The Gorman Family

The Gorman Family

Milton Bruce Gorman was born on August 26, 1886, in Batavia, Iowa in the United States. He started his Canadian life in Loma, Alberta where he met and married his wife Eva in 1909. Eva Dunfield was born in Admaston, Ontario in 1887 and upon earning her credentials, travelled west to teach in rural schools in Alberta, where she met Milton who was homesteading there. After their wedding, Milton and Eva rode 30 miles in a car to High River, an incredible luxury in those days! Their honeymoon was a trip to the United States to visit Milton’s family in Fairfield, Iowa, where they lived for a short time before returning to Canada to farm in Armstrong, B.C. Helen and Bert were born in Armstrong. Milton’s first visit to the Westside was by bicycle from Armstrong along a roughly-cut path (Westside Road was still under construction) whose condition was so bad he managed to blow 4 tires on his journey! Nonetheless, the trip convinced him that he should move his family to Glenrosa, and thus he arranged to purchase the McKellar house in 1912 using their Armstrong property as part of payment before moving there with his entire family plus Eva’s sister Bella in 1915.

At the time, Glenrosa was almost completely separate from Westbank: it had its own post office, store, and school. Eight or ten families lived there, and most made the 3-mile trek to Westbank a few times a year for supplies, with visits to Kelowna on the other side of the lake even less frequent, usually just to see doctors or dentists. The single-room schoolhouse, which was founded in 1911-12 across the road from the combination post office and general store, educated the Glenrosa children in Grades 1-8 and doubled as the church hall. At best, transportation was by horse and in winter, children travelled using homemade skis.

When they first moved to Glenrosa, the Gormans were orchardists and farmers. They raised chickens, pigs, and milk cows; grew hay; and had cherries and prunes on 2 acres of orchards. The cherries did not grow well due to the lack of water. Sometimes Milton would travel to Westbank to pick apples or get supplies when they didn’t manage to make enough money and food for themselves. Stored food was kept in an icebox kept cold by ice the family harvested themselves from Hardy Pond in winter; with proper sawdust insulation, this ice could easily last through September! The house itself, however, was entirely uninsulated, meaning it froze in winter and burned in summer. They could warm up their cold beds with rocks heated on a fire or try to cool off by moving their beds to the porch, but either way it was not exactly comfortable. Eventually, Bert and John rigged up a one cylinder one horsepower engine as a generator which could run a single electric light, a significant improvement over the burning lamps they previously used. In their free time, the children rode horses and played on the rope swing next to the school, though they were denied perhaps the best Okanagan activity, swimming, because of Eva’s deathly fear of water. At harvest time, however, there was no time for such things. The entire family would be drafted to use the horses to bring in the hay crop, pick and sort fruit, and can any food they needed to save for winter. At the end of the season, the children would go to school.

Helen Gorman went to the Glenrosa school herself and returned there, in 1931 as the teacher. Among her students was her youngest brother, Ross. The school was extremely rustic, with Helen expected to keep a fire going for warmth and shovel paths in winter and ensure the schoolhouse was cleaned and maintained year-round. Children often had to be sent home early because of lack of lighting. The school was very small, housing 18 students at its peak. When it shut down in 1942, Helen transferred to the new Westbank Elementary where she worked until retirement in 1972. Helen Gorman Elementary School, established in Glenrosa in 1992, was named in honour of Helen, recognizing her outstanding career as an elementary school teacher.

In 1944, disaster nearly struck the Gorman family as a tin inlet cover plate popped off the chimney, spewing sparks into the attic with only Eva home to douse the flames created. Thankfully she managed to do so, shortly before having to greet Ross’s future wife Eunice, visiting from Vancouver where she had met Ross while he was working as a welder in the shipyards. A year later at the end of the Second World War in 1945, Milton and Eva moved onto a property they’d purchased in 1920. The original house was eventually sold, and orchards were planted in a new spot in lower Glenrosa where fruit productivity was better.

Unfortunately, it was here that the family encountered the worst possible luck. In the winter of 1949-1950, a cold front moved in, creating wild temperature variations between 10 C during the day and -35 C at night; cold enough to freeze the lake and completely destroy the Gorman’s fruit crop. Faced with the loss of their livelihood, John (then 33) and Ross (then 29) got into the wood business, using trim ends from local mills to build fruit boxes with a circular saw, chop saw, and planer all powered either by hand or a single tractor.

While Bert continued as an orchardist, in 1951 John and Ross founded the Gorman Bros. Lumber & Box Company to deal with these boxes, although initially, the money was so poor they couldn’t even pay themselves $0.75 an hour and they were forced to replant their orchards and work both the lumber and orchard sides. Thanks to this and their hard work, by 1956 the Gorman brothers were full-time fruit box and lumber producers, with John sharpening the saws and working in administration and Ross handling labour and public relations. At the beginning, Eunice kept the books out of a bedroom in their house, until a small office was built. By the 1960s, the Gormans had established a veneer plant in Enderby; a bin and pallet company in Oroville, Washington; another plant in Ontario making bins, containers, and pallets; as well as a full-sized mill near Highway 97. This new location had to be cleared and levelled before the mill could move to it, which John happily did with explosives, once going so overboard that the entire offices jumped 2 feet off the ground before, thankfully, falling back into place intact.

In 1969, tragedy struck the Gormans again as an electrical short sparked a massive fire, which was further whipped up by 25 mph winds. Making matters worse, there was a great deal of trouble contacting the fire brigade, with the fire line initially returning a busy signal but in fact being out of order. The brigade was only roused after the Kelowna Fire Brigade was contacted. It got in touch with the Westbank Brigade Chief at his place of work. When it was finally doused, the blaze ended up destroying nearly the entire mill, doing over $200 000 of damage. Again managing to persevere in the face of adversity, John and Ross rebuilt the mill with new state-of-the-art equipment specializing in the production of value added products like moulding, one-inch boards, and finger joints. In the 1970s, the Gormans acquired timber quotas to increase their production capacity. Despite various downturns in the lumber market, they stayed comfortably in business because their specialty products were insulated from fluctuations much better than standard commodity lumber. In 1997, disaster nearly struck the mill again as a fire ignited in a sawdust hopper and spread to the insulation in the walls, but it was thankfully quickly doused by firefighters and the sprinkler system with the majority of the damage coming from the holes punched in the walls putting out the insulation fire.

John Gorman continued working through his 65th birthday in 1981, finally retiring only in 1996 at age 79. He claimed he didn’t intend to work so long, and he passed away in 2002 at the age of 84 of a stroke while on holiday in Arizona. In 2008, Ross Gorman bought out the John Gorman’s stake of Gorman Brothers, making his family the sole owners.

In 2009, another near-disaster struck the mill as it was threatened by the rapidly-approaching Glenrosa Forest Fire. Employees, along with the Westbank Fire Department worked day and night and managed to beat the flames back enough that the mill was almost completely undamaged by the time the blaze finally subsided.

Like his brother, Ross Gorman refused to retire and kept working well into old age despite a Parkinsons diagnosis in 1994. In fact, he came into work the day before he died in 2014, at the age of 93, with the only sign anything was wrong that he left at coffee time to go home early. The next afternoon he passed away peacefully surrounded by his family. The company, with five divisions in B.C. and one in Washington State, passed into the hands of his family, and is still family owned and managed.