I was on vacation last week and drove up to Barkerville with my family, following a lot of British Columbia’s Gold Rush Trail to get there. Barkerville is an historic town that commemorates BC’s gold rush and Billy Barker’s historic strike in 1862 at Williams Creek. I’ve known about and have wanted to visit Barkerville for years and, deciding that it was a great time to take a Canadian-based vacation, we planned and took the trip.
Barkerville’s website says it’s the “largest living history museum in western North America”. It boasts 107 heritage buildings and another 62 replica buildings. We took about a day and a half to visit Barkerville and we still didn’t see everything! We participated in a few experiences there that I wanted to write about because they were such effective and enjoyable learning situations. Barkerville is doing a lot of things well educating the public. Here are three of them:
Walking Tour of the Town
The walking tour of the town was led by a woman playing a character named Florence, a saloon keeper in Barkerville. Dressed in 1860s period dress, Florence told stories about Barkerville as if it were going on for her in the gold rush era present – she called it “my time” – yet was able to naturally weave in comparisons to other things of interest to us about how life had changed when she made references to “your time”, 2018. She made us all laugh at certain points, such as when she recruited the same unsuspecting “gentleman” to help her down small sets of stairs whenever she encountered them. I particularly remember her telling us the story of “her experience” of the Barkerville fire (which wiped out the entire town in 1868) because she painted a vivid mental picture for us of her running out of her saloon back and forth to the creek twice with possessions caught in her skirts to save them from the fire and noticing the “wall of fire” coming down the street. This storyteller kept me captivated throughout the tour.
Richfield Courthouse Session
Another great experience at Barkerville was attending the Richfield Courthouse session. On the afternoon of the first day we struck out on the 25-minute walk to Richfield from Barkerville to see a re-enactment of a real gold rush era murder trial. Richfield was a real gold mining community that now only has the courthouse left standing. (I forgot to take a photo of it but here’s one from the BC Archives and it looks pretty much exactly the same today.) Two men put on a performance for us of the trial of James Barry, who was accused of the murder of gold miner Charles Blessing in 1866. Their performance was clever in that they told us – in character – that they were going to perform a reenactment for us as other characters – and even argued about who was going to play which character! In fact the one talented actor played about six characters in the story, everyone from the court clerk to the accused, James Barry, to witnesses of both genders at the trial. The other actor played Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, a name that of course we already knew from living in Victoria as he was BC’s first chief justice and the old Maritime Museum building here in Bastion Square boasts Judge Begbie’s former courtroom on the top floor.
Again, the actors used humour throughout the court session and made us a part of the trial, particularly so by recruiting an eight member jury from the audience and having them decide on the trial’s verdict. My husband was captivated with the police-related details of the trial, marveling at the 1860s-era efficiency at “finding their man” in rugged territory. After Blessing’s body was found and evidence pointed to Barry as the culprit, Barry fled Barkerville. The local constable simply telegraphed straight down to Yale where they quickly picked him up and the constable went down by stage coach – probably a six-day journey one way at that time – to get him. Easy!
Lastly we really enjoyed the immersive school lesson experience, where you would have seen my daughter and I putting on bonnets as female members of the class and sitting with great decorum (backs straight, hands clasped on the desk in front of us) on our wooden seats. As a left-handed person I had to use a pencil and slate with my right hand (otherwise, our teacher said, our slates would get rubbed off as we wrote – and she was right) and everyone had to answer questions only after raising their hand, being called upon, and stating their name. We couldn’t forget to call our teacher “Ma’am”. This was experiential learning at its best…but I must say that 45 minutes in an 1860s classroom was enough for us!
Visiting Barkerville was a wonderful experience and I would really recommend a visit there. We saw lots of visitors of all ages including many families. Kudos to this bustling gold rush era town that is keeping history alive in the Cariboo region!