Don Knox, president of the Central Okanagan Heritage Society, is full of stories about Kelowna’s founders and popular figures.
“Growing up here, you’re just immersed in what was going on at the time. As a kid, when I went down to UBC, there were more people at UBC than there were in Kelowna. There were 22,000 people in Kelowna, but that was before the amalgamation” Knox said.
“The thing was, it was a beautiful spot, it was wide open as a kid, it was safe. There weren’t any restrictions. You could run wild. The reality was that it was a small town.”
He remembers going out for drinks when he was probably underage, and sitting at Sing’s Cafe, located on Bernard Avenue in the 1960s.
“This man at another table was acting up, so Sing, who was not a big man, told him to smarten up or he’d tell the young man’s parents,” Knox said. “(The young man) just wilted.”
The 69-year-old Knox’s roots are embedded in Kelowna’s history.
His grandfather, Dr. William John Knox, was one of Kelowna’s first doctors. He moved to the city in 1894. During that time he made $75 a month. In 1922, he played a key role in forming the first interior medical association and was elected its president.
“He actually practised in Kelowna for 60 years. He tried to retire when he was 80 but these little old ladies wouldn’t let him. He stayed on until he had a stroke when he was 86,” Knox said.
Knox’s parents Betty Knox and Robert Dickson Knox were also active community members.
His father was in the navy during the Second World War and dealt with mail shipments and secret service documents. He also served for 11 years on city council. His mother was Project Literacy’s first president. As a dietician, she also ran a food service at the hospital.
“She’s part of the reason I got involved with the Heritage Society because she was a member in the early days and was very active,” Knox said.
Prior to the 1900s, Vernon was the Okanagan’s leading city because of the railway, he said. Penticton had mining shipments from the Kootenays and used the Kettle Valley Railway.
“Kelowna was just kind of in the middle,” he said. It wasn’t until the Aberdeens started fruit farming in the 1890s that Kelowna started to build a population base.
In the 1920s, a shift focused on Kelowna’s waterfront, he said.
The waterfront was originally marshland, filled in by the Kelowna Saw Mill to create usable land,. That is why Kelowna doesn’t have similar beaches to Vernon and Penticton, he said.
Back then, the popular Kelowna business owner and Chinese immigrant Mar Jok, after he closed his Golden Pheasant Cafe on Water Street for the day, would open up the back of his business to feed the homeless, Knox said. Mar Jok founded the Chinese Cultural Society and Mar Jok Elementary in West Kelowna carries his name today.
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And those are just some of the pieces of Kelowna’s heritage. Preserving history is important, Knox said, so locals know where they come from.
Historical buildings also have value because they have stories of their own.
“The information about where one comes from, or where the city comes from and how it developed, is the story,” Knox said. “And the value in the buildings is the story they can tell in terms of ownership and the importance of the time and also the information that’s there from the building itself.
“When a building is made, the individual who builds it has certain crafts and abilities, and the wood comes from certain areas. Wood was milled here in old buildings, and that gives information about what was going on (during that time.)”
Knox hopes the younger generation will continue to carry an interest in the Okanagan’s history.