1852 - 1932
Price Ellison was born on October 6, 1852, in Dunham-Massey, England. As a child, he received basic schooling and an apprenticeship as a blacksmith. When he turned twenty-one, he left for the United States to find his fortune, however, after trying his luck in the California Gold Rush, he left for the Cariboo. With several partners he headed to Cherry Creek in the North Okanagan when word of a find filtered through the Fraser Valley. After several months of work, they found two nuggets worth $120 and $125 each.
By 1876 Ellison started working for George Vernon at the Coldstream Ranch and two years later he had saved enough money to buy three hundred and twenty acres in Priest's Valley for $320. The locale later became known as Forge Valley as Ellison established a blacksmith operation on his property.
Price Ellison first came to the forefront in the community in 1882 over the "Smart Aleck" incident. That summer Aeneas (Enos) Dewar was sent to collect a poll tax from the Chinese gold miners near Cherry Creek and failed to return. By November it was strongly suggested that Dewar had succumbed to foul play. Ellison volunteered to "ferret out the cause of absence and if possible, arrest the party." Several days' later Dewar's body was recovered from under the cabin of a Chinese miner named "Smart Aleck." Ellison spent the next two months searching but was unable to find his man. Upon returning the Attorney-General gave Ellison $300 for his efforts and then later the Ministry endorsed a community petition suggesting Ellison become a special constable for North Okanagan.
On his farm Ellison appeared to be an exceptional farmer, orchardist and rancher. In 1891, Ellison took home sixteen prizes in a number of categories and in 1893 Ellison's Barley won first place at the Chicago World's Fair.
Ellison's participation in the community as a director on the Kamloops Hospital Board and as Chairman of the Vernon School Board eventually turned his public work into a political career. In 1893 Vernon's citizens wanted him to become Mayor, however, Ellison declined as he had agreed not to run against his friend W.F. Cameron for the position. That decision benefited Ellison. By the years end, Vernon city council forwarded his name to the Provincial Government as a candidate for the position of Justice of the Peace. Five months after receiving the commission Ellison was promoted to Stipendiary Magistrate.
Ellison used his office and popularity to win the 1898 provincial election. For the next eighteen years, he represented the constituencies of Yale and later Okanagan, winning five re-elections.
Price Ellison's political success was cultivated by creating an image of integrity, purpose and kindness in the community through the media and public events. He sought political power, social status and influence to ensure that he prospered. If the community prospered as well, that would be a bonus. Ellison was to become typical of politicians in British Columbia in the late 1800's to early 1900's where they were some of the most corrupt in Canadian history. Ellison went on and used his landholdings as a vehicle toward prosperity. It was an incident in 1885 that perhaps motivated the blacksmith and special constable toward his drive for power.
In October of that year, Ellison got into a land dispute with two neighbours and the local Indian agent. He had built a fence across a trail which had been "a well recognized highway from time immemorial." Ellison did this to consolidate his property. The Government Agent tried to compromise with him by suggesting a gate allowing access to other properties but Ellison flatly refused. To build a road around the property would cost the government and residents about $2500. The issue went to a Magistrates court where the two Justices ruled against him. When Ellison found himself unsuccessful in his pursuit he turned on the two Justices and insulted them saying he would not comply. His language became violent and he was ordered out of court. Threatened with a court order to open the trail Ellison built the gate. Although he had lost this battle to his enemies, it was not to be the last time Ellison was before the courts over land issues.
In 1891 Ellison was back in court only this time he recovered land from a property owner including costs. During this time Ellison built a formidable land empire by gobbling up property from aged ranchers who purchased land in the 1860's. By 1894 Ellison controlled over 11,000 acres most of which was dedicated to wheat, although he did run 2,500 head of cattle and 300 horses. Many of these purchases were reported in the Vernon News which Ellison founded. His wife Sohia was the principal shareholder in the newspaper for forty years and Ellison was the Chairman and stayed on as President until 1925 but had controlling interests until his death.
Between the 1890's and 1910's Ellison bought land and then sold it for profit at times subdividing it. Sometimes, he would display the trait of a gilded capitalist by subdividing land and then cultivating an image through his newspaper of being a social custodian of wealth. One example was in 1892 when he staked off forty-five acres of his land to the east of Vernon into residential lots and insisted selling only to people who were willing to build credible buildings, thereby discouraging speculation. However, he also used his influence to improve the value of his land for a future subdivision.
In 1892 Ellison met with the directors of the Okanagan Land and Development Company. At the time he sat on the Board of Directors of the Kamloops Hospital and had recently chaired a public meeting aimed at establishing a hospital in Vernon. After the meeting a newspaper reporter wrote: "The directors of the Okanagan Land and Development Company at the insistence of Mr. Price Ellison, decided to grant an entire block on seventh street, on the south side of Swan lake, as a site for the proposed local hospital, in lieu of the three lots formally donated by them for the same purpose."
The two and a half acre parcel in question was adjacent to Ellison's property to the east. Ellison did not stop there to improve his land value. One year later his newspaper reported "the old school building was purchased from the government by Mr. Price Ellison who had it removed from the school grounds to a lot of his adjoining it." Ellison not only sat as the chair of the local school board at the time, but his wife initially ran the school when it was built ten years earlier. Then in 1908 the Conservative backbencher convinced the McBride government to release funds to build a new high school at the same location as the old school. Later that year Ellison sold his land to a developer and two weeks after the sale the developer's subdivided property appeared in his newspaper promoting the fact that the high school and hospital were located nearby.
Ellison's greatest legacy to Okanagan Valley residents dealt with his tenacious support of irrigation. Once again Ellison had an interest in this scheme to make money for himself, however, he realized that the community could also prosper converting from wheat and rangeland to orchards.
By 1907 Ellison's eight years of lobbying as a backbencher in Victoria started paying off. After a dramatic address in the Legislature when he showed off fruit grown from his orchard showing the merits of irrigation, $5,000 was committed toward a commission to investigate different schemes.
It took Ellison eleven years of service and winning re-election three times before Premier Richard McBride gave him a cabinet position. While as backbencher his only major accomplishment involved the 1908 Commission report on irrigation and the new Vernon High School. Five years after the Commission report Ellison now held the portfolio of Finance and Agriculture Minister. However, despite this he could still not convince McBride and other politicians to settle the irrigation question satisfactorily. Ellison informed the Western Canada Irrigation Association Convention in 1913 about the Commission but could not influence policy on his word alone. He took a chance the Royal Commission on Agriculture would support the concept of government paying for irrigation. Ellison wanted the government to pay for the total cost of surveying and constructing irrigation works and then to tax orchardists for the works for the first ten years. Afterwards, ownership of the system would revert to the orchardists with fees paid to a taxation district.
Ellison acknowledged, " the initial cost if undertaken by the government might be greater than if performed by a private company, but the cost would be nothing compared with the extra taxes they would derive from the land after the water was put onto it." Ellison may have felt his political peers were discriminating against him because of the location of the riding. He said, " the government of the day was spending thousands of dollars in dyking land [in the lower mainland] to keep water off, and [added] they could very well afford to spend very much more in putting water on the land, for the returns would be much greater." In fact by 1915 the Provincial Secretary's office responded to petitions from the lower mainland farmers urging the province to maintain and administer dyking and draining infrastructure in their areas by doing just that.
Ellison knew he had to get the government on board with this idea because he and other orchardists could not make money if they had to pay and maintain the infrastructure themselves. Ellison told irrigation officials and farmers, " the scheme is so large that private capital cannot take care of it [and] these companies have found it a greater undertaking than they thought." Concurring with this was the Kelowna Land and Orchard Company (KLO) which controlled the shares of the South Kelowna Land Company (SKL).
Another obstacle for Ellison was the lack of available labour for working an orchard. Prior to and throughout World War I, limited farm labour existed in the valley. For Ellison and other orchardists there would have been no point in converting their farmland to orchard when there was no labour available to help with the harvest. Ellison himself found the current farm hands were not competent. In 1909 a neighbour of Ellison's successfully sued him for $470 in damages after a fire spread out of control while his hired men were clearing land. The state of the orchard on Ellison's property near Swan Lake was beginning to decline and becoming infested with insects.
In 1910 Ellison was able to get away from the political life and the pressures involved and spend some time in the mountains of Vancouver Island. On June 2 of that year, McBride had placed a reserve on a large triangle of land (seven hundred and eighty-five square miles) in the centre of Vancouver Island for Government purposes, primarily as a park. On July 5, twenty-three members of the 1910 Exploratory Survey Trip led by Price Ellison, and including his twenty year old daughter Myra, left Victoria for Campbell River. Their ultimate goal was to climb Crown Mountain and explore the natural features of what was to become in 1911 Strathcona Provincial Park, the first provincial park in British Columbia.
The beginning of the end for Price Ellison took place in the late days of February in 1915. At this time he sat on the board of directors of Vancouver's Dominion Trust Company. This brokerage firm dealt with mortgages, stocks, bonds, insurance, and sold and purchased real estate. That month, Lands Minister W.R. Ross came under heavy fire for selling public land at low prices to speculators, namely Dominion Trust. A backbencher also asked Ellison about the sale of livestock from the government's Colony Farm near Coquitlam in 1912 and he confessed he purchased the animals, and later that he was associated with Dominion Trust.
Days passed and Ellison refused to resign or explain his actions beyond the question asked in the Legislature. The editor of the Vancouver Sun found this unacceptable and wrote a biting remark in the paper. The next day Ellison stood up in the Legislature to give a full explanation of the livestock purchase but not his role in the Dominion Trust Scandal because the former was less damning. Ellison then resigned as Finance and Agriculture Minister as Premier McBride dissolved the Legislature.
The bitterest irony that Ellison had to live with happened two weeks later when the government ordered a Finance ministry engineer to conduct a report on the physical and financial conditions of the irrigation projects of the province. It was eventually recommended that the government pay for and maintain works through irrigation districts, something Ellison had always promoted and which would have, not coincidently, made him a rich man.
As the election approached in the fall of 1916, much of Ellison's landholdings were in jeopardy. Ellison became President of the Dominion Trust in 1916 and made the fatal mistake in pledging his landholdings "as security to the bank in order to keep the company going as the other partners were unable to come up with the money." In November a legal notice appeared in his newspaper, the Vernon News, stating that the banks had seized most of his property as collateral from the bankrupt Dominion Trust Company. Politically the news was worse two months earlier when he lost his Okanagan riding to the Liberal Dr. K.C. MacDonald. The Liberals then swept the scandal-ridden Conservatives under McBride out of power. Ellison now only possessed his Vernon home and little more than two hundred and seventy-one acres which were held under his sons name during the liquidation.
Ellison tried to make a political comeback again as a Conservative in the 1920 elections but disarray within the party caused Ellison to back out. In 1924 he created his own party and ran as leader, however, he finished third in balloting.
Life became bleaker for Ellison. In 1925 he suffered a stroke from which he would never recover. In 1931, the upper portion of his Vernon house sustained considerable fire damage which likely was a contributing factor to his ultimate death. On December 12, 1932, Price Ellison died in Vernon Jubilee Hospital of bronchial pneumonia at the age of eighty-one.
Certainly Price Ellison's contribution to the Okanagan Valley was immense, not just through his community involvement, but also in advocating lasting contributions such as government subsidized irrigation infrastructure for the valley. However, one must keep in perspective what motivated Ellison to do these things. He espoused how his actions benefited the community or Okanagan society, however, under examination, his actions mirrored that of other politicians of his time; men who used their office, whether at the local or senior level, for financial gain.
Ken V. Price Ellison: A Short History of an Okanagan Pioneer Family.
Oyama: Privately Published. 1968.