Marron Valley and its Mystical Pull
By: Suzanne Schmiddem and Randy Manuel
Suzanne and Randy researched and created a historical interpretive board
in 2010 for Phyllis Jmaeff, present owner of Mountain Springs Nature
Retreat in Marron Valley.
"Marron Valley.. is more than a name - it is a 'condition of the mind'
The Herald, Dec. 1, 1932
Photo 1: Marron Lake, 2009.
Four kilometres (2.5 miles) west of the junction of Highway 97 and
Highway 3A lies a narrow canyon hidden from view. Through it flows the
peaceful, 11-kilometre-long Marron River. Continuing west, you can catch
a glimpse of Marron Lake far below the road, surrounded by Ponderosa
Pine-covered slopes and grassy hilltops. The private drive into Mountain
Springs Nature Retreat marks today's entrance to two historical lots in
Marron Valley. The stories below are drawn from written and oral
narrative by people whose hearts have been touched by the valley, lake
and serene canyon with its dramatic rock walls, the gurgling brook, and
birdsong from tall water maples.
Photo 2: Map of Marron Valley (Courtesy R.S. Manuel)
The Syilx Nation People have known the Marron Valley, its lake, canyon
and hills, for many generations. Richard Armstrong from the Penticton
Indian Band, remembers: "When I was a boy, we pronounced the name
"Maroon," and I was told it meant rocks, granite. I remember riding and
playing, setting my horse free, down by Bursons. My dad, William
Armstrong, would bring furs to Burson, whatever animals had been
molesting our chickens and livestock.
"On one of the round hills above the canyon, our young men trained for
their vision quest (part of our rite of passage into adulthood). There
they trained to be in tune with nature. Not above, but part of,
everything. Our young men ran through the canyon and up the eastern ridge
of Marron Lake, training for running to Kamloops in a 2½ - 3 day
round-trip to pick up ropes of tobacco. Tobacco was smoked with reverence
in the evening or at ceremonies. Seeing smoke go into nothing, we are
reminded that we are all part of this same nothing.
"I feel good walking here and seeing places that mean so much to me, but
that I haven't seen since I was nine years old."
The Marron River is "probably the 'River of Wild Horses' mentioned by
David Douglas, botanist, 1833. (Edward Sabine, 'Report on - -
Observations - - by David Douglas - - ,' MS, Royal Society, London)..The
name probably refers to the wild horses which, according to Mrs. William
Allen and Mr. F. M. Buckland, abounded hereabouts in early days."1
www.Dictionary.com cites the origin of maroon: "1660-70; < French mar ( r
) on, apparently < American Spanish cimarron wild.; first used in
reference to domestic animals that escaped into the woods."
Marron Canyon and its Road and River
The canyon, through which flows B.C.'s smallest gazetted river2 -
brook-like Marron River - was a steep-walled natural trail of traditional
use first for First Nations, then by pioneers. Improvement of the trail
occurred between 1909 and 1912 during construction of the Kaleden
irrigation system, to accommodate horse-drawn wagons hauling supplies up
the canyon to build a dam on Marron Lake at its outflow. The canyon road
was then used by horse-drawn stages, motor cars and Greyhound busses
delivering mail to the Marron Valley post office and transporting
passengers from Penticton to Keremeos. Between 1931 and 1933, labourers
from a government relief camp constructed a new route (near the s-curved
"Roadhouse Hill" route in use today, circumventing the canyon), and by
1937, when the Jacksons arrived, the canyon road had reverted to private
The Marron River supplied irrigation water to Kaleden on Skaha Lake from
1909-10 to 1963. Water flowed from Marron Lake dam to Kaleden, a journey
of some 17 hours4 from the dam. A dramatic increase in the size of Marron
Lake occurred in 1922, when, as Henry Corbett reports in The History of
Kaleden, "the old earth dam (was replaced) with one having a concrete
core, increasing the height from five to 25 feet."
A Lot 2531 (320 acres/129 hectares)
William Smythe-Parker was a prominent pioneer citizen, a Justice of the
Peace and a real estate developer in the South Okanagan. In 1901, he
pre-empted Lot 2531 in Marron Valley at the upper, or west, end of the
canyon. He built the valley's post office near the road on these upper
sunny benches. He became its first postmaster, serving area residents
from 1909 to 1920.5
Photo 3: Marron Valley post office. (Courtesy Phyllis Jmaeff)
The post office was the pivotal building on his lot, because not only did
it function as a post office from 1909 to 1933, it provided William and
future owners (the Jacksons, Kellers and Menkes) with shelter over the
Fenton Smythe-Parker, a post office employee in Vancouver6, inherited the
lot after his dad died in 1924. The Penticton Herald reported the
establishment of a government work camp here on September 3, 1931. "..The
new Yellow Lake road camp. housing 100 men.. will be at work on a new
road (near today's Hwy. 3A "Roadhouse Hill" road) to get away from the
Parker Hill road, which is narrow, steep and winding." Penticton Herald,
September 10, 1931: "..The campsite has been placed on the Parker ranch
just at the turn of the road by the big hill which is now being
eliminated.with elimination of the present and devious turns." Mike
Ballash, whose father, Peter, worked in the camp kitchen as a 15- or
16-year-old, relates that ".there is a concrete foundation on the
property (Lot 2531)..my dad had told me during our visit there in '89
that it was the remains of what was the camp cookhouse in the early
An environmental disaster occurred in February 19327 when a small dam on
Marama Creek collapsed and the camp's entire sewerage disposal bed washed
into Marron Lake. Kaleden residents claimed their domestic water supply
was unfit and got their supply from Skaha Lake. Then, on April 6, 1933,
the Penticton Harold reported: "The Yellow Lake camp on the
Penticton-Keremeos road was closed down this week..Practically nothing
further.is to be done at Yellow Lake road except possibly some shaling on
the new hill on the Roadhouse property..Dismantling of the buildings
started on Tuesday morning."
After leasing Lot 2531 from Fenton for 10 years, Irish immigrants William
(Bill) Robert Jackson and Sarah (Sadie) Jackson began making mortgage
payments to Fenton in 1947 and the title transferred to them in 1950.
Lot 2358 (160 acres/65 hectares)
Joseph Henry Burson came to the Marron Canyon about 1909 to work on the
Marron Lake dam and Kaleden irrigation project, and never left. In 1917,
he pre-empted Lot 2358 at the lower, or east, end of the canyon.
Photo 4: Henry Burson, c.1940. (Courtesy Ted Swales)
Henry was described as a hermit who trapped for muskrat from Marron
River, and traded for wolf, coyote, bobcat and lynx with the First
Ted Swales, whose parents owned the Esso station in Kaleden which Burson
visited on horseback, recalls this local character. "Burson liked to be
alone, but was very sociable to visitors. He hung a tin cup for travelers
on a nail on the railing of the bridge crossing the spring from which he
carried water up to his house. When he saw us stopping on the road, he
would come hustling down to visit with us. He would ride to Kaleden and
visit with the people at the gas station. He had chickens and a horse,
trapped muskrat, and was a crack shot. Burson continued to work
occasionally for the Kaleden Irrigation District on a crew slashing brush
to keep the watercourse clear. In a really cold winter the crew would
quickly have to chop up the ice and get the water running again from the
Marron Lake dam all the way down the Marron River to the pipe intake, so
the pipe didn't freeze. In his later years he took Tom Ellis's summer
cabin apart at its location on a bench above the south side of today's
Hwy. 3A. He dragged it down log by log and put it together again to use
as his barn."
Other Kaleden pioneers remembered Burson fondly. "Burson always wore
chaps when he rode into Kaleden. To us kids, Burson was the one cowboy in
our lives, outside of Billy Kruger," said Ron King.
"Burson, they said, came from Kansas," recalls Ray Findlay. "He wore a
wide-brimmed hat like a scout leader, chaps and had a rifle hanging from
his scabbard when he came to Kaleden once a week to pick up his mail. We
kids didn't have a license, but we trapped muskrats and Burson bought
them from us for 85 cents. He chewed tobacco and had deep creases in his
face and chin with tobacco stains. He liked us kids."
Burson passed away in his beloved valley on July 25, 1946, at age 79.
Lot 2531 and Lot 2358 are combined
After years of hard work, Bill and Sadie Jackson purchased Lot 2358, and
both lots became known locally as "the Jackson place."9
Here, they raised three girls and two boys. "My dad was quiet, practical,
a peacemaker. The real story of the place was the long, close friendship
between Charlie Armstrong (from the Reserve) and my dad," recalls son
Edgar. Daughter Muriel speaks of the trust between the two men. "Charlie
stayed with the family when he had to go to the doctor in Penticton, and
once to take care of the children when Bill and Sadie had to go to
Vancouver on business with (Fenton) Smythe-Parker."
Photo 5: Charlie Armstrong and Bill Jackson. (Courtesy Muriel [Jackson]
Muriel remembers day-to-day life. "We had 14 milk cows before
pasteurization. Dad delivered milk daily in glass bottles door to door
with our Model T Ford over 14 miles each way of washboard gravel road.
After pasteurization closed us down, we turned the cows out and bred beef
cattle. We grew two to three acres of strawberries, sweet turnips, corn
and potatoes, which, along with beef, pork and chicken were delivered to
Penticton homes and groceries. We logged fir, pine and birch trees, had
a sawmill and cut railway ties. With our two-ton flatbed we hauled
firewood, topsoil or manure; anything anyone wanted."
About 1940-41, Bill Jackson built a home in Penticton so his children
could go to school. He commuted daily to his ranch until he sold it in
order to make a living hauling fruit from the orchards to the cannery and
packing houses. "We all worked in the orchards, cannery and packing
houses," says Muriel.
Weldon Phillip Keller purchased both lots from Jackson in 1959. Phillip
was passionate about nature, and named the property Bear Claw Ranch.
Although he never lived at the ranch, Phillip stayed in the post office
building periodically over the next six years. Phillip's first wife
Phyllis, together with their son and daughter and family friends, camped
with him in the building in the summer. The floor was so uneven that some
chose to sleep on the ground outside.10
Phillip drew inspiration from the natural beauty that surrounded him to
hold Bible study meetings and write books about nature and
interpretations of the Bible.11
It was his dream to give the property to the Prairie Bible Institute in
Three Hills, Alberta, to use as a Christian retreat. Phillip was very
disappointed when the Institute preferred to receive proceeds from
selling the property, saying it was too far away to be practical.
Herman Frank Menke acquired title to both lots in 1974, after being
introduced to Bear Claw Ranch by his friend and local farmer, Jim Leir.
As an entomologist and conservationist, Herman fell in love with the
biodiversity of Marron Valley and wanted to preserve his portion in its
Herman and his wife Genevieve raised a close-knit family of five boys,
and spent time every summer in the old post office (a one-room cabin),
refurnishing it with six bunks and an old large wood-burning stove, all
on uneven floorboards.
"Dad was cerebral and physically fit," says Anthony Menke, the oldest
son. "He. (had) great expertise in outdoor living. Our family loved to
walk across Marron Lake dam and along the east shore to the rock
outcropping. There we built a campfire and caught many beautiful trout in
the deep spot just offshore. While Dad owned Bear Claw Ranch he
instituted conservancy techniques by establishing plantings to prevent
erosion and developed small conduits for water to pass to avoid erosion
on the hilly road."
During the winter of 1976-77, unknown persons broke in, ate the stored
canned goods and burned the historic cabin to the ground.12 Stone
foundations marking the outline of this once-important building are all
that remain today.
Photo 6: Phyllis Jmaeff, 2010. (Lesley Jmaeff photo. Courtesy Phyllis
In 1991, Herman and Genevieve sold the lots to Phyllis Elaine Jmaeff, who
was drawn by the beauty and serenity of Marron Valley. She wanted to
"live with nature and be self sufficient." She established a certified
organic farm and named her property Mountain Springs Nature Retreat.
In 2005, Phyllis began welcoming visitors to enjoy the Marron Valley on
nature walks, and in 2009 she added a bed and breakfast and a retreat
facility. In 2010, Phyllis was designated a Wildlife Habitat Steward with
The Land Conservancy.
How amazing that this heart-felt passion for Marron Valley continues --
echoing the sentiments of all those from years gone by who also knew its
1 Okanagan Historical Society Report, 1948. 12:211.
2 Schmiddem's telephone interview with Doreen Olsen, Friends of the
Marron River, 2011.
3 Schmiddem's telephone interview with Muriel (Alder) Jackson, eldest
Jackson daughter, 2010.
4 Authors' interview with Jim Leir, 2009. Jim purchased the Marron Lake
damsite about 1963 from the Kaleden Irrigation District, and sold it to
Phyllis Jmaeff about 1991.
5 Melvin, George H. . "The Post Offices of British Columbia
1858-1970". Vernon: Wayside Press. Limited edition #378 of private
publication for stamp collectors.
6 The Penticton Herald, March 3, 1932.
7 The Penticton Herald, March 3, 1932.
8 Authors' interview with Richard Armstrong, Penticton Indian Band, 2010.
9 Manuel's interview with Gordon Kickbush, 2009. Gord traveled by
schoolbus past the Parker ranch.
10 Schmiddem's telephone interview with Lynne Holder, Keller family
11 Schmiddem's telephone interview with Ursula Keller, Keller's second
12 Schmiddem's telephone interview with Anthony Menke, 2010.
The Land Title and Survey Authority of British Columbia, Kamloops Land
Phyllis Jmaeff has been most generous in sharing her records and photos,
encouraging exploration of the historical sites on her property, and
welcoming those with stories to tell of past connections to her land.