Florence Phillips (nee Smith) was born in Coal Creek, when it was a thriving community. Her mother and father met at the Trites-Wood store in Coal Creek, where father was a butcher and mother worked in dry goods. Florence has fond memories of catching the train to Fernie with her grandmother, and during these trips, the engineer, Johnny Dufour would let her blow the whistle.
When she was three, the family moved into Fernie, settling in a house in the Annex, and later moved to 9th Ave. Florence recalls growing up when every part of Fernie had its own school. “I learned how to do old time dancing at the Annex school. Lloyd Phillips taught dance and played the fiddle,” she recalls.
Florence enjoyed school, and remembers every day at lunch she would go to the blacksmith’s shop and watch him shoe horses. “Horses were my passion.” When she was 16, she got her own horse, and together with friend Shirley Uphill tried the art of trick riding. “We tried the ‘suicide drag’ but we never thought we would fall off,” she laughs.
As a teen, Florence would sing on stage accompanied by Shirley. She would also yodel, an art she learned from her grandmother, who would yodel her to sleep when she was as a child. She worked at the Kootenay Telephone Company as an operator, and for many years at Robinson’s store.
At the age of 16, at the Fernie rodeo grounds, Florence met her husband-to-be, Alexander Phillips, a grandson of Michael Phillipps, one of the original pioneers of the Kootenays. Married in the early 1950s, and living in Grasmere, Florence recalls her mother-in-law, Susit, taking her for walks in the woods and teaching her about herbal medicine. “She was very good to me,” she shares.
Three years into the marriage came a move to Fernie, at which time Alex worked in a local mine, until he and Florence moved to work in the local bush camps. “We worked in every bush camp around, living in one and two bedroom houses with a wood stove and no plumbing. We lived in a bush camp where Elkford is, and we would get water from the Elk River,” Florence notes. Over the next nine years, the couple would welcome seven children.
Florence speaks of Alex with great respect. “He worked at the Elko sawmill, as a sawyer and a faller, and was made a boss. Alex could take things and transform them into other things that they were not meant to be. He was brilliant.”
When Florence was 56, she saw an ad in the paper encouraging older people to attend the College of the Rockies (COTR). With a love of working with children, she enrolled in the Special Education program, and went on to receive her diploma. She secured a position working with children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) on the reserve in Cranbrook as well as with First Nations children in Cranbrook schools. “This was the beginning of a wonderful, wonderful time in my life.”
At the age of 65, as was the law, Florence took mandatory retirement from her position. “My whole world fell apart. I thought, my life is disappearing,” she divulges.
Florence admits she does not like the changes she has seen in Fernie over the years. “I don’t like where it is going. All the clearing of trails, it makes me sad. The bears always lose. People are coming here because it is wild and beautiful and they change it to be not wild and beautiful. It is heartbreaking really.”
Florence is a valued member of the board of the Fernie Family Housing Society. These days she keeps herself busy with painting, making paper beads and jewellery, clay work, reading, writing poetry and collecting driftwood and fossils.
With an unbridled zest for living and true pioneer spirit, Florence Phillips is this weeks “face of the valley.”