Preserving history

🕔Jul 24, 2007

When Betty Dalzell of Port Clements first set out to research the history of the Queen Charlotte Islands, she gave herself eight months.
She planned to talk with the early settlers, people who, like her mother and father, came to the islands in the early 1900s to live a dream. She knew she had to hurry. It was the 1960s and already a pioneer who encouraged Dalzell to get on with the task had died. Many others who had settled the small communities dotting the archipelago were well into their eighties at the time.
Her father, Trevor Williams, was a key source. He came from an era when people kept daily diaries, says Dalzell, and since he was still around to help decipher the unique shorthand he used, she realized she’d found a window into another world. Other pioneers like Charlie Hartie and Sybil DeBucy took her in hand, providing details, photos and even personal introductions.
With the research in hand, the budding author figured writing would take another couple of months and then—voila!—she would have a book.
But pioneers had moved on and she was force to trek as far as Vancouver and Victoria to track some of them down. And then there was the Haida history. Early on, Dalzell decided this was essential to include, so she searched for information on this as well.
Five years and mountains of notes later, she finally completed The Queen Charlotte Islands—1774-1966, the first of three local history books she would write. But it didn’t get any easier, said Dalzell, now 88. Each book consumed five years of her life, with a gap of 15 years between the first two and her last.
There were other hurdles. At the time, publishers—along with others, like archivists, anthropologists and historians—didn’t expect a woman to do this type of work, so she faced a lot of prejudice.
Then there was the subject of schooling. When anyone would ask her which university she went to, Dalzell would quickly change the subject. “You didn’t write histories unless there were 15 letters after your name,” she said, never admitting at the time that Grade 8 was as far as the Depression-era school system on the Queen Charlottes could take her.
Schooled or not, once Dalzell got started, she went about the history-gathering with an energy that eventually even the archivist at the BC Archives in Victoria couldn’t dismiss. He realized she was actually doing something important for the islands.

Stories yet to be told

Howard White of Harbour Publishing—a company that has focused on publishing local histories since the early 1970s—says the work that Dalzell and others like her have produced is invaluable.
“There are only a few who realize you’ve got to get the information on the record when you can, and then set about to do so,” says White, who began his own journey into gathering local history with Raincoast Chronicles, a journal that immortalized tales of the logging, fishing and cannery camps of the BC coast. Since then his company has published more than 500 books, and the richness of the stories yet to be told always astounds him.
When he and his wife first hung the Harbour Publishing shingle, he was inundated with manuscripts and memoirs about the history of BC. He can’t publish everything that crosses his desk—some has little commercial viability—but every self-published memoir and family history belongs in some kind of permanent local archive, he says. Many communities have libraries, museums or other historical societies that will keep a copy of the document on file for future researchers.
All communities have a self-designated collector, says White, someone whose house is stuffed with old newspapers, photos, and records of the local mine or cannery. Some things make it to book form and others may not, but all of it is valuable. “There is no corner of history that is so obscure it is not worth preserving,” he says. “No efforts are wasted: every bit becomes a shining beacon in later times.”
Yvonne Moen in Terrace is motivated by the history of her community too. She got started in 1988 with a column in the local newspaper, The Terrace Standard. In the course of her work, she interviewed a lot of local pioneers and realized many of their stories would be lost if she didn’t do more.
She got involved with the Terrace Regional Historical Society and that led to work helping Norma Bennett, who’d spent 20 years collecting newspaper articles from before 1920, gather her materials into two books: Pioneer Legacy: Chronicles of the Lower Skeena, Vol. 1 and 2, both of which sold like hotcakes and raised enough money to help buy equipment for Terrace’s R.E.M. Lee Hospital.
Moen, along with a group of other community volunteers, also set about to clean up and restore an old cemetery in Kitsumkalum where many pioneer families were buried. Now all of the names of those interred are recorded along with the dates when they died. She is also hoping to find a story about each of the personalities, so even though the settlers are long gone, they can help bring the town’s history alive again. To this end, Moen and others offer a tour of the graveyard and a special service during Riverboat Days (Aug 3-13 this year).
Next came a project with the Terrace Public Library, which houses a website of oral histories and historical stories that people from around the world can access.
At 73, Moen doesn’t have a job she goes to every day, but working on local history and numerous other volunteer projects keeps her occupied full-time.
And the rewards aren’t just for the sake of the community record. Both Dalzell and Moen talk about how rewarding history-collecting has been for them, too, and what an honour it was to talk with the pioneers in their communities.
Forty years later, Dalzell is still amazed at the magnitude of what she accomplished. “I was green as grass and here they were trusting me with their stories,” she says with a smile. Now she just hopes someone else will pick up the reigns.

Tips from the experts

• Don’t bother with tape recorders, say Dalzell and Moen both. The infernal machines inhibit the tales people will tell, and they can fail. If by mistake a recorder isn’t turned on, and no notes are taken, an entire half hour of stories can be lost.
• Get started now. “Sometimes I only had the one chance at them. By the time I went back, they were gone,” says Dalzell.
• Don’t include the bedroom scandals. Dalzell says writing about a neighbour’s affair potentially hurts family members later, and these stories have little real impact on the important historical events of a community.
• Get old-timers together and bring pictures to stimulate their memories. “They feed off each other,” says Dalzell.
• Think about self-publishing. Although a province-wide publisher may not see any commercial potential in your local history book, it might become a bestseller in the community. Dalzell found her initial investor in a pioneering businessman who was a friend of her father’s.
• Preserve, preserve, preserve! Get copies of important papers to the local archives or museum. The Museum of Northern BC in Prince Rupert and UNBC in Prince George are both regional repositories that could help find the right home for your work.