A Wilmer man with an extensive mining background is busy writing a novel set during the great Kootenay silver rush.
Al Farmer worked around the world and as a mining executive before deciding to settle down in the valley 15 years ago. He and his wife Patricia bought and renovated the St. Andrews Church in Wilmer, turning it into a home, before Al wrote a book about his experience in the gold industry and took up blogging. To cap it all off, Al is now writing a new book, about the valley’s mining past.
Patricia and Al were living in Canmore when, during a trip to the valley, Patricia — who is an artist — saw the 110-year old St. Andrews Church and had a vision of renovating into a house.
“She thought she could do something with it, and so six weeks later we were here in the valley,” said Al. “I doubt we’d take on a project like that (the church) now, but we were younger then. It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun.”
The Farmers — employing only local contractors from Wilmer and Invermere — enlarged the church and added on to it.
“We made the new part look just like the old part, and even got the same kind of flooring,” said Al. “We made the new part just a decade and a half ago, but it sure looks like it’s been around a lot longer than that.”
The couple even had to get two occupancy permits for the building — one for the new part and one for the old part.
Not content to sit around once the house was finished, Al began working on a book — Sell the Pig: Stories of an Accidental Gold Miner — detailing his time running a gold mining company in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Sell the Pig was published in 2014.
“It’s a look at how a mine was found, built and lost,” said Al. “There’s nothing like making a few millions and then losing a few millions.”
The gold mine Al was involved with would eventually go on to produce more than 2.5 million ounces (70 million grams) of gold and make more than $100 million dollars.
Since moving to the valley, Al has found no shortage of mining history here and it has inspired him to start work on a historical novel set in Wilmer more than a century ago, when the community — originally called Peterborough — was at the forefront of the Kootenay region’s silver mining boom.
“I’m in the middle of it (the new book) right now. My last book was non-fiction and this is fiction, which is quite different. It was easy to get started, but now I’m on the third rewrite,” he said.
The silver rush was at its height at about the same time the community changed its name, in 1902. Apparently having a small town called Peterborough in B.C. while at the same time having a larger town also called Peterborough in Ontario was cause for confusion in the Canadian postal system, so the postmistresses in Peterborough, B.C. was asked to come up with a new name for her community.
“At that time, everything, including the mail, came upriver from Golden on paddlewheel steamers. The mail got unloaded at Athalmer, which was called Salmon Flats then, and the postman would pick it up and bring it up to Peterborough. The postman’s name was Wilmer, so they would write Wilmer on all the mail going to Peterborough,” said Al. “So the postmistress decided just to rename the town Wilmer. That’s how Wilmer got its name. And so I decided to write a novel about what Wilmer was like then. I figured I could look up what I could and then make up the rest.”
Delving into the valley’s silver mining history, Al has become familiar with some of that time period’s intriguing characters, and, in his opinion, perhaps none is as interesting as Delphine, a highly successful French Canadian female prospector.
“She was a big name around here, since she was a female prospector, which was not common at the time, and also because she was one of the first prospectors here to become really wealthy,” said Al, adding he has yet to ascertain if Delphine was her first name or last name.
Both the Delphine Lodge in Wilmer and Delphine Creek (where her silver claim was located) were named after her.
The silver boom in the Kootenays began in the mid to late 1880s, shortly after the Canadian Pacific Railway was finished. Prospectors eager to try their luck came by train to Golden, disembarked and then headed up the Columbia River.
“You didn’t need to be a genius to find silver, you simply followed creeks and streams up to their sources and looked for streaks on the rocks in the area, which indicated that there may some kind of minerals — zinc, lead, silver — there,” said Al. “That’s how Delphine found her claim and if you go up the Delphine Creek you can still see the streaks on the rocks there.”
Peterborough (Wilmer) quickly became a boom town as prospectors, eager to replicate Delphine’s success, flooded in and mines were established, with some (including the Mineral King and Paradise mines) lasting decades. The silver rush spread to other parts of the Kootenay region, creating other booms towns in Argenta, New Denver and, eventually the biggest find of all, the Sullivan Mine near Kimberley.
“It wasn’t gold that made B.C. rich, it was silver, and it all started here with Delphine Creek,” said Al, adding that the Sullivan Mine in particular — which he said sits on a incredible silver, lead and zinc deposit — generated a phenomenal amount of wealth.
Al does not have a projected publishing date for his new book, but, in the meantime, Sell the Pig can be purchased on www.amazon.ca.