Do you ever wonder what Gabriola was like fifty or a hundred years ago? I’ve lived here since 2000: the population has remained stable at @4000, but even in that short time the changes are noticeable. If you really want to hear about the history of Gabriola talk to Danna, a 4th generation islander, who has plenty of stories to tell.
I’d met her a couple of times before when she bought pullets from me, but I didn’t know much about her. This week I spent about an hour with her as she told me about the lives on her family on Gabriola, and of course, their chickens.
Her great-grandparents emigrated, with their seven children (six young adults and their youngest, still in elementary school) from Scotland after the First World War. Their first stop was Ontario, where one child remained, then moving westward in the pursuit of land. By the time they hit Vancouver in 1920, the most desirable homesteading properties were gone so they pushed further west to Gabriola.
They were part of a wave of immigrants seeking pre-empted land. Farmers could lay claim to crown land, similar to squatter’s rights and mining claims, in which they could purchase large parcels for less than it would have sold for at auction. In doing so, homesteaders were able to buy affordable land in a scheme designed to encourage farming.
Nowadays if you buy property here you don’t own the subsurface rights to minerals. In the 1920s you did, and many thought they would strike it rich with the discovery of coal, sandstone or other valuable minerals. No such luck for Danna’s family, but they did score big though when it came to land.
Their first place was Elgie Farm in the tunnel off North Road. Her grandfather, Daniel, was the second generation in their family to farm there. Her dad, James – known as Tim because his siblings mispronounced Jim – was born there. Their next big move was to a property on Horseshoe Road where they owned @500 acres, from Barrett Rd all the way down to the ocean.
Danna grew up on that farm, where there were only three houses, all owned by her extended family: her parents, her grandparents and her aunt’s family. She showed me her family photo album with pictures of draft horses, pigs and chickens. The horses were used to clear the land for their gardens and livestock. Flocks of bantam chickens were used to clear bugs in the gardens. Their sheep were free-ranged on the farm, as well as, in the Whalebone area and on Mudge Island, before the subdivisions of the 1960s. They had no other neighbours until 1966.
Growing food to support the coal mining industry was a major source of income for Gabriolans from the 1860s-1950s. With the decline of resource based industries and the increasing trend toward importing food, the viability of local family farms began to decline as well. Their own farm ceased being self-sufficient by the late 1960s.
The farmers’ market in Duncan became an important connection in the 1950s for their weekend auction of livestock, including chickens. Just like today, Buckerfield’s, at one point the largest feed company in the province, became a place to order chickens.
Before 1931 there was no ferry and people had to rely on their own boats to travel to Nanaimo or the other gulf islands. In the 1920s, Danna’s grandmother would catch a ride in a rowboat or with neighbours over to Nanaimo to sell 13 dozen eggs/week to the Chinese grocers. It’s hard to imagine how much work that was for so little return.
The first subsidized ferry, the Atrevida, held six cars, 40 passengers and had three runs a day. Once there was reliable transportation her mother’s family started to come from Vancouver on holidays to a cabin on Taylor Bay.
Her parents, Tim and Dorothy, married and had four children: two daughters died in childhood and a son, Rob, died in a car accident at age 26, leaving Danna as their only child.
Danna’s family has been at the heart of Gabriola life for decades. When you’re driving around do you ever wonder who the roads are named after? Sarah Place, James Way, Daniel Way and Browns Way are all reminders of her ancestors. Horseshoe Road is a nod to her blacksmith grandfather.
That geographical isolation led to people identifying themselves as either north or south enders. Danna came from the north. As a child she repeatedly heard there was no point going to the south end.
“Nothing there you need or want. It’s a waste of time to venture there.” – Daniel Brown
Community events were held at the different ends and when they got together as a group the north-enders looked down on the southerners, who often were the butt of their jokes. Tug-of-war became a competition of one end against the other.
I live in the south end, almost as far from the ferry and village as you can get, so I can relate to the attitude that some islanders have about the perceived distance they have to drive to get to my place. Let me remind you, Gabriola is only 14 kms long. The distance is definitely more psychological than physical. In those days though, with unpaved roads traveling must have been more arduous.
The north end started with more residential development, commercial business and appealed to tourists and cottagers. The trend that started 100 years ago has continued to this day. Farming, fishing, the brick factory, the sawmill and shipyard at Silva Bay were resource based pursuits identified with the south end. We have lost most of those business ventures, but you are still more likely to find working farms and acreages in the south end.
By the late 1960s, when Danna was 12, the island population was @400. Radio host, Pat Burns promoted Gabriola as a place of easily subdivided land and worked with realtors that developed 600 ½ acre lots as part of the Wildwood Estates. Nanaimo Mayor, Frank Ney subdivided an additional 200 ½ acre lots, including the Whalebone area. These newly affordable properties brought another, larger wave of people to the island: American conscientious objectors and back-to-the-land hippies who were joined by vacation property owners.
Tim had Gabriola’s first delivery van and, later, the equipment to built the roads on the various sub-divisions. He was part of the development of Gabriola and employed many locals as labourers.
Danna stayed here and raised five kids. She got a degree in Anthropology and History, completing field work in Cuzco, Peru. While completing her education she worked in Nanaimo as a teaching assistant for 12 years. After getting her teaching credentials she worked internationally for 15 years: as a teacher in North Carolina and several Mexican cities, and spent one year as a Director of the American School Foundation in Merida.
She returned to Gabriola six years ago to take care of her dad. Their farm is a bit smaller, but Tim still had 80 acres where he pastured sheep until this death last year, at 94. Her uncle died several years ago, but her cousins own 60 acres adjoining Tim’s land. She’s the only descendant of the Brown family still living here. There are a half dozen cousins who own property and visit, but none live here year round. Her mum, a Brown by marriage, is in a care facility in Nanaimo.
In 1966, Danna’s family bought @80 acres in Degnen Bay and subdivided it pre-Island’s Trust and the current by-laws. Her mother had built a cabin on it, which Danna has renovated into a stunning walk-on waterfront home directly across from Valdes Island, with views of Link, Ruxton and Decourcy Islands.
Danna’s life has come full circle: born into a farming family on Gabriola, as a child showing her chickens at the PNE, leaving to work abroad, and in her retirement coming back home. She’s taken up chicken keeping again after a long hiatus. Her coop is now home to six hens: two double-laced Barnevelders, two ISA Browns and two Polish x from me.
She’s looking forward to expanding her coop, getting more birds and breeding them. She likes that her visiting grandchildren are excited about seeing the chickens and wants to keep that connection to farming alive for her family. She hopes the next generation will remember their roots as a pioneering family that has helped to shape the history of the island.
If you’re interested in learning more on the history of Gabriola check out the Gabriola Museum. There’s a wealth of information and photographs that document both the First Nations and pioneer history of the island, as well as contributions made by successive waves of newcomers.
Better yet, go to one of the Museum’s fundraising Trivial Pursuit nights quizzing folks on their knowledge of island lore or take one of the GERTIE bus tours on the history of Gabriola. Danna is one of the volunteer guides and willingly shares decades of fascinating stories about the place we love and live on.