Today’s story is one that has taken us well over 3 years to bring to you, one that has had a profound effect on the way we see the world around us, and in a larger context one that has made us appreciate our rich heritage here on Vancouver Island that much more. This is a story of a wonderful house, one that has deep roots in the overall history of the Cowichan Valley in terms of colonization. Elkington House at Oak Park had a grand beginning, and this standing in the community has been maintained up to today as it remains a landmark in the area.
For us this story really started the day we moved into the Cowichan Valley. I had spent my youth growing up in the area. My friends and I constantly found ourselves coming up to visit Duncan almost daily from the big city of Victoria to the south. On some days we’d make the trip twice. It took no time for me to realize the incredible beauty of the area and to fall in love with it. When it came time for us to buy ourselves a house we came up here specifically to be a part of the community, the landscape and the heritage that brings it all together. Within a few days of landing in our new community we set out to explore it all and see what treasures it might have for us to discover. As soon as we saw Elkington House peering through the trees and foliage, we knew we wanted to learn more.
Over the course of several years after our discovery we reached out through various channels trying to gain access to the property and the house. One day I opened up my computer and came across the most wonderful surprise… one of the original family members had discovered our photos of the house and contacted us. This led to a series of contacts and communications that finally saw us schedule time for a visit. We can’t even begin to tell you what a wonderful experience it was to finally have the opportunity we had so hoped for all this time.
Our story starts in 1882 when Samuel Bednall owned the 293 1/2 acres that the property now sits on. Over the course of several years Samuel tried to lease or sell the land with little success. That is until the announcement printed in the June 8th, 1884 edition of The Daily British Colonist that stated:
Sale of the Bednall Farm – Mr. Elkington, a young English gentleman, has purchased the Bednall farm at Cowichan for $13,500. Other purchases by other parties are in treaty. The Island is filling up with a most desirable class of settlers.
When trying to understand the scope and sale of the property in comparison to 2012 dollars, it quickly becomes evident that $13,500 from the late 1800’s is the equivalent of a multi-million dollar transaction in today’s times.
Coming from a distinguished family in England, Mr. Elkington had a solid financial footing when he arrived here on the island, meaning he did not necessarily have to work for a living. In reality, he was quite the talented and ambitious man who wasn’t afraid of rolling up his sleeves and doing manual labor as required. When you consider this in the context of traveling thousands of miles to an untamed land, this also meant he was quite brave. Life wasn’t easy here on the island during those times, and although the allure of a new world to explore and settle might seem exciting and romantic, it also meant hard years of toils and challenges as events unfolded.
William Elkington and Gaynor Simpson met in the valley and were married on January 30th, 1890. Soon thereafter Lionel Frederick was born at Oak Park on December 14th, 1890, followed by Eric Henry William on June 1st, 1893 and Gerald Erlam on January 7th, 1899. As the family grew and settled into the area, Mrs. Elkington was well-known with her work at St. Peter’s Church Quamichan, and she routinely hosted garden teas and tennis parties as they took on very active roles in the growing community.
Mr. Elkington kept a brief but regular diary outlining his family’s experiences with life in the valley. An entry on April 29th, 1894 states simply “3:00 am the house burnt down.” The Victoria Daily Colonist noted in their May 1st, 1894 edition:
DUNCAN, April 30. – A fire broke out at Oak Park, Quamichan lake, yesterday morning, destroying the residence of Mr. W. H. Elkington and nearly all the contents.
Almost everything was destroyed in the fire, save for his diaries and a scorched piano. This must have been very upsetting for the family, and notes from Mr. Elkington’s diary hint at how the family managed to deal with these events by moving into what was known as a cottage on the property, and supplementing the cramped living quarters by putting up a tent to increase their living space.
Thankfully, the barn survived the blaze and the farm continued to operate fully during the next phase of construction to replace the lost home. This allowed the Elkington’s and their hired help to continue normal operations of the farm.
In the summer of 1894 work began on the new house, the one we see in these photographs published here. By 1895 the new house was completed, and it is noted that the interior of the house has not been significantly altered since. Trim and siding were changed, some minor additions were made, but overall the house we see today is the same one that was so lovingly built and lived in for all those years.
William Elkington lived at Oak Park for 62 years, passing away on May 31, 1946 here in the home he built. Gaynor has passed previously in 1928 at the age of 65, and both of them are interred at the Heritage Cemetery at St. Peter’s Quamichan. Mrs. Toad and I have visited their grave site more than once, and having this strong connection with the history of the place we really feel a bond with the family even though we didn’t have the chance to meet William or Gaynor. This really adds a wonderful dimension to the story for us personally.
The children mentioned earlier, Lionel, Eric and Gerald were all born at Oak Park. Sadly Lionel passed away in 1901 at the age of 11. Eric went on to a distinguished career, settling in the city of Victoria and passing away in 1990 at the age of 97. Gerald was both born on January 7th, 1899, and passed away at Oak Park on February 7th, 2004, at the age of 105. He had come full circle in his life, with Oak Park being a constant anchor.
Our visit to Elkington House at Oak Park was truly a once in a lifetime experience, one that will remain with us for the rest of our lives. We were very lucky to have made the connections we have, and through the kindness of those people we had the pleasure of spending an entire day exploring the wonderful house from top to bottom. The connection we felt during our visit was truly palpable, the energy and spirit of the entire Elkington family was felt in every room with every step we took. This has had a very profound effect on us, drawing us closer to the history of the area and in direct connection with people who were responsible for settling the area and creating the contemporary nature of the valley that we ourselves love so and call home to.
Here are some further notes on Elkington House and Oak Park, as supplied by family members to us during our research on the history of the property:
- Gerald sold his property on June 25, 1999 to the Nature Conservancy of Canada to forever preserve it as a gift for all Canadians. He retained life tenancy on the property until his death in February, 2004.
- Of all the ecosystems in British Columbia, Garry oak (Quercus garryana) is among the most rare and endangered. A mosaic of woodlands, meadows, grasslands, and open rocky areas, biologically rich Garry oak ecosystems are the most threatened component of BC’s precious Coastal Douglas fir region. Garry oak habitats now occupy much less than 1% of the land base of BC, yet are still under relentless siege from urban development and agriculture.
- Prior to its protection, the BC Conservation Data Centre described the 30-acre Oak Park as being the finest example of an intact Garry oak ecosystem in the province of BC.
- Garry oak landscapes reflect the climate and topography of south-eastern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands where the moderating ocean and mountain rain shadows produce near Mediterranean conditions. Here we find blue Camas, white Easter lily, shooting star, Hooker’s onion and chocolate lily. Rare species include Howell’s triteleia, yellow montane violet, deltoid balsamroot, and dozens of others. Sadly, Garry oak ecosystems are in steady decline largely as a consequence of their attractiveness for human habitation. They are red-listed by the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, indicating they are considered endangered and greatly at risk of extirpation from BC. To forestall the inevitable loss of a remarkable natural habitat The Nature Conservancy of Canada concluded a purchase agreement with the Elkington family, and worked with the Cowichan Community Land Trust Society, the Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ Society and community residents, to raise the funds needed to complete the purchase by June 1999. The community was very supportive and all came through – the Elkington property was purchased and is now protected.
At this time we’d like to extend a heartfelt and special thank you to the Elkington family, The Nature Conservancy of Canada, our local contacts at the Cowichan Valley Museum & Archives and countless others whom without their help this project would never have been completed. We also extend a very special thank you to the Site Manager at Oak Park, for his wonderful support and personal insights into the house and property.
Our entire catalog of 64 high-resolution, high quality images of Elkington House at Oak Park is available on our online gallery. If you’ve enjoyed the story, we wholeheartedly recommend you spend a few moments and check out the entire series. To watch the series in a slideshow, please click here.
We really appreciate you taking the time to visit us here today at The Hollow and for joining us as we share this incredible story. As always, we love to hear from all our visitors, so please do feel free to leave us any comments you may have. Many thanks!!