Cowichan landmark celebrates 50 years

“Take a ride back in time aboard the authentic steam train as the BC Forest Discovery Centre celebrates ‘50 Years, 100 Acres’.”

“Take a ride back in time aboard the authentic steam train as the BC Forest Discovery Centre celebrates ‘50 Years, 100 Acres’ beginning Saturday, June 4.”

So says the BC Forest Discovery Centre as it prepares to mark half a century in Duncan.

And the centre knows how to throw a party.

“We wanted to have some fun with retro pricing,” said the centre’s curator Jenna Charles. “Part of our exhibit is looking at old maps, old tickets. But while we can’t go as low as $1.50 to get in, we are offering $5 admission for everyone and then 50-cent hot dogs and five-cent popcorn to really bring back that retro vibe.”

Then, if you time it right on June 4 itself, you can hop aboard Samson, the 106-year-old steam train and ride through the park to the “Golden Railway Spike” driving ceremony at noon to honour the day.

The birthday party continues with speeches, performances by the Cowichan Pipes and Drums, dancers, music and even celebration cakes compliments of Save On Foods.

You’ll also be able to enter the Centre’s newest exhibit, a tribute to Gerry and Ethel Wellburn called “50 Years, 100 Acres” to learn the story of how it all began for what is now called the BC Forest Discovery Centre.

“We’re really excited to be reaching this milestone,” Charles said.

“This exhibit is a fantastic opportunity for our visitors, members, and the local community to see how we began and have grown through the 50 years.”

Everything began when Gerry Wellburn saw some important history slipping way.

“He had a very large collection of forest industry equipment that he started around the1940s-’50s. A lot of equipment that had been steam-powered was being transferred to things that were lighter, faster and easier to work with. Post World War Two, a lot of these things were just being scrapped and Gerry said, ‘No, that’s part of our forest heritage.’ So, he began to establish a collection on a property in Deerholme but that began to get really big. He had built a railway as well, all these amazing things.”

Charles learned right away when she came to the centre that the Wellburns had been a force to be reckoned with.

Ethel May, Wellburn’s wife of 65 years, noting that a hundred visitors a week coming to their home to see the collection, she wondered how they could show it to more people on a site big enough for a real display, Charles said.

The Wellburns got rolling on what became a family passion.

While two of the Wellburn children — Vern, an active volunteer at the Centre, and Kathleen — have died, Gerry and Ethel’s eldest daughter, Lois, 94, will be there for the big day on June 4.

“We’re very thrilled that she’s going to be here,” Charles said.

In 1963-64 the original museum property of 15 acres was located at the foot of Drinkwater Road.

The Cowichan Valley rallied around the idea of a forest museum, she said.

“It was: ‘We don’t want this collection to go to Victoria’ because that’s where things were going at that time: towards the provincial museum. But here, which everyone knows includes strong community minded people, they said: ‘This is our history and we’re going to keep it here. We’re going to make it happen.’”

Following that first property acquisition, there were others, with the final pieced added in 1974.

There have been significant changes in the Centre over the years.

The original entrance was near the foot of Drinkwater Road “so buying that final property ensured they could have highway access, and make a proper parking lot and a really big entrance,” Charles said.

“Once you think of the design of this place, though, the figure eight track and where things are placed you can see that was where the first entrance was.

“In fact, we sometimes have to remind people that the site is so big. People see the building and think it’s the whole thing,” Charles said.

“We’ll say: ‘Why don’t you go outside and walk around the 100 acres?’ They are amazed that it’s 100 acres. That’s why we’re moving to the name Discovery Centre more and more. It just makes sense for what we offer.

“Here you can look at a museum, or a heritage building but you can also look at an eagle’s nest, too. Talking about our last 50 years is also looking ahead to our next 50 years, too. While I am a young person who will probably be around for the next 50 years, many of our devoted volunteers, who are the backbone of this whole place, will not be here by that time. This is a celebration for them, of what they’ve done,” she said.