A search for family history often comes from a sense of responsibility to preserve the past for future generations.
Gwen Szychter of Delta is a B.C. historian, heritage enthusiast, author of seven books, and community activist who has taken historical research to a whole other level. Gwen’s fascination with community history and heritage preservation began about 30 years ago through a series of unexpected discoveries.
“It’s actually serendipity,” says Gwen. “I was a mature adult student at Simon Fraser University and needed something to keep the brain going - so I took a couple of courses and ended up in history. After a chance meeting with an instructor from the Women’s Studies program, I ended up taking her course. One of the projects she had us do was research a community to come up with a biography or something along that line. What I got into was a three-generation tracing of the life of farmwomen. This particular family was the Reynolds family of Ladner. I got very interested in local history to the point where my thesis centred on the lives of farmwomen in the Fraser Delta.”
Gwen soon felt a compelling need to do something with all the information she had collected. She discovered that many people were interested in the history of their homes and properties, yet, at that time, there was no one location to find the information without families spending considerable time doing the research for themselves. This inspired Gwen to write seven history books about Delta to provide a source for information on the most obvious Delta historical buildings.
“My life as a historian seems to have fallen into projects where I have met a lot of interesting people in the process,” says Gwen, “and I did a lot of oral history interviews with many people who had never been interviewed by anyone. My books about Delta were a natural following from my thesis research and heritage committee work. And most Delta heritage buildings are located in Ladner.”
Subsequently, Gwen became chair of Delta’s Heritage Advisory Committee, almost by accident. A housing development was being constructed near the Tsawwassen Golf Course that needed new street names. Gwen was alarmed when uninspiring names like Golf Club Drive were being considered. She spoke up suggesting that heritage street names would be a better option, and soon found herself on Delta’s Heritage Advisory Committee.
Gwen’s involvement with the Delta Museum included leading walking tours of Ladner’s heritage neighbourhoods. She is a recipient of the Heritage Conservation Award of Honour by the Heritage Society of B.C. and one of the first recipients of the Corporation of Delta's Friends of Heritage Award.
It wasn’t long before the community of Tsawwassen caught Gwen’s researching eye. “No one had ever written a history of Tsawwassen. People were saying, there’s no history in Tsawwassen, which obviously is not true. It was probably the most needed book, because no one had done the research, and I thought it was necessary for the community. It took about five years to complete.”
Recently, Gwen switched to a different writing style - from straight history documentation to historical fiction - for a young adult/children’s readership. A change she believes that was also a result of serendipity.
At a Delta Museum dinner, one of the volunteers asked her if she had ever considered writing children’s books. “No I never had,” Gwen replied. “But later I did some reading up on the subject and now I’m working on the second in a series of books that started with my book Sarah of Ladner's Landing.”
The lead character in this book is Sarah Turner, who is a girl just nine-going-on-ten when she arrives in Ladner's Landing, British Columbia, with her family in 1877. The book traces the ups and the downs, the pleasures and disappointments of pioneer life.
“In the second book, which I am now working on, Sarah is going to move to New Westminster,” says Gwen. “She’s going to go to high school and will graduate and get a job. The story is based in the community again, relying on my historical background and expertise, while trying to be as accurate as possible. This series has certainly revived my interest in writing. It’s really opened my eyes. The point of writing for me now is to learn and get pleasure.”
For more information about Gwen’s historical publications, visit www.ladnerslanding.com
NOVEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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