The mystery surrounding whether or not a plaque commemorating the Boer War ever existed on the Invermere cenotaph — and if it did, what has since happened to it — has continued to roil during the past few weeks.
As previously reported (March 9th Echo), Fairmont Hot Springs resident David Gibson had written in to The Echo saying that a plaque commemorating the Boer had “disappeared when the park was redone some ten years ago.”
The Echo began looking into the matter and found that neither Invermere’s mayor or chief administrative officer Chris Prosser remembered when it had gone missing, or even what it looked like. The matter seemed settled when local Legion president Ken Carlow told The Echo “there never was one (a Boer War plaque).” All parties agreed, however, that there should be such a plaque, and Carlow said the Legion was hoping to get it done this year. The mystery seemed solved with a happy ending to boot.
Not so fast.
Gibson called The Echo after the March 9th story, outlining his certainty about the Boer War plaque.
“There definitely was a plaque, there’s no doubt about it. There are quite a few people in town that know about it, especially the older people. It was a small plaque, it was probably two foot by two foot square. It was on a concrete pylon at the cenotaph,” he said. “I’ve looked everywhere and I can’t find it.”
Gibson said that according to long-time resident Joy Bond, somebody on council knows what happened to it.
But The Echo contacted each of Invermere’s fours councillors individually, and none of them could recall ever seeing the plaque, nor had any idea where it might now be. Councillor Al Miller contacted Legion member Howie Williams, who also couldn’t remember the plaque, but had still undertaken a search for it a while ago. That search came back empty. When contacted, Joy Bond said she was researching the plaque, but couldn’t recall ever seeing it.
“I don’t remember it at all,” she said. Similar responses came from local veteran Jim Ashworth and other residents with either a keen interest in or a wealth of knowledge about local history.
“I really don’t remember seeing a separate Boer War plaque on there (the cenotaph),” said long-time resident Ray Crook. “I think I can say there was no plaque.”
“I do not believe there was one (a Boer War plaque). I’m from South Africa and I would have picked up on it and noticed it,” said resident Andy Stuart-Hill.
Both JD Jeffery and Margaret Christensen with the Windermere Valley Museum said they couldn’t remember such a plaque, and Jeffery said that all the photos the museum has of the cenotaph in its old location (it used to be near the current museum location, before it was moved downtown) are on such an angle that it is impossible to tell if there was a Boer War plaque on it somewhere.
Considerable light was shed on the topic by Max Helmer Construction Ltd. director Joe Helmer. It was Max Helmer Construction that built the current cenotaph 48 years ago, and also did the revitalization work on the downtown cenotaph plaza in 2014.
Helmer clarified that there was no revitalization of the cenotaph 10 years ago, as suggested by Gibson, and that, during the most recent park revitalization, the cenotaph was given a new concrete base, but aside from that, was hardly touched.
“We moved it (the cenotaph) just the way it is. There was one lower stone that was remasoned, then we wrapped it up so there would be no damage and moved it to the Invermere community centre while the work was going on. We brought it back in time for the 2014 Remembrance Day service,” he said. “Other than that one stone, nothing’s been added or taken off that cenotaph in the past 48 years, and there’s definitely nothing missing. I can say that with certainty because otherwise you’d see where it was missing from.”
Helmer pointed out that all the plaques on the cenotaph (there are three) are flush with the surface, set right into the stonework, and that if there had been a Boer War plaque that went missing, there would be an indent left where it once sat.
Invermere planner Rory Hromadnik then shone even more light on the matter. When The Echo contacted Hromadnik about the Boer War plaque, he couldn’t say definitively one way or the other if there had ever been such a plaque on the cenotaph, but he did point out there was another plaque beside the sidewalk near the cenotaph prior to the 2014 revitalization work.
That plaque (mounted an angle, standing lower than knee height) had nothing to do with Boer War, but in fact was dedicated to the council members, the then-local MLA, and then-provincial Minister of Municipal Affairs who were part of with the 1985 downtown revitalization project (which did not affect the cenotaph).
“It was copper, it was an oxidized green colour, and it had the names of the mayor and councillors of the day on it,” said Hromadnik, adding that this particular plaque was removed during the most recent revitalization work and is likely currently in the district’s public works building.
“We don’t know what we’re going to do with it yet. We haven’t had that discussion yet. We saved it so we can have that discussion,” he said.
The one thing everybody involved agrees on, however, was that adding a Boer War plaque to the cenotaph is a great idea.
“I have long suggested there be a plaque there, because there were likely a number of people in the war, even as many as four, from this valley as part of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse,” said Stuart-Hill.
Lord Strathcona’s Horse was an armoured regiment that was initiated expressly for the Boer War and which still exists today. In the Boer War (as now), the regiment was based in Edmonton, but during the Boer War it recruited throughout Alberta, as well as in one town in B.C. — Fort Steele.
“It’s (the Boer War) a forgotten war, but there were Canadians there. They were usually referred to as British Canadians then,” said Stuart-Hill.
Having grown up in South Africa and having an interest in history, he finds the topic fascinating.
“I’ve been to almost every battlefield from the Boer War,” he said, adding that there is also plenty evidence — and Canadian evidence at that — of the war outside the battlefields.
Stuart-Hill remembers hiking along the Vaal River when he was 19 year old.
“I swam across the river and then rested on the other side,” he said. “Right there was a round circle of 13 graves and they all had the Canadian maple leaf on the them.”
Jeffery said that although the Windermere Valley Museum doesn’t have any record of a Boer War plaque, it’s certainly possible several people from the area had participated in the war, particularly given that the museum has two Boer War vintage rifles in its collection. The first is an 1885 Enfield carbine owned by a T. Fuller, and the second is an 1883 Lee-Enfield owned by an N. Rad.
It’s possible that people from the Upper Columbia Valley travelled to the recruiting effort at Fort Steele, said Jeffery, although at that time when people left the valley, they almost invariably went to Golden.
“Travel was by steamboat then, and steamboats never went south (from Invermere), so it was far easier to get to Golden,” she said. “But people from here may have gone down there.”
Another possibility, according to Jeffery, and one that would explain why there never was a Boer War plaque on the Invermere cenotaph, was that the valley locals who served in Boer War did so before they moved to the Columbia Valley.
“Around the time of the Boer War, the town (Invermere) was still just starting, it grew and a lot of people moved here from elsewhere in Canada. So Fuller (owner of the 1885 Enfield carbine) might have been in Boer War, but could have moved to and settled here after the war. If that’s the case, and it could well be, then his name would be commemorated on a Boer War plaque in his hometown at the time of his service,” she said, adding it’s also possible that the rifle could have been used in the Boer War by somebody else and then later come into Fuller’s possession.
“Unless you can find somebody related to these people, who has documents or other records of their service, it’s really hard to say one way or the other,” she said.
According to Stuart-Hill, former Cranbrook councillor Bob Whetham’s grandfather lived in the Upper Columbia Valley and may have been a Boer War veteran. Although Whetham’s grandfather has long since passed away, his mother Audrey Whetham is still alive and living on the coast.
The Echo attempted to contract both Bob and Audrey for their comments on the matter, but was unable to reach either of them prior to press deadline.