The history and cultural traditions of the Armstrong Spallumcheen area reach back many thousand years through the heritage of the Okanagan First Nation, a branch of the Interior Salish.
The name Spallumcheen comes from a First Nations word that means "beautiful valley." The region's past includes fur traders trekking the Hudson's Bay Company Brigade Trail, cattle ranching, farming, railway development and a very colourful namesake.
When fur traders first came through the area in the early 1800s, they found the Okanagan people long established as successful hunter/gatherers. Today the Okanagan Indian Band, one of seven members of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, is an integral part of the local community.
Armstrong Spallumcheen Museum & Art Gallery
About 1,700 band members live on the 11,282 ha/27,800ac reserve that surrounds the North Arm of Okanagan Lake, 17km/11mi southwest of Armstrong. There are no specific First Nations attractions in the area, but look for artifacts at Historic O'Keefe Ranch and the Armstrong Spallumcheen Museum and Art Gallery.
The Cariboo Gold Rush of the 1860s really launched European settlement around Armstrong and Spallumcheen. At first miners and missionaries passed through heading north. Then cattlemen began driving beef on the hoof from south of the border to the mining camps.
Enterprising men like Cornelius O'Keefe saw potential in the region's abundant bunchgrass and accessible water and decided it would be more profitable to ranch cattle than drive them. Learn about the early ranching days at historic O'Keefe Ranch, 14km/9mi southwest of Armstrong.
Farmers came to the wet lowlands north of Okanagan Lake and in 1887 drained an area known as "The Swamp" that surrounds present day Armstrong. The first settlement was Landsdowne, but when the Shuswap & Okanagan Railway came through (connecting Sicamous and Vernon) in 1891, it soon became clear the Armstrong station would be the commercial centre and Landsdowne moved to the new townsite the next year.
The district Municipality of Spallumcheen was incorporated in 1892 and in 1913, the City of Armstrong officially separated.
Celery to Asparagus
The drained swamplands exposed fertile black soil ideal for vegetable production, which attracted Chinese families in 1907. Along with the berries, potatoes and turnips already being cultivated, they began growing celery, lettuce and cabbage. Armstrong became known as "Celery City."
Following World War I, markets changed, the Chinese community dispersed and for a time, Armstrong was one of the biggest asparagus growing centres in Canada.
The better-drained benchlands and drier areas of the valley were excellent for grains, hay and pasture. Along with poultry and hog production, the area came to be known for dairy farming. A creamery was established early on and Armstrong was long known as the home of Armstrong Cheese.
The major cheese plant has closed, but the tradition continues at the Village Cheese Company – see the handcrafting of artisanal cheeses and taste the many varieties.
Armstrong Spallumcheen Arts & Culture
This agricultural region supports the arts in some unexpected ways. It isn't surprising to find the works of local artists at the Armstrong Spallumcheen Museum and Art Gallery, which is also a great spot to learn about local history (including the very colourful character for whom Armstrong is named).
Farm country is a pretty obvious location for an excellent quilting centre, Pleasant Valley Quilting. But the major cultural attraction is actually live theatre. Armstrong is home to the Asparagus Community Theatre, a group of amateur actors who regularly garner recognition at the Ozone Drama Festival.
Caravan Farm Theatre
The Caravan Farm Theatre is exactly what the name implies, a professional theatre experience, held on a farm. With more than 30 years of productions, this company is one of the premier outdoor theatre companies in Canada. Summer is the marquee season, but there's also a special autumn event and hardy drama fans love the moonlit snowscape of the winter production.
Stop by the Armstrong Visitor Centre for information on heritage sites, museum and art gallery hours and theatre productions.