Kilby Historic Park at Harrison Mills is the legacy of the late Acton and Jessie Kilby, for more than half a century proprietors of the rambling hotel, store and post office which officially became a provincial museum.
Situated on a quiet bay formed by the confluence of the Harrison and Fraser Rivers, Harrison Mills (previously known as Harrison Mouth and Harrison River) had its start as a store, probably during the Fraser River gold rush. As “Harrison River,” it is mentioned by at least two travellers of the day, including “Hanging” Judge Matthew Begbie. A second store was located on the north side of the river.
The first 166-acre pre-emptions in the area were those of settlers Donnelly, in 1862, and Bateson, in 1863. According to one historian the first industry, a fish plant, was established herein 1847 by the Hudson’s Bay Co. Twenty three years later Henry Cooper built a sawmill, the first of several to operate here over the next three-quarters of a century.
But it was not until the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway, in the 1880’s, that the future Harrison Mills began to truly prosper. By 1894 the settlement of Harrison River had its railway station, post office, telegraph and express offices (all built on pilings and connected by boardwalks because the low delta land is subject to almost annual flooding), and enjoyed daily mail service. The Directory for that year listed 22 residents. By the following year the settlement had 11 new residents. In 1897 Harrison’s population was 27, although there had seen several changes of citizenry.
The railway attracted further settlement on both sides of the Fraser, and sternwheel Steamers replaced the canoe service as Harrison River supplanted Cheam, the original train stop a mile farther along the track, as Chilliwack’s transcontinental link with Canadian cities and markets. Unlike its larger neighbor on the southern bank, which served a large agricultural region, Harrison Mills earned its last change of name (in 1910) by its lumber industry.
First had been Henry Cooper, in 1870, followed by the Martin Brothers. Shortly after the turn of the century their operation was assumed by Arthur and James Trethewey, who, after operating as the Harrison Mills Timber and Trading Co., sold out to the Rat Portage Lumber Co. four years later.
No sooner had the deal been closed than fire destroyed the sawmill. Rebuilt, it operated only two more seasons when it closed for the last time. In 1930 the old mill burned to the ground. The concrete walls of its power house and the pilings of the green chain can yet be seen on the south side of the railway tracks.
The Harrison River Shingle Mill Co., owned by Fulbrook and Innes of Chilliwack, also was in operation on the bay, on the west side of the Harrison River, in 1901. Sold to G. W. Beach of Chilliwack and re-named the Harrison Bay Co. Ltd., it was shut down by strike in 1948 and never re-opened.
Harrison Mill’s role as Chilliwack’s doorstep was superseded by the arrival of the B.C. Electric Co.’s Interurban line in 1910, and the Canadian Northern (now the Canadian National) Railway two years after, on the southern bank of the Fraser. Upon their completion Chilliwack residents no longer needed to cross the river to board the train and business declined, although, as late as 1930, Harrison Mills had a population of 300. Years after the settlement was reduced to a single general store-post office and CPR siding.
For latter-day visitors Acton Kilby’s general store usually was enough. Most found the three storey landmark to be a fascinating step into the past, with its Old West false-front, cluttered stock and “memorabilia.” Among the items on sale until recent years were sad-iron handles — more for show than anything else as they were in little demand by this time. Candy jars were a favorite Kilby container, holding everything from their intended contents to dried peas and beans, laundry detergent and insect powder. Eggs were wrapped in newspapers and tucked into empty soft drink cartons provided by the customer.
Despite its homely appearance the store-museum also carried modern goods, including small electrical appliances.
With its original fittings, samples of its earlier wares, and relics collected by Kilby, it became widely known as a museum. Kilby continued to add to his collection, many of the pieces having been put to daily use by the pioneers of the Harrison River area, Erroch Lake, Deroche and Nicomen Islands.
Until 1912 the store had served as a “temperance hotel”, Manchester House, providing meals, rooms, store and post office facilities to travellers and Chilliwack residents until the completion of the Canadian Northern. Because the trains stopped to take on coal and water, and to embark and disembark passengers, “Kilby’s Counter” was a popular attraction. Originally a ramp spanned the distance from the tracks to the store’s second storey.
A mile away, on the neighboring Skowlitz Reserve, had stood the area’s first store, operated by the Hudson’s Bay Co. Mr. Kilby could remember other stores which had served the town when he was a youngster (the last one burned down in 1911), as well as three sawmills, a shake mill and the boarding houses which had accommodated many of the settlement’s earlier residents.
Many visitors and representatives of B.C. museums offered to buy the relics and early photographs which Kilby had collected, but he would only surrender those of his treasures of which he had a duplicate, and then usually without charge.
Periodically groups of school children toured the old store, to gaze with open-mouthed astonishment at the beautiful set of scales, hanging coal-oil lanterns, couplings, belts, frying pans, and at the big open bins of rice, sugar and other commodities. Then there was the post office, Kilby’s collection of antique guns and a large array of farming and lumber milling implements in the basement.
Kilby’s lifelong association with the mill town dated back to 1902, when, at the age of12, he moved there with his family. Born at Sapperton (the Royal Engineers’ camp at New Westminster) on Aug. 4, 1890, he started work as Harrison River post office assistant under his father in 1906. After service with the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War he served as provincial assessor.
With wife Jessie he returned to Harrison Mills in 1922 to help his father Thomas, run the store and post office. Upon the senior Kilby’s death Acton was appointed postmaster on April1, 1928. Over the years he also served as a notary public, operated a dairy farm, was president of the Jersey Breeders’ Association, secretary and director of the Lower Mainland Dairy Products Board, and founder and president of the Milk Shippers’ Agency.
As well, he was founder and president of the Mission Farm Products Ltd., a milk processing plant. Besides these duties he found time to serve as Kent County counciller in 1920, as secretary-treasurer of the diking committee, and as a member of the Agassiz-Harrison Board of Trade. During his absences Mrs. Kilby operated the store and post office.
In December, 1971, it was announced that the provincial government and Fraser-Cheam Regional District would provide grants of $25,000 each toward the purchase of the property involved. Under the terms of the agreement the Kilby’s would continue to operate the store. Mrs. Kilby later donated two lots on the river side of the dike to Kent County for use as a public park and picnic area: these have been added to the land purchased by the province.
In the following years thousands of visitors enjoyed a tour of the general store-museum with the Kilby’s, who formally retired on Jan. 1. 1977, several months after Acton was hospitalized in Chilliwack. On July 27, 1978 Acton Kilby died, one week short of his 88th birthday. Besides his wife Jessie he left four children, 10 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren — and a rich legacy to British Columbia.