The Fernie Museum recently received the BC Museums’ Association Award Of Merit for Excellence in Exhibitions for the Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello exhibit, which is currently on tour.
Adriana Davies and Ron Ulrich worked for a year to compile all the necessary information for this exhibit, which tells one of Fernie’s most iconic stories. This is the fourth project that they have collaborated on that has received provincial and/or national recognition with industry awards. Davies has spent the last ten years researching the history of Picariello.
Anine Vonkeman was in charge of graphic design.
The project also had some local support from Randal Macnair, Oolichan Books, Julie Winter, A-Signs Kootenay Signs, and Alain Stahl.
Emilio Picariello was a go-getter Italian entrepreneur, who came to Canada when he was 20 with very little, and the promise of a job. He first set up a small business in Toronto, but left all of it to pursue the establishment of a macaroni factory in Fernie.
With his wife and two oldest children, Picariello came to Fernie, seeing the opportunities of the macaroni factory, which was located where the IGS apartments are now.
He not only ran a macaroni factory; he also established an ice cream factory and a cigar factory.
Picariello ran a confectionary out of the ice cream factory which was instrumental for the Italian community. During this time, Picariello got to know the Costanza family. Mr. Constanza was a hardworking Italian miner with nine kids. When the prohibition of alcohol was enacted on October 1, 1917, it presented a whole other set of opportunities for not only Picariello but also a few others.
In addition to his macaroni, ice cream and cigar factories, as well as a wine making company, he was also a representative of a liquor distribution company, an ‘agent’ as he was called.
At the time, almost every bar had a wholesale business attached to it.
“Fernie, at the turn of the century, right around the time that the war ended, was a very interesting place to be,” said Museum Curator Ron Ulrich.
Picariello ran an import/export company, which was not uncommon at the time.
He had established very tight business connections with people down in Spokane, Idaho and Alberta.
There was also another fellow around Fernie at the time, by the name of Mark Rogers, who was associated with the King Hotel, as well as a young whippersnapper by the name of Jack Wilson.
Wilson was a new immigrant to the community, only 24 years of age.
When prohibition was lifted in B.C., these three became kingpins in Fernie.
“Fernie boomed in terms of its liquor trade,” said Ulrich.
Picariello bought a hotel in Blairmore and used this as his Alberta trading station. Together, these three used their liquor distribution warehouses in Fernie and their liquor import/export businesses as legitimate fronts for bootlegging liquor into the inland empire, east into Alberta and Saskatchewan. They became very, very wealthy, with a net worth of half a million dollars.
These men were competitors and they were allies, until one day in the near future when this would all change.
The Alberta Provincial Police were formed specifically to police prohibition. They were determined to nail someone for bootlegging.
Picariello was set up by Rogers on September 14, 1922, who sent an order of liquor to the Italian, telling him to deliver it to Lethbridge. This was the second sting operation against Picariello. Rogers, who had ties with the Alberta Provincial Police, made sure they were waiting for Picariello when he crossed the border into Alberta. In the car, it was Picariello, with his 16-year-old son driving and all the liquor in the back. Another associate was following in another car close behind.
The police were waiting with a road block, Picariello went through it, ordered his son to turn the car around and started to rush for the B.C. border. During this, the police shot off the hand of his son who was driving the car.
His son ended up at the Michel/Natal hospital, and called his father to say he was okay. His father decided to head back to the Alberta Provincial Police with his acquaintance, Florence Lassandro. He did this thinking that if there was a woman in the car, they wouldn’t shoot.
Picariello returned to the police headquarters in Coleman, where he met Constable Lawson, who had been the Chief of Police between 1920-1922. Picariello knew Lawson very well. A heated exchange took place, shots were fired, Lawson lay dead on the floor while Picariello and Casandro escaped in the getaway car. They were both captured fleeing for the hills, and were later tried and hung for their crimes.
“It’s a very infamous story,” said Ulrich, “It would be the OJ Simpson trial of the day. That’s the magnitude at which it was carried across the country in every major news outlet.
In the trial, Picariello was represented by three lawyers, one of which was Sherwood Herchmer, who had previously served as the mayor of Fernie and was very well respected.
“What was interesting for us, was that when we started to piece this story together on our end, we realized that Herchmer’s law office is my office at the Fernie Museum,” said Ulrich.
Another piece of the story that Ulrich and Davies found extremely interesting, came when they discovered the letters of Herchmer that were written after Picariello was hung. It was a four-page debrief letter, which outlined how he felt about the result of the trial. In this letter, he outlined the facts pertaining to Picariello’s innocence. The forensics didn’t line up.
To him, this case was all about putting prohibition on trial. They were looking for an escape goat, and Emilio Picariello just happened to be a second-class Italian, undeserving of his self-obtained power. He was no Mark Rogers, with his model farm and his Studebaker dealership. He was a second-class citizen, and if they were going to put anyone on trial, it would be this Italian ‘dog’, instead of the established Englishman.
This case was taken to Supreme Court, and was dealt with quickly.
Ulrich believes most people only knew the Alberta side of the story.
“For us, as we continually seem to be doing, we’re uncovering elements or stories of Fernie’s past, that people have no clue about,” said Ulrich.
At the BC Museums’ Association Award ceremony, the judges commented on how they were impressed by the quality of research, the quality of the exhibit, its fabrication and design, with the budget the Fernie Museum had to work with. The Jury was also impressed with the accompanying book also written by Davies and published locally by Oolichan Books.
Every year, the museum hosts their annual fundraising party. This year, they are hosting a Shake, Rattle and Roll Hop, with a 50s theme, on November 18 at the Fernie Community Centre.
There will be a presentation of the Canadian Band Stand, with a 1950s style rock group. In addition to music, the Mad Cat Dancers will be showing everyone the latest 50s dance moves to get everyone up and dancing.
As a student of Fernie High School’s Class of ‘59, get ready to jive and twist the night away. On your way into the hop, stop by the Student Office to pick up your report card and new cafeteria pass before indulging in two specialty cocktails and a deluxe 1950s diner dinner (includes appies, dinner, dessert and soda shop floats).
Dinner is followed by a special production of Canadian Bandstand with the Sugar Swing Dancers and special musical guests Peter and the Wolves.
The bar will serve a selection of wine, beer and spirits.
Tickets are $85 a person and $160 a couple exclusively at Fernie Scotiabank.