City history told from the view of a pioneer

For Sharron Simpson, who was born here to a pioneer local family, her return to Kelowna as an adult meant coming home.

For Sharron Simpson, who was born here to a pioneer local family, her return to Kelowna as an adult meant coming home.

And, it wasn’t just that she had family here still.

“Kelowna is my home. There’s something very profound about the blue of the sky and the way the mountains go into the lake. It gives you a hug; it envelopes you,” she muses, recalling a walk in Knox Mountain Park this week and looking down on the valley below.

She says the pine forests of the Okanagan are where her comfort zone is.

Living now on the shoulder of Knox Mountain, Simpson says she can “walk on my mountain, go by the pavilion and give grandfather a pat. I’m blessed to live on the side of this mountain.”

Her return to the Okanagan is not unusual. Many people who grew up here return to their roots in adulthood. It gets a hold on people.

It was partly because of her deep connection to this community that Simpson embarked on writing The Kelowna Story: An Okanagan History, which has just been released by Harbour Publishing and is being launched at Mosaic Books on Saturday, Nov. 5, at 3 p.m.

It’s the most comprehensive and substantive book on Kelowna’s history yet published, but Simpson is quick to note that it’s her version of the city’s history; one that it’s not totally objective.

“Kelowna has changed so much in the past 20 years, and grown so quickly, that, as a community, we no longer have a collective memory of Kelowna,” she says.

“New people want to change things. They don’t realize why there’s a sawmill downtown or why Bernard Avenue is so wide.

“Hopefully, some of these stories will bridge that gap. I believe we all need to tell our stories. In this way I can give back to my community.”

Although some of what she’s written about is from her own memory, she also did considerable research.

“I loved the research. It was funny and breath-taking, and it was fun. The hard part was stopping to write,” she laughs.

She’s divided the book into seven roughly-chronological chapters, from Before Kelowna to the Past 35 Years. It’s hard-cover, with lots of black and white photos, most from the Kelowna Museum archives or Simpson’s own collection, in 320 pages.

Simpson left Kelowna to take Grade 12 at York House in Vancouver, then went on to UBC and York University in Toronto, first earning a BA and then a Bachelor in Social Work. However, a decade in social work found her back at university, and, armed with a master’s in environmental studies, she next became a stockbroker.

In the 1980s, with interest rates through the roof, she admits, “It was interesting times.”

With such an eclectic career behind her, she returned in 1984 to Kelowna and turned to politics. She served a term in 1986 as a Kelowna city councillor, but was defeated in her bid for mayor the next term.

Writing beckoned, and she put together local histories of Kelowna’s General Hospital: the first 100 years; then Boards, Boxes and Bins: Stanley M. Simpson (her father) and the Okanagan Lumber Industry.

Today, she says Kelowna is in its “late adolescence. It has to figure out what it’s going to be when it grows up. We’re still fighting about that; trying to sort out what it’s going to be like. We can’t agree on a model. We haven’t yet articulated an alternative to the idea of high rises downtown,”

She’s not sure what will be next, but she does intend to continue to write.