Society purchases old Potato House

The Potato House has been officially purchased by the Potato House Sustainable Community Society.

The Potato House has been officially purchased by the Potato House Sustainable Community Society.

As Mary Forbes, society president, triumphantly declared on Monday, “We own it.”

The announcement of ownership comes two short months after the society was officially formed and one year after the idea of turning the house at 49 Borland St. into a model of green living was seeded.

Forbes would not disclose the property’s purchase price but expressed gratitude to the property owner for “meeting our request for the price.”

The house was purchased from the Quintelas, after whom the home is also named in deference to the family’s potato growing tradition.  The society now holds a mortgage with a “silent funder” after spending the money it raised through donations and fundraisers on a down payment, insurance and covering other costs. On Sunday the society began yard cleaning on the property and for now hopes to develop a garden. “The intent at this point is just to go with a garden,” Forbes says. “It will be planted in a week and a half. We’re starting with that because we don’t have the funds in place to really make the house safe for public visitation.”

The garden will include demonstration gardens, composting, mulching and soil temperature demonstrations.

A greenhouse will be erected on the property and community members will be able to rent space in a community garden.  Additionally, the group hopes to re-introduce the Cariboo potato.

Forbes says because the potato’s top grows so bushy that it binds conventional harvesting machines and because its skin is so delicate that it is easily damaged in pulling, it is an “illegal” potato in that it can’t be sold.

The Potato House is intent on bringing back this rogue vegetable and hopes to soon be able to pass it along to interested parties in the community.

When the retrofit work on the house has been completed, Forbes envisages it being a centre for sustainability, or an area to showcase new technologies like solar, wind power, alternate furnaces and electrical systems.

“We want to get the house so folks can come in and see these green technologies really do work in Williams Lake and connect with the local businesses that offer these services,” she says. “We want to maintain the heritage character of the house but we want to make the house usable and attractive, not just because it’s a beautiful building but because behind the walls it’s doing something that no other downtown house is doing.”

The Potato House may soon be on the City’s new heritage registry that will designate some protection but also increase the society’s ability to secure funding for it and its projects.

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Williams Lake was just a small town when Manuel and Alcina Quintela moved to the community Sept. 10, 1960 and established their home in what is today taking on a new role as the Potato House.

Manuel first came to Canada 1959 to work for the CN train gang building and maintaining track at Jasper. The next year he returned to Portugal, married Alcina and returned to Canada.

He started working for the PGE (later called BC Rail, and more recently CN) at Lone Butte, before the couple settled in Williams Lake.

Their home is the oldest building left standing in what was then the heart of the community, steps from the old Maple Leaf Hotel, provincial courthouse, and the Ranch Hotel, now long gone.

The Quintela home on Borland Street was also just a block from the PGE station house (now the Station House Gallery).

Manuel’s work repairing and building track took him north to Fort St. John and South to Vancouver while Alcina kept the home fires burning.

Alcina worked as a chambermaid in the Maple Leaf Hotel and the Chilcotin Inn and looked after their garden when Manuel was away.

For nearly 50 years they tilled the soil of their third-of-an-acre downtown property and cultivated bumper crops of vegetables — mostly potatoes, but also broadbeans, corn, tomatoes, squash, onions and salad greens. The only part of the yard that wasn’t a vegetable garden was a small patch of lawn in the front of the house beneath the spreading branches of an apple tree.

There Manuel and Alcina would sit and relax after a full day tending their plants.

Back in Portugal it was natural for Manuel and Alcina to work the land by hand with their family. But having an urban garden of this scale, utilizing the whole of their property was an anomaly for Williams Lake, or for any Interior city of B.C. for that matter.

Many years they grew enough potatoes for themselves and sold 20, 100-pound sacks or one ton of potatoes.

More than a house, Forbes is preserving and honouring an unusual tradition of utilizing the urban landscape to grow food. It honours the loving care and attention the Quintelas gave their third-of-an-acre for nearly half a century.