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HAPHAZARD HISTORY: Take a walk back in time at Farwell Canyon

These are what remain of the Pothole Ranch, once a thriving little Chilcotin homestead
A small collection of buildings along the Chilco River is all that remains of the Pothole Ranch, once a thriving little Chilcotin homestead at Farwell Canyon. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

Barry Sale

Special to the Tribune

One of the most scenic places to visit in our area is Farwell Canyon, just southwest of Riske Creek. There, the Chilcotin River has carved out an impressive valley with steep, sandy cliffs on both sides.

Down on the bottom land next to the river, one can see a small collection of buildings, not kept up or occupied for decades.

These are what remain of the Pothole Ranch, once a thriving little Chilcotin homestead.

The land in this hard-to-access valley was first pre-empted by Louis Vedan, a Métis man born in Empire Valley in the mid 1850s. He worked as a packer and a ranch labourer throughout the Chilcotin before settling down on the flats next to the Chilcotin River in the late 1890s.

It was not a particularly welcoming location, with temperatures reaching over 38C in the summer as the sun reflected off the canyon walls.

In the long, cold winter months, the steep, difficult road down to the place made travelling in and out almost impossible.

On the upside, there was always lots of water available, and the soil there could grow almost anything.

The steep canyon walls created a sort of a greenhouse effect, and the crops were incredible.

In 1903, a young man named Gordon Farwell arrived in the Chilcotin.

Nicknamed “Mike,” he had been born into a well off English family, and he had come to the Canadian west to prove to himself and his family that he could succeed in “the colonies.”

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He and the Chilcotin were a good fit. He learned the basics of ranching working at the River Ranch, and along the way he built up a reputation of being cheerful, friendly and ambitious.

Later on, he took up the sport of horse racing, and in 1913, he won the Chilcotin Ranchers Cup at a race meet on Bechers Prairie.

Like most young men of the day, he wanted a place of his own, and after some lengthy negotiations with Louis Vedan, he worked out an agreement to purchase the place in the Chilcotin River canyon.

Louis stayed on to work for Farwell for a few years.

The two of them got along very well, even though, by all accounts, Vedan could be grouchy, hard to work with and very temperamental.

The two of them contracted to round up wild horses in the area, and soon did a brisk business supplying stock to prospectors and horse buyers in Kamloops and over to Alberta.

With his increasing interest in horse racing, Farwell was also able to select some excellent breeding stock.

He also began working the land. He built an irrigation system and planted alfalfa, which flourished.

A huge vegetable garden also did very well, providing food throughout the grooming season and root vegetables well into the winter.

It was Farwell who began calling his place “The Pothole,” since the location at times reminded him of living in a boiling cauldron.

In 1912, Farwell formed a partnership with Gerald Blenkinsop, another young Englishman who had come to the Chilcotin and had fallen hard for the ranching life.

The two had similar personalities, and there was an immediate connection, which developed into a lifelong friendship.

The main goal of their partnership was to raise and break horses, but Gerald also freighted up and down the Cariboo Wagon Road from Ashcroft to Quesnel.

Eventually, both partners found wives and built separate homes on the Pothole flat.

Gerald married the woman who Farwell had hired as his housekeeper, Madeline Wheeler, who was known far and wide by the nickname “Queenie.”

She was petite and full of energy with a quick wit and a friendly manner.

Gordon married an Irish woman, Chris Riley, who was soon nicknamed “Weenie.” She was much more reserved than Queenie, but the two women got along very well, and there were no animosities.

It wasn’t long before the locals were calling the isolated ranch “Happy Valley.”

Even though the road to the canyon was steep and dangerous and the wives seldom got a chance to leave the place, there was always lots to do, and the two families remained very close.

Queenie had come from a musical family and was a very good pianist.

Mean old Louis Vedan was so impressed with here bright and charming personality that he gave her a Heintzman piano as a wedding gift, and brought it down the steep, narrow road by wagon.

From then on, music was a big part of the life at the Pothole.

In 1919, Farwell and Blenkingsop sold the place to the Gang Ranch, which kept it in operation for several years as one of their cow camps. The two families moved to the Big Creek area, where they again went into partnership, built separate homes, and started over. By this time, however, both families each had two children.

The two men won the contract to carry the mail between Hanceville and Big Creek in the early 1920s, so this supplemented the income as the rebuilding process went on.

By 1925, Farwell had had enough. He sold his share in the Big Creek operation to his partner, and he moved his family to Victoria.

He only returned to the Chilcotin once for a brief visit.

Blenkinsop went on to manage the Bell Ranch, later buying it outright.

In 1948, he sold out to the Chilco Ranch, and he and Queenie moved in to Williams Lake, where they lived until his death in 1969.

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Queenie stayed on, eventually moving into the Cariboo Park Home where she stayed until 1992. Her family then moved her to Victoria, where she passed away four years later at the amazing age of 106.

The Pothole Ranch homestead was abandoned after the Second World War. Some of the original buildings still stand, and from a distance, the place looks quite serene and picturesque.

It’s still hard to get down to the original ranch site, and the place is still an oven in the summer and a freezer in the winter. The old structures are a testament to the toughness and the tenacity of the pioneers who once lived there and for whom the canyon is named.

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