A mystery wedding dress is hanging in the museum’s clothing collection at R.J. Haney Heritage Village. It is off-white, with a high neck and an empire waist. The lace gown was donated by the Nancollas family more than a decade ago. It came with a history that raised many tantalizing unanswered questions.
The wedding dress was in a hope chest sold at the Nancollas auction house in Salmon Arm. Victor Nancollas’ business was on Front Street in the Merchant’s Block. The decade was the 1940s. The original owner of the dress was Elvira Stirling and the story goes that the bride-to-be was jilted. Was he a soldier who never returned from War? Or did he marry someone else?
Miss Mary Elvira Nina Stirling was born in Kingston, Ontario in 1886. At the age of 14 she moved to England with her parents, returning for a visit in 1906 to see relatives in Toronto.
She met and fell in love with explorer, author and lecturer Grant Carveth Wells. When her younger sister, Luard, made a play for Wells, Elvira, or Vira as she was also known, was heartbroken. Vira returned to England and Luard married Carveth.
A few years later, Salmon Arm real estate was booming and Vira’s father, C.J.R. Stirling bought a “ranche” near McGuire Lake in 1910.
The family was reunited in 1913. By all accounts Vira lived at home with her parents, never married, and packed apples for extra money at the Salmon Arm Farmers’ Exchange.
In 1914, Vira opened a tearoom on Alexander Street with her friend Mrs. Simm, calling the business a Sprig of Heather. It was a popular place for lunches.
In 1917 she dabbled in Theosophy, a philosophy or religious thought based on a mystical insight. When Charles Lazenby lectured on a stopover in Salmon Arm, Vira was there to be photographed with the scholar. When a local chapter of the Theosophy Society was formed, Vira was named president.
When Vira passed way in 1980 there was no mention of any excitement in the spinster’s life.
She was remembered as a tall thin woman who sang solos in the United Church Choir with Margery Murchison on organ and Muriel Ingle on piano. Her obituary ends with, “No flowers please, by request of the family.”
In preparation for the annual museum cemetery tour, I have been gathering snippets of information from several sources, trying to piece together the story that was Vira’s life.
After completing nurses’ training in Victoria, Vira remained in Salmon Arm. World War II broke out and, back at home, the senior Stirlings passed away.
With her parents gone, Vira moved to Kallio’s rooming house on Harris Street.
The bits and pieces of information gleaned from the Salmon Arm Observer and other archival sources are fragments.
They do not tell us why Vira’s wedding dress ended up in a trunk filled with personal effects at auction.
It seems that Victor Nancollas brought the gown home as a gift for his girls’ dress-up box. It was an out-of-fashion, never-worn wedding dress sewn more than 30 years previously, but it had great potential for dress-up drama.
Joan Nancollas and her good friends Pat Drummond and Doreen Ackeroyd performed many mock wedding ceremonies with the younger Nancollas siblings as ring-bearers. All players wanted to be the bride!
Eventually, out of respect for the bride who never got to wear the dress, Jennie Nancollas took the gown out of the dress-up box and, by happenstance, preserved it for the museum.
Vira’s story is one of many that I have gathered.
Lace up a pair of comfortable walking shoes and join me on the annual tour of the old section of Mt. Ida Cemetery Sunday, Oct. 18 at 1 p.m.
Space is limited, so call R.J. Haney Heritage Village at 250-832-5243 to reserve your spot. Cost of the program is $7 and includes a cup of hot chocolate.