Built by Cornelius O’Keefe for his family in 1886

Built by Cornelius O’Keefe for his family in 1886

A ride through history

Moira McColl enjoys a fall cycling day trip through Spallumcheen and rediscovers the delights of Historic O'Keefe Ranch

September and October are two of the best months to cycle in the North Okanagan. The back roads are free of summer traffic; it’s a great time to explore on two wheels.

North of Vernon is the Spallumcheen Valley, which means “beautiful valley.” We bike north from the intersection of 43rd Avenue on Old Kamloops Road, along Swan Lake. There is still some green in the fields that slope down to the lake. But Old Kamloops Road, with its very narrow shoulder, is no place for distraction.

Soon we cross to the right shoulder of Highway 97 and proceed west past young apple orchards and rows of tasselled corn. The highway drops down to the Spallumcheen Golf Course. On our right is the Historic O’Keefe Ranch.  We stop for a visit.

In 1862, 21-year-old Cornelius O’Keefe left Eastern Canada, eventually arriving in the Cariboo. He was too late to make his fortune gold mining and soon realized the real profiteers were those supplying the miners.  In 1866 he met Thomas Wood, and later, Thomas Greenhow.  They herded cattle from Oregon up into the Okanagan Valley.  Realizing they had discovered an ideal place to raise cattle, they each pre-empted 160 acres of land and, in June 1867, created the original ranch.

In the late 1860s Cornelius lived in the original log house with his aboriginal wife Rosie and their two children. Then in 1877 he returned to Eastern Canada to marry Mary Ann McKenna. They had nine children and soon the log house was too small.  By 1886 a fine Victorian house emerged, first as an addition onto the log house which was eventually replaced with newer additions. In 1899 Mary Ann died, leaving Cornelius with eight surviving children. He returned east and, at age 63, married 23-year-old Elizabeth Tierney.  Over the next 13 years they had six more children.

Today we join visitors from Quebec, Italy and Vancouver to tour the O’Keefe Mansion.  The rooms are adorned with the finest furniture, Italian glass fixtures, exquisite European porcelain and silverware of the day. The interior woodwork is hand-carved, including the staircase, constructed with no nails. A large Swiss music box, wound by hand, plays the top hits of 1905.

A wooden walkway leads to the old general store and post office where Cornelius was post master from 1872 to 1912. Farther along is St. Anne’s RC Church, constructed in 1888, the scene of many weddings today. The ranch prospered through the ‘80s and ‘90s and by the 1890s reached about 12,000 acres. By the early 1900s much of the land was sold to the L&A Company for orchards and settlement.

We visit the Quilt Shop manned by quilters from the After Seven Sew n Sews who display quilts and sell their handwork. At the Red Shed Pottery Studio a sign requests that if we buy pottery, to place our money into the blue cookie can. The potter, Burt, is making water filters out of clay and wood powder for Potters without Borders, an organization which provides simple, affordable water filters internationally (www.potterwithoutborders.com)

There is no time for a trail ride, the corn maze, or lunch at the Cattlemen’s Club Restaurant. Perhaps we’ll return in October for a ghost tour or to the Field of Screams when the corn maze becomes a very scary place. (www.o’keeferanch.ca )

We bike to St. Anne’s Road and continue north, veering right on Otter Lake Road to Larkin Cross Road. Turning right, the road winds through low land and crosses a creek before climbing up an old embankment. We pass tidy farms and turn off at Rogers Foods to visit its Bulk Food Store. What started in 1951 as a simple stone mill to provide flour to the Rogers family is now a thriving company that, along with a sister plant in Chilliwack, provides more than 457 tons of quality milled products to stores and bakeries across B.C. and Alberta.  I scoop up bulk B.C.-grown dried cranberries, the seven-grain cereal and bulk almonds.

After loading up our panier bags, we bike to the turn-around that puts us onto Highway 97A.  For four km we pedal along an ample shoulder, the sound of the traffic reverberating through our bodies. We turn west onto Highway 97, returning  to the Old Kamloops Road which takes us back towards 48th Avenue, clocking the ride at about 32 km.

Moira McColl is a freelance writer and cycling enthusiast in Vernon who hopes to encourage locals and visitors alike to explore the North Okanagan on two wheels.