The Potato House of Manuel & Alcina Quintela
By Sage Birchwater

They were private people mostly, who kept to themselves in their modest home in the oldest section of downtown Williams Lake. When Manuel and Alcina Quintela moved to the community in 1960 the town was different then. The Maple Leaf Hotel stood across the back alley, and next door along Borland Street, two other houses occupied what is now an empty space used for parking, between the Quintela house and the corner of First Avenue. Kitty-corner from the Maple Leaf Hotel, the provincial courthouse stood stately, surveying the activity down Oliver Street to the Ranch Hotel and across Mackenzie Avenue to the train station and the rail yards of the PGE (Pacific Great Eastern Railway).

That's how it was when Manuel brought his new bride to Williams Lake from Portugal on September 10, 1960 to begin their life together in Canada.

Manuel says he never got much education. But Canada needed what he had to offer; a strong back and a willingness to work hard. He first came to Canada in 1959 and took a job working for CN on the train gang at Jasper, building and maintaining the track. The next year he returned to Portugal, married Alcina and returned with her to the new country.

He started working for the PGE (later called BC Rail, and more recently CN) at Lone Butte, before the couple settled in Williams Lake.

Manuel says his work on the labour-intensive train gang to repair and build the track, took him all over. While Alcina kept the home fires burning in Williams Lake, Manuel worked up and down the rail line as far north as Fort St. John and as far south as the southern terminus in North Vancouver.

"You can't take the house to the job," he says matter-of-factly. "I finished building the tunnel at Horseshoe Bay."

Meanwhile Alcina worked as a chambermaid in the Maple Leaf Hotel and the Chilcotin Inn and looked after their garden when her husband was away.

"We had to lift the rails by hand," Manuel says, describing his life on the rail gang where a dozen men using rail tongs to muscle the big steel rails into place, and swung big hammers to drive rail spikes deep into the wooden ties. Now it's all done by machine. We got 85 cents an hour. It took quite a ways to make a couple of dollars. I worked all over to make a little piece of bread to eat. Keep quiet and do the job."

But what was always impressive about the Quintelas was their garden. For nearly 50 years they tilled the soil of their third-of-an-acre downtown property and cultivated bumper crops of vegetables. Mostly potatoes, but also broadbeans, corn, tomatoes, squash, onions and salad greens. The only part of the yard that wasn't vegetable garden was a small patch of lawn in the front of the house beneath the spreading branches of an apple tree. There Manuel and Alcina would sit and relax after a full day tending their plants.

Back in Portuagal it was natural for Manuel and Alcina to work the land by hand with their family. But having an urban garden of this scale, utilizing the whole of their property was an anomaly for Williams Lake, or for any Interior city of British Columbia for that matter.

Thirty years ago, before the Maple Leaf Hotel burned down and the Quintelas had neighbours next door, their little patch of urban agriculture wasn't so visible. But when the two houses beside them with their thick lilac hedges were torn down, they were more in the public eye.

Every spring over the years, as soon as the ground could be worked, Manuel could be seen methodically turning over the soil by hand using a grubhoe. Soon the whole property would be transformed and Manuel and Alcina would plant an immense crop of potatoes.

In April of 2007 I approached Manuel and Alcina to write a story about their urban gardening prowess for the Williams Lake Tribune's Casual Country supplement. Manuel did all the talking for both of them and they reluctantly agreed to share the privacy of their lives.

Manuel was into more modern equipment now, using a rototiller to turn over the soil and to carve the furrows for planting instead of his grubhoe. Alcina followed behind as she always had, depositing slices of seed potato into the trenches Manuel had made, then adding a spoonful of fertilizer to each plant before covering them over. On the last day of April the whole garden was planted.

"It's good ground for growing potatoes," Manuel told me. "The ground is not too wet."

The year before he said they grew enough potatoes for themselves and sold twenty 100-pound sacks besides.

"That's one ton," Manuel stated. "It's okay."

Three weeks later Alcina was out in the garden watering the green foliage that was starting to show above the ground. She blushed shyly as I compliment how nice their garden always looked every year.

"Oh you got to do something to pass the time," she said. "It's okay."

Sadly that was the last time I ever saw Alcina. A few days later she suddenly passed away. She died before my article was printed.

Manuel harvested the crop he and Alcina planted that year at 49 Borland Street, but never planted the garden there again. The next thing I knew he had the place up for sale.

And that's where Mary Forbes, the City Interpreter, stepped up to the plate to preserve the Potato House, as she likes to call it. More than a house she is preserving and honouring an unusual tradition of utilizing the urban landscape to grow food. It honours the loving care and attention the Quintelas gave their third-of-an-acre for nearly half a century. It is something worth acknowledging.

Used with author's permission
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