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The life and times of William Constable

Creston’s Centennial Citizen has been actively involved in history — at home and abroad
Creston named its Citizens of the Year Friday, May 17, at the Blossom Festival Opening Ceremonies at KRSS Theatre. Amber Parsons is Creston’s Junior Citizen of the Year, Rita Scott is Citizen of the Year, and for the first time ever, Creston has a Centennial Citizen — William Constable. (Barry Coulter photo)

William Constable was stationed at Camp Borden, Ontario, in August of 1945, only a few days before he was due to deploy to the Pacific Theatre and the Second World War, doing convoy escort as a flying officer pilot with the RCAF. 

The news of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima arrived on that day, Constable and his fellow officers knew at once that the world had changed. 

“I was with a group when we heard the news,” Constable recalled. “One fellow said, ‘we have just entered a new age.’”

At age 100, Constable has been witness to the ages — and most certainly Creston’s ages. He was born May 20, 1924 — the first birth registered in the newly incorporated Village of Creston, and is the exact same age as the town. 

He enlisted in the service in July, 1943, immediately upon graduating from high school, at age 19.

“That nagged me all the way through my service,” Constable said. ‘Did you fail a grade?’ No I did not. ‘Then why were you 19 when you signed up?’”

Constable went to a little school three miles from Creston, not far from where he grew up, outside of Creston towards Wynndel. 

“It was one teacher, and he had 10 grades. A main room and an annex. And because he was doing that, he didn’t want students who were six years old. So we couldn’t start school until we were seven. That was a long wait that year for me.”

The teacher, John Freenie, himself was only 19.

“He was brought in by the chairman of that school district, who said ‘there’s no discipline in this school, and my kids are the worst of all. So settle them down.’”

Constable’s family had moved to Creston around 1904. His father, Guy, came out from England to run the Alice Mine, which had been purchased by his uncle, Hubert Mayhew.

“At that time, the Sullivan Mine in Kimberley was for sale, for $150,000,” Constable said. “They had the money, but they didn’t buy it, because it had lead sulphide and zinc sulphide and trace metals. Well, the froth flotation process had not been invented, and they couldn’t separate the two sulphides, so the ore was useless. So instead of buying the Sullivan for $150,000 they came out here and bought the Alice Mine. I don’t know how much they paid, but it had no zinc. Just silver, lead and trace metals.”

The Alice Mine was the largest mine in the Creston Valley at the time. The First World War and the demand for raw materials brought a surge of activity, but today not much remains. All told, the Alice mine produced over 509,000 kilograms of lead, 538 kilograms of silver, 473 kilos of zinc, four kilos of copper, and sixty-two grams of gold (information courtesy Creston Museum).

“Now it’s to hell and gone up the mountains,” Constable said. “But at the time, in order to get the ore down to CPR trackage, they had to build a highline. They slashed out a pathway and built trestles and strung it with cable. There was a bull wheel at the top, and one at the bottom where the concentrator was. The full buckets of ore from the mine pulled the empty buckets up. If you wanted to visit the mine you just sat in a ‘visitors seat,’ and when you got the top you just stepped off.”

Constable’s mother was 47 when he was born. He had older brothers, but spent a largely solitary, independent childhood out in the countryside. The summer nights were so quiet, he would listen to the Yaqan Nukiy drumming five miles away to mark the end of the strawberry picking season. In the early morning he could wander off into the mountains and see the whole Creston Valley waking up before him. He got scarlet fever twice, and was quarantined. 

The only thing that’s left of the little school is the water well, Constable said.

The spring runoff would foul the school well and its water supply. So to get water, Constable described, “you walked out across the road, up a hill, to an abandoned tunnel (a mineshaft). At the end of it, the local people had built a little cofferdam across the end to make a pool of water.

“When the spring run-off flooded the well, you took a bucket, walk in there with a flashlight to the end, pick up a bucketful of water, walk back to the school, and put the bucket on a stool in the hallway. Everyone would then drink out of the bucket with a dipper.”

“In this school, when you got into Grade 5, you could be the janitor. The janitor got paid five dollars a month. His duties, amongst everything imaginable, were to sweep the floors, clean the blackboards and brushes, light the furnace fire. You got to do all those. I subcontracted the cleaning the brushes and doing the boards to a kid in Grade 3 for 25 cents a month.”

There were little schools all over the place in those days. But in 1938, the school districts were consolidated, five school buses were bought, “and they hauled everybody into a newly built school in Creston, which is now Adam Robertson Elementary.

“It was built by Poole Construction out of Edmonton. My father knew the contractor — Ernie Poole. Things were quiet construction-wise. He was concerned he was going to lose his crew, and he didn’t want that. So he built that building for $85,000.”

Constable’s father was appalled at how little it cost, he said.

The village of Creston was a far cry from what it is today. 

“One of my first recollections is when I was six years old, waiting to get into school, I was with my older brother, 12 years older than I. Where Pharmasave is now was the Grand Theatre. Right next door to it was the Imperial Garage. That was the last building on Main Street, on that side of Main Street, then you got into farmland, and there was a dairy farm right there.”

“In 1934, the present-day Creston Hotel was begun.

“John Shean built it the Creston Hotel. Shean was foreman on the CPR, the divisional point between Creston and Kuskonook, where the steamer used to come in.

“So he saved up enough money that he could build the Creston Hotel. It had two beer parlours, one for the ladies and the other for men. The men could go into the ladies, but the ladies couldn’t go into the men’s.”

Young Constable happened to be present one day when the Premier of the Province, Thomas Dufferin Pattullo (“Duff”) arrived. 

“Here’s John one afternoon, when ‘Duff’ Pattullo drove into town. John was standing on the front steps, his sweater all weighed down with dimes — a glass of beer was a dime. The premier and his chauffeur drove up. The premier said, ‘Well, greetings, John, and how are you?’ His answer was [gruffly] ‘How are the roads?’ He was a gruff sort of fellow.”

This was the heart of the Great Depression, and the so-called Bennett Wagon (or Bennett Buggy, named after the Prime Minister of the time) was especially prevalent in Creston. 

“Everybody took their Model T Ford if they owned one — or if they didn’t, they picked one up at the dump, took the chassis, made a platform on top of the frame, hitched them up to horses and you had a Bennett wagon. You could have different frames — in hay season they’d be high-sided, for example.”

Constable was Grade 12 president of the Creston Valley High School Students’ Council, and immediately went into the service upon graduation.

He took his basic training and introductory flight training in Edmonton, more flying school (in Cornell aircraft) in Abbotsford.

In the fall of 1944, Constable was training on the Anson aircraft (a forerunner of the Lancaster bomber), and was one of 11 who were selected from a group of 87 for further officer training out east. He was in General Reconnaissance School in PEI, preparing for convoy escort duty, and also followed an Army Commando course in Nova Scotia — a program of jaw-dropping physical toughness. 

His rating was above average. 

After a stint in the RCAF Special Reserve in Creston, Constable was training in Harvard aircraft, in preparation to deployment into the war against Japan, when news of the first atomic bomb arrived.

Constable’s next few months were in Western Air Command in Vancouver, before his honourable discharge in October, 1945.

Back to Creston in 1945, and Constable started working Creston Builders Supply, run by Bert Hare and Ernie Mann. 

“I was working for a baker who had started up a hardware store,” Constable said. “George Sinclair had been a baker on the Princess ships between Canada and Japan. He bought this bakery — one Sunday, his total sales were one cup of coffee — 10 cents.” 

Sinclair started the hardware store in Creston.

“The building is still there — it’s where Telus is today on Main Street. I was making $85 a month. [Mann and Hare] approached me a said they’d like to offer me a job at $90 a month. The problem was that Ernie Mann had a son, but Bert Hare did not. They said that if you pan out okay, you’ll have an opportunity to buy into the business.”

Five years later, when Bert Hare died, Constable took over as office manager. 

“We were running a fleet of five trucks. A secretary and myself did all of the office work. I did all the buying, the pricing, looked after my share of the counter, did estimates for the customers and what they needed to build a building … After 12 years of this, as time went on, I got fed up. 

Now married, Constable’s wife, Nancy, encouraged him to go back to school. And so for the next six years, the Constables, William and Nancy, pursued their degrees via summer school, at Victoria College, and later University of British Columbia, moving to the coast every summer their growing family. 

“For six years in a row, we packed up three kids — Greg, Guy and Andrea — a dog, a babysitter, all the food and clothes we could into a station wagon, and we’d drive from Creston to Vancouver in one day, stay overnight, go on to Victoria to this beautiful home on Willows Beach, moved in …

“We took seven weeks of summer school, went back to Creston, got settled in, and then started another school year. We both got our degrees. We changed over to UBC to take the classes they preferred.”

Constable taught in the classroom for four years, before getting on with School District staff as District Resource Centre coordinator. He and his boss, Adam Robertson (formerly Principal at the school that now bears his name), travelled the length and breadth of the district, from Argenta to Yahk, passing through the then Nelson school district to do so. Constable looked after all the elementary school equipment and resource orders.

Over the course of his career, and after retirement, Constable was deeply involved in the community he has been so long a part of. He’s been an active member of the Anglican Church, and charter member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, a member of the Kiwanis Club, the Royal Canadian Legion, the Masonic Lodge, the Creston Valley Rod and Gun Club, the Creston Valley Recreation Board, The Creston Valley Teachers Association — and then the Retired Teachers Association. 

After retirement, in 1986, William and Nancy took up the travelling life. In 1990, they both went to Czechoslovakia and taught English for a summer — a momentous time in Eastern Europe with the so-called Iron Curtain starting to come down. Once again, Constable was witness to history first hand. 

Post-retirement, Constable developed a great love for golf.

“I golfed with the same Flats farmer for 47 years — we golfed for fun. I was president of the club for one year, the year we built the new clubhouse. It’s a lovely course.”

Over the past century, it’s safe to safe no one has come to know the town of Creston and the Creston Valley like William Constable. 

“There was a time when I either knew, not everybody, but almost, personally, or their family,” he said.

And at this Year’s Blossom Festival, Creston reciprocated this knowledge and appreciation, naming William Constable Creston’s Centennial Citizen — there won’t be another one for 100 years — and recognizing how synonymous he’s become with the community.

“There’s a wonderful spirit here,” he said. “I was astounded [during the Blossom Festival opening ceremonies “100 Years of Music”] at the musical talent there is in this town. Also astounded by the esprit de corps of the people in this town. 

“And I’m very proud of the upper management, the mayor, the foresight they’ve had to turn it from a grubby little trail in the [‘20s — I think Main Street Creston is very pretty and nicely appointed.”

The following weekend, a 100th birthday party and gathering was held in his honour.

“We had this gathering, and open house on Saturday afternoon. Family members that came from Whitehorse, from Arizona. 

“I couldn’t believe the place was packed, and everybody intermingling. It was very gratifying for me, to see the different sides of the family mixing like that.”

William Constable tells the story of how, two years ago, at age 98, he got his daughter Andrea to take him to the Creston Golf Club, where he still has a cart shed and golf cart. He bought a bucket of balls, went out to the driving range, and very carefully, hit his last ball — a drive, straight down the middle, 150 yards. Perfect. 

Barry Coulter

About the Author: Barry Coulter

Barry Coulter had been Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman since 1998.
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