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Burns Lake says good bye to local business after 50 years

On Oct. 1, 1972 Gerald Eckland officially opened his denture clinic.

On Oct. 1, 1972 Gerald Eckland officially opened his denture clinic.

On Oct. 1, 2022 Gerald Eckland officially closed his denture clinic.

Fifty years of business and healthcare clamped shut, but the legacy goes back even farther. Eckland’s father Helmer and mother Elizabeth came to the area during the Great Depression and opened the first denture clinic in the Lakes District, but for the first several years he had to be tight-lipped about it.

It all started with a distinct odour. Elizabeth didn’t like the smell of his vulcanized rubber dentures. Being a trades professional, boilers and more, he set to work trying to improve things. He started a correspondence course offered by McCarrie School of Mechanical Dentistry in Philadelphia, and became so engrossed he moved the whole family, Gerald was not yet born but is youngest of six siblings, to Vancouver, working at the dry-docks by day and apprenticing with a dentist at night, until he was able to do the work himself.

Helmer moved back to the Lakes District in 1945 bringing along Dr. Manning, Burns Lake’s first resident dentist, who did not continue long. When Helmer had no dentist to work under [dental mechanics is a related but different profession], he did what any enterprising business tradesperson did in the mid-20th century. He worked illegally.

“He moved home and set up in a cabin and was bootlegging. That was illegal,” said Gerald. “He worked as a maintenance man at the hospital while he made dentures at home at night.”

When he retired from the hospital, he formalized the legalities of his operation and did a booming business.

Gerald was born in 1948, and not only grew up with dental mechanics going on around him, “I learned it right from the day I was born. He had his office at the house, and he hauled me in there to wash flasks. I can tell you stories about him hauling me home by the ear because I didn’t finish my flasks.”

Eckland became a machinist, as a first profession. He got jobs initially in Burns Lake, Quesnel, then Fort Nelson but always had a pang for the Lakes District that Helmer exploited.

“My dad came up there and begged me, almost on hands and knees, to come home and take over the business, so I did, and that was in 1972.”

He and his father continued to work together for many years thereafter. Eckland opened a practice in Smithers in 1983, and one in Terrace in 1989. At the same time he took on regional sales for manufactured teeth made in the United States, and became a consulting instructor all over North America. He and Helmer had perfected a technique that became recognized in the denture industry as the Eckland Technique, so his expertise was sought.

He also had clients from all over B.C. and even outside the province who prized his craftsmanship.

Gradually, he divested himself of his expansive practice and settled into denture work solely in Burns Lake. He was pleased to hand over the keys to his Smithers practice to his daughter Tracey who carries on the Eckland impression on the denture industry to this day.

She may represent the rarest of succession plans in the industry - three successive generations - she saw the toll the widespread operation had on her dad and so focused on the single clinic.

The industry changed. His longevity earned him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017 from the Burns Lake Chamber of Commerce, but the profession currently has a dearth of practitioners.

Burns Lake & District Chamber of Commerce manager Randi Amendt said, “We are always sad when we see a business close in town. Gerald Eckland has always been a big supporter of the community and the chamber so we will miss him, but we wish a very happy retirement.”

“I tried and tried and tried to sell,” the Burns Lake location, said Eckland, “but anyone who showed any interest all wanted to stay in the city.”

When the time came to retire, he knew himself well enough to dismantle the entire operation. Simply closing the doors would have meant the itch to work at it more would keep digging at him.

“Gerald has done so much good for our town over the years between volunteering in many aspects and always willing to support local events. It really says something about him and his business when you stay in business for 50 years, the dedication is notable. I, along with many will miss having Gerald as part of our business community. We wish him well and I am glad to hear he is sticking around,” said Laura Blackwell, Publisher of Lakes District News.

Instead, he will allow himself to dabble in his machine shop by the house. He has a habit of tinkering on vintage tractors, and he enjoys doing custom work. He has a grandchild who has become a machinist, too, so he knows they can talk shop and perhaps work on projects together.

He doesn’t envision leaving the Lakes District, however. When his father begged him to return, he had made up his mind with the first mention of it, and there’s never been any regrets since.

“This is where I was born and raised. That’s what brought me back here,” he said. That’s something the whole community has been smiling about ever since.