100 years of Mara Community
It was a momentous weekend in Mara in the middle of July, as the community celebrated the 100th anniversary of its hall and the launch of its new history book, “Mara Reflections.” The two-day celebration was focused on the heritage theme, with activities that harkened back to the days when communities created their own entertainment with homegrown creativity.
After a pancake breakfast on the first day, the local residents and the many former residents that returned for the event enjoyed a children’s theatre production. In the afternoon, there were tours of the nearly 100-year old Mara Church, followed by heritage games including a tug-of-war. That evening there was a barbecue and concert at the park.
Sunday began with a service at the Mara Church that included the dedication of a new stained glass window donated by the Robertsons, who had scheduled their family reunion in conjunction with the Centennial. We were there for the highlight of the weekend, the Centennial Luncheon at the hall and the formal launch of the new book. In the hall and adjacent tents the tables were arranged with flowers and as the pioneer families entered, musicians Murray McDonald and Dick Owings treated them to some grand old tunes.
After the delicious meal, Shuswap MLA and Minister of Education George Abbott and MLA Murray Coell provided their congratulations and best wishes. Coell is descended from one of the original Mara families and in front of the hall is Coell-Jones Street.
Dressed in pioneer garb, Joan Cowan, the history editor and curator for the Enderby and District Museum, provided us with some background to the book’s production. Everything, including the research, the writing and the publishing, was a collaborative community effort, which began five years ago when a committee was formed to tackle the project. Their goal was in part to produce a more extensive and more detailed follow-up to the first history book published in 1986, “Mara Memories.”
All told, there were up to 19 people that attended monthly or semi-monthly meetings, as material was slowly collected and reviewed. Fortunately, many descendants of the original pioneers still reside in the valley and thus there were many well preserved photos, documents and memories to work with.
“Mara Reflections” is a collection of photos, family histories and articles about nearly every aspect of pioneer life in the valley, with each one written by Cowan or someone from the community. Settlement began just after the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885 and by the time of the first survey in 1887, there were nine clearings and seven settlers.
The book begins with excerpts from three pamphlets created by one of the early settlers between 1908 and 1910 to advertise the valley and its “prosperous, rapidly growing and improving settlement” that had then a population of 300. It did not take long for Mara to become the heart of the region’s agricultural breadbasket, with its abundance of good water and soils that produce an abundance of “fruit, hay, vegetables, grain, etc.” thanks to a mild climate.
The second wave of settlement occurred after the Shuswap and Okanagan Railway was completed in 1892, which took over the original wagon road on the west side of Mara Lake. It was not until 1917 that the road on the east side joining Mara to Sicamous was built, thanks to the hard labour of war prisoners who were camped nearby. In 1922, after more improvements were made, the first automobile made it through to Sicamous on the narrow, rocky road.
After the book launch, while many of the children enjoyed an old-fashioned cakewalk game played to live music, the sales of the new history book were brisk. As we left, the crowd was heading for the bridge to take in the last event of the weekend, a wooden duck race on the swollen Shuswap River. “While at least 50 people worked to successfully organize the events, Mae Dangel and Helen Robertson have to be singled out for doing yeoman duty,” said Peter Vander Sar, who wrote many of the articles in the book and co-chaired the Centennial Committee with Karen Rohats.
Mara is one of many spirited Shuswap communities that has remained in touch with its heritage, thanks not only to the families that have stayed but also thanks to the newcomers, who have embraced the importance of knowing and sharing the history of our region.