[History Town] The animals of Barkerville

History Town 2015 (Goldfield of Dreams) by vanstralen

Regular visitors to Barkerville get to know our cast of historical characters very well. We love welcoming repeat guests, and we love it when visitors appreciate the various roles we play. But there is a second cast of characters that adds a lot of life and heart to Barkerville – the animals. The animals of Barkerville are a huge part of the ambiance and community of our gold rush town.

For example, I was on my way up the main street of Barkerville this afternoon when something made me stop in my tracks. I saw that Mr. Hamilton, our teamster, had paused right in the middle of the road with his freight wagon. His horse, Shorty, had her head bowed down. Shorty, a big brown draft, is a local favourite. She is a gentle giant; a naturally social animal with endless patience for the constant stream of people who want to pat her or coo at her.

For a few seconds I couldn’t see why the horse was stopped so unusually, but soon realized her nose was resting on the lap of a little girl in a motorized wheelchair. The girl was gently stroking Shorty’s face, and Mr. Hamilton was wordlessly facilitating this quiet exchange. I watched them for a while, then looked around and realized that a few other people nearby were also witnessing this moment and, like me, were spellbound by the beauty of such a tender connection between horseman, horse and visitor. We all watched in silence, unwilling to break the reverie of that moment with the slightest whisper. Shorty eventually raised her big head up, signalling that she was ready to move along, and the wheelchair and freight wagon rolled off in opposite directions.

Earlier in the day I had popped in for a visit with Miss Wendle, the woman who keeps the Wendle House alive with authentic cooking, domestic activities, and interpretive programming. We were sitting at her kitchen table when a cacophony of squawking erupted from her chicken coop outside.

“Oh, there must be a beast under my house,” Miss Wendle said.

We got up and headed outside to investigate if there was indeed a fox or martin or some other manner of predator stalking her birds. We found nothing, but I was delighted by Miss Wendle’s affection for her little gaggle of irritated fowl.

“Ladies, ladies…” Miss Wendle called to them. “Are you singing ‘Hallelujah’ again?”

The chickens squawked even more loudly and proudly at the sight of their keeper, as if to say: “Do you see us?” The scene was so sweet it made me laugh out loud.

When I started my first Barkerville season twenty-two years ago, I was quickly introduced to the town cat. She was old, grey, and everyone called her “Bag Lady.” Bag Lady seemed to have a hint of permanent irritation on her tiny little face, as if she had seen more than her fair share of annoying things and just wanted to be left alone already. But if you had the time to give her a good scratch, she would purr heartily and press her head vigorously against you.

For years Bag Lady roamed the streets of Barkerville. No one could pinpoint when or how she had turned up on site. She had always just been there, culling the rodent population and keeping us all in order. When Bag Lady grew very old, one of the merchants on site, Kathy, began taking her home to Wells for the winters. When Bag Lady finally died (as far as anyone could work out, she had been in Barkerville for more than 20 seasons herself) another cat showed up. Quite out of the blue a little grey tabby, just out of kitten-hood, made her Barkerville entrance just as Bag Lady took her final bow. The new cat was quickly named “Prancer” and she took up right where Bag Lady left off as the self-appointed Barkerville mouser.

Prancer made regular rounds of Barkerville. She knew which shops and restaurants could be counted on to feed her, and she knew all the warm places where she could take refuge on a cold day. When I worked at the Theatre Royal we often found Prancer waiting outside the doors for someone to let her in so she could curl up and nap on one of the greenroom couches. She even made a few unexpected appearances onstage during the show, much to the delight of the audiences and unsuspecting actors.

A few seasons ago Prancer reached her dotage and Kathy dutifully brought the cat, like Bag Lady before her, home to Wells. Prancer now stays with Kathy permanently, as her fragile health demands, but every few weeks during the summer Kathy brings Prancer to Barkerville and lets her loose to survey her stomping grounds. On Prancer’s most recent visit, Kathy said: “Look at her.” She pointed to the little cat. “She just loves these visits,” she said. “This is her home.”

And Kathy is right. Our Barkerville animals bring such heart to the streets. This is their home, too, and I can’t imagine the town without them.

– Danette Boucher

The above one-panel cartoon (originally published August 15, 2015) by Dirk Van Stralen, with accompanying editorial by Danette Boucher, is the eleventh of twenty weekly entries that were logged – and subsequently blogged – as part of a 2015 collaboration between Barkerville, British Columbia and the Prince George Citizen aimed at introducing some of the quirkier advantages of living, working, and playing in the Cariboo Goldfields. We hope you enjoy!