Some of our greatest pioneers have been forgotten

How does that line go, that most of us will enjoy 15 minutes of fame? It’s another indicator that the modernday attention span is getting shorter and short…

Not that public recognition is forever, at least not often. People

come on the scene, make their presence felt locally, nationally or internationally then, with the passing of years, fade from memory.

Such is life, after all, and not even politicians, for all of their posturing and pomposity, can be guaranteed that their names will live on after them.

Mind you, notoriety seems to go a long way towards achieving immortality, often being remembered long after good deeds and quiet, solid citizenship have been forgotten. We’ve had any number of pioneers who deservedly achieved public recognition during their business, military or public careers but whose names would be recognised by few.

I was prompted to begin this ramble by a July 1926 frontpage story in the Nanaimo Free Press that announced the passing of John Hilbert. As merchant, mortician, magistrate and city councillor, this was a man whose name was a household word in his community for half a century.

John who? you ask. From Lincolnshire, Eng., Hilbert arrived in the city in 1873 at the age of 30, having taken the overland route from Chicago to San Francisco, then to Victoria and Nanaimo by steamship as this was 13 years before completion of the CPR and E&N Railway. A carpenter, he opened a furniture shop and did undertaking on the side. He obviously found that building coffins was more lucrative for him as, after several years, he closed the store, enlarged his undertaking parlour and followed the mortuary profession for 30 years.

It was as city councillor/alderman representing what was then the Middle Ward that he became best known to the community. He was first elected in 1882, and again in 1885, ’86, ’87 and ’88.

When he placed his hat in the ring that year, he promised the electorate that he should in the future as he’d done in the past,

that is, "work to the utmost of his ability for the best interests of the city". It’s illustrative of just how much Nanaimo has grown in 126 years that Hilbert, who led the polls for the Middle Ward that year, did so with just 87 votes of just 296 cast. A man of few words, he gave for his victory speech the same one-line promise that he’d made when electioneering, that he’d continue to give the community his utmost effort.

It was enough as, in 1890, he was back on council as mayor.

Hilbert had obviously earned the public’s trust as he won with what was up until that time the largest majority in the city’s history. This seems to have scared off the competition as he was re-elected by acclamation for a second one-year term. He also served as magistrate.

You have to read the accounts of the meetings of city council to get some sense of the Nanaimo that was then. It’s so far removed from the realities of today, not just in time but in style, that it leaves one shaking one’s head. To give but a single example: Almost the final order of business at the first meeting in January 1888 was the re-election-note, re-election- by council of T. O’Connell as the town’s constable and nightwatchman! He was to be paid $60 per month as before but could keep all he could make "on the outside," meaning the license fees, fines and the like that the charged on the city’s behalf! And how did the city pay the constable’s salary? By hiring out the chain gang as labourers! Ah, the good old days. For some reason, John Hilbert retired from public office to take up residence in

California, only to return to resume his public life as a school trustee, as the first vice-president of the Nanaimo Board of Trade, and as a trustee on the first board of trustees for the City Hospital.

For all of his public service and his having to run what we must assume was a reasonably busy mortuary, Hilbert was able to make time for membership in no fewer than nine lodges, including the AOF (both in Nanaimo and New Westminster), the AOUW, the Inkerman Lodge, the IOOF, the Ancient Order of Druids, the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows and the Canadian Order of Oddfellows.

John Hilbert, mortician, mayor, magistrate and lodge junkie, passed away after a lengthy illness in the hospital that he’d help to found, in 1926. He left two sons, Albert and Waddington, one daughter who was identified in his obituary only by her married rather than Christian name, and a brother and sister.

As he’d retired from the undertaking business, his funeral service was handled by the D.J. Jenkins Chapel on Bastion Street.

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