By 1966 Randy Streit was working in Cowichan Bay as a longshoreman before switching to construction
jobs. Even then, it would seem, he had a penchant for old things. A 1961 photo in the Nanaimo Daily Press shows a young Randy Streit and friends driving around Duncan in the 1930 Model ‘A’ Ford convertible that Randy had just bought from the Ladysmith Fire Department.
"I’m going to give her a coat of paint," he told the photographer.
When next Randy made news, he was helping to demolish the buildings of Duncan’s historic Chinatown. Which posed the question of what to do with the recycled lumber, a matter he discussed at length over his beers with Ray Woollam, then owner of the Maple Bay Inn Pub. One result of several earnest conversations was an idea to create "a sort of Gastown" on eight acres beside the Trans Canada Highway that Randy owned at Cowichan Station.
Another result of their beer parlour brainstorming was, by 1971, an antique store known as the Whippletree General Store where Randy was joined, in 1973, by his younger brother Ernie. To again quote Ray Woollam: "Randy became a tireless student of architectural and household antiques, gradually accruing a reputation as an ‘expert,’ particularly in the area of antique lighting. He became known and respected by antique dealers all over North America."
Through the late ’50s and early ’60s, a local collector had scoured Vancouver Island’s back roads as outlying communities were being hooked up to electricity, and buying up householders’ oil and gas lanterns which were no longer of use to them. The result was three barns full of lamps, light fixtures and miscellaneous junque, many of the former being exquisite examples of glass, ceramic and brasswork from the Victorian and Edwardian periods.
All of which, with little more than a moment’s notice, he offered to sell to Randy when he decided to join his daughter in Vancouver. Randy wasn’t allowed to haggle or to examine the barns’ contents – it was to be cash, sight unseen, there and then. Having a good idea of the quality and the potential value of most of the better goods, Randy didn’t argue and headed for the bank to arrange a loan. This vast collection – 40 truckloads including the scrap metal – became the nucleus of the antiques for sale in the General Store and the incentive for his learning about his stock. As word of the treasure at Whippletree spread, dealers and collectors came from afar.
By this time, the multi-hued storefronts parallelling the highway had become known as Whippletree Junction. This is an example of Randy’s wry humour, referring as it does to the Old Grey Mare that, legend has it, pooped on his/her whippletree, the horizontal crossbar to which the traces of a harness are attached. That’s not what he told an interviewer in 1984, however. "I call it Whippletree," he blandly informed Geraldine Weld, "because the whippletree is a part of the harness used on all the big wagons that carried the pioneers across our prairies and the plains of the U.S. Northwest."
As for the signature spelling with a dropped ‘h’ in signs and advertising, that, too, is typically Randy Streit who didn’t know how to spell whippletree. Neither did his painter. Ray Woollam still chuckles at the memory of arriving on the scene with Randy just as the painter clambered down from the ladder after brushing "Wippletree" in large black letters across the false-front of the General Store.
When Ray pointed out that the painter had dropped the ‘h,’ Randy scurried up the ladder, paint brush in hand, and daubed an ‘h’ below, and an arrow, above, the rest of the lettering. It was, Herb recalled 40 years later, "a typical Randy" solution to a problem and, applied thereafter to all advertising and stationery, became Whippletree Junction’s signature. It was, Ray thought, a vast improvement upon Jackson Junction, Randy’s initial inspiration.
(To be continued)