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Kelowna’s first ski hill was much closer than Big White

This photo from the 1930s was shared by Steven James on the Old Kelowna Facebook page. It shows the Joe Rich Ski Inn.
Image Credit: FACEBOOK/Old Kelowna

- This story was first published Jan. 3, 2022.

In the “old” days, Kelowna residents only had to drive to the far end of Joe Rich to downhill ski rather than continuing all the way out to Big White Ski Resort as they do today.

That was so long ago that the ski hill shut down because there was a shortage of gasoline to travel to the hill during the Second World War.

The history of the ski hill is documented on the Joe Rich Ratepayers and Tenants Society’s web page.

“Skiing began in Kelowna during the 1920s,” the unnamed author of the story wrote. “One of the first organized ski hills was located on the Weddell’s property. Starting up Preston Hill on the north side of the present Highway 33, it ended in the field just across Joe Rich Creek opposite the Weddell’s home.”

Cyril Weddell was an early settler in Joe Rich and his descendants still live there.

He was actually born in Kelowna on Dec. 10, 1897. When the First World War broke out, he lied about his age and joined the army and fought at Vimy Ridge. Either there, or shortly after, he was wounded and returned home.

“When he had been home a short time, he received a draft notice,” says the Joe Rich website. “He had just reached the age for the regular call up and the bureaucracy had not realized that he had already been at war nearly three years, had been wounded and was home again no longer able to fight.”

With the help of Soldier’s Settlement funds he and Duncan Stewart bought a quarter-section of land in Joe Rich from William Preston. The land was the original homestead of Joe Rich.

READ MORE: Most Central Okanagan communities named after respected citizens, but not Joe Rich

“The 160 acres were divided with 65 acres of the flattest land with the house and most of the farm buildings going to Duncan Stewart, and 95 acres of the hillier part with only a barn (the shake-roofed barn which still stands just to the north of Joe Rich Creek across from the Weddell house) to Cyril,” the story goes.

Originally a cattle rancher, Weddell soon turned his hand to vegetable farming.

“Almost by accident Cyril got into vegetable growing and this earned more than the cattle,” says the website. “It started when he took a few heads of lettuce he had grown to a wedding which he attended in the early 1920s. A guest from Washington remarked on the tasty crisp New York lettuce heads and told him he could sell such lettuce for a good price in the U.S.

“Cyril grew more the next summer and began delivering them locally and then as far away as Washington and Kamloops with his small truck. Soon, he was growing 15 acres of lettuce in the spring and 10 acres of turnips in the fall.”

Unfortunately, Weddell became a victim of his own success as others in the region started growing lettuce and turnips.

“Cyril had as many as five hired farm workers and the expense of their wages kept increasing,” the website says. “As more and more lettuce and turnips were grown, the price the produce brought dropped and more had to be grown to make the same profit. Eventually in the 1950s, the price dropped to the point where the small profit no longer justified the expenses and the labour in the production.”

Weddell went back to ranching.

READ MORE: Why Big White Ski Resort isn't in the Central Okanagan

It was in the 1920s that the ski hill was built.

“Cyril and his hired man built a ski cabin near the bottom of the hill and opened up the fence just below the cabin so that the skiers could run out on to the hay field to finish their downhill course.”

During the Second World War gasoline was rationed so skiers stopped going to the hill and tried out a site on Black Mountain called the Black Mountain Ski Bowl, but snow was often too scarce there to get many days of skiing in each winter.

In 1960, Doug Mervin and Cliff Serwa decided to cross country ski up to Big White Mountain to see if it was suitable as a ski hill. The next year, they began to develop what is now one of the premier ski resorts in North America.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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