CASUAL COUNTRY: Huston Agencies steeped in Cariboo history

Ken and Brad Huston are the second and third generation of Hustons to own and operate Huston Agencies. (Angie Mindus photo)Ken and Brad Huston are the second and third generation of Hustons to own and operate Huston Agencies. (Angie Mindus photo)
Claude Huston (Photo submitted)Claude Huston (Photo submitted)
Stan Turbit and Claude Huston (Photo submitted)Stan Turbit and Claude Huston (Photo submitted)
Wayne Huston at Ashcroft with the BX Stagecoach to Barkerville. (Photo submitted)Wayne Huston at Ashcroft with the BX Stagecoach to Barkerville. (Photo submitted)
Claude and Ken Huston at their new warehouse in 1970. (Photo submitted)Claude and Ken Huston at their new warehouse in 1970. (Photo submitted)

Located along historic Mackenzie Avenue in Williams Lake sits Huston Agencies, the second oldest business in the lakecity.

Huston Agencies was started in 1941 by Claude Huston and remains a family operated beer distributor and freight and trucking business to this day.

“It’s a point of pride,” current owner Brad Huston said when asked how it feels to be the third generation of Hustons running the business.

Brad’s grandfather Claude built the family’s first warehouse on Oliver Street, where Delainey’s Mall is today. A second was located across from where FreshCo is today.

Claude was born in Ashcroft, B.C. in 1903. You could say his father, Wayne Huston, was in the freight business too – he drove the six-horse team BX Stagecoach from Ashcroft to Barkerville during the Cariboo Gold Rush before there were trucks, eventually retiring at Soda Creek.

Prior to starting Huston Agencies, Claude married Marion Rife and found work driving truck for Tommy Hodgson of Hodgson Freightways back when Highway 20 ended at Tatla Lake, recalled his son Ken Huston, now 90 and still living in Williams Lake.

Ken was just 10 years old when his dad started Huston Agencies, however, Ken’s first job was actually at the local general store located at the corner of Oliver Street and Mackenzie Avenue where Ming’s is today.

“When I was 13 I started working for TA Moore and Company,” said Ken. “It was a general store and sold everything from lamp gas to chew to clothes and food. It was owned by Edna Moore.”

After the general store closed, Claude suggested Ken come work at the family business, which he did.

In 1960, at the age of 29, Ken met a young nurse named Doreen Cambell, who drove her car with her sister Iris from Ontario to both work at the hospital in Williams Lake. Ken and Doreen started dating and were engaged a year later, just one week before Ken was involved in a plane crash that killed the pilot, his friend and owner of the Maple Leaf Hotel, Jack Abbott.

Ken, himself also a pilot at the time, and Jack were in a Piper Apache float plane headed on a trip to the mouth of the Dean River for the start of the summer steelhead run Aug. 15, 1961.

After three failed attempts to lift off of Williams Lake, the plane, loaded with supplies, the pilot, Ken and the pilot’s young son, eventually lifted and the trio set off west. They were flying over Kleena Kleene when they saw their friend, rancher Stan Dowling.

Ken said as they went to circle around over Dowling, to signal hello to their friend, the plane flipped out of control into a downward spin.

“I had time to say goodbye to Jack as we went down,” Ken remembers, noting they were able to pull out of the spin, however, their tail hit a fir tree before the plane crashed down into a dry creek bed of gravel.

Jack died instantly, and Ken was “busted from one end to the other.” Jack’s son, who was sleeping in the back of the plane, survived physically unharmed.

The rancher friend who witnessed the crash rushed to the scene, helping Ken out of the wreckage. An RCMP Beaver was at One Eye Lake nearby and was able to transport Ken to hospital in Williams Lake where he stayed overnight before he was taken to Vancouver General Hospital where he would remain for 11 months on the orthopedic ward under the care of a hunting buddy, Dr. Hami Boucher.

Doreen visited Ken in the hospital as he endured three months of traction, followed by another long stint in a full body cast. Using mind over matter, Ken was able to ignore the urge to scratch any itches he had during the time and was mostly recovered when he was released from hospital almost a month later.

“I thanked the Big Man upstairs. I knew it was a gift that I was still alive.”

Ken and Doreen married in 1962 and took over Huston Agencies that same year.

In 1970, Ken built a new warehouse at 405 Mackenzie Avenue to house the growing business, which was the main beer distributor for the Cariboo region. They also raised a family of three children, David, Brad and Cindy.

Ken recalls the hay days of the old pubs and bars in the 70s and 80s such as the Maple Leaf Hotel, the Chilcotin Hotel (the Chili) and the Log Cabin, which helped boost beer sales at least 100,000 dozen bottles of beer per week in the region.

“We’d have beer stacked to the roof in the warehouse, and after Stampede it’d be empty,” Ken said of the old Stampede Rodeo days. “We’d deliver 40 kegs of beer a week to the pubs, 100 kegs a week during Stampede.”

Canadian beer back in those days included Carling, Molson Canadian, Lucky Lager and O’Keefe.

As a teenager Brad worked summers in the warehouse, before heading off to Cariboo College in Kamloops where he studied business administration.

In 1991, Brad returned to Williams Lake to learn the ropes from his dad, and has been running the business since 1993, with three staff in 100 Mile House as well as eight staff in Williams Lake today. His sister Cindy is also a shareholder and his brother David was actively involved in the business as well until he passed away in 2017.

Ken and Brad have a close relationship. The two live just a few houses from each other, and in the years since his retirement, Ken still makes a habit of stopping by regularly for a coffee and a visit and to make the bank deposits. “I think he liked to visit the ladies at the bank.”

Brad said his dad is his greatest mentor.

“He has really taught me a lot about how to run the business and life in general.”

Over the years, Brad has seen many changes in the business from the old days, such as a reduction in beer distributed throughout the Cariboo. Today, Huston Agencies’ list of services also includes general freight delivery, warehouse space rental as well as electronics recycling.

Brad married his wife Teena in 2003, and together have four children; Stephen, Jason, Mat and Ben.

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