Katherine Berg – Escape from Russia - Memoirs of a Mennonite
Escape from Russia - Memoirs of a Mennonite
As told to Rosemary Phillips, 2004
Chapter 1: Life in the Russian North
Chapter 2: Escape from Russia
Chapter 3: Life on the Canadian Prairie
Chapter 4: A New Home in British Columbia
Introduction: The late Katherine Berg was a resident of Grand Forks, British Columbia, Canada, for over
forty years. She enjoyed telling fascinating stories of her early life, and in 2004, over several good hot cups of tea at my kitchen table next door, she spoke into a tape-recorder about living
in Russia as a Mennonite; about the family escape to Canada in 1924;
life on the Prairie; and eventually a new life in Abbotsford, British
Columbia, where eventually she and daughter Sonia Willson opened
a drive-in “Snack Shack”. This is her voice - her story.
Berg a few years ago on the steps of Golden Heights in Grand
Chapter 1: Life in the Russian North
I was born in Russia in Orenberg, north-east of Moscow. My father
was a minister and we were farmers, and farmers then, as long as
you had enough to eat, were called “beaujois”. That
means “rich”, and of course Communists hated anyone
who was rich. And so we had three strikes against us - we were a huge family,
we were rich, and we were Mennonites.
The journey of the Mennonites
As Mennonites we were known as the defenceless Christians. Our
people came out of Switzerland and Germany in the 1500s and settled
in what are now Belgium and Holland, and built the dykes. Martin
Luther had just left the Catholic Church, and with him was Meno
Siemans. When he saw all these people coming with no leadership
he took them under his umbrella and they were called Meno Knights
– the Knights of Meno – so ever since we’ve been
called Mennonites. Holland was so small, and had so many people,
so they moved on to Poland.
Catherine the Great invited the Mennonites to Russia in the late
1700s. She came from a small German principality called Anholt-Zerbst.
That little country isn’t there any more. Countries change their names and their borders and whatever, right?
All of Europe needed farmers to produce food. Men were sent ahead
to Russia to look the situation over and all that they asked for
was freedom of religion and that we would not bare arms. Russia
was a very rich country. They had mining and timber. I believe they
had the most timber in the world. And the wheat that grew –
you know, it was feeding almost the whole world. The wheat was called
Red Rooster. Many years later the men brought the Red Rooster grain
to Canada in their pockets, and started growing it on the Prairies.
It grew very well in very cold climates and also produced wonderful
bread. Not so good for cakes and pastries and stuff, but we didn’t
do that anyway.
Everything grew in Russia. They said that if you put a broom handle
into the ground, in no time flat it would sprout. It was a very
rich country as far as growing things. Tremendously wealthy.
Life on the farm
When I was growing up, I’m not sure how much property we
had. We had very little. But we had two girls in the house for help,
a maid and a nursemaid, and of course men in the barn to take care
of the horses and do the field work right?
My father was going back and forth to Moscow, back and forth, with
horses and wagon. I think it must have been 50 or 60 miles. Imagine
how they did that. Because he was a minister he was well travelled
and although he had only three years in school he could read and
write. He wrote poetry and he was a choir leader.
I don’t remember my grandparents at all. They came from an
area where there was fruit, further south. My father used to tell
us that if you were there you would have wheelbarrows full of apples,
eh. And of course we never saw an apple - until I came to BC. It
was too cold. We were not that far from Siberia. We had gooseberries,
rhubarb and little red berries. I just can’t remember their
name. In the summer of course you had sauerkraut and pickled tomatoes
and different things out of the garden, but no fruit. We had lots
of wheat. We literally lived on bread, and wonderful bread, three
times a day.
The villages were all numbered. We were number 10. And so you had
the houses on each side of the road of the village. In the morning
the cowherd would come. You’d have to have your cows milked
and looked after, and have them on your step going out of your driveway.
Then the cowherd would take them to pasture. The grazing and wheat
fields were outside the villages.
The farms were further away. At our farm there was a house and
a big summer kitchen, and then there was a barn. You never went
outside in the winter. It was too cold. And the wolves in the winter
were always hungry.
The well was beside the pig barn. We never had any trouble. Imagine
eh? All the water came from the well. The bathroom was an outhouse
for sure. You’d sit on the toilet and the wind would be blowing
shooo-shooo, and ever so often there would be a small white weasel
with you. For a bath we just had a tub in the middle of the room.
On Saturday at night, first the youngest got the bath, then the
older. All the same water. You just added a bit more warm until
the last one.
Lots of children - no birth control
Well, there were a lot of children. I keep counting. I think twelve
survived. Every two years a woman had a child – there was
no birth control. She would nurse so far then the child had to start
eating. The mother would be expecting a new one and this one was
just one year old. It was handed over to the older siblings. Well,
the food was bread, and here’s a two-year-old just on bread
right? I’m not sure how many but five or six children died
at two years old in our family, in every family. Diphtheria. I think
they were malnourished. We have a picture of my mother and father
sitting with one of them, in the coffin. It was about two years
In those days men didn’t have to divorce their wives, they
killed them with childbirth. My Uncle Henry had two wives, and Uncle
John had three. There were always old maids. They would inherit
these big families and these husbands. Oh my goodness, when a widow
and a widower got married it was too much. Each of them had at least
twelve children living. Twelve here, and twelve there. Can you imagine
the hubbub at the table?
We really looked after our own. There was no welfare, nothing like
that. We didn’t need judges, lawyers or jails. Anything went
wrong it was dealt with at home – end of story.
So on a very small farm you could feel ooh-hoo beaujois –
you were rich eh? We had sheep for Marino wool, sheep you ate, pigs
and cows. Cows weren’t special, but the horses were Arabian,
bred on the desert, and they were very rare. Because my father was
a minister he had to go back and forwards to Moscow, with horses
and wagon. I think it must have been 50 or 60 miles. Imagine how
they did that? So, at one time we had 15 horses – but with
the Revolution they were stolen and we were left with only one.
Common Ism - common thought
Lenin, he was the one that started it all, and he was Jewish. He
said that “Ism” is a thought, and Common Ism is a common
thought – the rich would not be so rich and the poor not so
poor. That was the original idea. Then Stalin came in – I
don’t know how that all happened, but he took over and then
things got worse than they had ever been before. The Red Army –
they would come through the villages and pick up everything –
just take. They had guns and we didn’t. So they would do as
I was seven at the time.
With Stalin came starvation
In 1923 the government said that you had to give half of your wheat
to them. Well you had to, that’s it eh? My father said that
with half the wheat we could still live through the winter and put
our crop in next spring. You had to have enough wheat to plant,
because you never had enough money to buy any.
We managed to get that to the government but they hadn’t
planned for it, and there was not storage for the wheat. It was
poured on the ground. And the snow would be two or three feet deep
every winter. Terrible amount of snow. In the spring the grain had
two feet of snow on it and mice and rats were running through it.
They had a man with a gun there, and if you went and tried to get
a handful of wheat in the mouth, and you were starving, he was allowed
to shoot you and nobody would say anything. There was no law and
My parents never held anything back from us. They would tell us
everything that was going on. They would bury vegetables in the
summer. We would stand there and look as they dug and covered them
with straw and then dirt. Nobody ever squealed. It was our winter
supply – we had to save some. Kids knew everything, but we
didn’t tell. I think everybody was like that.
In the big cities people were literally starving. We were lucky.
On the farm we had pigs. We made sausages and smoked ham. And we
had chickens and eggs. And we had wheat to bake bread. The men would
take this produce into Urenberg and Moscow and sell it for a very
good price. That’s how come we had money, along with selling
the Arabian horse. Otherwise we not have been able to leave Russia
and start a new life in Canada. We would have had nothing.
Chapter 2: Escape from Russia - Saved by a Pee Pot
Another sister dies
Just before we left Russia my youngest sister Helen died. She was
two years old. We all stood around the cradle and watched. Nothing
was held from us children. I remember her biting her teeth. She
must have been in pain. She couldn’t breathe. Diphtheria closed
the air passages. The next thing was the funeral. I can just see
her lying there, you know, in her coffin. Someone gave us a geranium.
They had them in their house, and they would bloom in the winter,
all over the windows. So Helen had a geranium in her hands. And
somebody gave us a pink sash. By that time things were poor. We
couldn’t buy anything and thieves had been around already
helping themselves. Of course my mother was already pregnant and
before we left we had a new sister – called her Helen too.
We finally ran out of names you know.
just before they left Russia. Katherine is seated in the
front on the left. Their hair was short because with poverty
Leaving the farm
We couldn’t sell our farms. They went back to the government.
So all we had was the little bits of things in the house and the
animals to sell for money. The day we left I remember getting up
very early in the morning. The sun was just coming over the east
there. I’d never been up so early eh. And I saw the sun coming
up. All the neighbours were out to see us leave. I was feeling so
proud that they would come out to see us, and ME, leave. They were
all standing around saying, “Goodbye.” And they were
saying, “The Revolution will come to an end.” My two
uncles had a cart and horse to take us to Moscow. They stayed in
Russia. They had their homes and said they were not leaving.
My mother’s brother was with us, and he stuttered. Everywhere
we stopped they thought he was retarded. But he wasn’t. He
stuttered. Then we would have to wait for him, eh. We would go through
the lines, and finally he would come running – I can see him
limping. My father would say, “We are not leaving anybody
behind because if we do, they will starve.”
We had buns, baked bread, and you put them in the oven and made
rusks, you know, so they wouldn’t spoil. And we had a sack
of cheese we had made ourselves. So we lived on that. I don’t
know how long for. We had our own wheat and roasted that and ground
it. And that was our coffee. So you could drink coffee. It wasn’t
bad. That’s how we ate until we got through.
A room in Moscow
In Moscow my father rented accommodation – a great big room,
and the first set of stairs I had ever seen. At home we had ladders
up and down. But here were stairs. It was a big room with not one
stick of furniture. I don’t know how we slept but we had our
own feather beds. So we slept on the floor.
The first morning we woke up and opened the window. We saw there
was a fair below us in the street, selling food and stuff, and somebody
was baking bread. The smell of the bread was coming into the room
because we were up a little higher. We thought this was better than
home. At home we only had fresh bread two or three times a week,
but here you could smell it every morning. And, of course we were
used to eating just bread.
And then there was the Moskva River with all those bridges –
bridge after bridge after bridge. We wanted to go swimming because
the river wasn’t very cold. The bigger children in the family
were instructed on how to bring us all back alive. The Russian people
were really good. The women had pillowcases made out of linen, and
they would fill them with air and float on them. They took care
of us and allowed us to float on their pillows.
Saved by a pee pot
Now thieves were rampant. They were looking for money, but mainly
for passports, because if you had a passport you could get out of
Russia. If you didn’t, you couldn’t. My father had put
the passport and all our money into the pee pot for safety. My younger
brother Dick would sit on the pee pot and push himself around on
the wooden floor. We always did that when we were younger, sat on
the pee pot, rocked back and forwards and moved around. Well, Dick
was doing that when the thieves broke in and were looking for money
and the passport. Dick never got up. Nobody said boo. He sat rocking
back and forth underneath the feet of these thieves and they never
caught on where the money was hidden. When the thieves left the
money came out of the pee pot.
I saw Lenin
One day we were walking around Red Square and my father picked
me up and held me right over Lenin’s face, about this far
away (Katherine signals about one-foot distance). I can see him
lying there in his coffin. A little black goatee. And he was a fairly
young man. Well of course, Lenin lay in state there for years. He
was so pickled. They’d brush him off and put more paint on
his cheeks to make him look so he was still there. There was always
a line-up to see him - even the poor. Well, the Russians they just
love to eat, eh. And the tables were always well spread. But the
poor were always starving.
As I said, common ‘ism’ is a common ‘thought’.
And social ‘ism’ is when the society takes care of everything.
It took me forever to find out what an ‘ism’ was. I’d
ask, “What’s an ‘ism’?”
Through the Gate by train
After we saw Lenin we got on the train. It was not a cattle train
but one where goods were stored, a freight train. We had bunks.
I think there was straw there and we had our own feather beds to
cover ourselves up. On the train we were fed for the first time.
Until then we had only had those rusks and cheese - nothing but
rusks and cheese.
We got on the train at night. We only had to travel so far and
then we were out of Russia. Nobody was asleep because we thought
that if anything went wrong we’d still be stuck there. And
now we had left our farm. We’d have nothing. We’d for
sure be starving.
Then somebody said, “We’re through the Gate.”
It was a big gate over the railway tracks. To this day when someone
says, “We’re through the Gate,” I feel my heart
pounding. It meant that we were out of Russia and in a free zone.
And then of course everybody rejoiced. My goodness, they all fell
into sleep because it had been very traumatic all around. And we
We stayed in an immigration place for one night and from there
went across to England. And there was my father with all these kids.
He was so proud of his family you know. The immigration people looked
and my father was going, “Yuh, yuh.” They must have
shook their heads in horror at so many kids. We stayed in England
for just one night and then we got on a bigger boat heading for
Immigration ship to Canada
Have you ever had fruit soup? There were prunes and raisins because
there was no fruit. So we had to have dried. It was thickened with
maybe milk or cream. We loved it. Dick, he must have nearly killed
himself eating fruit soup. He loved to eat. He’d eat and then
he’d go and heave over the side of the ship. He’d throw
up because the ship was going side to side. It wasn’t a big
ship so it really jiggled around. And then Dick would go back and
have more soup because you could have as much as you wanted.
The ship went up the St. Lawrence through to Montreal and from
Montreal we took a train to Saskatchewan. We hadn’t brought
anything along except a couple of beautiful cups. Russian china
is beautiful. Well, of course, just shortly before we got where
we were landing I dropped two of those cups. That was the end of
the cups. That was the only thing we had, because you couldn’t
pack much with so many people. You had to have just essentials,
eh, to eat and keep warm.
For some reason we still had money. All these kids and all this
expense and we still had money. We bought a farm.
Chapter 3: Life on the Canadian Prairie
Dear reader, there are no photos with this section. Photos were
not considered important. The priority was survival, and food on
Rebuilding a farm
The farm was terribly run down. The buildings were all dry rot
you know. But my father was a builder, a carpenter. We had the equipment,
you know, that thing that straightens out boards and whatever. The
men were workers. They rebuilt as much as possible and put fences
in and plowed up more land. Everything was nailed down and the well
was dug deeper. We had that first farm for two years I think. We
had bought the farm, but the former owner was to have half the crop.
When there was no crop he took the farm back.
Well then my father had a gold watch with several layers of openings,
and inside was an inscription – George Rempel. We sold it
to a schoolteacher for five bucks and with that five bucks we moved
from the farm we had just lost onto a rented farm. With five bucks!
Everyone did their part
I didn’t really do chores. I always milked cows. I liked
to milk. And I liked to ride a horse. We had horses. I don’t
know how we ever got all that stuff but we did. We had horses and
cows. And of course there weren’t any fences. When the weather
wasn’t good the horses would graze all with their backs to
the wind. Then they would go so far and couldn’t find their
way home. Well you know, there were also wild animals. You couldn’t
leave the horses out at night. So then I was the one who was always
on a horse looking for those lost horses. There were ravines with
water. I had to go into the ravines to see if the horses were there
or not. I loved it. I’d be riding all over and come home with
I never did anything in the house. I was no good. I heard my mother
tell somebody one day, “She’s lazy”. I never forgot
that. I really wasn’t lazy but I didn’t like housework.
I always liked to cook. I was just sort of a natural. I never had
any lessons, nothing like that. But I didn’t like washing
dishes. And my sister, who was only two years older, well, she did
everything. She cooked and washed and did everything. And I was
just always looking for those horses and cows, eh, and milking.
Mother died after childbirth
We had an old maid look after my mother when Pete was born. That
was Mother’s last child. She was terribly torn inside. I never
knew what she died of. But later on I heard she had an infection.
We didn’t have a doctor. We were on the prairies you know.
And there was no money. She would not have been young. I’m
sure she had fifteen children or more. I was eight at the time.
It wasn’t long after we got to the Prairie.
My father married the old maid very quickly after Mother died.
For years I thought that wasn’t a good thing. But, I’ve
talked to women now whose mothers died and their fathers boarded
them out. They never got over that, being away from the family in
a strange place. But this way, because my father married this old
maid, we stayed home. At least this one didn’t have any children
of her own, which was a big blessing. She was a very good woman.
She never caused any trouble between us or my father or whatever.
The house was clean. And she wasn’t a good cook. I remember
that. But she was a good baker. She was a Mennonite. She would make
buns and then, because we didn’t have anything sweet to eat,
‘cause most everything was flour, she’d beat up an egg
and put a little sugar into it, and then wipe the bun with this.
And you’d kill yourself eating those buns. Just for that sugar,
eh. We would eat buns, oh boy. And we baked bread at least three
times a week ‘cause that was the main stay.
The Dirty Thirties
This was now the Dirty Thirties – and there were no crops
and the dirt was just blowing all over. There’d be top soil
– all blown away – and then the crops were so very poor
– and the prices – of wheat – it seems to me it
was 40 cents a bushel. Imagine! We didn’t have a thrashing
machine but we had all the other equipment. We couldn’t have
a thrashing machine because it was too expensive. So we had to rent
one, and with the binder twine, because the sheaves were bound,
it cost us what the wheat brought in.
No money – no relief
So, we didn’t earn anything. We weren’t starving because
we always had wheat, and we were always eating bread. But to have
a dollar? One time we got what was then called “relief.”
I think it was seven dollars a month. And at that time there were
at least a dozen around the table at least, if not more. We got
the seven dollars one month. And the next month. And then it didn’t
come. I remember my father. He always sat at the end of the table.
He looked around and said, “Well, the seven dollars should
have come already. Two weeks ago. It didn’t come. I assume
it’s not going to come. We don’t need it do we? No,
we don’t need it.” He had a slice of bread and off he
went. So I think maybe two months we got relief. Seven dollars a
Boxcar to British Columbia
Nothing was happening. Wheat prices were – well, you had
to give it away. And cold. Miserable. And then my brother, the older
one, he went to British Columbia on the railroad. You know how the
bums sat on the top of the boxcars? He came home and said, “You
know, they’ve got fruit trees. They’ve got cherries.
They’ve got apples. They’ve got everything.”
Well it didn’t take us long. We disposed of what we had and
moved to Abbotsford. Then we bought fifteen acres and a small house.
I think they called them CPR houses because they were straight up
– there were two rooms downstairs and the upstairs was like
an attic – and you pulled a curtain through and you had two
bedrooms. And still we were this big family, eh.
Chapter 4: The Snack Shack Drive-In
Abbotsford and a strawberry farm
We had to clear the land and pull the stumps out by hand eh. Like
you put dynamite under it, and it would fly up. It was all done
by hand. And then we put in strawberries. So then we had a strawberry
farm. And my father was a very good gardener.
Dick gets a job
The boys got older. The older ones got married. And they were away.
Then Dick was the oldest. He was 14 when he went to Mission. There
was a Frenchman who had a logging outfit, logging with horses. And
Dick was helping out. One day they were going up the side of a very
steep mountain, and the roads were very narrow. And those two horses,
they wouldn’t go past this one point. But Dick knew horses,
eh. So he put one horse behind the other, instead of side by side.
When the Frenchman saw that Dick knew what to do he said, “You’ve
got the job.” So he’s 14 years old and he’s working.
And he’d send home, it seems to me, six dollars a week - his
wages, eh. Because he was looking after the horses he was in room
and board. When he came home his lunch bucket was full of pies and
cakes and stuff you know. Bringing us food. You know he worked there
for quite some time eh. He always knew how to look after himself.
Katherine works as a maid for Mr. & Mrs. Harry Reifel
Then I went to Vancouver to work as a maid. Yes, a maid. I went
into a home that was called The Girls Home and there you could stay.
And this girls home, let me tell you, we had bread for every meal
and then they’d break it up and toast it in the oven and crumble
it up and we’d have it with milk in the morning like porridge.
But it was very reasonable and you didn’t have to pay until
There was a phone and there was always an ad in the paper for domestic
help. You took your turn answering. Say there were three girls ahead
of me, they would each have to get a job before I did. And then
it was my turn. Then the phone rang and I answered and got the address
and went. And so here is this girl ahead of me and she’s got
a call. She said, “Would you go along with me?” Well,
I thought, if you pay my way. It was either five cents or seven
cents, but every seven cents counted. So she paid my way and we
got into this fabulous house – Reifel’s. Did you ever
hear about the Reifel’s? Well they were German. They owned
a lot of beer companies. Multi-millionaires. Big beautiful home
on South West Marine Drive (Rio Vista) overlooking the golf course.
This is where she was being interviewed. There were two gardeners,
one was married with a family and one was single. And a Chinese
cook. And the gardeners took us in and sat us down. And of course
Mrs. Reifel said to the girl, “Come on in here for an interview.”
So I’m just sitting there waiting, looking, you know, because
I’m not being interviewed. When we got through she came back
and looked at me and said, “I’ll have you.” Meaning
me. And I didn’t like housework!
This was Harry Reifel’s. It was beautiful– you came
in and there was this beautiful staircase round and round and you’d
stand there and look down into this foyer.
There were huge rooms with hand painting on the walls. There were
quarters in the basement for the Chinese cook. The ballroom was
in the basement, and there was dancing, and movies shown. It had
a swimming pool.
I was the upstairs maid, eh. And you did very little. The Chinaman
had to do everything. The Chinese man, he was the cook eh. And they
had two little girls, Barbara Ann, and I forget the other one, but
anyway, two little girls. And there was a nursemaid. She looked
after the children. And I waited on tables and I think I was about
as useless as getup but I was there nearly two years.
One time they went away, and Leana Reimer, she was the nursemaid,
she decided we were going to have a party. And (the Reifels) had
gone out . They could have come home for the night, but they were
staying in Ladner. And we had a rip snorting party in the basement.
Today when I think about it I think, “Oh my gosh, if they
had decided to come home, in the middle of this party…”
Mrs. Reifel, she came from a poor family. Her father was a bus
driver, a city bus driver. Her family would come and they always
looked out of place, you know. These people were multi-millionaires.
They were the richest people in Vancouver at that time.
Katherine gets married
Then I met my husband Joe (Julius). Well, we used to go dancing,
with my brother Jack and his girlfriend. They had met him already.
In those days there weren’t that many men around. You hardly
met any eligible males. He had a good job – he was a tailor.
And he sewed for uniforms. I remember the braids that were on the
sleeves, that were on the shoulder. He was a beautiful tailor. I
always had very nice clothes because he made them all. I had a black
skirt that was fluted. I forget what happened to that, but it was
material that would never ever wear out.
I had two children, Sonia and Richard. They were three years apart.
Joe was a very hard worker and really knew how to do business eh.
He really knew how to come out smelling like a rose, whatever he
did. So anyway, he wanted his own business. We sold the house we
had in Vancouver, which I’m sure was paid for. Well he worked
and worked and worked. He had the best tailor shop in Vancouver
and he’d bring home piecework yet.
Bringing family over from Poland
We brought his sister over (from Poland) – she was younger,
not married, and she was also a tailoress. As soon as supper was
finished the table would be wiped off and the sewing would come
out and all night they would sew and make maybe one pair of pants.
She would do the handwork, and if she didn’t do it, I did
it. I think they got five bucks for that, for a whole pair of pants
with pockets. I mean tailor-made pants, not just any kind of stuff.
And then we brought all the rest of his family over, eh. There were
twelve or thirteen. They had been back and forth across Germany,
Poland and Russia and pretty well lost everything. So we brought
them all over.
Katherine goes it alone
I had a bad nervous breakdown, when the kids were small, and it
took me so long to get over it. Once I got over that then I though,
“I’ve got to get away. I can’t stand this forever.”
He was a very hard man to live with.
Joe was a very good buyer, right, and always made money. He had
bought a long stretch of property just outside of Aldergrove. The
front had a little old house on it. And the back was just property.
We built four houses up to lock up, meaning everything is in, but
no plumbing. In those days there was no running water. Just like
a shell of a house with windows and doors.
By now the kids were grown up and able to look after themselves.
I got a divorce. Joe kept saying we were going to divide the property
50-50. Well I knew very well there’d be no 50-50. But anyway,
he gave me the front piece of property with the little old house.
The property had been bought from an old couple and the understanding
was that they were to live free of rent in the house until they
died. It also had $4,000 owing on it. Joe gave me $4,000 and this
piece of property. He thought I’d put the $4,000 into the
property, but no, not me. I’d already been on my own for a
number of years. I was washing dishes in a restaurant. When the
old man died in the little house, the family took the mother to
live with them. Then the little house was empty, just when I needed
it. I was ready for it. So then we moved in; Sonya with her husband
Jim Willson, and me.
The Snack Shack drive-in
I had once seen a little stand across a street and somebody was
forever handing out food - there was always a car or truck stopping.
So I thought, “That’s a good idea.” I knew how
to cook, eh. Jim was a builder. I said, “That’s what
I’d like in the front of the property.”
Sonia and Jim gave up their jobs in Vancouver and we started building
what we called the “Snack Shack”. We lived in this little
house with no plumbing and no water, but it had electricity and
a chimney. So I bought an upright stove for five dollars. Remember,
I only had $4,000.
I’d seen somebody way up there (in authority) before I did
all this because we have to have an entrance off the old Trans Canada
highway on to the property. Some of my husband’s business
sense had rubbed off on me. So anyway, I had seen this man, George
Havers was his name, district superintendent, in New Westminster,
and I told him I’ve got $4,000 and by washing dishes and skimping
and saving I managed to always keep this $4,000. And now I’m
living in that little house. I told him that I’ve got this
corner property and I’ll put in a drive-in, but I’ve
got to have an entrance off the Trans Canada Highway. I was on the
corner of Beaver and Trans Canada. But there had to be an entrance.
You couldn’t go around the corner. He said, “You’ll
get an entrance.”
Gagliardi saves the day
Well, when we got closer to the drive-in being opened we wrote
several times back and forwards. Jim drew up the culvert, because
there was a deep ditch. And then he drew the entrance. I got a letter
back saying that seeing as how we’re not far from the corner
they didn’t think we needed an entrance, that we could go
around the corner and go in. Well, I knew Tunderveld who was next
to Gagliardi. I thought, “I’m going to phone Tunderveld
and tell him they promised me that entrance.” So I phoned
Tunderveld and I told him. He said, “Phone the old man (that
was Gagliardi, the minister) and you’ll see action.”
So I phoned Gagliardi and I told him the story. He said, “Next
week you phone Chilliwack and they’ll be in to put in your
Gagliardi got things done, just like that, eh. So I had the entrance
and the building and we called it the Snack Shack eh. We had a big
sign that said “Snack Shack”. Jim did all that because
he was a draftsman.
Good food and thick milk shakes
It was a gold mine because we had very good food, and hamburgers.
This was before McDonalds. Nobody had a drive-in. We bought good
meat and made patties with garlic and eggs and breadcrumbs. And
we would butter all the buns, mountains of them because we had a
very big business. And then we had fish and chips and ice cream
and milk shakes and coffee. The milk shakes were big you know so
thick with homemade ice cream.
We had it for a number of years. Then Sonia was expecting her first
baby. The young people then would go out on a weekend, everybody
was going away, and we of course had to work every day, all weekends,
all holidays, all evenings. Of course, we always had girls working,
and one of us would be working either the morning shift or the evening
shift. Jim and Sonia were tired and wanted to sell. I had a health
problem and needed major surgery. So we sold that and then I was
high and dry. Here I was, had a home and a business and money and
all of a sudden I’m by myself again.
The Snack Shack was just the beginning of many more adventures
that led Katherine to Vancouver and eventually to Grand Forks where
she and the family (daughter Sonia Willson and grandson Graeme Willson) invested in, designed, built and operated Golden
Heights, Restaurant and B&B, which became a community landmark.
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