Victoria Daily Times, March 13, 1943.
Finlayson Gives First Report on Agriculture.
Island Farm Life Dates from Century Ago.
By JK Nesbitt.
Is difficult to imagine Vancouver Island without any farms with growing crops and grazing cattle.
Yet a century ago such was the case. The island was a wilderness of rocks and mighty forests. What a difference today. Now the island is known as a farming paradise, one of the lushest areas in Canada, where grow certain crops that will not grow elsewhere in this country.
Once the area where the business portion of Victoria is now located was a vast farm; the entire Fairfield area, from Beacon Hill Park to Ross Bay was likewise a farm.
Sir James Douglas was largely responsible for starting a farming industry on Vancouver Island. He encouraged the Indians to grow potatoes, he personally bought land from the Hudson’s Bay Company and started his own farm.
Note this letter from Sir James to the British colonial office in Downing Street, in 1851: “I am happy to inform you the grain crops were abundant this season. The potato crop will greatly exceed our annual consumption, and the potatoes are remarkably large and of good quality. The natives generally are turning their attention to the cultivation of potatoes.”
But nearly 10 years before this dispatch was written the early residents of the Fort had started farming.
The diary of Roderick Finlayson, who came here in 1843 with James Douglas says: “after the Fort and buildings were put up, the next objective was to cultivate the land, so as to raise food for the maintenance of the establishment, as after the first year any application for agricultural products from headquarters would be ascribed to a want of energy on the part of the officer in charge, and every effort was made to be independent of this source. Wooden plows were made, with mold boards of oak, dropped out with an axe. Harrows were made of the same materials, with oak trees. Horse traces were made from old rope, got from the coasting vessels. As a favor we were supplied with a few iron plowshares from the depot at Fort Vancouver, and our plow molds we got lined on the outside with iron hoops taken off the provision casks first supplied to us. In about four years from our arrival (1847) here we had over 300 acres of land under cultivation, and besides supplying our own wants, delivered about 5000 bushels of wheat, with some beef and butter to two Russian vessels which came here for supplies.”
In a later entry, Finlayson wrote: “by the end of 1847 we had at this place (Fort Victoria) wto dairies with 70 milch cows each, regularly milked twice a day, some of these wild Indians as assistant dairymen, each cow giving 70 pounds of butter for the summer; the butter exported to Sitka.”
On May 7, 1851, Douglas wrote to William F Tolmie, manager of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, and HBC subsidiary: “The Una arrived off port on the fourth inst., and entered Esquimalt harbour on the fifth and her cargo of livestock is safely landed a four night, the loss of one sheep, which died on the passage. The total number of sheep landed here was 301 gimmers and 100 wedders.”
The first farms were started on Vancouver Island about 1845. That year the Hudson’s Bay Company engaged Indians to clear land, and three farms were started – Fort Farm, Beckley farm in James Bay, and North Dairy Farm, on the northern outskirts of the city. Within a few years the Sooke-Metchosin district was being settled, and in that area are some of the province’s most historic farms. Often settlers from England landed along those shores and so impressed where they with the beauty and the fine agricultural land that they stayed there. Some of their descendents are still in the district.
In 1851 Capt. Edward Langford started Colwood Farm, on land where is now the Colwood Golf and Country Club. Part of the original buildings still remain. Perhaps the most famous farm was Craigflower. It was started in 1853 by Kenneth McKenzie, who managed it until 1856. He had brought farm machinery and equipment around the Horn from England in the Norman Morrison. Later McKenzie farmed at Lake Hill. At the same time Constance Cove Farm was started, and it was operated from 1853 to 1864 by Thomas James Skinner. The farm stood on land where Yarrow’s Limited is now building ships. In those days only a trail connected the farm with the Fort.
In 1854 William Tolmie, from Nisqually, wrote to Mr. McKenzie: “in my opinion all farms on Vancouver Island, where the extent of pasture is unlimited, will find it to their interest to have their livestock of the choices description, and if you entertain similar views, the present is a fine opportunity of replacing the Spanish stock of cows on the company’s farms with good American animals worthy of the bull which you are soon to have from England.”
Later that year, Mr. Tolmie wrote from Nisqually to Mr. McKenzie: “I have purchased for you to full-blooded American mares, besides some 20 head of American cows and heifers. The mares would come to be between $150 and $200, the full breadth, and $50-$60 half bred, and the cows and heifers at from $50-$75 apiece the horned cattle are of as good Durham stock as was to be found in the Willamette Valley.”
Vancouver Island was a British Crown colony, but the Hudson’s Bay Company sold enormous pieces of lands. Records in the Archives, dated 1851, show that the HBC sold the following parcels at 1£ per acre: 100 acres to W. G. Grant, 300 acres to James Douglas, 100 acres to John Tod, 200 acres to J. M. Yale, 200 acres to James Cooper, 100 acres to Rod Finlayson, 70 acres to James Nesbitt, 20 acres to Elisha Chancellor, 200 acres to William McNeill.
In Archives records are also reports from farmers in the Victoria area. John Muir at Sooke wrote: Wheat is produced only for the purposes, ruling price 1 ¼ cents per pound; average yield of oats, 40 bushels per acre; peas, 20 bushels per acre; average yield the potatoes in fair years, 6 tons per acre, ruling price, $18 per ton.
W.E. King, who had a farm on the northern section of the city reported: “Hills and valleys would best describe my district, the valleys having, as a rule, good black, loamy soil, on which large crops can be grown. The hilly ground is inclined to be gravelly, and in many places is too rocky for cultivation. The City of Victoria, 3 miles distant, affords a good market for all the produce grown in the district. There is fairly good shooting of pheasants, grouse, quail and ducks.”
But even long before this period of settlement is a record that there had been some farming on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.
Mrs. Barclay, wife of the famed explorer, after whom Barkley Sound is named, wrote in her journal, dated 1787, from Nootka Island: “I was allowed to land here, and Capt. Barclay and myself explored the island, which sheltered, and indeed, made the harbour. We lay in and were astonished to see traces of cultivation. The ground was covered with coarse grass, but a few oats among it; peas, one crop apparently just out of bearing, and another in bloom; a very few plants, of course, but plenty of strawberry plants, not of the wild sort, but evidently had been planted. They were all stripped of their fruit, no doubt, by our friends, who brought them on board; indeed, all they brought us were dead right, but of a good size, of the sort we call Carolina.”
First Apple Tree.
There is an interesting and romantic story concerning the first apple tree that ever grew in the Pacific North West. At a sumptuous banquet in London in 1826 the guest of honor was Capt. Simpson, who was on the eve of his departure for Fort Vancouver, in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Apples were served for dessert. A lady guest at the dinner picked out seeds from her apple and dropped them in Capt. Simpson’s pocket. She told him to plant them in the New World. Simpson forgot all about them. He had no occasion on the long voyage around the Horn to wear his dinner clothes. But, at the dinner of welcome in Fort Vancouver he came across the seeds; he told McLoughlin the story. McLoughlin was a great horticulturist, he gave immediately instructions to his Scottish gardener, Bruce, to plant them in a box.
To the astonishment of everyone at the Fort the seeds produced. The first yield was one apple, which was cut into 17 pieces, a piece for everyone at the chief factor’s dinner table.
As men left Fort Vancouver for Fort Victoria, they brought seeds here and planted them, and they grew; some of the trees are still producing fruit in various parts of Victoria, their identity, however, completely lost.