By Kelly Sinoski
100 Mile House was a bit on the rough side when Dick Minato moved to the area in 1951.
A handful of houses, the Bridge Lake Store and Herbie Auld’s garage clustered around First Street and Birch Avenue. At the time it took two hours to drive between Clinton and 100 Mile House, a mere 43 miles away, on a narrow, twisty and hazardous road. A restaurant served up coffee and a bite to eat to Greyhound passengers.
A Lodge, built by Lord Martin Cecil, sat across the highway from the Greyhound stop. Cecil had come to the Cariboo in 1930 to manage the estate owned by his father, the Marquese of Exeter. The young lord oversaw the Canadian headquarters of the Emissaries of the Divine Light - a worldwide organization dedicated to the expression of true spiritual values in daily living - and set about developing the modern-day 100 Mile House.
Besides that, the town hadn’t changed much since it was the original roadhouse catering to miners and adventurers during the Cariboo Gold Rush.
There wasn’t even a school, Minato, 87, says. All the students were bused to nearby Forest Grove.
“Forest Grove was the hub.”
Indeed, Minato’s family lived there, running a small five-person portable sawmill. It was one of many in the area and the Minatos built theirs halfway between Forest Grove and Ruth Lake. They sold their lumber to a planer mill at Buffalo Creek.
But once Canim Lake Sawmills built a planer mill at Exeter, other sawmills took their lumber there, and 100 Mile House started to boom.
Within a couple of years, the town began to take shape. Bridge Creek Estates - under the guidance of Ross Marks, Cecil’s “right-hand man” - set about converting an oat field into residential lots to accommodate the growing population. A water line was put in and the townspeople got together to install a sewer system.
“The town started to grow so they subdivided the land. Everybody leased their land and paid Bridge Creek Estates so much a month. It was $5, $7 a month,” Minato says.
A school opened close to where 100 Mile House Elementary sits today. A community hall was built with some of the lumber from Minato’s family sawmill, then at Tatton Station. In 1958, Minato, then in his early 20s, moved to town, leasing a home at 165 Bridge Creek Place, which he describes as being “on the cul de sac on Dogwood Avenue” overlooking Centennial Park.
He started a hardware store, in a 128-foot space between the bank and a TV store.
“Bridge Creek Estates had done a wonderful job in organizing how the town was built,” Minato says.
In 1965, Cecil built the luxurious Red Coach Inn, a “five-star” restaurant and hotel. Isabel Jones worked there with her whole family. Her mother was a housekeeper at the hotel, while her brother was a dishwasher and she and her two sisters were waitresses. Her other brother worked in the Esso station next door, while her husband Don became a bartender at the Library Lounge.
“It was quite a thing when Lord Martin Cecil came in with his family,” Jones told the Free Press last year. “It was nerve-wracking trying to serve them because they had taught us to be top-notch.”
Minato, who was appointed one of three fire commissioners, said 100 Mile was a great place to live and raise a family.
“At that time everybody knew everybody.”
When 100 Mile House was incorporated in 1968, the townsfolks could buy their homes. Marks became the district’s first mayor. By the 1970s, the town was booming, its smaller sawmills bought by the likes of Canim Lake Sawmills, a division of Weldwood. Ainsworth Lumber Co., which specialized in working with small-diameter jack pine, employed 125 people and had another mill in the Chasm area.
The sawmills provided amenities including a ski hill with a T-bar, a movie theatre and a shopping mall. The Sears department store was by the dsitrict office.
The town also served as the hub for many resorts on Canim Lake, Sheridan Lake, Green Lake and Bridge Lake and Lac La Hache.
Maureen Pinkney, 60, a district councillor who grew up in the area, remembers when much of downtown 100 Mile House, including the site of the Cariboo Family Enrichment Centre, was still swamp where people would hunt ducks. Back then, she says you’d get what you could from the grocery store, but if your fridge was empty you’d grab a gun and bag some game in the woods.
But growth was inevitable. “We saw a lot of development right in 100 Mile,” she says.
People were coming in droves, including Sohan (Sonny) Mudhar, who arrived in 1965 and one of the first Sikhs in the area. He worked as a skidder for what is now McNeil and Sons Logging Ltd.
By the 1970s, about 55 Sikh families were living in the area, drawn here by the area’s sawmills and small-village vibe.
The 100 Mile Sikh Society was formed in 1973, and the temple on Blackstock Road opened six years later on Nov. 9. The community was also instrumental in setting up the World Sikh Organization.
By the time Pinkney graduated from Peter Skene Ogden Secondary School in 1980, her class was the biggest in its history, with 196 students.
Minato says the town saw a dip in the 1980s, when he sold his hardware store and moved to a plot of land near 103 Mile. Mill closures over the past two decades have also had an effect, with the town’s demographics leaning more to a greyer and older population.
Pinkney says retail stores have closed while offices for lawyers, dentists and doctors have opened up. Once grand buildings like the Red Coach Inn and Marmot Ridge have fallen into disrepair.
But she is encouraged by an influx of younger families coming into the community, bringing a demand for new services. During the summer, the South Cariboo’s population can swell to 40,000 people.
“When we grew up here there wasn’t even TV so for us just going outside and playing in a pile of dirt was plenty good enough for us,” Pinkney says. “Now you need more activities and we haven’t seen that grow with the population growth.”
She ran for council at the District of 100 Mile House to foster economic development to grow the community. Now she is running for mayor to further that cause.
“Even though 90 percent of the people who now live here were not raised here, the people who come here are small town people,” Pinkney says. “Even if they came from the city they quickly become super friendly and easygoing.”
Over the past two years, more people have flocked to 100 Mile and South Cariboo, many fleeing city life for wide open spaces. The Sikh community has grown to 30 families, as more people invest in gas stations and motels.
Pinkney says she would like to see a trades school built in the community so young people don’t have to leave for post-secondary. She’d also like to develop 100 Mile’s old ski hill site, which closed due to a “lack of snow” and competition from Mount Timothy Recreational Resort in Lac La Hache.
“That’s the one thing I don’t miss, the really cold winters. Our winters used to be -30C and it would warm up to -10C and we used to think that was just beautifully balmy,” Pinkney said. “By October we’d have two feet of snow on the ground right in town and it stayed until March.”
Minato says he only comes to town now to meet his friends at BJ’s Donuts and doesn’t dwell on the town’s economic future. When asked what he likes about 100 Mile today, he mentions the bright flowers along Birch Avenue.
“It’s a nice place to live.”