For more than 50 years church bells have echoed at various intervals in the day across Williams Lake, a thank you gift from the owners of the Alkali Lake Ranch in 1967.
“We wanted to do something to show these lovely people how grateful we were for the lives we had lived in the Cariboo just outside of Williams Lake,” said Myra von Riedemann from the home she shares with her sister Sophie von Riedemann on a farm between Chilliwack and Hope.
Myra said along with their brother Martin they purchased the bells for Sacred Heart Catholic Church to show their gratitude to God and the Cariboo community for their friendship and support.
Originally from Austria, the von Riedemann children and their parents Mario and Elizabeth emigrated to Canada in 1938. Mario’s father Henrich von Riedemann bought the Alkali Lake Ranch for his son in 1939 from then owner Charles Wynn Johnson, who had purchased it in 1909.
Established in the mid 1860s, Alkali Lake Ranch is believed to be the oldest cattle ranch in B.C.
“Our grandfather was a businessman and he lived and retired in Vancouver,” Myra recalled. “We were farming people so we didn’t stay long in Vancouver after we got there. Our parents went off and hunted for a place and found Alkali Lake. We became very good friends with Mr. Wynn Johnson.”
Henry had a big house built on the ranch for his son’s family, which included a room for Henry to stay in when he visited the ranch once a year from Vancouver to ‘make sure his son was doing a good job.’
There was a large children’s playroom in the house where the von Riedemann children were homeschooled by a friend of the family, also from Austria. “We had our little desks in there and did our studies,” Myra recalled.
In 1963, Martin bought the ranch from his dad and eventually Mario and Elizabeth retired to Vancouver/Switzerland.
Tragically during an annual Halloween cookout and fireworks display in 1975 with people from the nearby First Nations community of Alkali Lake (Esk’et today), Martin died from hypothermia after a boat mishap on Alkali Lake.
He had gone out in a boat to launch fireworks from the lake and by the time he finished a strong wind was blowing and the boat capsized. He was in the frigid water for more than an hour. Alkali Lake School principal John Rathjen, 29, also drowned during the incident.
At the time of his death, Martin had a young wife, Rebecca. They had been married a little over a year. Their baby was born after his death. Myra said they sold the ranch in 1977 to Doug and Marie Mervyn because it would have been difficult to manage it without Martin. The Mervyns owned the ranch until it was sold to the Douglas Lake Cattle Company in 2008.
Sacred Heart Church secretary Cathy Hohmann located a receipt and some correspondence about the original purchase of the bells that showed they were manufactured by Schulmerich Carillons Inc. of Pennsylvania.
About the bells
In total, the four bronze electromechanical stationary bells cost the von Riedemanns $8,400. The ‘A’ note bell weighed 164 pounds, the ‘G’ note weighed 208 pounds, the ‘F’ note weighed 288-and-a-half pounds and the ‘C’ note weighed 633-and-a-half pounds.
Writing to Rev. M. Joe Murphy, pastor of Sacred Heart Church at the time, John S. Nelson, district manager for Schulmerich Carillons Inc. in Calgary, indicated in a letter dated July 12, 1967 that the company was having a small bell made in a foundry in Holland with the name of the church on the bottom rim to be presented to the donors.
“It is more or less a dinner bell, but it will be a nice remembrance for the donor,” Nelson noted. Responding Rev. Murphy stated he was sure the donors would be pleased with the souvenir bell. “Incidentally, they have paid us a special visit and are delighted with the quality of the bells as well as the tower structure, which, as you know, is quite unique but most fitting for our surroundings,” Murphy noted.
The souvenir bell sits in a glass cabinet in Myra and Sophie’s living room and will probably be passed on to the next generation, Myra said and asked if there are still some yellow roses growing beneath the bells as she planted them herself in 1967. Wynn Johnson was a big gardener and gave their mom some yellow roses to plant around the big house at the ranch.
“We planted them at the base of the bells to remind us of Mr. Wynn Johnson,” she recalled.
Bronc and Liz Twan lived at the Alkali Lake Ranch for 38 years. Bronc had grown up at the ranch with his parents, Bill and Margaret (Jock) Twan. Bronc worked there from the age of 18 to his retirement at 65, and never missed a paycheque.
Liz said the Riedemann sisters also donated $500,000 to the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association, which was a huge surprise to everyone.
When pressed about that gift, Myra said she and her sister made the donation after they came into some inheritance. “Again we felt we needed to give back for what the Cariboo had given us. We called it ‘camel fest’ and donated.” Camel fest was a Bible reference where the camels came in carrying all of their goodies, she explained. “We said, ‘honestly we didn’t need the money, and let’s put it back where we got our greatest experiences.’”
At the time of Martin’s death, he was the vice-president of the BC Cattlemen’s Association (BCCA), and the association started a bursary fund in his memory for students studying agriculture.
When Myra and Sophie received the inheritance they asked BCCA to ‘dump’ it into the Martin Riedemann fund to use it for needy Cariboo kids.
“We are still very connected with the Cariboo. That was home and it still is,” Myra said. “Enjoy it while you can, it’s a good place to be.” Myra said their late brother Karl, who was a businessman in Vancouver, died two years ago. “Karl was always a city boy, but Martin, Sophie and I were the country kids.”
The oldest cattle ranch in British Columbia
By Liz Twan
Alkali Lake Ranch lies along the original river trail that made its way through the Cariboo to the goldfields of Barkerville, B.C. Herman Otto Bowe, a fellow of German decent, and his partner John Koster established the ranch in the mid-1800s. Bowe and Koster married local girls (sisters), and raised families.
Young Henry Koster and Johnny Bowe eventually became responsible for the running of the ranch. In 1909 they sold out to an Englishman, Charles Wynn Johnson. Charles Wynn Johnson was responsible for yet more land acquisitions, the ranch increased in size considerably during his years of ownership.
Several years of disastrous drought and extremely low cattle prices put Wynn Johnson in difficult financial straits and he ended up selling the ranch in 1939 to a young man he had met in Vancouver, Mario von Riedemann. The von Riedemann family consolidated yet more land by making purchases of surrounding ranches/ acreages over the years and at one point in history Alkali Lake Ranch was purported to be the third largest ranch in Canada in terms of deeded acres. Kelowna businessman Doug Mervyn and his family purchased the ranch in 1977.
Bill Twan was the manager for Doug and Marie for the first year and half; then he decided to retire and move to town. His son, Bronc was the cowboss; who moved into the manager’s position within a few years, remaining until his retirement in 2016. In 2008, Douglas Lake Cattle Company purchased the ranch from the Mervyns.