For many longtime Cumberland residents, “if you don’t know Flo, you don’t know,” rings especially true.
The phrase is in honour of resident Florence Bell, a member of the community who has informally been recognized as a living legend, particularly in terms of the village’s history.
Now, thanks to a recent award, the title is much more formal.
Earlier this month, Bell received the Distinguished Service Award for Volunteerism from the BC Heritage Society at a ceremony in Nanaimo.
The awards celebrate the outstanding and significant achievements in heritage conservation of individuals, organizations, groups, businesses and government in communities across B.C.
“I was surprised, and a little bit embarrassed,” explained Bell. “There was a group of us working … I’m not the only one.”
As noted in her nomination letter, Bell has worked tirelessly, researching the history of Cumberland and surrounding communities (Royston). She has researched, collected data and recorded historical events and stories regarding the Japanese communities. She has volunteered many years at the Cumberland Museum guiding students, tourists and locals through the displays and historical sites of Cumberland.
Much of her work involves preserving the history of the #1 and #5 Japanese Townsites – places which have a personal connection for Bell.
“I was around 11 years old when the Japanese came over here. History has always been really interesting for me. Because I’ve lived through it, it was quite easy for me.”
Bell explained for the Japanese workers who came to Cumberland to work in the mines, they were not allowed to assimilate with the rest of the population, outside of children going to school.
“Most of the kids who went to Minto School, I was friends with them, and we’ve kept in touch. I still do write letters to them, especially the ones who stayed in Canada.”
Part of the reason why the Japanese workers had their own townsite just outside downtown Cumberland said Bell, was that they lived where the work was. She noted in 1891, some Japanese citizens were conscripted by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir to work in his mine.
“They likely settled with other like-minded people, who had the same culture and spoke the same language.”
At the May 10 ceremony, a small contingent of people from Cumberland attended the event, as the vice-chair and chair of the Heritage BC Board of Directors presented Bell with her award.
Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird (who is also Bell’s niece) said Bell does “an amazing job … (and) is an amazing woman who has done so much for the community.”
Baird said Bell not only knows a significant amount of historical information about Cumberland, but about the larger Comox Valley as well.
“She’s an encyclopedia of Cumberland’s history; she’ll tell you things that nobody else knows.”
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On June 8, the Cumberland Museum will be hosting a special plaque unveiling at the #1 Japanese Townsite on the history and significance of the site. Family members from some of the residents who resided at the site will be present for the ceremony. For more information, contact the museum at: 250-336-2445