Pat Skoblanuik is retiring after 20 years as manager of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin.
When Pat took on the job, the museum had been in existence for only a few years and she was the first, and for some time, the only employee. She has been there for all the museum’s growing pains.
Managing is something of a misnomer. Pat has been more of a Jill of all Trades. Along with managing the office part of the operation, she has been responsible for the museum’s artifact and archival collection. Almost everything has been donated. Pat accepts the items, catalogues them, then sees to their welfare, either by displaying them or storing them. Along with welcoming visitors from all over the world, conducting tours for both adults and children, working with volunteers and students, she does a lot of research both to fulfill countless requests for information and to get information for displays. Requests for information come in by person, by phone or by e-mail.
“We usually can find what people want,’”she says.
The Museum is run by a non -profit organization and she works with the directors on different projects and helping with events such as teas and the Cowboy Concert.
Pat was born in Dawson Creek. The family later moved to the Okanagan, then to Williams Lake in 1960. Pat graduated from secondary school here. While going to high school, she had summer jobs at the old War Memorial Hospital and Al’s Variety. After finishing high school Pat went to work for Beath Motors (now Lake City Ford). In 1964 she married Wally Skoblanuik and for the next few years she was a house mom, raising four children, Dana, twins Cam and Carmen, and Andrea. When the children were older she went to work in the purchasing department at Cariboo Memorial Hospital (as a casual who worked pretty well full time). When the Museum advertised for a part time manager, she thought the job sounded interesting. She was hired and started work in May, 1995.
At the time, the building interior was still being converted from what had been the Health Unit with many small rooms into a museum that needed open spaces. Hugh Lambe spent so much time on projects he had a workshop in the basement. Bob French spent hours there too. The two took out walls, scrounged materials, helped Pat by doing the heavy lifting (like moving the Grand piano.) and clearing displays from the main gallery whenever there was an event. Pat often had to work around construction projects.
There was no air conditioning then. Pat says she tried keeping the doors and windows open, but birds kept flying in and there were numerous feral cats lurking outside. Janitor service was part of her job too and that included watering the lawns.
“There was no underground sprinkling system so I had to move the sprinklers by hand. Once I didn’t notice a man sleeping on the lawn, and he got sprinkled. When he woke up he came storming into the museum, wet and angry. Luckily Hugh was there to deal with him.”
At the time, the Museum had only the upstairs, the basement was shared by the Eastern Star who had a room for making cancer bandages, and the Red Cross had the equipment lending service there. The museum displays consisted of a bedroom, a kitchen, a hospital room, a parlor and schoolroom. The grand piano and the Democrat buggy took up much of the main gallery. There were a few mannequins, one named Emma sat at the piano. Another, dressed as a cowboy, sat on the floor fixing his rigging. Pat had to be inventive. She turned a couple of mobile poster display holders into story/picture books on the history of Williams Lake and the stampede. She wrote stories for every display. The collection items were catalogued by hand on index cards, a lengthy procedure. A summer student had organized the system that is still used, but now it’s all on computer. Photographs were in boxes, some of them in safety deposit box in a downtown bank. Pat had to learn things on her own, such as museum standards and procedures. Many volunteers wanted to help, but if something that didn’t belong got into a display, Pat would quietly change it.
“A museum has a responsibility to get things right,” she explains.
She also had to learn how to use the electronic equipment as it was acquired, and to teach others how to use it.
From skimpy beginnings the collection has grown to more than 8,000 artifacts, not counting the thousands of negatives, pictures, paper files and other archival material. The building has been renovated a few times to create more display space and outbuildings added. As the collection and space grew, so did the work load, but it happened gradually. Fortunately, museum funding grew too. Although money is always in short supply Pat no longer does the housekeeping or the yard work and she has had assistants.
From the beginning, the museum has had the ranching and rodeo theme, because that is the Cariboo Chilcotin’s history. In 1999, the Museum joined the BC Cowboy Heritage Society and became home for the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
“That’s really increased our western artifacts, especially saddles,” Pat says. The Hall of Fame has become a major part of the main gallery exhibits. There have been a few near disasters, a couple of floods, occasional leaks in the old roof, and large chunks of ice sliding off the new metal roof. Fortunately, no serious damage was done and no one was injured.
While a museum is a place to preserve historical things, it is also a place for people — a lot of people.
Along with tours there are drop-in visitors both local and strangers. Some don’t speak English well. Try explaining what the Bull Throwing contest is all about to German gentlemen who don’t understand what “throwing the bull” means in politics. School tours are fun but little people can be challenging.
“Except for the odd crank, we get good comments from everyone, “ Pat says. “Many out of town visitors say it’s the best community museum they’ve seen. A lot of people come back. “
In early days the admission fee was $1 and some people thought it was too high. Since it’s been raised to $2 only one person has complained.
Local people who have donated items often wonder why those items aren’t display.
“We do our best, but even with the expansions we’ve run out of space. We put things on display as best we can.”
Pat has many happy memories. “I’ve met so many interesting people,” she says, “not only visitors but authors and others who come in for information or to do research.” She remembers the cakes the late John Snowball always made for the city’s birthday parties. And having the late Hazel Huckvale swan into teas when the last guests had left and everyone was putting the tables away.
“Hazel expected full service and someone always stayed to see she got it,” Pat recalls with a smile.
The city’s 75th anniversary was a special time. The Museum published a book for the occasion “Williams Lake, The Heart of the Cariboo” and Pat did much of the work on that (and on its sequel) and she really enjoyed it. A notable event that year was the special tea the museum hosted with Lt. Governor Iona Campagnola as the guest of honour.
Pat has worked with nine different board presidents over the years, (three are still on the board) and many different directors, and four different assistants. She’s lost count of the number of students and volunteers. No one remembers her ever losing her cool or getting rattled about anything. She’s been the glue that has kept the Museum operating and the first contact most people have with the institution. The community will miss her.
The Skoblanuik’s plans for retirement include re-locating to Victoria. Pat says she will miss her work at the museum, but it’s time to go. There will be an opportunity to say thank you and wish Pat well on her retirement at an Open House at the Museum from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 28.