When author Karen Southern started to research the history of heritage homes in Powell River’s Townsite neighbourhood in the early 1990s, it was a natural complement to her work at Powell River Historical Museum and Archives, and something she said was of great personal interest.
“I was working in the museum at the time and found I really enjoyed helping people find their roots,” said Southern. “It was fun to help them find their grandma's house.”
After securing funding from Heritage BC in November 2001, Southern began a book project. She was joined by editor Ann Nelson, who also helps with marketing and securing funding for the project, in 2002. Published by Townsite Heritage Society, House Histories and Heritage, Volume I - The Vanishing Buildings was released in 2013.
Now available to the public, House Histories and Heritage, Volume II - The Old Town is the second in a planned series that will include four volumes.
What began as a fairly large undertaking nearly doubled in size as the work progressed, according to Nelson.
“In the beginning, Karen believed the project would be about 900 pages altogether, three volumes, nice and tidy, a piece of cake,” said Nelson. “Here we are 15 years later and we're going to be close to 1,500 pages when we're done."
The team working on the book project includes Robert Dufour, who managed layout and photos, and Doug Mobley, who worked on sourcing and scanning the photos, as well as attributions and indexing, a task Southern said amounted to close to 100 hours of work.
Aside from the meticulous research involved in the project, changes in technology since it started led to challenges. Dufour and Mobley converted all the files from WordPerfect to InDesign, which they said took hours and required some creative problem solving.
"It has not been a painless process," said Dufour.
However, Dufour is quick to point out that being involved in the project has also been very rewarding.
“It's a very complex design project, but it's one of my favourite things to do,” he said.
Mobley said as someone who was not born and raised in Powell River, the project been enlightening.
“As an import, I've learned a lot about the town,” said Mobley.
Among the interesting details uncovered by the research is the number of different residents some of the houses had over the years.
“At least 90 to 100 households changed hands every year,” said Southern.
One house on Cedar Street has had close to 80 families call it home since being built. Cedar Street was also something of a mini United Nations, with nine different nationalities living on it at the same time during its early days, said Southern.
Much of Southern’s research came from censuses, phone and city directories of the time, but a personal account from an original inhabitant of Henderson House, built for Powell River’s first doctor, gave a voice to the research.
“Doctor Henderson's great-grandson contacted me and asked if I wanted his grandmother's diary,” said Southern. “That was very interesting and it settled a couple of questions we had.”
Southern said she hopes her work will be of interest to many.
"People tend to go back to their roots and want to see the house their grandfather lived in or mother was born in,” said Southern. “I think it will stimulate that once it becomes known you can find this out."
Southern credits the people who are currently restoring the old houses and breathing life back into the area.
"The Craftsman-style buildings were absolutely beautiful; you could have lifted any one of those out of Manager’s Row and put it into Shaughnessy [Vancouver] and it would just fit perfectly," said Southern. "We've been so lucky to have people come and restore these old houses and put so much effort into it.”
Copies of House Histories and Heritage, Volume II - The Old Town are available at Henderson House, Patricia Theatre, Paperworks Gift Gallery, Powell River Historical Museum and Archives and Powell River Visitor’s Centre.
A book launch takes place from 1-3 pm on Saturday, December 16, at Henderson House, 6211 Walnut Street.