In the interior of British Columbia, where Armstrong sits today, the land was occupied by the Indigenous for thousands of years as they moved through the land, following game and shaping the landscape.
The Okanagan people were the primary Indigenous group that lived in the area, and they would first come across Europeans as fur traders arrived in the area in the 1700s looking for the abundant fur found in the interior of British Columbia.
In the late-1800s, some settlers would come into the area including Alfred Postill in 1873, and he would build a sawmill in 1878 that had a capacity of 12,000 board feet per day. The sawmill would last for several decades and become an important part of the early community.
In 1867, the O’Keefe Ranch was founded and it would represent the beginning of European settlement in the Okanagan Valley. During that time, the Cariboo Gold Rush was going strong and the demand for food for miners meant that there was a lot of business for the ranch. The ranch was founded by Cornelius O’Keefe, along with his partners Thomas Greenhow and Thomas Wood after they drove cattle up to the area in June of 1867. From here, the ranch would grow and by 1900 the ranch covered over 12,000 acres. Cornelius would be pressured to sell over time and he finally would in 1907 but the O’Keefe family would stay on and ranch in the area but on a smaller scale. Cornelius would pass away in 1919 and his wife Elizabeth, followed by his son Tierney, would take over the management of the ranch. It was Tierney, along with his wife Betty, who made the decision to turn the ranch into a heritage site to celebrate the history of ranching in the area. They began to restore the buildings, brought in the blacksmith shop from down the road and reconstructed the general store. That store had been the first post office in the entire Okanagan Valley. On June 16, 1967, Premier W.A.C. Bennett would officially open the ranch to the public in front of 1,000 people by cutting a ribbon. In 1977, the O’Keefes sold the buildings and artifacts and land to the Devonian Foundation and the ranch was given to the City of Vernon. It continues to operate to this day, and can be visited from Mother’s Day to Thanksgiving each year.
In the area, the Round Prairie School would be built through a community effort in 1885, and would have Thomas Leduc as the first teacher. It would serve the area for several decades before the building was eventually taken over by the government for use.
In 1892, the Shuswap-Okanagan Railway was built through the area and that would be the start of Armstrong. At the time, the entire community of Armstrong consisted of nothing more than a box car, which not only served as the train station, but the rail agent house, who was the only resident of this new community.
One pioneer would say, quote:
“Apart from the box car, there was just willows and swamp.”
Nearby, there was the community of Spallumcheen, which had been bypassed by the railroad. As a result, the residents of the community packed up everything, including the buildings, and moved everything to where the box car was, creating the community of Armstrong in the process.
The community would be named for William Charles Heaton-Armstrong, who had a private bank and issued bonds for the construction of the railroad. He would visit the community that was named for him in 1892, the same year it was established. One interesting note is that Anthony Heaton-Armstrong, the great grandson of William Charles, would visit the community in 2002, and officially open the Armstrong Fair. At the time, Anthony was living in England and had no idea a town was named for his great-grandfather. He would say, quote:
Soon after the community was established, the Armstrong Hotel would be built. The first new house was built in the community by George Patchett. The St. James Anglican Church was built in 1885 and when the community moved to the new location of Armstrong, that church was moved as well. That church stands to this day and is the oldest church in Armstrong and you can visit it to relive the history of the community from 125 years ago. While there have been some additions and changes, the church stands as it did in the 1890s, today. In 1896, Bishop Dart of the Diocese of New Westminster would consecrate it and dedicate it to St. James. In 1903, the first pulpit was installed and in 1927, a bell that had been made in 1797 in England was donated to the church and installed.
In 1899, the Provincial Exhibition and Stampede would be held for the first time in Armstrong. It was around this time that the farmers and settlers of the area created a tabletop show in order to show different species of livestock for comparison, and to see which crops were superior, allowing farmers to adjust their next year’s crop accordingly. Soon enough, this small tabletop show began to expand as settlers saw the benefits to it and it would be moved to the fair grounds to accommodate this growth. In 1910, the first barns to house livestock at the fair were built. Those barns burned down in 1925, so from 1927 to 1929, barns were built for pigs, poultry and cattle. In 1919, the fair became the North Okanagan Fall Fair and it continued to expand what it showcased at this time. In 1930, the name was changed once more to the Interior Provincial Exhibition. While there were lean times during The Great Depression but the community would get behind the fair to help ensure it kept going. As such, the fair continues to this day and while it took a break during the Covid-19 pandemic, it will be returning in 2022.
In 1904, E.R. Burnett would grow the first celery in Armstrong, giving the community the title of The Celery City. That first crop of celery would amount to an astounding 300 pounds.
The community would slowly continue to grow and in 1913, it would officially become a town. The first mayor of the town would be James Wright.
By the 1940s, the community had grown to be a vibrant stop in the Okanagan for travelers, and a destination for many immigrants. When the Second World War ended, Dutch immigrants began to settle in the valley and around Armstrong. They would bring with them their knowledge of cheese-making and that would allow Armstrong to become world-renown for its cheese. At the time, Armstrong Cheese had been manufactured in the community since 1902, but the Dutch immigrants would help the company reach the next level with their expertise. Armstrong Cheese would be manufactured and distributed throughout North America and chances are you have had some at some point in your life. While the factory that made the cheese closed down in 2004, there is still the Village Cheese Company in the community. Visiting that establishment, you can watch master cheesemakers work at their craft, creating cheddar, Monterey Jack and squeaky curds.
In 1978, the Caravan Farm Theatre would be established as an outdoor theatre company that was based on an 80 acre farm in the North Okanagan near Armstrong. This theatre continues to operate to this day, putting on outdoor theatre productions for visitors and residents, giving a unique experience that harkens back to the days of outdoor theatre in the early-20th century and before. The farm theatre had actually been founded in 1972 in Montreal as a travelling puppet troupe until it found its permanent home in the Okanagan.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Armstrong, you can visit the Armstrong Spallumcheem Museum, which includes a replica railway station, schoolroom, general store and blacksmith shop. You can also dig into the wheat bin and find many artifacts on display from the early history of Armstrong. The various exhibits and displays highlight those who lived and worked in Armstrong and the surrounding area, as well as the sports, agricultural, political, civic and everyday history of the community. The museum itself has a history that dates back to an unfortunate incident. In the early 1970s, the residents of Armstrong found they were powerless to prevent a historic building from being demolished. In response, the Armstrong Spallumcheen Historical Society was formed in 1974 and the organization began to collect historical photographs. In 1983, the City of Armstrong offered the society space in a machine storage building. That same year, the museum would open to the public. It would then expand in 1988 and an art gallery was added.