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Horses photo courtesy of Boundary Country.

A pair of clean blue jeans. This is what a friend told Mary Vail she should wear to the Rock Creek Fall Fair dance in 1968. It was the weekend after Labour Day, and for Mary, a newcomer from England and Westbridge’s newest elementary school teacher, it was her first fair. Having only committed to a one year teaching contract, Mary could not have known that two years later she would become Mary Lautard, married to born and bred Boundary boy Eddie Lautard, and that they would come to spend their life together being deeply involved in their community and its beloved fall fair.

Today Mary and Eddie are both 84 and have left their family farm in Westbridge to reside in Grand Forks, British Columbia. Over the past 50 years, the couple has volunteered hundreds of hours of their time to the Rock Creek and Boundary Fair Association (RCBFA). Eddie has been RCBFA president six times and Mary has held the title twice. While they have mostly stepped back from their involvement in the Rock Creek Fall Fair (Mary still helps with volunteer training and orientation) the torch has been passed down to their eldest daughter, Rachel Lautard. 

Rock Creek Fall Fair in busier times.

Rachel and her husband live with their four children on a hobby farm east of Rock Creek. Between caring for their animals, processing their own food, and homeschooling, they live a full and busy life together. Homesteading is in Rachel’s blood. Her grandparents moved to the Kettle Valley in the early 1900s from France and the family quickly settled into their new Canadian rural life. Rachel’s grandfather Eduodard Lautard, was later employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway to manage various stations along the Kettle Valley rail line. Having such a long history in the area, Rachel sees the whole Boundary area as her home.

“I consider all these many people to be my neighbours,” says Rachel, “and it is important to treat them as such. By being friendly, interested and helpful to one another, we keep these community connections strong.”

 In 1971, when her father Eddie was fair president, Rachel attended her first fall fair at the age of one. In 2014, not realizing it might turn into a lifelong appointment, Rachel agreed to be the secretary for the association and has since taken on event coordinator responsibilities as well. Her four children, whose ages range from ten to sixteen, are also participants in the annual fair. 

 “My four children are all in 4-H and the fair serves as our club’s Achievement Day, which they prepare for all year,” Rachel explains. “Normally, each of them would be planning for exhibiting various animal or craft projects. Now all of that is on hold. There will still be an achievement for 4-H, but no spectators and no fair.”

4-H program participants proudly present their wooly contenders at the Rock Creek Fall Fair. (Jarrod Evans)

Like most fall fairs across Canada this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant the cancellation of the Rock Creek Fall Fair, and while the community has been understanding, there is also sadness. 

“This was supposed to be our 75th anniversary, with big plans in the works” Rachel laments. “I think we all felt a bit deflated.”

In 1946, the Rock Creek Fall Fair began as a one day event meant to showcase agricultural products, give a nod to the region’s mining history, and most importantly bring the Boundary region communities together for a day of connection and fun. Today it spans over three days, is held on the weekend after Labour Day and the community of 300 rallies together to host upwards of 10,000 people from the region and beyond. Participants, vendors, friends, and relatives start arriving on the Tuesday before the fair, filling up local campgrounds, bed and breakfasts, and motels. 

“It was always a homecoming, for the retirees that moved away, the kids that have gone to college,” Mary Lautard explains. “Everyone makes a point of coming to the fair.”

Local or not, for those who enter an exhibit in the fair, their display will be nestled snugly amongst the 3,000 or so other exhibits throughout the property, which are then judged by a local expert panel on the Friday evening. From the finest Bantam rooster to the tastiest un-iced carrot cake, there are opportunities for everyone to compete and hopefully, take home a prized blue ribbon. Come Saturday morning, a cowboy breakfast feeds the early risers, fueling them for the weekend activities ahead of them. Like Christmas, children spend the year looking forward to the annual celebration. They await the amusement rides, horseback vaulting, gold panning demonstrations, and mini barn displays. Adults immerse themselves in logging sports, country concerts, geology lectures, and lawnmower races.

The Lautard family opens the 2018 Rock Creek Fall Fair (Rachel Lautard)

2020 brings devastating loss of events

On the north side of the Kettle River and the Crowsnest Highway lies the expansive 60 acre property that the RCBFA manages. While the fall fair is their biggest fundraising event, the facility continues to run all year round. The large arena, open pavilion, and scenic campgrounds that the fairgrounds offer attract wedding parties, the annual spring Cattle Ball, music festivals, and motorcycle conventions. The place is booked solid every weekend from May through to September. This year however, all 2020 rentals were cancelled and the funds that come along with them, lost. 

“COVID-19 has brought a devastating loss of events and disconnect for the community,” sighs Lisa Sims, the general manager of the RCBFA.“There is a huge ripple effect.”

Lisa grew up on the coast, but thirty years ago, her parents bought and moved to a log home on the Kettle River. After coming to visit her parents for years with her children, Lisa soon fell in love with the area. As her parents started to age and develop health issues, Lisa and her husband thought about moving closer to them, to help out when needed, and in 2010, they moved out to Rock Creek.

“I love the quiet wilderness space. The river. The sense of small community,” she says. Lisa joined the RCBFA as a member in 2011, became treasurer in 2013, and since 2017, she has been the general manager. She is well aware of the fair’s history, knows the generations of family members that have been involved over the years, and is in awe of the incredible volunteer support that makes this fair a success year after year. 

“The RCBFA has a membership of about 30 voting members but around 300 volunteers,” she says. “There is a work bee the weekend before the fair and about 150 people show up for that.” 

Artisans, food vendors, and community groups like the Kettle Valley Lions Club and the Beaverdell Fire Department are also involved in the fair. They depend on it and its facilities for fundraising efforts, meetings and other organizational functions.

“COVID has changed the way we interact with our families and friends for obvious reasons,” says Carol Johnston, a representative of the Kettle Valley Lions Club. “Our Lions group is a social group and we enjoyed getting together often. Most of our fundraisers require that we get together as a group and interact closely with the general public. We will have to rethink a lot of what we do and how to get it done safely.”

The Beaverdell Fire Department (BVFD) is also learning to adjust to the cancellation of the fair. In 2019 they were asked to take over the popular Rock Creek Fall Fair beer gardens. For the past twelve years, the fire department’s funding has come primarily from the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary. However, training volunteers, maintaining the fire hall, and keeping the fire engine, pumper tender and ambulance in working order adds up. Securing additional money from events such as the fall fair can go a long way.

“We have to adhere to the same guidelines that WCB [Workers Compensation Board] has for employers,” explains Dan Jamieson, local property owner, roads foreman, and Beaverdell’s current fire chief. “We have a small budget for our department. A lot has gone to safety measures this year, and we initially struggled with resources.” Beaverdell is 48 km north of Rock Creek. The fire department has been around for decades, and while provincial rules restrict them from fighting fires as far south as Rock Creek, Beaverdell has a history of showing up for their neighbours, especially when catastrophes such as wildfires happen.

In August 2015, a human caused 2,500 hectare wildfire caused hundreds of Rock Creek residents to evacuate their homes. The evacuation centre was in Beaverdell. Campers at the Kettle River Provincial Park narrowly escaped by foot, many with essentials on their back and loved ones by their side. Hillsides were scorched, motorhomes abandoned, and livestock left to fend for themselves. Instead of looking up at fertile grasslands and open mixed forests, those travelling along Highway 33 after the flames were long gone, saw charred slopes, peppered with brittle snags of naked Douglas-fir and ponderosa pines. Around 30 locals lost their properties to the destructive fire and while some recovered and rebuilt, others never returned home. The 2015 wildlife left scars, some visible, others concealed within the minds and hearts of the survivors who endured it. 

The devastating 2015 wildfire above Rock Creek.

2017 was B.C.`s highest recorded year for total area burned; 2018 second worst. With temperatures warming, snow melting earlier, and forest ecosystems drying up, climate scientists warn that fires like the one Rock Creek had in 2015 are the new normal. Climate change and a history of fire suppression mean seeing fires that are hotter, bigger, and more frequent than we’re used to. Although B.C. managed to avoid a disastrous fire season this year, many communities in the Western United States have not been so lucky. The thick smoke coming up from hundreds of blazes to the south has been clogging up the fall skies, reminding us of the smouldering summers we’ve had over the past several years. 

The people of Rock Creek show their resilience

We live in a world that is more connected and populated than ever. Yet while life changing events such as wildfires and pandemics may be part and parcel of the new reality we face and share, we can adapt. Those behind the scenes of the Rock Creek Fall Fair like Rachel Lautard and Lisa Sims are doing exactly that, and despite COVID-19, they forged ahead in an effort to keep their community engaged.

“We were trying to maintain a connection to the community through virtual exhibits,” Lisa explains. Children as well as adults 16 and older were encouraged to submit photos of their exhibits at this year’s fair, and they were judged and awarded prizes. Having secured a provincial gaming grant before COVID-19, the RCBFA was also able to run their annual raffle fundraiser. Two lucky contestants won two lifesize chainsaw carvings of an eagle and a bear, creations of artist Ryan Cook. Organizers affirm that the fair will be back next year but in these uncertain times it might have a different look.

“It may be that the fair will have to scale back to what it was like when I was a kid,” Rachel Lautard suggests. “When it was more just for locals and less of an event that now attracts people from the Okanagan and Lower Mainland and beyond. We’ll see.”

Rachel knows hard times. 2015 was the year of the wildfire scares. Then in 2016, during a family camping trip to Conkle Lake Provincial Park, Rachel was attacked by a black bear while out on a hike. She escaped the attack somewhat shaken and suffered some nasty but non-life threatening leg wounds. Then in 2019, a scandal that the local RCMP had been pursuing for years came to light. Rachel, her family, and Lisa Sims, waded through the weeds of a police investigation that targeted two former members of the RCBFA board of directors for embezzlement. Lisa is grateful that the community has been able to put the incident behind them. 

“We have put controls and policy in place to prevent this from happening again,” she confirms. “We just hope that other nonprofits can learn from our experience so that it doesn’t happen to them.”

One thing is clear. Like Rachel Lautard, the people that live near Rock Creek are tough.

“I believe that with hard work we can overcome difficulties,” Rachel asserts. “I think that is the same for many rural dwellers who are used to figuring things out for ourselves or in cooperation with friends and neighbours.”

Some fall fairs may never recover from a disaster such as COVID-19. Yet with the right mix of tradition, community involvement, and courage, meaningful events like the Rock Creek Fall Fair will live on. The opportunity to consider how we want to go about living our lives, as individuals and as a community, hasn’t been lost on Rachel.

“I hope this pandemic will put things in perspective and make people reassess their priorities and value things like local foods and services, helping neighbours and serving their communities. When the borders close and there are trade issues with China or health concerns when going to larger centers, we are going to need those in our own communities to keep us going.”