Corky Williams has been one of the Cariboo’s more colourful characters and story tellers since first setting foot in the remote Chilcotin country back in 1971.
Now readers will have the opportunity to enjoy some of his stories and escapades in his new book, co-authored with Sage Birchwater, titled Corky Williams: Cowboy Poet of the Cariboo Chilcotin.
Originally from a ranching family in West Texas, Corky left the farm to attend Texas Tech University in Lubbock, to pursue a career in acting.
At Texas Tech he met his future wife, Jeanine. After their son, John, was born the family moved to Los Angeles for two years where Corky pursued an acting career.
A friend’s invitation to visit B.C. inspired them to make another move to the Chilcotin where they bought the Corkscrew Ranch at Anahim Lake from D’Arcy Christensen.
After a couple of years they sold Corkscrew Ranch and bought the Muskeg Ranch from the Holte Family and moved further down into the Dean River wilderness north of Anahim Lake.
From the propane tank explosion that nearly killed Jeanine, to building their log home, to figuring out how to navigate mosquito swamps and grizzly country, their adventures in the Chilcotin are the stories of legend.
Over the past year and a half, Corky and Jeanine collaborated with lakecity writer and author Sage Birchwater to write their family memoir. While Jeanine was an integral part of the storytelling, she declined to take official credit as an author.
Birchwater and Corky made several visits to the Chilcotin to interview people who were a big part of the Williams family experience in Anahim Lake. and others.
“We couldn’t have survived in that country without the help of our neighbours like Bob Cohen, Bernie Wiersbitzky, Big Fred Elkins and Ollie Moody,” Corky says.
Mack Squinas and his family built their log home for them. At one point Corky says there were 21 people living in tents on the property who were part of the construction crew. “There were eight to 10 babies being rocked in baskets that were hung from the rafters,” he says. “They built our log house and I helped.”
It was a heady time for the young family which now included daughter Dana, born in 1973, who was just a toddler when their home was built.
Big Fred Elkins was their right hand man, and other First Nations people worked on the ranch. While he had lots of experience with dry land ranching in Texas, Corky says ranching in the remote Chilcotin was a whole new experience.
Without Bob Cohen and Big Fred Elkins, he says they wouldn’t have known what to do. “We wouldn’t have known which lands were too swampy or muddy to work, how to keep the river open in the winter to water cattle safely, or which places to avoid grazing cattle.
“Whoever took cattle down into that country was setting the table for the grizzly bear and all his family,” Corky grimaces.
When Corky and Jeanine arrived, pioneer legends like Pan Phillips, Peter Alexis and Lester Dorsey were still ranching with horses. By the time they left, that old way of life was almost gone.
Corky brought the first round bailer and the first four-wheel-drive tractor into the country, and he was the first person to seed the fields with tame hay crops.
“I learned a lot about farming from my dad,” Corky says. “We brought in a little ditching machine, called a Ditch Witch, that we could take right out into the swamps.”
In 1980 Corky and Jeanine sold the Muskeg Ranch but Corky kept working for the new owners while Jeanine came to Williams Lake so John and Dana could attend school.
After a freak accident forced Corky to quit ranching in 1985, he returned to his former livelihood as an entertainer. He launched his career with famed Canadian recording artist Ian Tyson, who invited Corky to perform with him at Expo 86 in Vancouver.
In 1990, Corky and Jeanine split up and both returned to Texas for 15 years. Corky’s acting career took him all over the U.S. including the infamous Ford Theatre in Washington DC.
About five years ago both Corky and Jeanine returned to the Cariboo to be closer to their grandchild, Bryan, who lives in Anahim Lake.
Birchwater says one of his favourite stories in the book is when Corky discovered that he had a daughter with his high school sweetheart that he was never told about.
“It’s just such a human story,” Birchwater says. “Corky’s daughter, Raylene, had been adopted at birth, and managed to track Corky down on the Bordertown movie set in Albion, near Vancouver, where Corky was working.”
He says at first Corky thought a couple of the other actors were pulling a prank on him, then he quickly realized it was for real when Raylene told him details none of them would have known.
“Dana always wanted a sister, and our whole family has welcomed Raylene with open arms,” Corky says.
Corky and Birchwater will be releasing their new book at Williams Lake Public Library on Thursday, Nov. 7 starting at 7 p.m. They will give a slideshow presentation and will be joined by Victoria author, John Schreiber, who is launching his new book, The Junction. Both books are published by Caitlin Press.