As Lorena Draney of Bella Coola turns 103-years-old on Thursday, Sept. 14 we thought it would be the perfect time to run a piece written by a woman from Surrey, B.C. who knew Lorena many years ago in Anahim Lake. After Coast Mountain News had an article about Draney in 2022, Maureen MacDonald contacted Lorena by phone and followed up by writing a piece and sending it to the paper.
Happy Birthday Lorena!
When I stumbled upon the Williams Lake Tribune e-story of November 13, 2022 I found a gem from my past, Lorena (Engebretson) Draney, and uncovered precious family memories.
At a 102 Lorena had the same twinkle in her online photo which I recognized from my early days at Anahim Lake. An older picture showed her playing an accordion almost her weight and size. Then a third displayed Lorena’s award for fifty years of playing at stampede dances, 1937-1987.
The decades washed away. My memory took twists and turns back to Anahim.
I could see blonde Lorena, young again. She put the bounce in Red Wing and other cowboy tunes. As kids we twirled around the dance floor sliding on soap flakes that settled the dust. Later my sisters and I rock and rolled to the honky-tonk songs.
A month then another went by after I found the article. I dithered, wondering if I should write or telephone. What would I say after so many years?
Lorena would be surprised to hear that in my Surrey home, I have a piano from those distant days. But what might amaze her the most is the large photograph that sits above my Anahim piano. I snapped it on the way to the 1987 Anahim Reunion. It’s a picture of her family’s early homestead.
The Engebretson place was once a must stop. They ranched outside of Anahim Lake for much of the last century and to many they were the heart of the isolated Chilcotin community. My parents called them “about the best people you’d ever want to know.” It was a time when folks relied on neighbours as if they were family.
And people of the Anahim Lake area still feel like my relatives.
You see I was born there in a log cabin at the end of the 200-mile dirt road. Dust, we had a lot of it back then. My mother, Edna Dowling, sometimes said that the Anahim dust caught in my veins, gave me the grit to survive some close calls.
Like Lorena, my piano is also a survivor. It travelled to Anahim and then came back out. I wondered if she’d remember its arrival at the dancehall. In the late thirties, my father Stanley trucked the oak Heintzman from Vancouver over nearly 600 miles of rough washboard roads. Dirt seeped into its every cranny.
He often fumed, “It cost more to get a darn piano tuner out to Anahim, than to buy the blooming piano.” Why? My dad wasn’t a musician; rather he called himself a businessman. He considered the piano an investment, a way of attracting customers to the dances, the stampedes and to his Anahim Lake General Store. (The former Hudson Bay Trading Post is now known as McLean Trading.)
Despite vowing never to move the player piano again, he did. The Heintzman followed us to Agassiz where we lived part-time to attend school. But when we returned permanently to our Kleena Kleene ranch––it never came back to the Chilcotin.
For thirty-seven years it stayed behind in Agassiz, abandoned. At last, with my mother’s persistence, it came back into my life. Today the piano stands in my living room. Its big voice brings joy to our grandchildren, daughters, to my husband and me.
The Anahim piano is full of memories of Lorena, stampedes and the musical glue that brought isolated neighbours together. It’s my stake in Chilcotin history.
Sometimes it isn’t too late to call. Finally, in April I telephoned Lorena not once but several times.
The lilt and joy in her voice was unchanged. She asked if I had found a good-looking husband. I said I’d send pictures then she could decide. I also mailed other photos, one of her as a proud young mother. We’ve laughed and told new and old stories about Anahim Lake.
Lorena said that at seventeen, she and her younger sister hitched a three-day ride with my father. They both badly needed their teeth fixed and his freight truck was their only ride to the city. She chuckled. “He took us two dumbbells all the way to Vancouver.”
Thank you Tribune for connecting communities and families. Lorena’s story has restored a friendship, opened a virtual trove of treasures and it has my sisters and I returning for one more Anahim Lake Stampede.
This article was submitted by Maureen MacDonald.