Cowichan connection to Victoria Harbour’s last Garry oak meadow

The Matson Conservation Area, said to be "the last Gary Oak meadow on Victoria’s Harbour," was the scene of a recent effort by a dozen volunteers to cull its invasive plants. Besides 100 oaks, it’s the home of such native wildflowers as satinflower, camas, fawn lilies and sea blush.

The Times-Colonist noted, not quite accurately, that the Matson lands "were originally owned by Henry Croft, sonin-law to coal baron Robert Dunsmuir.

They were sold to Samuel Matson, a former publisher of the Daily Colonist, then bequeathed by his wife to the Salvation Army…"

Henry Croft, we know because, last week, I outlined his stillborn scheme to create a world-class amusement attraction on the site now occupied by the famed Empress Hotel.

John Samuel (Sam) Henry Matson was the charming owner of an insurance and real estate business who’d so insinuated himself into the confidence of Joan Dunsmuir, Henry’s widowed mother-in-law, that she made him her financial advisor. As one of Henry’s creditors (she held the mortgage to his mansion, Mount Adelaide) upon the closing of the Lenora Mine, Mrs. Dunsmuir instructed Matson to salvage what he could from the Mount Sicker debacle.

In the course of which he also captured the trust – and heart, legend has it – of Mary Croft, Henry’s wife, who (courtesy of her mother) held power of attorney over her own and Henry’s finances. Henry, it’s said, graciously surrendered the field to his more dynamic, younger rival, and sailed for England to lick his wounds while he planned a comeback. He predeceased Mary who, given the deed by her mother in 1907, and childless, bequeathed Mount Adelaide to her good friend and confidante, Sam.

The late Victoria historian Terry Reksten, author of The Dunsmuir Saga, concluded that Sam Matson was no better a businessman than Henry Croft, that he completely mucked up the Dunsmuir finances by the time of his death in 1931, aged 62. His widow left Mount Adelaide to the Salvation Army who operated it as a rest home, Matson Lodge, until it was acquired for development and demolished; of the original property, 2.4 acres remain as a nature preserve managed by Habitat Acquisition Trust: the Matson Conservation Area.

This wasn’t Sam Matson’s only fine house. He also owned Cobble Hill’s 1200 Fisher Rd., ca 1914 and still standing, which could be a work of Victoria’s noted architect Sam Maclure. A hobby farmer on a grand scale, Sam grew fruits, wheat to feed his pigs and had dairy cows. It’s known that 2,000 bushels of oats were threshed during one harvest at Hill Farm.

How much time Matson actually spent on the farm is a mystery as he had many business interests, including the Colonist, a bus line in Duncan, and a cabin on the Cowichan River that is today’s Sahtlam Lodge. After the First World War he loaned or leased the Fisher Road farmhouse for use as a Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment training centre "in all classes of agricultural pursuits". In July 1920 it was reported he’d removed the last of his effects from Hill Farm, the house had been electrified with its own power pant, and the first 40 of an anticipated 200 servicemen/students were on site.

Known to be a heavy drinker, Matson has left us with at least one colourful Cobble Hill anecdote although it may be apocryphal: He’d often spend the weekend at the farm, arriving, in a drunken state, by train at Cobble Hill station. Where he’d be met by one of his farm hands and trundled home in a wheelbarrow!

I can accept his arriving from the city in a stupor but I say apocryphal because, logically, wouldn’t he have been picked up by car or at least a horse-drawn buggy? Then again, why look a great story in the mouth?

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