Behind every great man... the story of Alma Harris
In 1926, pioneering entrepreneur and undisputed Sandon powerbroker John Morgan Harris did something that startled and surprised many who knew him. He got married. Alma Lommatzch of Vulcan, Alberta had come to Sandon in 1924 to work as Johnny’s secretary, but on November 8, 1926 Harris, who was then 62, married the dark-eyed beauty who was 40-some years his junior. Even in a community as renowned for its “bawdy life” as Sandon was, this match raised eyebrows and set tongues wagging, but Alma and Johnny were undeterred, and their marriage continued for the next 27 years. Over that time, Alma travelled the world with Johnny, from trips to Niagara Falls, Florida, Arizona, California, Key West, Florida and Johnny’s ancestral home in Marshall, Virginia – where they went on a fox hunt on a dank-looking day. An outdoors enthusiast, Alma also took to the countryside around Sandon, hunting grouse north of Kaslo, hiking to the top of area peaks such as Reco Mountain and Idaho Peak, travelling down to the depths of many of Johnny’s mines, learning to ski and even hitching a ride in an aerial tram bucket! In Sandon, Alma and Johnny presided over his businesses in the second Reco Hotel – a horse stable that survived the 1900 fire, only to be instantly gutted, expanded and reopened by Harris to replace his more opulent original Reco Hotel. An animal lover, Johnny’s treasured dog Rusty was a regular companion on her jaunts, and even pulled Alma around Sandon in a lightweight “Swede sleigh,” now on display in the Sandon museum. She also kept a bevy of Siamese cats, and older locals can still remember her calling them in the evening, “Lovie! Lovie!” Alma was active in Sandon’s social life as well, frequently hiking with the nurse from the Sandon Hospital, or palling around with Dorothy Pilley, a cook up at the Carnation mine. Always adventurous, Alma and Dorothy would often ride “the Carnation Bobsleigh” – a home-made four-person sled – down a hair-raising ride from the mine into town. Other frequent companions of Alma’s on hikes and travels around the area included Grace Sanford, Jeanette Shepherd, Gene Peterson, and young Iris Black, whose father had built the original Reco Hotel. In the 1930s, as the Depression dragged on, Alma watched as businesses closed and people moved away, leaving her and Johnny as two of the few store-owners left in the once-booming city. And she was there to record the aftermath of the tragic “Stewart Slide” in 1937, which killed little Evelyn Stewart and her dog, despite a massive rescue attempt by men from three surrounding communities. During the 1940s, while Sandon was an internment camp for JapaneseCanadians, Alma employed several of them, such as Eiko Hemni, who cooked in the Reco Hotel, where Alma had become the postmistress. The mini-boom of having hundreds of people in the city did not last, however, as internees were relocated to New Denver within two years. Johnny died in 1953, two years before the wash-out that tore the main street flume apart and devastated the town. At that point, the now-middleaged Alma lost hope of reviving the community, and moved to Silverton, where she later married long-time friend Ted Kleim. Alma continued to live in Silverton until she passed away, in 1988. Just recently, a collection of Alma’s previously unseen photographs taken in and around Sandon and on her many travels were donated to the Sandon Historical Society by Alma’s nephew. The SHS has now scanned all these invaluable historic photographs, and they can be made available for viewing. * This article is dedicated to the late Lorna Obermayr, who always stressed how important it is that women’s stories also be told, and their contributions recognized.