On Monday it was my privilege to present the sixth annual Walter Smith Visionary Award, created to recognize the pioneers and visionaries of tourism in Northern British Columbia.
Marl Brown came from Alberta in 1957 to work as a mechanic for the Royal Canadian Army at Mile 245 of the Alaska Highway. He, and his wife Mavis, must have been confirmed northerners from the very beginning, because a few years later, in 1961, the Browns opened Prophet River Esso Service at Mile 245, and ran it until moving to Fort Nelson in the mid-1970s. In Fort Nelson he took care of the municipal water supply until he retired in 1996.
Yet in many ways it’s wrong to say that Marl Brown retired. It’s probably more accurate to say that working for the municipality was getting in the way of his work at the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum.
The Fort Nelson Historical Society had been registered as a society in 1973, yet the struggle to achieve the society’s dream of building a museum had been a long one. Like many small societies, the Fort Nelson group was creative in their fundraising efforts. One of the more creative ideas, on Apr. 17, 1982, was to hold an Old Timer’s Dance where tickets cost $100 each but also bought a log to help build the museum and had the donor’s name enshrined on the museum’s honour roll.
Marl Brown (and his beard) was already an important and well-respected figure in Fort Nelson. He was already the figurehead of a movement to create a local museum. But, unbeknownst to him, he was about to become a legend that night. Because as the night wore on, at that well-attended Old Timer’s Dance, somebody yelled, “Hey Brown, how about auctioning off your beard!”
A frenzy of bidding followed, that night of the Great Fort Nelson Beard Auction of ’82, and when whiskers settled a bare-cheeked Marl Brown had helped raise over $10,000 toward the museum fund.
Construction of the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum began in 1985, and the museum opened in 1987.
The story doesn’t end there. Of course the museum holds many artifacts and displays that commemorate the men and women who built the Alaska Highway and details the hardships they faced, but the theme of the museum is, fittingly enough, transportation. And the heart of the collection is Marl’s personal collection of historic cars and trucks, all of which he lovingly maintains in working order.
He’s made those vehicles ambassadors for both Fort Nelson and its heritage museum. One of his first epic treks was in 1975, in the dead of winter, when he drove a 1926 Model T from Fort Simpson to Fort Nelson, years before the road now known as the Simpson Trail was built. In 2008, just to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his 1908 Buick Model 10, he and Mavis, along with co-pilot Bill McLeod, drove the car from Fort Nelson to Whitehorse.
He used the same car, in 2010, when he was the community’s choice to carry the Olympic Torch to light the cauldron for the Fort Nelson community celebration. All of these things brought media attention, and Marl used every one of those opportunities to promote Fort Nelson, its heritage museum, and the Alaska Highway.
In 1992, Marl was awarded the Canada 125 medal, which recognizes Canadians who have made a significant contribution to their fellow citizens, to their community, and to Canada.
When asked to describe Marl Brown to the Vancouver Sun a couple of years ago, one longtime resident said simply, “Marl Brown is Fort Nelson, and Fort Nelson is Marl Brown.”
But he’s really much more than that. Stories of the iconic Marl Brown circulate amongst visitors who have traveled through Northern BC. That may well encourage others to travel the same road, and I’ll wager that those folks end up visiting all of our communities.
That’s how it works. It really is that simple.