The fathers of the Cowichan Exhibition

Long known as the Cowichan Fall Fair, it’s alive and well and with us today as the Cowichan Exhibition.

Recently I found an account, tersely titled "Fathers of Fair," by one of those founding fathers, John Newell Evans of the well-known pioneering family. Fortunately for posterity, he took the trouble, in 1929, to record his knowledge based upon personal involvement and recollection of the pioneers who founded and nurtured this venerable Cowichan institution which has been

with us for well over a century.

He began with the Marshall brothers, Tom and Mat, Englishmen who’d settled at the head of Cowichan Bay. So great a mathematician was Tom that, when "they had problems to solve in Victoria," it was he who was called to the job.

Which leaves us to ponder why a man of such ability would bury himself on a small "ranch" on the Cowichan frontier. Particularly as, in Evans’s view, he was also a man of vision.

As example, he cited the day Tom made the comment, "John, it will not be many years before second growth pine [a common misnomer for Douglas fir in those days] will be valuable." He made that observation at a time when settlers yet felled and burned the natural timber on their farms, including firstgrowth, as a curse and obstacle in the way of planting their crops rather than as a saleable asset.

Next door to the Marshalls, on what became the Corfield farm, was another Tom, this one Thomas I. Williams who became one of the Valley’s two school teachers and, upon B.C.’s joining Confederation, a candidate in the first provincial election. In Evans’s view, Williams alienated many electors when he declared that he was confident of getting the "intelligent" vote. For all that he was, in Evans’s opinion, a nice quiet man.

Scottish-born James Mearns of Cowichan Station was unusual in that he was the only European settler known to practice commercial fishing; he sold barrels of salted salmon for $5 per hundredweight(!) before operating a store at Koksilah in his final years.

In 1929 Evans remembered him as not just a hard-working man (weren’t they all in those days?) but a man with a grievance – "he was always complaining about something".

His nearest neighbour, who lived on the site of today’s Fairbridge Estate, was Jim Fleming who also came from "the land o’ cakes". He, too, it seemed, had a raspy outlook on life, Evans recalling the time that his constant heckling of a candidate at an election rally drew a retort about "the gentleman with the vinegar aspect". At least it shut him up for the rest of the meeting.

John Carr Smith, from Ireland, settled on Cliffs Road in the Queen Margaret’s School area, after a career as a rover and prospector. Neither of these passions released their hold on him, apparently, for he later resumed his travels and, years later, lost his life in a blizzard in Colorado. Or so Evans surmised as, at the same time as a news report of the tragedy in Colorado, Smith’s years-long correspondence with Evans ceased.

John Mahoney, "a fine old Irishman" who lived on acreage near Genoa Bay and the father of two sons, was liked by all; which is as much as Evans tells us about him before moving on to William Shearing of Telegraph Road, Cobble Hill whose claim to fame was as "one of the best bridge builders we have ever had in the district".

Most accomplished of them all, in Evans’s mind, was William Henry Lomas "who has left his impress upon the district equal to that of the Rev. Archdeacon Reece, Joseph Drinkwater and the Marriner brothers. He stands out as one of the builders of the Agricultural Society. For many years he more than filled the office of secretary. He filled the tables with produce and, apart from the Society, he worked for the advancement of the district."

Tantalizingly brief introductions to nine of the founding fathers of what we know as the Cowichan Exhibition.