I first met Auralee when she came to my place to pick up some hatching eggs. She was putting a couple of dozen in her incubator and, looking for some new genetics, got twenty-four more from me. As someone born on Gabriola Island, she recognized my property as a place she came to when she was younger. It’s changed considerably since then, so I gave Auralee a bit of tour to jog her memory. When she left I asked her to keep track of what hatched and she invited me to come visit the chicks. Almost seven weeks later, I took her up on her offer.
I spent the first 32 years of my life in Toronto, a big city, without lots of close relatives. My Irish ancestors moved there in 1837 and very little remains of their existence: a street and a historic downtown building named after them. My grandmother died when I was five and the other grandparents had predeceased her. Unlike Auralee, I don’t have any sense of growing up in a small community surrounded by an extended family and being rooted to a place for many generations.
The Gulf Islands have always been home to various First Nations, but Europeans came much later. In 1791, Spanish explorers landed here, but it wasn’t until the 1850’s and ’60s that permanent non-Indigenous settlements were established. Auralee’s relatives were part of that early wave sparked by the discovery of coal on Vancouver Island and the opportunity to obtain cheap farm land here.
Her ancestors – Alexander Hoggan and his two brothers, William and David – came here in 1875. They homesteaded around our only lake, named after them, now currently surrounded by a golf course. The brothers brought their 70 year old mother from Scotland to help grow crops and livestock to sell at their store in Nanaimo, which they reached by rowboat. Alexander got a land grant of 160 acres including waterfront, which Auralee’s great-grandmother later sold. It became known as the Peacock Farm, named after the next owner, and has recently been subdivided and turned into a multimillion dollar development of high end homes.
Grandfather William Cox, the fifth generation after Alexander, purchased 80 acres on a quiet cul-de-sac near the ferry in 1951. A logger, he was attracted by the timber, which he was able to harvest and mill twice during his lifetime. The forest was subdivided in the 1970s and ‘80s into various parcels and the road bisecting it is named after a combination of her uncle’s and mother’s names: Bruce Lynn Drive.
Eighteen years ago, Auralee and her brother were each given 24 acres. She and first husband, Jeff, built a house and had two sons there. Her parents lived just down the road on a 5 acre lot they were given as a wedding present in 1972. They built a house and moved in a decade later. By then, her grandparents lived on the property next door.
Auralee took a horticulture program at the local college. Her grandfather built a massive 30’x100’ greenhouse and, together with her mother, grandmother and mother-in-law, she ran the Early Dawn Greenhouse and Gardens. The multigenerational team also included Auralee’s two younger sons, who grew up eating broccoli straight from the ground. Ten years later, the older women retired, the plant business was shuttered and she got a job at the local credit union.
In 2010, Auralee and Jeff split up and she went back to school to become a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). Her mother owned two adjacent houses a stone’s throw from hers: her grandparent’s old house on six acres, now duplexed with tenants and the other, where she lived with a tenant, Tyler. Jeff bought out Auralee’s share of the property and she moved into her mother’s place, with the boys splitting their time between them.
She’s known Tyler, who was also born on Gabriola, since they were kids. Their grandparents were friends and their parents went to school together. He’s also related to the folks we bought our house from. Over time, they became a couple and had two boys, now 5 and 8. Her mum still lives with them and has health issues which require their care, so work schedules are planned so someone is always at home.
Auralee has a long history of supporting seniors. She was her grandmother’s weekly driver to town, including the six years her grandfather was in a care. As an LPN, she worked in a dementia care home for three years. Factoring in the commute via ferry a 7½ hour shift took 10 hours out of her day. Wanting to work closer to home, she did further training in foot care enabling her to be self-employed with a mobile practice specializing in foot issues, again, mostly with seniors. Tyler is a self-employed in all facets of constructions and does odd jobs, often for seniors.
Due to the Covid pandemic the last year has been an adjustment for everyone. Because they live with her mum, who was at increased risk of getting sick with the virus, Auralee and Tyler opted to home school their two boys, who’ll be back at elementary school in the fall. Her eldest, now 23, had virtually no work at his theatre technician job. He lives in a tiny house that he built on his dad’s property down the road. The second-born is a fourth year student in the Kinesiology program at a university on the East Coast. He’s active in the military reserves and on the rugby team.
We toured the two family properties, which are connected by a driveway. The tenants next door are both families with kids and are friends with Auralee, Tyler and their kids. The greenhouse is a little worse for wear; after 20 years, the poly covering was pulled down by a recent windstorm, but the frame is still standing and calling for a new project. It’s where, as newlyweds, they held the wedding party with the rafters decked out with twinkle lights.
We talked about the potential for livestock housing, revitalizing the greenhouse or even converting it into a workshop. The wood-fired/oil heating system, electricity and overhead fans are still there. Adjacent to it are four coops with a variety of chickens dotted throughout a tansy-filled field: Australorps, Welsummer, bantams and the last descendants of her Mistral Gris. Grandpa built one of the original coops, formerly a shed, when he had a sawmill and access to plenty of wood. The chick brooder is near the house where they can keep a closer eye on it. There are 45 chicks; I could easily pick out the ones originating from my flock with their crests and muffs and at least three frizzles. Twenty-one of the two dozen eggs she got from me hatched.
They’ve had issues with predators: mink, raccoons, dogs and eagles. Two alpacas were brought in as livestock guardians; they are great at chasing off unknown dogs, but fall short with everything else. That’s where their Norwegian Elkhound comes in. Between them, they’ve managed to curtail the poultry lost. I was amazed that the alpacas are totally free-ranged and, despite not being fenced, they rarely leave the property. After years of being well-loved they still don’t like being handled, but will tolerate some pets while being showered. They poop in the same spots so it’s easy to shovel and use as fertilizer for the garden.
The big fenced garden has grown over after just one year of down time. Usually they’d be growing their own food and harvesting fruit from the mature orchard next door. Auralee’s grandparents planted a variety of 40 heritage trees: apple, pear, cherry, plum, Asian pear, peach and walnut. She’s a veteran when it comes to freezing, canning, juicing, dehydrating, and making smoothies and jam. When there is abundance it’s given away and the chickens get the windfalls. Good thing her kids are keen on fruit and vegetables.
It takes a village to maintain a large property, garden, animals and kids. When her granddad was alive, he swept the greenhouse floor and mowed the lawns each week. Both he and her dad were commercial fisherman; the women canned the salmon and the carcasses were buried as compost in the orchard.
They’ve raised several rounds of pigs and still have three New Zealand rabbits, the last of their meat producers, which have been spared from the stew pot. The flock currently has five roosters and any of the grow-out cockerels will go to new homes or be butchered for their freezer.
Auralee is a rare bird on our island, being able to trace her roots back almost 150 years on our island. She’s part of a long line of locals that have always raised livestock: cows, sheep, pigs, rabbits, alpacas and, of course, chickens. She’s eighth generation and now her kids are the ninth generation to live here and the ninth generation to keep chickens. In a small community with a relatively short settler history she’s someone who embodies both the history and spirit of Gabriola’s pioneers.
Many thanks to Auralee for her story and the additional archival photos.