What was an exciting day for you?
Probably on Saturday, when we could sleep in! When I was about 13, I went to work. Not only babysat, because that’s where my extra money came in – but I worked for a tailor in the Island Rooms. That’s the building beside the bridge, where the tattoo shop is now. There was a tailor upstairs, Dang Poon. He was Chinese, and his assistant, Aggie Kharki, was a native Indian from Campbell River, she was a great friend of my grandmother’s. And because I excelled in sewing, they asked if I would like to go to work there on Saturdays.
Dang Poon, what a gentleman he was. He was just so good to me. Paid me a lot extra too, I’m sure. I’d meet him on the street, when I was going to walk around with my friends, he’d always tip his hat, and bow. I would tease him by making him stop and talk to us. But that was not his etiquette, you know? He was so polite. And Aggie, she was quite a woman – she took in a lot of young people who had no home, especially the native Indians. She was well-liked, she was a good person. Especially the young teenagers like me – I’d stay with her a lot, because at night I would walk home, so I could be staying with her or my grandmother.
Actually my grandparents lived right across, where the liquor store is now. They had a house right there so we always stopped for a cup of tea. And my grandfather was a filer for the Comox logging, so he did a lot of filing in the back in his garage there. So handy. So we didn’t have to walk home.
Aggie or Dang did not speak very good English, so quite often I had to interpret for the customers. Someone phoned one day because she couldn’t quite figure out what hey were saying. And she was flabbergasted… she couldn’t figure out how a blonde, blue-eyed girl could be a daughter of a native Indian and a Chinese man! Then she found out who I was, and was able to figure out the directions for the sewing. I worked there for most of all my Saturdays, until I started at the hospital one summer. I worked in the kitchen with Sister Joubert, and Sister Joanna – they were super good people to work with. There again, it was doing potatoes. Can’t get away from potatoes!
They grew potatoes in the front of the school, where it goes up Lake Trail. We’d come down from our farm to help my grandparents put in their potatoes, and then we’d be down again helping them dig them up and bag them. And on the farm at End-All Road, there was a field cleared and more potatoes put in. And my dad ended up with another 300 acres up Tyee Valley Road, and guess what? Started with one acre of potatoes, ended up with thirty acres! The family came from Ireland, during the blight of potatoes – they came with potatoes on their minds. So, needless to say, I’m not growing another potato.
Was there a big market for potatoes locally?
Yes, there was a farm market, a potato market. We planted carrots, beets, turnips. Oh, some of the potatoes up Tyee Valley Road, they were that big, you could stack them like cordwood. Well, it was swamp, it was peat soil. They were beautiful potatoes, the best potatoes in the area.
What was a family dinner like?
Let’s put it this way… roast potato… (laughter) And vegetables. Not so much salad, like they go for salad now. My mother was a great cook, and it was pies, oh, apple pies. We always had dessert, chocolate cake, or Lazy Daisy cake. Those were the two main cakes she ever made – and I’m still making ’em! Blackberries for dessert. She did a lot of canning, we had mega-bottles of blackberries, and any fruit or vegetables that she could can. And my dad was a hunter, and a trapper. He would can the meat from the deer. So we always had stews, mostly chicken, because we had chickens, and beef, pork. But I always remember the roast beef and potatoes, and two vegetables usually – mostly canned…
These were your own canned too, you didn’t go to the grocery store…
Oh yes, a lot of canning. I remember going with my dad and mom, looking for a honey tree. They had a blowtorch, and he would set some paper or something on fire to create smoke, and the bees would leave and we’d get the honeycombs out. I remember that round bathtub, full of honeycombs – oh, gosh, that was nice honey. That’s what we got through the winter with.
Going back, I remember most about my grandparent’s place at the ranch – again, it’s potatoes! There was the root cellar under the garage and every Easter, my older sister Marguerite and I, we’d have to go into the root cellar to sort potatoes. We had a little corn oil lamp, and a couple of buckets. And some of them were rotten, you know, we’d have no gloves. The rotten ones went there, and the ones to plant would go in another bucket – this was our job. But the root cellar overlooked the flatlands, where the play fields are now. And here we are, and we could look down at the fields and watch all these young girls walking through with nice bouquets of curly lilies. And we had to be in there sorting those stinky potatoes – that I do remember, big time (laughs).
And walking through the barn, from the trail there on the way to school – they had a big beautiful tree of potatoes – potatoes!? Apples. We always took the big King – huge apples. That’s how we had our daily apple on the way to school. And on the way home, we could stop and have another apple. And the pigs were running around, eating up the apples, and the chickens were all through there.
And until she passed away, my grandmother was there if we wanted to stop in for tea… I was there with her a lot. My younger sister, she was raised pretty well by my grandmother. They had help, there was a mental home down in Victoria, and sometimes they had the fellows from there to work on the farm. And they had the Clyde horses, they were big. My sister, she really enjoyed the horses, and she spent a lot of time with the horses there.
Were the Clyde horses for draft logging?
No, for the farming at Lake Trail Ranch, for ploughing and bringing up the hay – they were workhorses. They’d get the potatoes in.
What was your neighbourhood like when you were growing up?
You could walk down the main street of Courtenay, and spend the whole day meeting up with people you know. I had a girlfriend get mad at me, she says, how come you know everybody in Courtenay? I didn’t, but you knew a lot of people. Of course, we’re all older now, so we’re all staying home, not out on the street like when we were teenagers. When we went to the school, there was the Creamery. We had no recreation rooms or anything, we had to walk down to the Native Sons Hall for our activities. So at lunchtime, we were free to go down Main Street, walking to all the stores. The Creamery had a siren that went off at 12 o’clock, so you knew what time to be back. And from school, I always went over to the Glacier View. I had my money, from babysitting, working. And there was one candy that I just loved in there, and I made sure I picked up that candy before I went home – I could eat it all the way home!
I thought of that the other day, how safe we felt then. We never hitchhiked, like this (puts out thumb) – you just sort of turned your shoulder when a car would come, which was not too often – so you sort of peeked around. Most of the people knew us on the road, we weren’t scared of getting into a car to get a ride home. The one person that always picked this up was Mr. Forrest. And he had three of those pug-nosed dogs that snort and sniff, always in the car, oh my gosh! We always hoped he wouldn’t pick us up, but we didn’t dare turn him down (laughs). He lived up on Powerhouse, I believe. We just felt safe. You could be all over the place. We were up and down the road, and in the bush, we never felt unsafe when we got picked up as hitchhikers.
How do you feel about everything changing now?
Kids haven’t got the freedom that we had. We were free to do what we want. Even like I told you about going up under the Arden Creek Bridge – I was only four years old when we did that. Barefoot. But there was no fear of us being picked up at all. My parents didn’t have to worry about us. When we felt hungry for dinner, we came home – so the freedom we had was great. My dad was a trapper, I should tell you that – I remember him in the shed in the back of this place, with his pelts, tacking them up on a board. The beaver pelts, and that. And playing on the beaver pelts, they stunk (laughter) – they weren’t the best smelling things. But it was so nice and cozy, just being on them. He liked his trapping. He had big snowshoes. He trapped up Comox Lake, up that way. And the beavers built dams, so when he needed the water for the potatoes, he’d leave them to build a dam; and when he didn’t, he’d break the dams down to the level of the water, so he never had to water the potatoes at all.
Did your family have any special traditions you would do every year?
Christmas was the big special. If we didn’t have Christmas at home, we’d go to the ranch, what we called the farm where Lake Trail School is now, where my grandmother, and my step-grandfather Mickey Sugrue would put on Christmas. Or we would go to my other grandmother, the Days, Eva and Jeb Day, have Christmas there. But mostly we had it at home. I babysat quite a few times Christmas Eve, so I’d get home and see all the presents under the tree. One time I’d come home, we had no electricity, and we had candles on the tree. So we got up, because my sisters and I couldn’t sleep – and we thought we’d sneak in and put some matches to the candles. And hoo! My mother woke up, and oh boy! We were back in bed fast! (laughter)
I forgot to tell you about Halloween! My mother would go with us and make sure that we were knocking on doors. We went towards town, so always stopped at Obbie Bell’s place, and Eunice there was always making us sing or do something, which wasn’t very good! And all the different houses were far between, so by the time we got down town, we had to walk all the way home. Going down the trail at night was not the greatest adventure either, because it was still gravel and there was a lot of potholes, especially if it rained. And some nights it was so black, you had no choice but you couldn’t find those potholes when it was that black. Sometimes our feet were pretty wet, muddy.
Come July 1st, we always went to the agricultural, that would be the Fall Fair. We were always dressed up beautifully in clothes my mother would sew. We always had our shoes on too! Otherwise we were barefoot, as much as we had to. A lot of times we could never find our shoes – if we had them. One time when my dad wanted to go look at a farm, we wanted to go – he said you’d better get your shoes on, but we couldn’t find them. Well, I’ll tell you, that field was full of thistles – And we didn’t dare complain. (laughter) It hurt!