Time comes for the Cooper farm

Kathy Cooper turned down tens of millions of dollars to sell her farm to developers. Now, two years after her death, friends remember the legendary farmer as plans are laid to build hundreds of homes on her land.

By Tyler Olsen | July 12, 2022 |5:00 am

The end always comes—even for the Cooper farm.

Kathy Cooper was a legendary Abbotsford farmer best known, perhaps, for her steadfast refusal to sell her family farm and walk away with tens of millions of dollars.

Cooper spent her entire life on that farm. It lay just northeast of downtown Abbotsford in an area increasingly dedicated to growing subdivisions, rather than hay.

Kathy Cooper. 📷 Marlisa Power
Kathy Cooper. 📷 Marlisa Power

And by the time her father died in 1977 and she took over the land on McMillan Road, developers had been knocking on the door for years. Over time, those offers grew and grew, as the demand for homes increased. The land itself was spotty: soil here, gravel there (and there and there). But it was Cooper’s land and she wouldn’t sell it for a million bucks. Or much, much more.

Cooper was a stubborn farmer who loved her land. But she was more than that too: one of the Abbotsford school district’s first female principals, Cooper was a teacher and educator for four decades.

Now, two years after her death, a community is reflecting on her life and example as City and Abbotsford considers plans to finally build homes on her legendary farm.


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On the edge of a beginning

Kathy Cooper's farm dated back to the 1920s. As Abbotsford changed, it remained fixed in place, if not time.📷 The Reach Gallery Archives/P3045
Kathy Cooper’s farm dated back to the 1920s. As Abbotsford changed, it remained fixed in place, if not time.📷 The Reach Gallery Archives/P3045

In 1926, Allan and Jennie Cooper bought a large rectangular plot of land in Abbotsford. On it sat a new, two-year-old house. The couple lived there for three years before welcoming Kathleen Ione Cooper into the world.

The Cooper farm sat in the foothills of Sumas Mountain on soil that was gravelly, undulating, and little like the top-class dirt found on the floodplain below. (See the location here.) It was decent pasture, though, and the Coopers began raising sheep and chickens—much to the delight of local carnivores.

Operating on the edge of what was then a small town, the farm was plagued by coyote problems, according to Kris Foulds, the curator of historical collections at The Reach Gallery Museum. By 1935, the Coopers had turned to dairy cows. For 80 years, neither coyotes or realtors would budge those cows.

This was the farm on which Kathy Cooper would live her entire life—though the farm was far from the only thing in her life.

Cooper graduated from teaching school in 1949 at the age of 20 and soon after began teaching at Peardonville elementary school. At a time when few principals were women, Cooper was elevated to the top job at her school and won the respect of students and adults alike. While a teacher, she coached boys baseball and softball team, including at least one championship squad.

Kathy Cooper worked in Abbotsford's schools for 44 years. She taught, was a principal, and coached baseball and softball. 📷 The Reach Gallery Archives/P20643
Kathy Cooper worked in Abbotsford’s schools for 44 years. She taught, was a principal, and coached baseball and softball. 📷 The Reach Gallery Archives/P20643

“She loved teaching, I don’t think she missed a day,” her friend, fellow farmer, and former employee Hank Kruyer told The Current Monday. When she died, former students came out of the woodwork to share memories. In summer, she would take soon-to-depart Grade 7 students to Birch Bay. In fall, she hosted students on a nearby farmer’s land.

She retired from teaching in 1993, after four decades in the profession. But she never retired from her land.

Around the time that Cooper had taken over the farm in 1977, homes had started springing up around the farm. And so the Cooper farm became more and more notable just for its continued existence.

You can use satellite imagery to track the spread of Abbotsford in a northeast direction toward Auguston and Ledgeview Golf Course. There, in the middle of a wave of homes, has sat Cooper’s land.

In the middle

As the scale of those developments grew, the farm increasingly didn’t fit in with the urban landscape that encroached on it. The city wanted to purchase a slice to expand McMillan Road. Downstream residents complained about milk that was dumped from the farm and which ran into and stunk up the local creek. And government officials (and sometimes friends) pleaded with Cooper to modernize.

But Marlisa Power, a friend and one of those local residents, said most neigbours delighted in the farm in the midst. And she said the relationship was reciprocal. Power said Cooper loved kids, encouraged them to toboggan on her hills, and dressed up her home on Hallowe’en and Christmas.

“She enjoyed knowing the joy it brought to the neighbours,” Power said.

She and Kruyer, themselves now friends, both said Cooper was stubborn, steadfast and tenacious. But both spoke about her softer side.

Kruyer remembers long arguments with Cooper, who had her opinions and would stick to them.

He also remembered massive, indulgent dinners with a table full of meat, mashed potatoes, gravy, butter, and lots of vegetables.

“The suppers she would put up were just incredible,” he said.

Kathy Cooper was often seen flanked by her two German shepherds on her McMillan road farm. 📷 Submitted
Kathy Cooper was often seen flanked by her two German shepherds on her McMillan road farm. 📷 Submitted

Particularly after retirement, Cooper poured herself into her farm. With the help of labourers, she cleared land and expanded her dairy cow herd to 100 cattle. She clearly liked the farming, but she also loved the land and the people who came along with it.

“She was a fanatic with her garden,” said Kruyer. “Her garden was like Butchart Gardens and all done by herself.”.

Still the developers kept calling.

By 2005, the country’s largest newspaper was writing a story about how Cooper refused to pocket the millions of dollars being offered by developers. When the reporter asked Jake Siemens, a local realtor, if the land was worth $20 million, he suggested that value was probably out of date. By 2005, its value would have been much higher.

Cooper, though, said she had little use for the suggestion that she should take the money and do something else—something better.
“I’m doing what I want and I’m living where I want,” she told the Globe and Mail. “I don’t want to go anywhere else or do anything else. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

That story was written when Cooper would have been about 76, though she refused to give her age at the time.

Kathy Cooper's favoured means of transportation was her ATV, which she used to roam her land and supervise the dairy operation she had grown over decades. 📷 Donna Brexton
Kathy Cooper’s favoured means of transportation was her ATV, which she used to roam her land and supervise the dairy operation she had grown over decades. 📷 Donna Bexton

Cooper may have been a farmer standing firm in the face of developers, but she wasn’t a stereotype. She drove a white Trans-am, got her hair done downtown every Friday, and loved a night out across the border. (Power said lore has it that Cooper knew country star Loretta Lynn from her repeated pre-fame appearance at a Blaine, Wash., tavern.)

And well into her 80s, she could often be seen on her land, riding her ATV around her property, flanked by her German shepherds. By that time, people were starting to believe her when she said that she would never sell her land, whatever the sum of money on offer.

Power said she was happy to be an example.

“She just loved her life and was very content,” she said. “She wanted to show people that there are things more important than money, and that’s being content and the beauty of her place.”

As she aged and her health flagged, she encountered difficulties. She needed leg braces, but Cooper would still insist on being helped out of bed to her ATV, which she would ride to the barn to supervise that first early milking.

She never married nor had children, but she did have nieces and nephews and friends and other loved ones. And while she did end up selling her land before she died, the agreement ensured that she would spend the rest of her life on her farm.

Continues below


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At the end

Cooper died in September of 2020.

Now, nearly two years later, the end is nigh for her farm.

On Monday, Abbotsford council got a first look at the post-Kathy plans for her 86 acres.

The plan, created by Polygon Development in conjunction with Cooper’s estate, is to build 428 new homes on the property. Those would comprise 82 single-family homes (some with secondary suites), 45 duplexes, 26 row homes and 230 townhomes on the site. Cooper did ask that her homesite and outbuildings be preserved “to accommodate a small hobby farm,” though it’s unclear how much of a farm it will be, and how long it will persist in its current state.

The homes are just one aspect.

About one-quarter of the property will be turned into parkland, with two significant segments: one with trails atop the prominent hill in the centre of the property, the other featuring two new dog parks—one for small pups, another designated for large ones. Those dog parks would be built next to Saddle Park and along Old Clayburn Road, below the hydro lines that run above the northern part of the property.

A hilltop memorial will also be created in Cooper’s honour. Her will also called for the preservation of 1.4 hectares of trees.

The development would allow for progress that goes beyond the boundaries of Cooper’s farmland. In particular, it would pave the way for a series of transportation connections that the city has planned for years but not been able to execute because of the big farm in the middle of town.

Most notably is the extension of McKee Road, a key access road up Sumas Mountain that currently ends at the Cooper farm. As homes have sprung up in the area, the city has required land to be set aside to extend McKee Road over Highway 11 (via an overpass) to George Ferguson Way. The Cooper farm is the only property in the way. If completed, the McKee bypass would dramatically change how traffic get between Abbotsford’s growing eastern neighbourhoods and its central core.

McMillan Road would also be widened, allowing for the addition of sidewalks and bike lanes. That project will come with a cost though, because it will require the destruction of Cooper’s red barn, the property’s most well-known building.

There are also plans to move Discovery Trail off Old Clayburn Road and route it through the north end of the property. While not heavily forested, the property does have treed sections. Most of the trees will remain, as per Cooper’s wishes, although around 105 will be chopped down.

The development proposal (read it here) was given first and second reading by Abbotsford council Monday. That will send it to a public hearing later this month—which is likely to be busier than most hearings in Abbotsford. Online comments have already mentioned concerns about traffic and cramped schools in the area.

Still, it seems unlikely council will block the plans now after so many years of waiting. Kathy Cooper’s farm, as it has been for nearly a century, may soon disappear from the Abbotsford landscape. But that’s for the future. For now, Cooper’s memory can rest knowing she got what she wanted: not millions of dollars, but 91 years on land she loved.


Subscribe to our newsletter and join more than 25,000 other Fraser Valley residents. Every weekday morning you’ll get a new feature story and other stories, news, and events from Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, Mission and the rest of the valley. See a recent newsletter here.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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