One of my favourite clients, Marti Oppenheimer, has just received the print run of her personal family legacy book, From Gold Trails and Farm Fields: The Story of Our Ordinary Extraordinary Family. I started working with Marti in April 2009, and it is such a thrill to see all of her efforts come to such beautiful fruition at last.
Working with materials Marti had gathered over the previous thirty-plus years — transcripts of interviews with relatives, family letters, newspaper articles, archival documents, ancestral records, you name it — and supplementing them with new research, I helped Marti weave together her family’s incredible story, “chock-a-block full of colourful places and characters,” as I wrote to her back at the start of the project. Designer Erin Anderson of Kennedy Anderson then brought the words to life with images and typography to produce a truly sumptuous coffee table book.
Among Marti’s relatives are great-granduncle David Oppenheimer, second mayor of Vancouver, and his brothers Meyer, Godfrey (Marti’s great-grandfather), Charles, and Isaac, who together founded Oppenheimer Brothers in 1858, the same year that gold was discovered on the Fraser River and the Colony of British Columbia was born. From multiple locations along the Fraser, Oppenheimer Brothers supplied miners with groceries, hardware, crockery, shovels, rope, picks, clothing, tobacco, liquor, “segars,” and pretty much anything else they needed.
In their story are mule trains, gold dust, pistols, road building, devastating town fires, bankruptcy, and new starts as the brothers became not only important merchants throughout the region, but respected community builders.
By the 1870s and ’80s, with the mining boom winding down, the brothers — particularly David and Isaac — turned their attention to the tiny settlement on Burrard Inlet called Granville, more commonly known as Gastown. As real estate speculators, they were part of the successful lobby to persuade the federal government to choose Coal Harbour as the terminus of the national railway, and they were there when the City of Vancouver was incorporated in April 1886. Oppenheimer Brothers was the first wholesale business established in the new city, and their brick building at the corner of Powell and Columbia was one of the very few to survive the fire that wiped out the young city in June that same year. David became mayor in 1888, and he presided over the opening of Stanley Park, where a bust of him now stands.
The company passed through successive generations and ultimately into Marti’s father David’s hands in the 1940s, along with those of his brother-in-law, Ernest Krieger. David II took full control of the perishables side of the business as David Oppenheimer & Associates in the early 1960s, and it was this company that evolved into today’s Oppenheimer Group, the oldest operating company in the province.
The other side of Marti’s paternal ancestry is no less interesting. Her paternal grandmother, Florence (Flossie) Leiser, descended from Simon Leiser, who, like the Oppenheimers, emigrated from Germany in the mid-1800s. With his uncle Jacob Lenz, Simon built a series of trading posts along the Cassiar gold trail, eventually parlaying his success into a wholesale fruit and grocery business headquartered in Victoria. Simon Leiser & Company became the largest wholesale grocer in the province, and Simon expanded into ventures in the whaling and sealing trade while also becoming one of Victoria’s most prominent businessmen and cultural and social philanthropists.
When World War One brought anti-German sentiment to Victoria, the Victorian-style Leiser Building at 524 Yates Street was besieged by looters and rioters. It still stands today as a heritage building in the city.
One line of Marti’s maternal ancestors, the McLeods, were Scottish Highlanders whose ocean voyage to North America in the 1790s was turned back twice by vicious weather before the third time proved the charm. Finding their way to Ontario (then Upper Canada), they established productive farms that stayed in the family for generations, as did the Tolmies, another maternal branch of the family tree who immigrated to Upper Canada from Scotland.
On the other side of her maternal line are pioneers of Prince Edward Island. The Carsons and Tinneys were long-time residents of Charlottetown by the time the Fathers of Canadian Confederation gathered there in 1864.
A Family History Book as Alchemy
As Marti says in her book, she left no stone unturned in her quest to understand her family’s history. By then taking her quest to the next step and turning her findings into a book, she has achieved a sort of alchemy, transforming her research into a treasure for generations to come. I’m proud and privileged to have played a part.