It is often said that what we are looking for is right under our noses, but how in the world can a one hundred and sixty year old stone building hide in plain sight? Apparently quite easily when a bustling community slowly comes to life around it, drowning out the whispers of long ago, replacing them with modern sounds of car engines, airplanes and cell phones.
While life marched on around this historic dairy, it quietly lived a lifetime of purpose, neglect, deterioration, restoration, politics and discovery. Being at times the point of much controversy, at others, pure delight. And now, as many learned people decide it’s fate, it sits and awaits destiny one more time.
Built in 1852, it was the first dairy constructed on Vancouver Island and is now considered to be the oldest building on the West Shore, a collection of municipalities that form the suburbs of the city of Victoria, and one of the six oldest buildings in the province. Two of the municipalities are subsequently named “Langford” and “Colwood”. It was one of the structures built on the 600 acre farm called “Esquimalt Farm”, one of four original farms owned and operated by the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, a subsidiary of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Other buildings include the farmhouse, named “Colwood” after the homestead of Capt. Edward E. Langford who served as bailiff, a lime kiln, a brick kiln and several barns.
Capt. Langford arrived in Fort Victoria in 1851 with his wife and daughters, and his wife later gave birth to the first white male child born in the colony. He was a former Black Watch officer and gentleman farmer who loved to live a lavish lifestyle which ultimately led to his financial demise and he was given notice in 1855 that his agreement would be terminated five years later. He returned to England in 1861 penniless and in debt, with the help of friends and enemies alike.
During its time as a working dairy it was used to produce milk, cheese and butter on Capt. Langford’s cattle and sheep farm that employed three hundred workers. The farm was listed for rent in 1862 in the local newspaper, and the Hudson’s Bay Company sold it in 1866. In 1892 it was leased by William John Wale, who would go on to become the first Justice of the Peace of British Columbia.
Over the subsequent years it succumbed to time and weather until in 1952 all that remained were three walls. It was restored and turned into a workshop and electricity was added as was a new roof. The floor was covered by a thin layer of concrete, hiding what would become the subject of much excitement during the archaeological excavation that started at the begining of this past summer and continues today by a small group of dedicated volunteers from the Archaeological Society of B.C., who work tirelessly on weekends to bring understanding and appreciation of this very special building.
The walls are eighteen inches thick and are a veritable mosaic of every size of limestone imaginable, most likely quarried from the farm or nearby. Construction must have undoubtedly felt like assembling a jigsaw puzzle of daunting magnitude.
Just like a cat, this unassuming building must be blessed with nine lives as it has dodged the wrecking ball more than once over its long and storied lifetime. In 1981 the local government wanted to add it to the heritage registry, but the owner at the time was bemused by the idea of visitors on her property and subsequently threatened to tear it down!
Although it has not been used as a dairy for a very long time, it does not sit entirely abandoned either. On the day we visited, a very nosy couple of birds kept a close watch on us as we tinkered about taking pictures, while the cacophonous peeps and chirps of their little ones rang out from behind the tiny hole in the front of their house.
A treasure trove of nooks and crannies also provides perfect real estate for an entire village of spiders!
Inside the dairy, we discover what all the excitement is about. Buried under the thin layer of concrete, archaeologists find the original 1852 dairy floor. Although damaged in areas, a pattern is easily discernable and visions of the original structure start to emerge.
These bricks were produced at the kiln on the farm, making them absolutely unique to this property and a rare and exciting find for the archaeologists. They are carefully and intentionally laid, providing a template of the original floor plan.
This wall at the rear of the building was reconstructed during the renovations that occurred in the 1950’s as it had completely caved in.
As all things made of wood tend to do here on the coast, the roof is once again showing it’s age as the sun filters through numerous holes, bathing the floor in droplets of light.
The archaeologists surmise that there was probably a counter or work bench around the perimeter of the room as there are differences in the whitewash that covers the walls, and a main working station may have been at the center where the bricks are arranged in a rectangle.
An old bucket with no bottom was found standing in a hole in the middle structure and probably formed part of the draining and cooling system. It was the subject of much delight as everyone slowly came to realize that it was from the days of the dairy and not something added in later years. It was carefully sent to the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria to be treated against further deterioration at their conservation lab.
No longer sitting on farm land but rather in the backyard of a single family dwelling soon to become a two building mixed use condominium project, the plan is to incorporate this historic building into the landscape of the new development and open it to the public. However, new problems to this agenda arise when considering how to move it without destroying it and what to do with the floor that has since been discovered. While ideas and suggestions are tossed around, the clock is slowly ticking forward and eventually an answer will emerge. Let’s just hope that this wonderful old building still has at least one life left.
Just before we say adieu to this amazing little building, we wish to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of Stuart Stark who is the heritage consultant and a local expert in early buildings, Pete Dady who headed up the dig, Tom Bown, Gerry Merner and Stephanie Sketchley who formed the team responsible for the excavations, and our dear friend Ehpem who was responsible for photo and video documentation and also made it possible for us to be a part of this worthwhile effort that was obviously a labour of love for these good folks, who collectively donated over three hundred and ninety hours of their personal time to make it happen.
Thank you so much for joining us on this grand adventure! It is not often one gets the chance to truly touch history, to stand in the footprints of those who came before us and contemplate a time that was at once both simpler and harsher. One solitary story, that when blended with all of the others, becomes the chatter of history that brings us just a little closer to discovering who we are, if we are willing to listen.
Until next time!
Shortly after our post was published, we were contacted directly by Stuart Stark, a renowned expert in heritage architecture and conservation, who graciously provided us the additional comments and background to this story. Stuart says:
“I was hired as the Heritage consultant by the owner and developer and charged with preparing a restoration plan. As part of preparing that plan, I needed to find out what the original floor level of the dairy in order to ascertain if we could make sufficient clearance for the building code for people to use the diary after roof reconstruction. The original roof was very low. Another project will be used as the template for reconstructing the roof. Also, further research revealed a letter from Capt. Langford dated 1854 which indicated that the dairy had a “lath and plaster ceiling”. I found earlier photographs from the B.C. Archives from the 1920’s & 1950’s adn compared them with known information from other Hudson’s Bay Co. buildings. I then contacted the Archaeological Society of B.C. to see if they would be interested in revealing the original floor level, and they thankfully agreed. The project could not have happened without their careful and thorough involvement.
There is still much work to be done, and we are all hopeful that there will be other support for the project as the importance of the building becomes known.”
Ehpem’s blog can be followed here: burnt embers
ASBC (The Archaeological Society of British Columbia) can be found here: http://asbc.bc.ca/vicsite
Stuart Stark can be found here: http://heritageconsultants.ca/?page_id=45