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Elkington’s oaks have been saved but historic house is failing

As old as it looks, and is, this is the second house on this site. The first, built by Samuel Bednalt, was destroyed by fire.
The endangered Garry oaks on the property

As old as it looks, and is, this is the second house on this site. The first, built by Samuel Bednalt, was destroyed by fire after a lamp was accidentally overturned.

Occupied until recent years by a member of the Elkington family, the shingled, two-storey house, ca 1894, is only the third to be built on what was then sparsely settled Maple Bay Road.

William Howard Elkington established Oak Park as a farm in 1889 upon his arrival, with wife Elizabeth Gaynor, from Kent, England. For years, it was considered to be one of the finest dairy farms in the Valley, Elkington butter being rated as of the highest grade.

Both Elkingtons served on the North Cowichan school board, he as chairman of the Cowichan branch of the Red Cross during the First World War, president of King’s Daughters Hospital for 16 years, a justice of the peace for more than 30 years, and as a councillor of North Cowichan Municipality. As well, he was a director of the Cowichan Creamery Ass. and the Vancouver Island Flockmaster’s Ass.

In December 1928, the board of directors for King’s Daughters Hospital observed Mrs. Elkington’s passing with this tribute: “That this board offer to Mr. Elkington, our chairman, most sincere condolences in the very great loss he [has] sustained. Each one of us as Directors feels that we have suffered a personal loss in the passing of one who has been such a factor in the building up of the Hospital, and worked so faithfully amongst us over a long period.

“Being a member of the board, and president of the Scattered Circle, Mrs. Elkington’s interests were always centred in the hospital and she had the satisfaction of seeing the institution rise from a small beginning to the present strong foundation.”

Many of the furnishings of St. Peter, Quamichan, were acquired during the time he actively served as a churchwarden and committee member. These include the bell which was given to the then-rector, the Rev. David Holmes, by Mr. Elkington’s father in England.

Sports minded, too, he played in the first cricket match ever held in this district, on May 24, 1891. From 1888-1932, he was one of the original members of the South Cowichan Tennis Club where he was considered to be “a very fine shot”.

William retired in 1911 but continued to live at Oak Park until his passing, aged 85, in June 1946. Widowed 17 years before, he was survived by two sons, Dr. E.H.W. Elkington, Victoria, and Gerald E. Elkington, then living in Fernie, as well as numerous nieces and grandchildren. A third son, Lionel, died in 1890.

In 1998, sparked by the initiative of the late Barb Stone who feared that the historic property would be developed, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Cowichan Land Trust Society and the Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ Society undertook to raise $800,000 with which to purchase the Elkington estate as a preserve for endangered Garry oak trees which grow on much of the 50-plus acres that remain of the 300-acre former dairy farm. It’s estimated that this species of oak covers just 0.003 per cent of the province’s land mass and only half that area — 250 hectares — is protected. The Elkington property is also home to other native plants such as the rare Triteleia howelilli and yellow montane violet. The oak ecosystem also provides habitat for at-risk species such as the barn owl and the propertius dusky-wing butterfly.

The nature preserve has become popular with scientists from UBC, Simon Fraser University, the University of Montreal and from Japan in their studies of plant and insect species.

As Gerald, son of William, continued to live in the old house in which he was born, plans for its renovation as an “artistic cultural” and interpretation centre were placed on hold; he died, in his 105th year, in February 2004. At the time of the sale of the property, Gerald, then 99, had mixed feeling as he’d hoped that it would remain in the family. But preserving it, he admitted, “is a wonderful idea for several reasons”.

In September 2008 Elkington House became the first house in North Cowichan to be given heritage designation by North Cowichan council. Mayor Jon Lefebure admitted that Elkington was special to him: “Having seen it and been in it, the architecture is quite significant. When the camas lilies are get a picture of a previous time and a feeling that’s hard to repeat today.”

Cost of restoring the old home was estimated at $750,000 with planning alone expected to cost $12,000. To date, alas, the restoration of the historic Elkington house has not come to pass.