A lot of water has flowed past the old grist mill in Keremeos. So have a lot of people. Around the turn of this century the Grist Mill and Gardens saw some 17,000 visitors annually, says Walter Despot, the town’s mayor and one of the site’s champions. “That’s down to about 4,000.” Efforts are underway to get that stream flowing once again.
In 1877 the water-powered mill and onsite general store provided goods and services to the Similkameen’s burgeoning agricultural community. Eventually, steam-powered mills located nearer to major transportation routes took over the flour market and the store was converted to a residence. In 1979 the Province of BC took the historic property under its wing. By the late 1980s restorations had been completed and the mill was home to a busy interpretive program. But in 2003, the province turned the site over to a management society and after a few years of financial difficulty, it closed.
Enter Jim and Brenda Millar. “My wife and I saw a request for qualifications (for the property management contract),” says Jim, a volunteer in the heritage field for as long as he can remember. He was delighted when his application was accepted, but when he pointed out that the budget would only be “enough to run it on weekends” his point was missed. “They said, ‘That would be fine.’”
The first summer Jim commuted every weekend from his job as manager and curator of the Port Moody Station Museum. Last summer, the museum’s own budget was tight; meanwhile, the Grist Mill’s groundskeeper was temporarily unavailable. Jim took a leave of absence and set up digs in one of the Grist Mill’s buildings from mid-May through mid-September, taking a grand total of one-and-a-half days off.
Jim has heard that the only other applicant for the management contract had proposed using the property for medieval armour production. He feels it’s important to keep the site as “real” as possible. Prior to 2003, one of the mill’s popular attractions was the schoolhouse, complete with schoolmarm. “She was very good,” he says, but he doesn’t have the money to hire someone to play the role and the old desks are gone. Still, there was never a school on the property. Even if he could afford to bring the schoolroom back, Jim admits he has mixed feelings. Where do you draw the line between encouraging the public to view an authentic heritage site and creating a tourist attraction?
Keeping both authentic and afloat on a shoestring budget is tough. While a tea room and farmers’ market may help pay the bills, Jim is cautious about competing with local restaurants and fruit vendors. He is trying to capitalize on the Grist Mill’s apple house. Over the past few decades, fruit trees have grown progressively smaller and many orchards have given way to vineyards. “I want kids 50 years from now to see what a real apple tree looks like,” he says. Jim and his brother have grafted 18 apple trees onto root stalk, ready for planting alongside the one old Mac.
Many visitors expect a bit more flash for an entrance fee. Grist Mill Heritage Club volunteers are working toward “putting some shine on the mill” but Jim also needs staff to take care of and entertain visitors—and enough visitors to support the staff. Canada Day celebrations, antique auctions, outdoor quilt shows and festivals can help bring people, but the facilities can’t handle too big a crowd. Upgrading would be nice, but emergency restoration is a priority. Government funds are tight and the Grist Mill needs a steady stream of visitor fees to keep its wheel turning. How about planning a visit this summer.—Dawn Renaud
Photo by Dawn Renaud