Time caught up on the old store, rich in history but, apparently, not stable enough to stand the test of time. (Submitted)

Time caught up on the old store, rich in history but, apparently, not stable enough to stand the test of time. (Submitted)

When the last memento of Robert Service bit the dust

Time caught up with a building that was rich in history.

Once it was one of the Valley’s best known landmarks, second only to the Old Stone (aka Butter) Church. But, by January 1946, the “picturesque, creeper-draped” former store and post office had been declared by government surveyors to be unsafe, its “tottering foundations and brick chimney” a public danger.

Such, too often, alas, is the fate of heritage buildings in British Columbia, no matter their historical provenance. In this case, the old store was Cowichan’s last link with the Bard of the Yukon, Robert Service, who’d worked for four years on the Corfield Farm on the Cowichan Bay flats beside the mouth of the Koksilah River before the turn of the last century. It’s not that some thought wasn’t given to its possible salvation. But its owners, the provincial government, determined that the cost of repairs was prohibitive after telephone and hydro engineers expressed fears that the structure’s collapse could bring snow down on lines crossing Cowichan Bay Road.

C.B. James, who had the demolition contract, was to collaborate with Fred James, manager of Buckerfield’s seed farm which leased the farmland on which the old building stood. James, it seemed, approached the job with misgiving, having stated his disappointment that the structure had been allowed to deteriorate to the point that salvation was no longer an option.

He and others, he said, had approached the government 10 years earlier with a proposal to save the 60-year-old store when, he was convinced, it could have been done “quite cheaply”.

But the government wasn’t interested.

Neither were the unidentified historical societies that he also queried. Even by 1946 when the wrecker’s ball fell, the lumber—first-growth and knot-free, likely from the Genoa Bay sawmill—was said to be in good condition.

Good enough to go into the new home James was building on Banks Road.

This, interestingly, was the second time the store was recycled, it having originally been sited on the opposite, bay side, of the road. That’s when it was owned by Service’s employer, G.T. Corfield, proprietor of 320-acre Eureka Farm which, with the store and post office, qualified as Corfield, B.C.

Until the senior Corfield died, the manor burned to the ground and the family dispersed, some of the sons to found Duncan’s pioneer Ford dealership, Duncan Garage.

The young Service was known as a mud pup, a term applied to young Englishmen who came to Canada to earn room and board while learning to farm.

At Cowichan Bay, however, he worked as storekeeper and tutor to the Corfield children, sleeping in the loft above the store.

It was there that he began to write the ballads that would ultimately earn him immortality as the poet of the Klondike gold rush when he was posted (as a bank clerk) to Dawson Creek in 1899 , at the height of the great rush. Pioneer John Spears, who lived just down the road from Corfield, recalled that Service’s duties included handling the mail, which was brought daily to the store from the Duncan train station by horse and wagon.

He particularly remembered Service for his lively imagination and fellow longtime resident W.W. Dwyer noted that one of Service’s early poems, entitled “It must be done,” appeared in a 1903 Duncan’s Enterprise, forerunner to the Cowichan Leader.

It was one of many poems that the young storekeeper wrote at that time, some of which he’d “carelessly destroy,” according to former Leader editor O.T. Smythe, so they’ve been lost to posterity. His role as teacher to the young Corfields was remembered for the constant interruptions from store customers whose arrival was announced by a clanging cow bell, Mrs. G.G. Share recalled. For all that, the store cum post office cum schoolhouse was demolished, leaving only the six stumps on which its base timbers had been planted. According to James, the 60×25-foot building had been sturdily constructed. Among those with clear memories of the young poet in the making were Mr. And Mrs. Athelstan Day, who came to know him through Day’s employment at the Canadian Bank of Commerce when Service switched to banking; both were transferred to the Yukon in 1899. It was his attendance at St. Peter’s, Quamichan, that Mrs. Day recalled, a walk of several miles each way in all kinds of weather. (Weather shouldn’t have bothered Service who, almost year-round, began his day with a dip in the adjacent Koksilah River.) Service also participated in amateur dramatic productions while here.

Of those interviewed in 1946, A.A. Mutter, Somenos, had known Robert Service best as it was at the Mutter farm that the young man first stayed upon arrival from Glasgow with a letter of introduction from a Mutter relation.

Robert Service went on to the Yukon and to literary greatness. Today he’s remembered with a cairn and marker just over the Koksilah bridge from the site of the Corfield store and post office. But January 1946 was the end of the line for his former workplace and abode at Cowichan Bay.