Things are rarely what they seem, and to look at Fernie and the beauty and serenity of this quaint mountain town, it’s hard to imagine a past that would make for a great blockbuster hit.
But things weren’t always quiet in this western town, and thanks to a federal grant, the Fernie Museum is in the process of developing an exhibition that captures one of the town’s perhaps more interesting pieces of history.
David Wilks, Conservative MP for Kootenay-Columbia, was at the museum on July 23 on behalf of Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, where he presented the museum with a grant for $30,375.
The grant will go towards a project entitled, “An Immigrant Story: The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello”, which is a project that will provide details and history of one of Fernie’s most popular bootleggers.
“It’s a pretty cool opportunity for Fernie to express another part of history that a lot of people don’t know about and it all started here,” Wilks said.
In the early 1900s, Picariello left his home in Sicily, Italy, at the age of 20, and immigrated to North America, first landing in Boston.
Picariello eventually made his way to Toronto where he bought a small confectionary and found success, before moving to Montreal where he opened a second.
He later sold the confectionaries and made his way to Fernie in 1911, because he had family ties here, and went to work for the macaroni factory.
It wasn’t long before Picariello started running the factory and subsequently ran several other businesses out of the establishment.
One of his more profitable businesses was running alcohol to dry towns during the prohibition.
The Fernie Museum’s director and curator, Ron Ulrich, said Picariello was a man who seized any and every opportunity that came his way.
“If there was an opportunity to make some money and advance his family, he did. Certainly the bootlegging component of it, for him, was just a business opportunity. Here there was a chance to make some really good money.”
Of course, there was a risk with this sort of business opportunity, Ulrich said.
“There was some risk involved and he didn’t seem to mind. He was an entrepreneur, so the idea of taking risks was part of who he was.”
As with many risks, there are consequences, and Picariello paid the price with his life.
When Picariello, his son and another man arrived in Blairmore, AB while making a liquor run, the Alberta Provincial Police, who had received a tip of the run, were waiting for them.
A series of events ensued, and at the end of it all, an officer was shot and killed and Picariello was charged with murder, sentenced to death and hanged in Fort Saskatchewan in 1923.
Ulrich said there’s more than meets the eye to this story, and the more he researched, the more intrigued he became.
“In this story there is no black and white, there’s varying shades of grey. There’s no ‘bad guy’ there’s no ‘good guy.’ There’s just layers upon layers of stories with this,” he said. “It really demonstrates how complex Fernie was, socially. The further you go, the more rabbit holes you discover and the more interesting it becomes.”
Tourism Fernie Executive Officer, Jikke Gyorki, said she is excited to be partnering with the museum on this project.
“When we have an opportunity to garner some funding where we can really put together a great display and exhibit and tell the stories that brought Fernie into what it is today, it’s a really exciting opportunity,” she said. “Visitors are always looking for new experiences, especially enriching experiences. It’s a great opportunity that we’re actually partnering to market this exhibit together. I think it’s going to be great.”
As for the subject matter, Gyorki said she thinks it will attract visitors.
“I think it’s always great to have components of exhibits and historical reenactments through storytelling to have a bit of a lure and exciting component to draw people in and help kind of trigger people’s excitement and interest, but allow for telling the whole story. It’s not just about bootlegging; it’s about everything that went along with it,” she said. “It starts to touch on various different aspects of Fernie’s history as well, so it just gives us that opportunity to really expand people’s mind about the history of Canada as well as our area.”
The exhibit will be open to the public from Sept. 19-Jan. 6.