successes and tribulations they are together in the Oliver Cemetery where I visit from time to time and meditate on the vicissitudes of life.

<>I should identify myself, the writer of these pages --John Roper Coates; John from my grandfather; Roper from Mother's family name; Coates the family surname for six generations in Canada originating from the village of Kirk Ella seven miles west of Hull in the Yorkshire area of England.

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