The Coombe brothers; well-read gentlemen

Jessie Coombes, one of the two Coombe brothers. (Submitted)

© 2019 Michael Riis-Christianson and the Lakes District Museum Society

Fred and Jessie Coombes, well-read gentlemen of subtle wit, arrived in the Lakes District in 1921 from the Lower Mainland. The brothers arranged for their land near “Bickle” (the Grassy Plains/Tatalrose area) through Summerland Agencies of Burnaby, BC, a firm that for a fee of $50 located a prospective settler and filed the necessary paperwork with the provincial government.

The Coombes brothers were friends with another local settler from the Lower Mainland, a Mr. Stricker, who had moved to Southbank a year earlier. In May 1921, they accompanied him on a hunting trip to MacDonald’s Landing. The trio didn’t have much success; red squirrel was the mainstay of their diet for longer than they cared to admit.

The Coombes brothers cleared their land with stumping powder, a grub hoe, and an axe, blowing the stumps out of the ground and digging out the roots by hand. They built a 12-by-12 bachelor cabin and planted a garden, adding a proper house the following year.

In the early days, the Coombes brothers lived off the land, eating fish until they were sure they resembled them, and rabbits until they liked them. Occasionally, a moose found its way into their larder, and it was a welcome change. Their garden also provided a plentiful supply of potatoes.

The brothers learned to cook in a hurry, as neither appreciated the other’s burnt offerings. Although sourdough pancakes were a staple, every self-respecting bachelor knew how to make bannock.

Jessie’s recipe for bannock went something like this:Lots of Baking Powder,Lots of salt, Lots of grease, 2 cups flour

Mix well, bake in an oven or on a campfire. For variety, add eggs or sucker fish.

When they needed money for one thing or another, Fred and Jessie worked in tie camps, did odd jobs for their neighbours (including another well-known Southside band of brothers, the Oknianskis), or fixed vehicles and machinery. Fred proved adept at watch repair, a skill that was in short supply throughout the region.

Both men toiled on the road crews from time to time, a job that paid $8 a man per month during the Great Depression. (Initially, only the road from Southbank to Ootsa Lake was graded. The route to Tatalrose, according to the brothers, consisted of two wagon ruts.)

In later years, Fred and Jessie moved to land across from what is now the Grassy Plains Store, where they operated a garage. Built of rough lumber, their combination storefront and home was a local landmark for decades. They conducted business in their narrow kitchen, which was dominated by a huge old cast iron stove, and as late as 1976, still had a mutual dislike for red squirrel meat.

The original gas pump from the Coombes Bros. Garage is now located at the Lakes District Museum.

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