The O’Keefe Ranch was established in 1867 and operated by the O’Keefe family for the next 110 years. In its earliest days, the ranch was at the end of the wagon road into the Okanagan Valley, and the site of the stage coach depot for the Okanagan. For forty years it was the home of the Okanagan Post Office, the first in the valley. The O’Keefe Ranch played a major role in the history of the North Okanagan.
The 1870s and 1880s were the days of the open range, when thousands of head of cattle roamed the great unfenced ranges of the Okanagan, Thompson and Caribou regions of British Columbia.
The myth of the “cowboy” grew up around the young men who worked with the cattle, even though the mystique of the untamed and romantic cowboy life was sometimes belied by the rough, low-paying life that they actually led. The O’Keefe Ranch attracted young men from all over North America who wanted to try out the cowboy way of life. Early census records even show a Mexican “vaquero”, Pedro Ortega, working for Cornelius O’Keefe. But among the finest cowboys in the Okanagan were the native people. Excellent horsemen with a deep knowledge of the country, they made wonderful stockmen.
Today’s visitors have a dozen different buildings to visit, including the O’Keefe House, where guided tours of the magnificent interior are given to visitors, highlighted by the Victorian dining room where the O’Keefe family’s priceless Meissen porcelain and silverware are displayed. The house also includes among its treasures a turn-of-the-century music box in a walnut cabinet, which fills the house with sound when its metal disks are played.
A walk up the boardwalk brings the visitor to the Log House, which was the family’s original home, constructed in 1875, the General Store, packed to the ceiling with the artifacts of yesterday, and the Blacksmith Shop, where a working blacksmith plies his trade.
At the end of the boardwalk is St. Anne’s Church, built on its present site in 1889, a monument to the simple faith of the pioneers. Behind the church is the graveyard, where the O’Keefe family and many other pioneers are buried.
Located throughout the grounds, and in two large Implement Sheds on the hill, is a wide variety of farm implements and machinery. But most interesting to visitors, especially those from the city, is the rare breeds farm display: unique breeds of cows, horses, pigs, sheep, and goats graze peacefully in the pastures and corrals, and chickens, turkeys and Guinea fowl scratch in the dirt (when they are not being gleefully pursued by young children).
There is a working winery on the ranch. Hunting Hawk Wineries is producing wines especially for O’Keefe Ranch with authentic, antique wine-making implements right on-site, with a wine tasting area as well as a wine patio to enjoy the fruits of their labours.
The Ranch also has a museum building where there are extensive displays on the ranching and cowboy way of life, as well as a video telling the O’Keefe Ranch story.
But the O’Keefe Ranch does more than just preserve the artifacts of the past. It works to keep the lifestyle of the cowboy alive as well, through a variety of special events during the year. Perhaps the most interesting event is the Cowboy Festival, which sees professional rodeo events, artisans, musicians, cowboy poets, and live theatre perform for two days of fun and activity. The O’Keefe Ranch website outlines details of this event and the other special events and festivals throughout the season.
The Historic O’Keefe Ranch in Vernon is more than a glimpse back into the past at the lifestyles, values and artifacts of the past. It is a memorial to the ranchers and cowboys who came to British Columbia from around the world to make a new life for themselves. Their legacy lives on, enriching our own lives and connecting us to our heritage and our beginnings.