By Dorothy Isted
Special to The Pioneer
A brawl at the old Wilmer Dance Hall in 1950 was the beginning of a 65-year-old friendship.
The nickname for our much-loved basin at the time was Welfare Valley. It was tough to make a living. Hydro was just being installed in homes and buildings, and the crews were well-paid union men from out of town. Local school trustees had recently completed wiring the Wilmer school and the union men came along and tore out their work. Only union men could be trusted to wire a building the right way. Several weeks passed before they re-wired the school.
There was always a dance somewhere in the valley on a weekend and it was a sure bet Joe La Rochelle would be there playing one of his instruments. Newly arrived school teacher Theresa Rogers was present, getting a feel for the community. Liquor and angry men arent a good combination. The fellows started thinking if they gave the union men a good thrashing, theyd go running and the local guys could have their jobs.
When the fighting began, Joe gestured to his wife Irene to take refuge behind the piano and Theresa joined her. It went on all evening, both in and outside of the hall. The women have been good friends since.
Theresa later got a job teaching in Edgewater where the La Rochelles lived. Irene worked as the school secretary. Dorothy Cameron of Edgewater worked at the Bank of Commerce in Invermere (now the CIBC) and had read about credit unions. She and her husband Don thought it would be a good idea for Edgewater.
There were only three telephones in Edgewater in the 50s and many people did not own vehicles. Credit cards did not become common before the 70s it was either cash or a cheque. Folks often couldnt get to the bank in Invermere outside of working hours. People would take their paycheques in to Willie Penners General Store in Edgewater and he would deposit them in their accounts in Invermere on Thursdays.
The Edgewater & District Credit Union (EDCU) was formed in September 1956 with the intention of serving the communities of Brisco, Edgewater and Radium. The first president was Leonard Wardale of Radium, with Don Cameron as vice-president, Hettie Penner as secretary and Dorothy Cameron as treasurer.
When they first opened, the operating hours were two days per week, and the operation was located in a room upstairs in the Camerons house. People would have to go inside and up about 20 steps. Dorothy Cameron was the teller. On the day they opened, there was a lineup of people who worked at the three lumber operations in Edgewater. Upon opening, the Credit Union had 22 members and $280 in assets. One year later, it had grown to 250 members and $32,400 in assets.
Part of the phenomenal growth was due to Theresa Rogers at the Edgewater school. The Credit Union had an education committee and one of their priorities was teaching people to save. Ron Schnider, who worked for the Credit Union over 39 years, says Theresa was responsible for about 50 to 100 of those accounts.
Theresa recalls taking little Johnnys three cents over to Irene and Dorothy on Fridays. She only recently learned that Dorothy would never let Irene go home on a Friday night until everything was balanced to the penny. That upstairs room was freezing in winter and boiling in summer, when theyd have pails of ice trying to cool things down.
Theresa recalls one boy who had saved enough to purchase a pair of skates and that got all the other kids bringing their money and it created more havoc on a Friday evening Their parents would give them money for candy, the Shell station was by the school, but theyd decide to save it instead.
Irene helped Dorothy on the nights the credit union was open and sometimes she was there by herself. She said, Dorothy was such a hard worker for it. I couldnt believe how hard she worked. She was really devoted to that cause.
Neither women were paid for their work.
Ron recalls, and Irene and Theresa agree, that Dorothy Cameron was the one who really pushed to get it going. He says credit unions are more small town than city. Their credit union was number 358, meaning there were 357 formed before them. Now there are only about 47 in British Columbia because of mergers.
Back then, people might be more likely to get a loan from a credit union than a bank, because a bank looked at just credit ratings, but the credit union, based in the community, looked at the person. However, there was a downside. Ron explained: A credit committee met once a week, about five people. The manager never made the decision about the loan application. That was one of the negatives and why a lot didnt join the credit union, because they thought too many people would know their information.
The old Conzelman hardware store was renovated and the credit union had their first storefront operation. Ron worked in that building two years as both teller and janitor, before being transferred to the Invermere branch. He was paid less than minimum wage, which in 1966 was $1 per hour in B.C.. The job was a good fit for Ron, who was approached by the organization. Due to a thyroid problem, he was only four foot four inches at high school graduation. His parents had just ceased operating the family farm and there werent many options outside of working in the labour-intensive forestry industry (he did manage to grow another foot in the next eight years due to medical intervention). After a summer job working in Kootenay National Park for $1.68 an hour Ron saw this as, basically, a great opportunity.
Dorothy Cameron also started a Windermere credit union, which didnt prosper so they joined up with EDCU and thus the Invermere branch opened. After two years as a clerk, Ron was made a loans officer in 1968. He proudly served three generations of the same families before he retired.
Ron recalls November was always a tough month, before credit cards. People would go out of town to shop for Christmas and merchants in Cranbrook and Calgary wouldnt take their cheques. So there were huge cash withdrawals in November. Ron used to go over to the liquor store, write a certified cheque on his own personal account and purchase $2,000 to $3,000 before the Commerce could get a hold of it. They werent too happy about it.
In 1998, EDCU merged with Kootenay Savings Credit Union. At the time, Edgewater & District Credit Union asked for and received a commitment from Kootenay Savings that the Edgewater branch would remain open. Within a decade, the branch was shut down. Ron said a lot of people in the community were really angry over that closure. However, he acknowledged that they couldnt get any more business in Edgewater than what they already had.
Aron Burke, Community Liaison for Kootenay Savings who works in the corporate office in Trail commented: It was a tough decision we had to close it. But nice that we could gift it to the community for a library. The building was not working anymore, so small, and it was a great opportunity to move into Radium.
People may not realize there are distinct differences between a credit union and a bank. Banks have shareholders that want to be paid profits. Credit unions give the profits back to the communities they serve. Aron elaborated, Were a big supporter of the Columbia Valley Community Foundation. In 2009, we set up an endowment fund, beginning with a donation of $113,000 and every year since weve donated between $5,600 to $11,300 to them.
Other recipients have been the Family Resource Centre. The Windermere Community Association received $5,000 for hall upgrades a few years ago. The Columbia Valley Arts Council has received grants a few times for upgrades to Pynelogs. Recently $15,000 was donated to the Rotary Splash Park. Kootenay Savings gives bursaries to high school students each year, are big supporters of youth sports, soccer and the Columbia Valley Rockies. The list goes on.
Another difference is each credit union member gets one vote in elections; and the Board of Directors work for the membership, not shareholders. They serve as volunteers and dont get paid. Members also benefit from the patronage fund, which pays individual members back a percentage of the interest on loans made to them.
Irene La Rochelle served as the credit union secretary for many years and also as president of the local branch and president of the East Kootenay chapter of credit unions. When the Radium branch opened, she was asked to cut the ribbon because of this. She and her friend Theresa Rogers enjoy regular visits together. Ron Schnider went back to his roots, running a market garden on the land his parents farmed, quipping, It doesnt pay anything, but it was either that or golf.