100 years of mail in Dunster, BC

by Andru McCracken


The Dunster Store celebrated 100 years last month. Past owners Claude and Lily Hill flank current owner Chantal Swets and past owner Irma Brownlee. Some things haven’t changed but collecting the mail definitely has. / ANDRU MCCRACKEN

Dunster’s General Store has been giving people their mail, hardware and groceries for 100 years, and the community got together to celebrate it. Four of the owners were on hand: Chantal Swets, the current owner, Claude and Lily Hill and Irma Brownlee.

Swets took time out from running the store to join in the festivities, but was actively minding the store helping customers, and delivering mail.

Curtis Culp and Chuck McNaughton who came to celebrate the store’s centennial tried to express the importance of the store beyond convenience.

“The store owner always knows what is going on,” said Culp. “If somebody gets hurt, just go in and ask, they’ll know.”

Seeing all the former store owners lined up, McNaughton commented: “That’s the brains of the community there,” he said. “But geez, don’t tell Claude that.”

Culp and McNaughton said that the store is the hub that keeps neighbours in touch with each other, and it’s why the store is the heart of the community.

Getting to know you

Before she bought the store with two friends, Chantal Swets was an introvert. She had worked for 15 years “in the bush with the bears.”

“I was really shy and it was really embarrassing because I didn’t know all the old timers. I’d have to sometimes ask their names to get their mail.”

She said she is less of an introvert now, and also knows everybody.

“There are a lot of tourists who come in here and it is great to talk to them,” she said.

She said the challenge is trying to keep on top of ordering for the many things they carry.

She said some people may think she just sits behind the counter, but there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes.

Folks gathered to celebrate one the most important institutions in the Valley, the Dunster General Store. It turned 100 years old a week ago. / ANDRU MCCRACKEN

Waiting on the mail

Irma Brownlee owned the store from 1967 until 1971.

“The train brought the mail around midnight or so, if it was on time,” recalled Brownlee.

This midnight transfer happened three times a week, but rarely went according to plan.

“One time I’m standing up there and the train just barreled right through and then the brakes came on,” said Brownlee.

Information on where the train was and when it would be in was notoriously inaccurate. The standard line from Jasper was that it would come in a half hour, even if the train hadn’t even left Jasper.

“It was really annoying,” said Brownlee.

Claude Hill groaned in agreement. He bought the store in 1973 and the situation was no better.

“I’d ring in the station (two short and one long). They said it was two hours late. Well, you can’t go back to sleep,” he said. “You had to take the bag from here. Even if the mail was empty there was a little pink slip that HAD to be on the train.”

“Man alive, I don’t even want to think about it,” he said.

“You are standing there on the track in the middle of the night in winter trying to stay awake, this train goes past you and you are waiting for it to back up.”

Eventually Claude and Lily decided to have the mail brought via truck which simplified things considerably and improved the standard of living of all involved.

The freight train whistles past the station, now a museum and popular tourist destination. Many a shopkeeper has a story about waiting for the train to drop off the mail. / ANDRU MCCRACKEN

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