By Jennifer Cronin
Free Press Staff
On this past Saturday morning I looked forward, with excitement and dare I say some trepidation, to meeting Claire Wilson. I had seen Claire around town many times, but we had never spoken. As “Fernie-ites” go, Claire is iconic. Upon introduction, my anxiety melted away when she reached up to give me a big hug. It was as if we had known each other for years.
Claire was born in 1924 in the Cranbrook hospital, the middle child, and only daughter to father Ora and mother Bertha (Bird). She recalls when she was a child travelling up and down the Kootenays with her family and living in lumber camps where her father owned and operated portable sawmills.
“I had a lonely childhood, with no sisters and most of the neighbours had boys,” Claire shared.
As a child, Claire took all of her classes by correspondence until 1938 when she came out of camp to attend Grade 9 in Cranbrook. A job at the Bank of Commerce in Cranbrook followed.
“I loved to dance! I never missed a dance,” Claire recalled. “We used to hitchhike to the Bluebird outside Cranbrook on Saturday nights.”
On Labour Day weekend in 1943, a very good friend “insisted” a trip to Fernie was in order, at which time Claire would meet Billy Wilson. Two years later they married, settling first in Sparwood where Bill worked for the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company. When asked if Bill was her first love, Claire laughs, “No! I lived during the war. I had a bit of a quandary because the soldiers, sailors and airmen all came home at once!”
Claire recalls how happy she was on the day that Bill announced he was going to run a lumber camp as her father had.
“It was wonderful! It was all I ever knew.”
A subsequent move to Fernie followed, and over the next 20 years so did six sons and three daughters, all delivered at the Fernie Hospital by Dr. Sparling East.
Claire’s daughter Anny recounts moving in next door to Dr. Leroux, who, when he learned there were six boys living next door, wrapped his house twice in barbed wire to keep them out!
Although considered a hockey mom from her time spent at the rink, Claire had a passion for skating.
“I loved to skate, we hit the rink every night. That was our social. I loved to skate,” she reiterated.
As a convert to the Catholic Church, Claire served as CWL president four times, culminating in the presentation of a special pin.
In 1980, Claire received a call from a friend who owned Special Day Gifts, on 2nd Avenue, who asked her if she would like a job.
“A job?” she laughed.
Husband Bill told her if she thought she would like that, then go for it, and she did. “Everyone thought I owned it. They had lovely things, right up my alley.”
When asked what the biggest change she has seen in her years in Fernie, Claire was introspective and said “the people.”
Although Claire’s life has not been without sadness, widowed in 2002, and losing two sons, she has a motto which daughter Suzie shared with me. “You get what you give.”
I have heard it said of Claire Wilson that she is a classy lady. There is no doubt about it. The fact she was crowned “Lumberjack Queen” is evidence of that.
What might not be as apparent is how truly beautiful she is. During the course of our interview, her daughters, Mary, Anny and Suzie, son George, daughter-in-law Susan, granddaughter Jennifer and great granddaughter Billie all stopped by for a visit. With 13 grandchildren and 21 great grandchildren, I suspect this was just a usual day.
This lady is beautiful inside and out. Strong, resilient, kind and deeply loved by family and friends.
Truly an iconic “face of the valley.”