Billy Barker lives again in Barkerville

History Town (The 70s) by vanstralen

The 2014 season marks a momentous “first” in Barkerville’s second life as western North America’s largest heritage attraction. Visitors to Barkerville this year can take advantage of a unique opportunity to meet the town’s namesake resident: Mr. Billy Barker.

Believe it or not, for all the years Barkerville has been a living history museum there has never been a street interpreter who spent a full-season researching and presenting the personal history of Billy Barker, in role.

Until now.

It may seem odd that Barkerville has existed for this long as a museum without someone perpetually playing Billy Barker on the street, but there are a couple of reasons why it hasn’t really happened before. First of all, for the better part of Barkerville’s “living history” we have interpreted the town’s narrative from the vantage point of a specific year: 1870. It made sense at the time to interpret a part of the story that represented the twilight years of BC’s original gold rush, on the cusp of Confederation. By 1870 Billy Barker was mining elsewhere in BC, so it also made sense for actors in role to speak of him fondly, but in the past tense.

We no longer isolate any single year as our interpretive launch pad. Now we adhere to a more abstract technique that provides our interpreters the freedom to acknowledge and explore Barkerville’s whole story from their individual character’s personal frame of reference. As such, Billy Barker himself can roam the streets of town with liberty and the ability to address the relatively short time he actually spent there, as well as the entire history of the gold rush and all the years beyond.

The second reason is Andrew Hamilton.

We’ve always instinctively known, I think, that if Barkerville was ever going to have a “Billy Barker” on the street we would need to find an actor-interpreter who was not only skilled enough to handle such an iconic role, but one who also happened to bear a strong resemblance to the man himself. After all, Barker’s face is the face of Barkerville. I mean literally… he’s on the logo.

In 1999, an a­­ccomplished performer and graduate of the University of Alberta’s nationally-renowned Department of Drama named Andrew Hamilton auditioned for Barkerville’s Historic Street interpretation program and was cast as indomitable industrialist Thomas Patullo (who was, incidentally, the uncle of British Columbia’s 22nd Premier, Duff Patullo). Andrew played Mr. Patullo for five seasons, then left town for a few years before returning in 2008 to play colonial magistrate Chartres Brew for Barkerville’s Early Justice program. He has made Wells-Barkerville his permanent home ever since.

This season Andrew Hamilton became Artistic Director of Barkerville’s Historic Street program, and took up the eponymous challenge: he would play Billy Barker. Thanks to an ever-expanding body of written material by gold rush researchers like Ken Mather, W.G. Quackenbush, and Richard Wright (as well as a noteworthy encounter with Barker’s great-great-granddaughter during our sesquicentennial celebrations in 2012) Andrew has decided it’s time Billy Barker came home. And, based on the one verified historical photograph we have, Mr. Hamilton happens to look a heckuva lot like Mr. Barker (if you want to see for yourself come to Barkerville, or just look at the bottom of this page).

Our new Billy has been on the street for about a month now and I have to say that as a fellow cast member it is a joy to watch a seasoned interpreter bring our forefather to life. Mr. Barker conducts town tours, appears in street scenes, reminisces about his life, and is available five days per week for “hosting,” which is our term for improvised interaction in role. Visitors have been delighted by their opportunity to meet with, talk with, and learn from Billy Barker. As a long-time Barkerville resident myself, I am thrilled to see Barker have a symbolic second chance to walk the streets of the town he helped build; a town that continues to be so significant to the story of us.  Thank you, Andrew Hamilton. Because of you, Billy Barker lives again.

– Danette Boucher

The above one-panel cartoon (originally published June 14, 2014) by Dirk Van Stralen, with accompanying editorial by Danette Boucher, is the fifth of twenty weekly entries that were logged – and subsequently blogged – as part of a 2014 collaboration between Barkerville, British Columbia and the Prince George Citizen aimed at introducing some of the quirkier advantages to living, working, and playing in the Cariboo Goldfields. We hope you enjoy!

Billy Barker in Front of Wake Up Jake and Moses' Barber Shop (Full Body)

Billy Barker in Front of Wake Up Jake and Moses’ Barber Shop (Full Body)

Courtesy of BC Archives.

Courtesy of BC Archives.

Billy Barker in Front of Wake Up Jake and Moses' Barber Shop (Close Up).

Billy Barker in Front of Wake Up Jake and Moses’ Barber Shop (Close Up).