Home Truths: Highlights from BC History
Early in 2012, Howard White of Harbour Publishing invited me to edit a collection drawn from the first forty-four years of BC Studies (1968-2012). Graeme Wynn, the BC Studies editor, and I assembled an anthology of representative articles, published in November 2012 as Home Truths: Highlights from BC History.
Somehow we narrowed 600 articles down to ten works arranged on the theme of “finding home” as outlined in George Bowering’s landmark article “Home Away” in BC Studies in 1984. Graeme and I have written an introduction to the volume concerning the search for home on the West Coast — safeguarding old homes for indigenous peoples and making new ones for settlers.
Mountain Timber: The Comox Logging Company in the Vancouver Island Mountains
In 2001, Alice Bullen of the Filberg Lodge and Park Association applied to the Vancouver Foundation for a grant for this book. Her grant was successful, but no one expected the book to take so long to arrive! By 2005 I had assembled a manuscript of almost 30 unwieldy chapters, and eventually I had to split the book (as I had earlier with Island Timber) into two books: Mountain Timber and the forthcoming Pacific Timber, which will deal with Comox Logging’s shows at Ladysmith, Nanaimo Lakes, Tsolum, and elsewhere between 1935 and 1955.
Whereas Island Timber was set on the low-lying coastal flats adjacent to the Strait of Georgia, Mountain Timber is concerned with Comox Logging’s later and higher fortunes in the Vancouver Island Mountains. As the company depleted its supply of coastal Douglas fir in the 1920s, it moved inland to log the Bevan sidehill, the shores of Comox Lake, and the valleys and tributaries of the Puntledge and Cruickshank rivers. The action in Mountain Timber takes place between 1926 and 1946 — the two critical decades when most of the available lowland timber was cut.
Island Timber: A Social History of the Comox Logging Company, Vancouver Island
Alice Bullen, chair of the Filberg Lodge and Park Association in Comox, approached me in 1995 to write a biography of Bob Filberg (1892-1977), the colourful superintendent of the Comox Logging Company. She applied for funding from the Vancouver Foundation, to which Filberg had left much of his estate; her application was successful, and the foundation made a grant that enabled me to get started on Island Timber in 1996.
Filberg was intriguing, but his employees even more so, and as the book developed I broadened it – as I had The Wilderness Profound – from a biography into a regional history. In both cases the story and the raw material demanded such an expansion. And the raw material was rich. I heard stories and saw thousands of logging photos, few of which had ever been written down or published.
And I wanted to make the book more accessible, so I dispensed with many conspicuous elements of academic history, including footnotes and what academic historians call the theoretical framework, and the book became a complex collage of text, sidebars, photos, captions, maps, and diagrams. I focused on the Comox homeguard and the stump-to-dump transit of logs. I intended to tell the whole Comox Logging story in Island Timber, but there was not enough room. Island Timber won the Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal in 2001 and was short-listed for the Haig-Brown Prize. The book was reprinted in 2001, 2003, and 2007.
Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific, 1793-1843
This was a revised version of my PhD thesis, which I completed at the University of British Columbia in 1993. I regard it as my second book even though it came out after The Wilderness Profound.
As with my 1984 University of Victoria Master’s thesis (“Colonial Land, Indian Labour, and Company Capital: The Economy of Vancouver Island, 1849-1858”), I examined the origins and extent of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s ventures into non-fur trading activities on the Pacific coast between the 1820s and the 1850s. I was interested in the economic origins of British Columbia. Briefly, the company’s diversification depended on the deep pockets of the HBC, managerial talent, ready sources of trade and labour, handy markets, and year-round oceanic transport. Present in abundance on the west coast, these conditions were scarce or absent between the Coast Mountains and Labrador.
Broadly, the aim of Trading Beyond the Mountains, and of my master’s work, was to show that “life did not begin” in British Columbia with the arrival of the gold miners in 1858. Rather, gold mining was an aberration, and as it ran out, British Columbians could only return to the resources that the fur traders had first capitalized upon in the early and mid- nineteenth century: farming, logging, fishing, and mining. Trading Beyond the Mountains won the Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal in 1998. It was reprinted in 1998, 2000, and 2003, and remains in print.
The Wilderness Profound: Victorian Life on the Gulf of Georgia
Soon after defending my PhD dissertation in March 1993, I received a phone call from Gordon Wagner, a retired surveyor in Comox, BC. He had just read Hamilton Mack Laing: Hunter-Naturalist, and he wondered if I was available to write a similar book. Gordon had inherited a box of old notebooks that had belonged to the first resident surveyor north of Nanaimo, an Englishman named George Fawcett Drabble (1833-1901), who came to Vancouver Island in 1862.
Gordon had made some money in real estate development in the Comox Valley. I accepted his offer and, in the two years before his death in 1995, Gordon became the perfect patron. He would phone and say, “Richard, you’re doing great work! How’s the money situation? Just let me know if you need more!” He paid me a total of $20,000 to write the book, mainly in $1,500 monthly installments. At this time he also hired artists like the Salish carver Richard Krentz. Gordon’s patronage was vitally important because I had just got married, and Cathy and I had children born in 1994 (Juliet) and 1996 (Raffie). (And Rupert was born in 1999).
I found that Drabble was not only a surveyor but farmer, hunter, bailiff, land agent, auctioneer, civil engineer, merchant, Indian trader, road foreman, magistrate, Government Agent, Justice of the Peace, Collector of Votes, Returning Officer, Poll Clerk, Superintendent of Public Works, Notary Public, and Assistant Commissioner of Lands & Works. I scoured the archival collections in Victoria in search of correspondence from Drabble, and the book that resulted was as much biography as local and regional history. In many ways The Wilderness Profound is my favourite book: it was where I first moved away from academic history. The Wilderness Profound was reprinted in 2002 with a seven-page Afterword.