In springtime the uncompromising rock and well worn turf are suddenly bright with wild flowers. Shooting stars, chocolate lilies and camas lilies defy the encroaching broom and the traffic of passing footsteps. Easter lilies curl their petals in the taller grass. Even when its flowers are not in bloom, Blueberry Hill (more properly called Anderson Hill) draws its admirers. Many of Oak Bay's 3,602 acres are visible from its vantage points. On clear days snow-topped Mount Baker stands out against the blue sky over Washington State. Southward the Olympic Mountains backdrop the busy sea lane of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Trial Island and its attendant islets huddle immediately below. Migratory birds pause here on their long flights north and south.
In late summer sparrowhawks hover and pounce on fat grasshoppers. They linger while the food lasts, but the black swifts come and go quickly. In winter a snowy owl may perch on a high rock, brooding over the golf course to the east. Jack Todd, who was born in the shadow of the hill and now lives on top of it, believes that as a child he saw a passenger pigeon in the woods on the O.M. Jones property. If so it must have been one of the last of the pink-breasted beauties to be sighted in these parts. Walking to and from Monterey School, young Todd would pass the Jones' farmyard where turkeys gobbled and cow-bells danked. The Jones' holdings then took in the hilltop (now a municipal park) and all the land between Linkleas and Transit roads.
The Jones' grey stone house can be glimpsed from Island Road, as solid as when erected more than 70 years ago. It was three years in the building with granite blocks hewn from the surrounding grounds. In April glowing carpets of spring flowers succeed one another under the trees on either side of the driveway leading to the home. Idyllic memories are never far from any exploration of Oak Bay. Pony carts rattle along sunlit lanes on the way to picnics at Willows Beach. Children pick wild violets and strawberries near the Chinese cemetery on the flat lip of Harling Point, then Chinese Point. Families pitch tents and camp for the summer at Cadboro Bay, with Dad going daily to the office in downtown Victoria on his bicycle.
Every vacant lot seems to have a cow tethered on it. Garbage is collected in two-wheeled carts whose patient horses stop and go, stop and go unbidden along their appointed routes. Clydesdales groomed to perfection, their manes beribboned, strut past a spellbound audience at Willows fairground. The memories help to give the municipality its special flavor. "Oh yes, there's an Oak Bay character all right though it's hard to define. People develop it when they live in Oak Bay long enough, no matter where they come from," says Jack Harness, who has operated a hardware business in Oak Bay for more than 50 years. "If for some reason they have to go away they can't wait to get back here. The young ones may go off and do their thing for awhile but many of them come back and before long they grow into the Oak Bay tradition." Eighty-five per cent of Oak Bay's 18,000 population are of British descent, which leads to jokes about tea and crumpets and tweedy people carrying walking sticks. Yet the forbears of many of its families were here before or soon after municipal incorporation in 1906.
Their descendants are as Canadian as the air they breathe. "We get people in Oak Bay who are fiercely independent," says Brian Smith, mayor of the municipality for six years before becoming a member of the provincial legislature and minister of education. "They are individualists in their thinking, dedicated to preservation of a style of life, love their residential community, their beaches and their parks and are darned well prepared to fight tooth and nail to preserve it and improve it." Jack Todd mildly observes that Oak Bay doesn't have a monopoly on fine, upstanding citizens. He meets them wherever he goes in Victoria. Although Oak Bay is noted for its residents of advanced years - 41 per cent are over age 55, 10 per cent over 70 - Smith might have been speaking for the younger generation.
Almost without exception, 87 Grade 11 and 12 students at Oak Bay senior secondary school expressed views comparable to his in essays they were asked to write giving their impressions of the municipality. "Oak Bay has a special character and I don't think you can really know what it is like unless you have lived there," wrote Susan Russell. "The most obvious characteristic I notice is tradition. It seems as though people who grow up in Oak Bay and then leave tend to move back if they marry so they can raise their children in the same sort of environment they grew up in." Some of the writers tempered their enthusiasm by saying that Oak Bay was most attractive to the very young and the very old. One young woman dissenter declared: "I feel Oak Bay has a character of its own. It is snobbish, conservative and prejudiced." Two male writers thought the police were too hard on teenagers, especially when they were driving cars. One complained bitterly about aged jay-walkers and "little old ladies driving along in front of you at a steady 10 miles an hour in their ancient motor cars." But most of the youngsters wrote of their community with affection and pride. Their views didn't differ much from those of Harry Thomson, outside worker with the Oak Bay water department for 36 years, now retired. He says: "Wherever you go around any of the streets in Oak Bay they have pretty nice gardens and the lawns are nicely kept. They all seem to take a pride in their place, to keep it looking nice. I don't think you can beat Oak Bay. I don't care where you go."
Despite its sweeping views Blueberry Hill rises only 125 feet above sea level. Its taller rival, Gonzales Hill (200 feet) stands to the west. Oak Bay's western boundary zig-zags over its western shoulder. It is an arbitrary line, ignoring the serpentine bends of Foul Bay Road which farther north marks the municipal border. Here it plunges through properties so that some are part in Oak Bay, part in the adjoining city of Victoria. On Gonzales Hill it takes a right-angled turn to rejoin Foul Bay Road, down which it then runs sedately to the sea. No one is certain how the idiosyncrasies came about. Old surveys of the southwestern corner don't help, being in disagreement with one another. Living on the southern flank of Gonzales Hill is like having a box seat in a theatre where the sea is the stage. There is never a moment when the strait is empty of shipping. Tugboats draw their massive booms past the kelp beds. Small craft bob patiently on the water when the salmon are supposed to be running. Commercial fishing boats throb by purposefully.
Sometimes a stately white cruise ship glides by. And always there are freighters inbound or outbound from Mainland ports. "Look!" exclaims Dr. Jack Haley, an inveterate strait-watcher from his Denison Road home. He points to a ship motionless beyond Clover Point. "She's dropping her pilot. In a minute there'll be a whoosh of smoke from her funnel. Then she'll pick up speed and head for the open sea." Sure enough, the ship seems in a hurry to be off, thrusting ever faster westward toward the winking light of Race Rocks, west to the wide Pacific. Small boys once roamed freely over Gonzales, playing cowboys and Indians and waging fearsome battles with sods pulled from the rocks. There's still a place to play in Walbran Park on the crown of the hill where a lookout offers a breathtaking vista. It is rarely crowded. Activity on the hill is of a different kind, the comings and goings of residents whose houses have sprung up on every spot where foundations can be secured.
Some of the building provoked protests from the public. Oak Bay people are vocal when their surroundings are changed. "They called it the rape of Gonzales," recalls Terry Farmer of Farmer Construction Ltd., which not long ago opened a subdivision on the southeast side of the hill. Heavy rock-blasting was required. The refuse was tumbled into a deep dip over which the present road was built. Motorists whizzing over Gonzales Hill by way of King George Terrace lower down are often unaware that to the seaward side a flat point of land juts out. This is Harling Point, named after a brave local dentist who died trying to help a family storm-tossed in a small boat. Its earlier name was Chinese Point because Chinese residents of Victoria buried their dead there. "It was kind of a closed community, surrounded by water and Gonzales Hill," recalls Rev. William van Druten, pastor of Oak Bay United Church, who grew up there. "To us it was always Chink Point. We never thought the word was disrespectful. We'd say we lived on Chink Point down by the Chinese cemetery.
Funny, isn't it?" Victoria's first Chinese funerals took place in Ross Bay cemetery but burial was not permitted in ground consecrated to Christian use. Graves of alien creeds were confined to a strip close to the sea. Winter storms hammered it and eroded the soil so that some bodies were washed away. That decided the Chinese community to establish a cemetery where their dead could lie unmolested by the elements. It was seldom their last resting-place. The bones of most of them eventually were returned to their native China. Today the cemetery is windswept and silent. Some of the headstones lean forlornly but the stone altar on which food offerings were made and incense burned still stands. Each spring members of the Chinese community conduct a short memorial ceremony beside it. Between 1903 and 1950, when the last burial took place, the funeral rites splashed color on the bleak surroundings. Wailing mourners carrying banners plodded ahead of the horse-drawn vehicle which brought the body from Victoria. A brassy clangor strange to western ears ascended from the accompanying musicians.
The richer the deceased the louder the din and the more numerous the mourners. Many were hired to walk in the procession and utter their cries of grief. At the cemetery food and wine were offered up and left by the gravesides. Sometimes cigarettes were scattered on the ground. Not much remained next morning. The solemnity of ancestor worship did not impress the local boys. "If you went into the cemetery, as you came out they'd give you a piece of candy like barley sugar," says van Druten. "It would last for hours. Also money, usually a nickel wrapped in paper. We'd go out and then jump the fence and come in again and maybe make 15 cents that way. It was a lot of money in those days." There were sterner occupations for a small boy on Chinese Point. "Every day after school our job was to head straight for the beach with two bags and gather up bark. If you saw a log coming in you'd put a spike in it and tie it up and it would be your log," says van Druten. "Then you'd come down at low tide and saw it into four-foot lengths, pack it up the bank and stack it until the sawing-machine came around to cut it into stove lengths. You'd burn bark and wood during the winter. The bark burned just like coal."
Beachcombing still flourishes in Oak Bay. Collectors of bark and scraps of firewood go daily to see what the tide has left. The beaches are specially busy after a storm. Power saws snarl their way through logs that have been driven ashore. Families gather kelp and seaweed to nourish their gardens. Dave Pite, whose house on Esplanade overlooks the water, has a cherished coffee table made from ahogany planks the sea delivered almost to his front gate. "Nearness to the sea" was one of the reasons given most often by Oak Bay residents asked why they like to live here. (Other popular responses to an Oak Bay council questionnaire were: Stability of the community, its quiet neighborhoods and its attractive gardens.} Victoria in general and Oak Bay in particular abound with sailing enthusiasts. Many of them aver that these are the best cruising waters in the world. Some of them have turned down enticing business offers elsewhere to remain here and pursue their passion. "Once you've got the sailing bug it never leaves you," says George Dufour, veteran of a score of important racing events in Pacific Northwest waters, including the famous Swiftsure.
Weekend competitions go on year-round. Even in winter it's a rare day that at least one sail cannot be seen silhouetted starkly against a leaden sky. If contests are called off it's probably because of "soft" conditions, says Dufour. "The winds here are fairly light except when we have storms." To the sailors and amateur fishermen the sea is a playground. To earthbound runners and walkers who set their course along Beach Drive it is a never-ending, always changing source of pleasure. For others it has been a graveyard. Some were overwhelmed by sudden gales or immersion in the chilling waters (average mean surface temperature 10° Celsius}. Some were suicides. Some were victims of violence; the rum-runners who stole across the strait in the Prohibition days of the United States tangled with one another as well as with the Coast Guard. The victims left a legacy of ghost stories. The most persistent was the ghost of the Victoria Golf Course, the former cow pasture split by Beach Drive, the seaside fairways of which have fascinated golfers from all over the world. Spooks manifested themselves on those fairways on summer nights. Sober citizens testified to it. After dark there were family excursions to the links.
They were not always cheated of a thrill. Then Fred Norris, reeve of Oak Bay 1954-58, came up with an explanation of the wraith-like figures that twisted dervish-like between the greens and sandtraps. When the sprinkling system was turned on during the summer the cool water fell on sunwarmed turf and a mist arose. The lighthouse beam from Trial Island (since altered} caught the rising mist in such a way it could be mistaken for a ghostly writhing figure. Land development in Oak Bay has been by fits and starts. The large holdings of the early settlers like Joseph Pemberton, John Tod and W.H. McNeil! were gradually carved up. As land became available houses went up, sometimes fine residences, sometimes modest cottages. Then, as now, "nearness to the sea" was always an attraction. Growth was intermittent. There was a boom between 1910 and 1912 with lots changing hands for $10,000 to $15,000. Some investors were badly stung when the slump came. Considerable property reverted to the municipality for non-payment of taxes. It was many years before the well-planned acres of the Uplands residential district were covered by houses. In the interim the small boys of Willows Beach and Cadboro Bay Road played happily on the overgrown lots. Now a drive past its comfortable homes and well-kept gardens is as essential a part of an Oak Bay sightseeing tour as a visit to Sealand to see the killer whales cavort. Wherever they lived in Oak Bay boys and girls walking to school began to find they could no longer take shortcuts through the fields and woodland. New housing blocked the way. Harry Thomson remembers what it was like. In 1921 his father built the first house on Musgrave Street. "People asked him what he was doing, building way out in the country.
It was uncultivated land all around there, with cows grazing everywhere. We used to make pocket money herding them for the dairy. People on horseback from Carley's riding academy at the fairground rode through on their way to Uplands Park." One store only stood on Estevan Avenue, now a busy shopping section. It was at the corner of Dunlevy and was run by a Mrs. Fairclough. "She had everything you could name. How she got it all in I don't know." Estevan Avenue is a much-used through street nowadays, an access road to Beach Drive and the popular Willows Beach, scene each year in June of the Oak Bay Tea Party when residents and visitors spoof the municipality's alleged old English foibles. Dave Pite remembers when his neighbors anchored their sailboats offshore during the summer months. In winter, stable lads brought strings of horses from the Willows race track where they were boarded.
They were walked in the sea and exercised in adjacent fields. Those were the days when there was intense rivalry between the boys of adjoining bays. The most exotic contest between the Bay Beach and Willows Beach lads was a swim to see who could get first to Mary Tod Island. The winners lit a fire - "set fire to the island" as they used to say. Three constables and a police chief rode herd on these high spirited rascals and others like them. The constables patrolled the municipality on foot or bicycle. Householders often asked them in for a cup of tea. They acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the residents' family affairs. Today a 24-man force is responsible for law and order in Oak Bay. Crime is up - drug trafficking and related offences, vandalism, break-ins, purse snatching - but on the whole the municipality is a secure place. "I know there are places which have their 'bad' districts, streets where the tough guys live," says Sgt. R.L. Lopeter, a 30-year veteran of the force. "But not Oak Bay. If you have kids getting into trouble they're just as likely to come from the Uplands as from a street in a less prosperous area." Many of the telephone calls to the police, especially at night, are from elderly people and have no connection with crime. A water pipe is leaking, the furnace has gone out, the wind has blown out a window. "We go round and do what we can to help and give them advice about getting proper repairs," says Lopeter.
No trace remains today of the Willows fairgrounds, the race track or the ice rink which attracted thousands from all over lower Vancouver Island. The old wooden buildings which once echoed with the cheers of sport fans or the more sedate applause of spectators at horse shows and school pageants have long since burned or been pulled down. By 1960 rows of homes obliterated the scene of countless sporting events. The house building did not stop there but spread up the northern slopes toward the northern boundary of Oak Bay. The line which separates Oak Bay from Saanich begins at a point in the western half of Cadboro Bay. The people of Oak Bay and Saanich once voted in a plebiscite to determine if the Ten Mile Point area of Saanich would join Oak Bay. The proposal was defeated. On its way west the boundary passes through the campus of the University of Victoria. This does not trouble the 8,000 students (of whom a surprising 64 per cent come from interior British Columbia) but it did pose problems when the university was being built. Some buildings straddle the municipal border. Each municipality then had its own building code so one section had to be built conforming to Saanich standards, the other to Oak Bay regulations. Acquisition of the university's 380 acres climaxed one of Greater Victoria's most successful fund-raising efforts.
With the provincial government matching dollar for dollar, $5,000,000 was raised to ensure that Greater Victoria would have a full- fledged university of its own. An expert on university design was invited to Victoria by Dick Wilson, chairman of the development board. His advice: forget about developing the 54-acre Lansdowne site (where Camosun College now stands). Instead buy all the land you can farther north. Much of it was coming on the market at that time. "He told us to plan for 10,000 students," says Floyd Fairclough, director of community relations at the university. ''We had been thinking in terms of 3,000 to 3,500." Oak Bay municipal authorities did not exactly cheer at the prospect of seeing so much land diverted to a tax-free educational institution. They could have blocked the sale, but eventually the way was cleared for the university by land deals which have since netted the municipality a handsome profit. A zoning threat which might have hemmed in the university with high-rise apartments did not materialize.
Heated debates over land development are nothing new in Oak Bay. In the 1970s the municipal council bought land and erected the Recreation Centre near Foul Bay Road and Fort Street at a total cost of $3,000,000, half of which came from provincial grants and low cost federal financing. Some residents complained that they would never use the place while their taxes would soar because of it. Brian Smith was alderman and then mayor during the controversy. "I now see at the center people who five or six years ago accused council of being undemocratic because the project wasn't put to the voters," he says. "Now they say 'thank goodness you went ahead.' Some seniors had their doubts about it. I find now that seniors in Oak Bay are as big if not bigger supporters of the center than some of the younger ones." More than 25,000 people (some of them repeats) come to the center each week for swimming, curling and other sports. The licensed lounge is a popular gathering place. All are made welcome regardless of where they live and despite occasional outbreaks of rowdyism. "There's a historical reason for this," explains Dunc Russell, superintendent of parks and recreation. "For years we didn't have our own recreation facilities and Oak Bay people had to go to Victoria or Saanich. Now we've got them we can't deny them to others. Besides, how do you do it? It would be simple if all the people in Victoria were black and everyone in Oak Bay was white. But when you have 700 registering for some course do you turn a kid away because he lives on the other side of Foul Bay Road? "People from other parts of Victoria help the center financially. We take in between $1,200,000 and $1,300,000 a year."
Judy Simmons, sports co-ordinator at the center, tells this story about the friendly atmosphere that prevails there. "One night a regular user came in with a friend. Word got around it was her friend's 75th birthday. One of the staff found the remnant of a candle and a muffin - a birthday cake! When he brought it to her the whole lounge opened up in a chorus of Happy Birthday. There was such a feeling of warmth, you knew that for her it was a million-dollar birthday." It's also come one, come all at the municipally-operated Seniors Activity Centre on Monterey Avenue. It opened in 1971 with 400 members, now has 2,600, most of them between the ages of 65 and 75. Women outnumber men 3 to 1, though male attendance jumped when a billiards club was started. "They beat the staff in here in the morning," says Marian Andrews who directs the center with four paid assistants and 130 volunteers. She estimates that slightly more than half the members live in Oak Bay. It's hard to find an interest that isn't catered to at the center. There are internal clubs for every conceivable hobby, there are 10-week courses in specialized subjects three times a year (bridge, art and creative writing are the favorites) and there is plain socializing which includes six to 10 tables of drop-in bridge daily. Right into his 100th year John Rowell of Beach Drive was among those taking a hand every Friday. For some the center is a place where they can pursue their particular interests with congenial companions.
For others it's a place where they can find companionship and escape from the sense of restriction an apartment often brings after years of enjoying a house and garden. Someone coming back after a long absence would look at the Seniors Activity Centre and the parking lot under the oaks and say: "But where's Kimbolton?" That was the mansion of William Fernie and it suffered the fate of so many old houses in Oak Bay. There were the years of elegance when carriages crunched up driveways to deposit guests at ornate front doors. Then the years of decay, marked first of all by the division of the house into self-contained apartments and finally, demolition. The Slingsby house on the corner of Hampshire and Oak Bay Avenue suffered the same ultimate fate; the Shop-Easy parking lot now occupies its space. So did Major Taylor's house and tennis court on the southwest corner of Monterey and the Avenue. That section of Oak Bay Avenue between Major Taylor's and the Slingsbys' is now Oak Bay Village, a shopping district that grew Topsy-like as stores replaced old homes. The changes are dramatic. Oak Bay high school was a wooden building on the site of the present municipal hall, which in those days was across the street.
The tram line from town was double-tracked in the middle of the block so the streetcar bound for Windsor Park could wait for the car making its return run. The conductors solemnly exchanged batons. Jack Harness, who has watched the changing scene from his hardware store, is a champion of orderly development of the Village as a shopping district. He shakes his head and laughs when asked if planning was a serious consideration in the past. First one store sprang up, then another. The prospect of the process being repeated alarms Brian Smith. He says future councils will have to control commercial zoning strictly "so we don't have a great sprawl and wake up one day to find the Village has become a strip which reaches from Windsor Park to Foul Bay Road." He also worries about apartment building which could turn the Oak Bay waterfront into "another Waikiki."
Oak Bay residents had a chance to express themselves on the future of the Village in the questionnaire circulated last year by the council. They were almost evenly divided on the matter of additional shops, but came out firmly for developing a traditional style of architecture, preferably Tudor, and for adding to the foliage which now adorns the pavements. One thing is certain: Any move substantially to alter the Village will provoke one of Oak Bay's renowned citizen uprisings. "I'm always amazed how if there's any question affecting Oak Bay's environment the municipal council chamber will fill up," chuckles Dunc Russell. "As long as people don't feel their way of life is threatened they leave things to the politicians. Then there’s the question of sewage spilling on the beach or a tree is going to be knocked down on Newport Avenue and whoof! the old council chamber is packed." Brian Smith had first-hand experience of this sort of public reaction when he was mayor. Residents of Shoal Bay learned that a large pumping-station would be built on the shore to push sewage over Gonzales Hill to a new outfall complex at Clover Point in Victoria. Staid professional men and their families picketed the site on Beach Drive with placards proclaiming their wrath.
Protest meetings were held. The mayor and aldermen were subjected to a barrage of criticism. "Oak Bay people are not the least bit hesitant to tell an elected official in the butcher store or the supermarket, or by banging on his door on a Sunday morning, what they think of something you're going to do," says Smith. He admits that on the question of the pumping station the council was "out of touch and somewhat lulled by a lot of cosy engineering scenarios." "The people of Oak Bay did a super job and brought home to us that this wasn't 'a suitable harmonious intrusion' but a major monster of an edifice that would ruin a little bay. What's worse, it was going to pump raw sewage over Gonzales at horrendous wasteful cost with a great energy component in it, absolutely opposite to the energy conservation of today." The project was abandoned. "The citizens turned the council around. We changed our position. I think that's healthy." Sewage disposal is still a hot topic in Oak Bay.
Residents fume about polluted sea water and fouled beaches. Few of them believe the problem will disappear when the present outfall at McMicking Point is extended into more turbulent waters farther from shore. Present mayor Doug Watts listens patiently to their complaints. He's a great believer in consultation between the council and the community, thinks that together they can work out conclusions which will knit differing minorities together even if they don't please everyone. He is prepared to use modern methods of communication to reach the electors and tap their views. Reaction to the 1980 questionnaire - a 45 per cent response - impressed him. He talks of taking community planning to television, letting the planners do the explaining and then having the public 'phone in, open-line style. One reason for his confidence is the way people reacted to the public "forums" which preceded the questionnaire.
"It was a cold wet February night but hundreds of people turned out to four meetings. We turned them into brainstorming sessions open to everyone." He thinks Oak Bay taxpayers have demonstrated that they recognize the need for long-term alternatives to single family houses to accommodate older people "who can't manage a garden any more but still want to live in Oak Bay." That means more apartments and townhouses. "Contention will come over the exact area where they will be built," he says, and you can almost see him square his shoulders in anticipation of the arguments. Other alternatives to make room for more people in Oak Bay include "some relaxation of lot sizes, not heavy but sufficient to allow a little bit of additional in-filling that won't do too much damage to people's environment." Watts doesn't anticipate vast changes within Oak Bay. "I don't think people want vast change. But they do recognize that buildings get old, that they become uneconomic for various reasons and they have to be replaced.
They want them replaced with quality buildings. "I think that as a population we're going to tend to grow older. One reason is the decrease in the number of young people in society as a whole. The second is the magnet the Victoria area is for people who retire from other parts of the country. Because Oak Bay is a premium place, properties unfortunately have a premium price and it's going to be difficult for younger people to move. "There's going to be a tendency for people who want to move here to be people who have at least partially established themselves somewhere else and they've got to have some equity before they can do so. "This will create a tendency toward a rather older population. I hope not a less alive and vigorous population. I hope the facilities we've created will help to keep people healthier longer." One rarely sees a native Indian trudging the streets of Oak Bay.
The Songhees and their brothers no longer winter in its sheltered coves or paddle the offshore waters in search of food and trade. Canoes are no longer pulled up on the sands of Cadboro Bay while their occupants take the trail that will become Cedar Hill Cross Road to reach the Hudson's Bay Company fort on Victoria's Inner Harbor. In fancy I go back to the days when the Indians roamed unfettered by white men's rules and regulations. I see an old Indian who sits on a sea-bleached log at Shoal Bay watching the untidy flocks of water fowl, gazing at the imperturbable mountains across the strait, thinking his faraway thoughts. I like to think his spirit hovers benignly over Oak Bay. If a younger symbol is needed, someone to add new blood to the vigorous but greying oldsters whose numbers seem destined to increase, how about that boy coming out of the recreation center, his hair still plastered to his skull after his morning swim? Or the high school girl who concluded her essay on this positive note: "Oak Bay is an excellent place to live and I intend to raise a family here in the future."