O’Keefe Ranch photo A portrait of Cornelius, Mary Ann and James O’Keefe, circa 1898, taken by A.G. Blome of Ashcroft.

Ranch older than Canada

O’Keefe Ranch celebrates its 150th birthday Thursday, two weeks before country’s milestone

Spallumcheen’s historic ranch is older than the country it resides in.

The staff, board of directors, students, local dignitaries and visitors of the historic O’Keefe Ranch will gather Thursday to reminisce about the past and reflect on the impact of all the families who made the North Okanagan home as a result of Cornelius O’Keefe’s vision for the future.

“For the past 150 years, one of O’Keefe Ranch’s many claims to fame has been that it is two weeks older than Canada,” said ranch manager Glen Taylor. “In June 1867, Cornelius O’Keefe and his two partners, Thomas Wood and Thomas Greenhow, decided to pre-empt ranch land in the beautiful Okanagan Valley. Two weeks later, thousands of kilometres away, Canadian Confederation was solidified.”

In many ways, the O’Keefe story echoes those moments we’ve come to recognize as quintessentially “Canadian” – that O’Keefe heard about the Cariboo Gold Rush and hoped to strike it rich.

Years later, O’Keefe found himself accumulating wealth not through gold mining, but through selling cattle to the gold miners and to workers of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

The first decades of the 20th century saw an economic downturn throughout Canada, and the O’Keefe Ranch suffered as well. In 1914, when the Great War broke out, three O’Keefe sons and a grandson joined the fight – two of whom did not come home.

“Since O’Keefe Ranch became a historic site in 1967 with buildings open to the public to learn more about the O’Keefe story, we’ve celebrated the ingenuity of a man who seemed never to sit still,” said Taylor. “Cornelius O’Keefe had, at any given time, multiple business ventures to explore, including two movie theatres he opened during his “retirement.”

Today, the O’Keefe Ranch and Interior Heritage Society operates as a registered charitable organization on a 50 acre parcel situated in the Township of Spallumcheen and owned by the City of Vernon.

Open to visitors from May through October, it has become a beloved historic site with a museum, numerous historic buildings, rare breed animals, and an extensive collection of more than 7,000 artifacts. The ranch welcomes visitors from all around the world but it also plays a significant role to local residents; third, fourth and fifth generations of family members who have many stories to tell about their connection to the O’Keefe family, cattle ranching, and business in the region. Many people remember first visiting the O’Keefe Ranch through the school program and now they come back to share the experience when they bring their own children.

“It is important to understand our history and culture, where we came from, the people that built a foundation in Canada, B.C., and the Okanagan, said Taylor. “The O’Keefe Ranch does just that, through education and experiences that help us all to remember the importance of the past.”

The O’Keefe Ranch is also home to the North Okanagan Model Railroaders Association, North Okanagan Therapeutic Riding Association, and Spallumcheen Pioneer Power Club. On site are the Cattlemen’s Club Restaurant, RV Campsite, and Trading Post Gift Shop. The Ranch is used by a multitude of user groups through facility rentals and is also cherished as a wedding venue.

In 2016, the O’Keefe Ranch logged over 44,000 visitors and 9,400 volunteer hours, a great achievement considering the ranch is closed six months of the year.

Included in regular admission to the ranch are changing exhibitions. There are currently five available for viewing; “The History of O’Keefe Ranch in 50 Objects;” “Staying Home: Photography, Family, Memory;” “Leading Ladies;” “The Gallery of Cowboy Treasures;” and “Native Cowboys.” Interpretive tours of the O’Keefe Mansion are available all season long and historic tours by horseback are also available for an authentic cowboy experience.

“One of the goals of the ranch moving forward will be to expand the story to include the Okanagan First Nations, who have inhabited this land for much longer than 150 years,” said Taylor. “We hope to build partnerships with First Nations artists, historians and storytellers in order to assist us in sharing and creating the history of the Okanagan for the next 150.”

On Thursday, the ranch is holding an event to recognize the 150th anniversary with a BBQ lunch, speeches by local dignitaries, a performance by the Skeetschestn Drum Group, tractor rides, and, of course, birthday cake.

The public is invited to attend from 12 to 2 p.m., regular admission rates apply.

The ranch is planning larger festivities to take place this summer at the upcoming Family Days July 23 and Aug. 20. It will be free admission for kids thanks to a generous grant received from the Community Foundation of North Okanagan.

 

(O’Keefe Ranch photo) St. Anne’s Church at O’Keefe Ranch, in May 2017, following an exterior restoration.

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