Chronicles: Heritage nuggets from today’s headlines

There's so much happening in the news these days that has historical roots that I hardly know where to begin let alone how to keep up...

“It is a rotten world. Its saving grace is the artlessness of the young and wonders of the sky. Artful politicians are to blame.”

– businessman and philanthropist John Dean

There’s so much happening in the news these days that has historical roots or connotations that I hardly know where to begin let alone how to keep up…

Let’s start with an upbeat item. As recently reported in the Times Colonist, Victoria’s Hallmark Society is about to sign a 20-year lease to occupy Craigflower Schoolhouse in View Royal. For once the provincial government, which has long treated its historic sites and parks as illegitimate children unworthy of proper care and nurturing, has done something right.

Who better to occupy the oldest surviving school in all of western Canada than Victoria’s leading proponents of heritage preservation?

This, after years of neglect and, for a time, use of the heritage structure as a construction office during the building of Craigflower bridge. (So much for appropriate stewardship of a National Historic Site.)

The lease, signed with the B.C. Ministry of Forests which is responsible for heritage resources (doesn’t that say it all as to the province’s high regard for its history?) makes the Hallmark Society responsible for some maintenance, with major repairs to be shared between the non-profit society and the province.

“We will be responsible for maintenance, but I think that it’s more an honour than an obligation to maintain a National Historic Site,” said Hallmark president Ken Johnson on behalf of his 180 members who intend to generate revenue by renting the school for Christmas parties and other events.

Thank heavens for the voluntary efforts of the Hallmark Society and other public-spirited groups throughout the province for stepping up to do, within their limited capabilites, what the province knows is its duty but chooses to dodge whenever and however possible.

Another positive story (my crabbing aside) is that the Feds have compiled a list of names of prominent Canadian women for public buildings. Among them, Victoria’s Gordon Head author, columnist and political activist Nellie McClung. The list, prepared by the Status of Women Canada, was originally compiled for the previous Conservative government which named two of 13 public buildings after women (War of 1812 heroine Laura Secord and scientist Dr. Alfreda Berkley Needler, neither of whom were on the list). So far, the Liberal government has stalled on the program which is to use government structures “to commemorate Canada’s history. The names chosen also often have a link to the building of structure, or the work performed there.”

“This list remains available for possible future use,”

Nicholas Boucher, a spokesman for Public Services and Procurement Canada told The Canadian Press last week. Perhaps the Feds should take a cue from Duncan where, for decades, the Margaret Moss Medical Building has been a downtown landmark.

Down in the Goldstream Park area, 110 acres of the southern slopes of Skirt Mountain have been approved for development.

“This truly is one of the last large tracts of subdivision land that can be developed,” said a realtor whose company handled the sale. What makes this land of interest historically is the fact that Skirt Moutain was the scene of a copper-mining frenzy at the turn of the last century. For a time it was predicted that the mines would become major producers, right on Victoria’s doorstep. This, I point out, is on the very edge of what is, today, Goldstream Provincial Park. The miners of the day ended up bitterly disappointed after their efforts and expenditures failed to create even one working mine, but aren’t we glad today?

Finally, for today at least, another provincial park, 430-acre John Dean, in North Saanich. It was in the news last month when it was reported that, because of extreme dry conditions, its forest was a “tinderbox” that threatened nearby homes. I’ll leave that issue aside as my interest in John Dean Park is the man for whom it’s named. Today his headstone is a landmark in Ross Bay Cemetery for its intriguing epitaph: “It is a rotten world. Its saving grace is the artlessness of the young and wonders of the sky.”

Cheshire-born in 1850, Dean apprenticed in the building trades before coming to America and living for nine years in Toronto, Texas and Louisiana. He thenreturned to the Old Country but opportunities were no better there so it was back to Canada, this time to Victoria, in 1885. After a failed attempt at prospecting he contracted to help build the Esquimalt naval base. He finally hit his stride in the real estate business although his speculations in hydro-electric development in the Prince Rupert area during construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway failed to pan out.

In Rossland, the copper mining capital of B.C., he operated a real estate and mining brokerage, was elected to city council and then served a term as mayor. Back in Victoria in 1906, he continued in real estate and began making a name for himself as a public conscience with his letters to the editor, promotion of good causes and two unsuccessful runs for mayor.

By this time, however, he was successful in business and he had a large home in Esquimalt and bought land on Mount Newton.

A life-long bachelor, his love for children was well-known. Most of his estate he willed to charities and, in 1921, he willed that his Mount Newton paradise be set aside for public use. Hence today’s John Dean Provincial Park.


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