Edwardian Fernie’s last post introduced you to Marilyn Williams a great champion for heritage conservation and a new friend for us. Marilyn kindly sent us a little treasure that she found on one of her visits to Fernie and we want to share it with you.
Walking down one of our streets Marilyn located a home in Fernie that she identifies as being a BC Mills Timber and Trading Company prefab house. Looking at the details of the house and comparing them to some catalogue images there can be little doubt that she is correct.
Why is finding a prefab or kit house by BC Mills in Fernie important? After all this is not an unusual or grand house designed by a significant architect for someone rich or known? It is important because in this house we find so many of the things that distinguish the Edwardian Era. The house is an example of Edwardian design ingenuity developed on the west coast of British Columbia. It was a house that after manufacture was packed up in pieces and sent to Fernie far away in the toe of BC. (Though it has to be noted that BC Mill’s houses made their way further east and north into Alberta as well as Saskatchewan and Manitoba too.)
The manufacturing process involved in the prefabrication of houses in the Edwardian era shows us how the industrial revolution permeated even into house building which prior to this time had generally only been done on site from scratch. The prefab house answered labour and material shortages and gave the newly arrived in Canada as well as the upwardly mobile the opportunity to quickly build and live in a house that was more than a log cabin or a basic timber house. The Europeans arriving in the Rocky Mountains were no exception in this regard, and a quick perusal of Fernie’s old town streets show how much Fernie’s citizens longed for gracious and elegant housing like they were accustomed to in the places they had come from. No doubt too, there was prestige attached to ordering a house from Vancouver when all about you your neighbours were building small square boxes.
The BC Mill Timber and Trading Company was the largest manufacturer of prefab homes in western Canada and were noted because they were not merely pre-cut pieces that had to be assembled, rather they were complete packages.
“Between 1904 and 1910 the Vancouver based British Columbia Mills, Timber and Trading Company marketed a patented system of prefabricated sectional buildings in western Canada. Initially this system was devised as a means of supplying small inexpensive huts to incoming settlers in newly opened agricultural regions. Such structures were prefabricated, prepainted, packaged and shipped by rail to local distributors in towns and villages throughout western Canada. With a set of accompanying instructions, the purchaser could erect his dwelling in a minimum amount of time with little assistance or equipment.” – Allen, Robert S.; Mills, G.E.; Holdsworth, D.W. Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History #14
In other words the BC Mills home was a little like a piece of Ikea furniture. You were more or less expected to build it yourself – likely with a little or a lot of help from your friends and neighbours.
Readers will notice that Edwardian Fernie has not included a picture of the house in its current condition. Sadly, the house has, over the years, lost some of its original character and charm. Likely the owners did not realize they were living in a little gem that was worthy of protection and careful restoration. If there is a lesson to be learned from Fernie’s BC Mills prefab house it is this, before you undertake to renovate or restore a house it is a very good idea to do some research and find out about your house so that you can make good decisions about what to do with any restoration or modernization.
For those of you interested to know how such a house looks in original condition there is a link attached to Calgary Heritage where you will find an amazing example of the preservation of a BC Mills House that is the only surviving example in Calgary. The historical data provided about this house in Calgary is extremely informative and is indicative of the kind of registry of housing that Fernie should consider. Check it out here.