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Opinion: Remembering Valerie Giles

Reading her columns, you could practically feel your feet on those wooden sidewalks.
Valerie Giles web
Valerie Giles, local historian and former Prince George Citizen columnist, is interviewed by the local television station in February, 2016 where she talked about the history of The Prince George Citizen on its 100th anniversary.

When I moved to Prince George in 1999, everything I learned about this city’s history was through the Remembering… column by Valerie Giles that appeared each week in The Citizen.

Reading her columns, you could practically feel your feet on those wooden sidewalks and feel the sting of the cold in the winter and the mosquitoes in the summer as those early settlers cleared land for roads and homes and gardens. I also admired her approach as a local historian because she focused on people more than events and all sorts of interesting individuals in the early days of the city’s history, not just the movers and shakers.

Once I met her and got to know her a little over the years, I respected not only the work that went into those columns but the fiercely intelligent woman behind them. Over lunch, Valerie was a treat, a wealth of information on the broadest of topics and you never had to wait to get her opinion. She was quite enthusiastic about telling you hers and, more importantly, why it should be your opinion, too.

She wanted her passing to go by quietly, it seems, with no obituary, no public memorial service and she swore her close, longtime friends into silence. We couldn’t even find out exactly when or how she passed or how old she was.

None of that matters, of course, next to the incredible legacy of words and knowledge she left behind. The 560 columns she wrote between 1998 and 2009 were lovingly collected by her friend Kathy Plett, CNC’s librarian, for publication in a huge doorstopper of a book, organized and indexed by Giles herself. On top of that, Giles literally wrote the book on the Northern Hardware and the Moffat family.

She found joy in many passions. She loved the Prince George Symphony and wrote many glowing reviews of their performances for The Citizen. She loved Theatre Northwest shows. She loved dogs. She loved fine food, good company and deep conversation. As a devout Catholic, she loved Christ, the ceremony of mass and receiving communion.

She was also unashamedly smitten with a certain Irish news editor at The Citizen and made a point of hand delivering her latest column to him personally. For St. Patrick’s Day, she would come in before his shift to decorate his desk and leave him a gift bag, then would return later to see him, her flirty laugh carrying across the newsroom.

She inspired my own appreciation of local history and enjoyed my work sharing The Citizen’s history with residents during the newspaper’s centennial anniversary in 2016.

I owe Valerie a great debt that can never be paid, as will the historians for generations to come who will rely heavily on her work to know and understand the settler experience during Prince George’s first 50 years.

The last word should go to Valerie, of course.

So here is a Christmas column she wrote, which first appeared in the Dec. 18, 1999, edition of the Prince George Citizen:

The romance of the first Prince George Christmas

Valerie Giles, Special to The Citizen

Though Christmas time at this latitude is dark and cold, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is forbidding or foreboding. It’s just the reality of living with the winter solstice.

When Prince George was formed in 1915, Christmas would have been a lot darker and colder. Imagine the stillness of nights with no street lighting, no sound of traffic except by horse and sleigh.

Only nights with a full moon would have afforded enough light for safe travel. Fireplaces and cook stoves provided the only heat.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Prince George was already becoming a place where families could live comfortably. Settlers unable to do their own building could have homes designed and constructed by Danforth & McInnis or by the Prince George Builders Co. Ltd. A five room bungalow in the Millar Addition could be built for $2,250 with $500 cash and the balance arranged.

Those early houses were without benefit of modern insulation and central heating. Unless fireplaces had excellent draughts, warm houses were necessarily smoky.

The selection of shops established here by mid-decade was truly astounding. They included groceries and clothing stores, candy shops, cafes, a building supply, a butcher, and a music store.

Entertainment at the Dreamland Theatre offered “high class pictures” shown every evening and changed twice a week. Those were silent movies accompanied by what was advertised as a “photo-play piano – seven instruments in one.”

Live music recitals held at the Ritts-Kifer hall entertained weekly with a variety of acts.

Special Christmas candies were on offer during December – the canes and jellies and bonbons and gingerbread – which would be sold and enjoyed and then disappear until next season.

For families interested in celebrating by dining out, restaurants like the Club Café offered an ambitious bill of fare, which included every type of deceased fowl available and more adventuresome dishes of the pre-cholesterol-conscious-era like larded saddle rabbit in cream, German egg dumplings, and breaded lamb chops from a listing of 18 entrees.

Although decorating the family home at Christmas time had become popular in Victorian England before the turn of the century, the practice was still new and just coming to North America. Merchants made Christmas displays in their stores and shop windows and there was the “hanging of the greens” and creche scenes in churches. That was more the focus of decorating until the availability of Christmas lights later in the century.

It is still possible to experience the beauty of a winter night the way settlers living here in 1915 knew it.

Going outside the city away from all the light sources, there can still be found places peaceful and calm as they were then.

For a really memorable walk in the falling snow, it needs to be cold enough to feel the crunch of snow underfoot and to see the snow reflect like diamond dust under rays of moonlight.

Such a winter’s walk can become a link with the past and a calming and inspiring path to the future. All at once, we have a fresh start on a new year. At this auspicious time, we should dare to think bold thoughts.

Perhaps the time is close when prayer for peace on Earth and genuine expressions of goodwill matter even more.