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Cowichan Alive

Your guide to beautiful Cowichan Living

Mill Bay Centre and Mel Sager

The old recipe for success of “Find a Need and Fill It” never rang truer than at Mill Bay Centre. In 1977, visionary, businessman, and go-getter Mel Sager acquired the property where the present day Mill Bay Centre is sitting on. The idea for the Centre was one of total community involvement spearheaded by Mel. He went door to door asking residents what they would like to see on the property and what type of services they felt they needed. But most importantly he listened. 

Surprised Recipient of Honour - Mel Sager

The cement started to pour on 1982 and the growth and improvements have never really ended.       Many people have benefited over the years from the centre. Not only getting services that they really needed ranging from accounting, food, health practitioners, professional services, to Zena comic books. Many jobs were created and are supporting families all over the region.

Mel and his team of David Gibson, and son Richard Sager forged forward and the dream became a reality. They were recently honoured, along with mall manager Marilyn fuller, at an unveiling  of a sing celebrating Mill Bay’s Centre’s history. The mill Bay/Malahat Historical Society produced the beautiful tribute with a sign showing the new mall directory and history.

 

Some members of the original crew. Second from left - David Gibson. In front middle - Mel Sager. In the middle behind Mel - Richard Sager.

 

William J. Shearing and the Shearing Tree

 

 

The Shearing Farm was the first farm established in Cobble Hill. In 1862, William J. Shearing arrived in Harrisville (the Cowichan Valley) at the age of 18,  by way of the HMS Hecate. Originally from England, he came here via India. There were 62 other passengers on the Hecate also looking for new starts in life. Most went north after they disembarked, while a few like William looked South for a homestead.

It didn’t take long to see the potential in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. It was not an easy life and one with some uncertainty. Shearing bought the land lineated by Telegraph Bay Road and extended from Cowichan Bay Road south to Cherry Point Road. His was about one and a half miles southeast of Cowichan Bay.  It wasn’t till after the government reached an agreement with the local First Nations in 1873 the he was legally allowed to pre-empt the land. Not all of it was suitable for farming and after several challenging letters with the Chief Commissioner for Lands the government took back the gravely parts.

The land was logged with the exception of one tree and he built a cabin on the hillside overlooking the picturesque valley. He married Mary Jack from the Cowichan first Nations and they had five children; William Jr., Dolly, Louise, Edward, and Herbert. Farming was not his first love so he hired Mr. Richardson to manage the farm with the help of the younger Shearing’s. It stayed this way till the children were old enough to take over.

Shearing was mathematically inclined and left his mark on the valley through various pursuits. He started as a foreman at Sayward’s Sawmill in Mill Bay, where he worked for 5 years till he owned his own sawmill in Nanaimo. He was also involved in construction in various forms. He was involved in road construction and became the District Roads Superintendent. He designed and built the Columbia Hotel in Cowichan and the original Bench School. Being multi-faceted and talented, he also designed and built several bridge’s notably in Cowichan Bay and Copper Canyon.

He returned to the farm in his later days and died there in 1919 at the age of 72. His son Ted took over the farm and carried on the family tradition. Although much of the land has been sold off over the last century; the famous “Shearing Tree” also known as the “Shearing Eagle Tree” or “Shearing Big Tree” is still standing its lonely vigil on family farm.

The tree is a 70 feet tall old-growth solitary Douglas Fir. Many of the Shearing family have their ashes spread beneath its lofty boughs. This is a fitting monument to a pioneer family that did and continues to shape the cultural and historic significance of the Cowichan Valley and its pioneering spirit. Please respect the property as it still is privately owned by the family.

William Shearing Park, which is found east off the Trans-Canada Highway at Valley View Centre onto Cowichan Bay Road. Turn right onto Shearing road. The trail head is at the end of Shearing Road. It is a fitting memorial to an integral leader of our community. 

The Malahat Highway an “Impossible Dream”

Or MacFarlane’s Folly

Many thought it would be a waste of time and money, and that it was impracticable and dangerous to build a road along the east side of Vancouver Island. Yet there needed to be a faster way to get from Victoria to the Cowichan Valley than the three-day slog over the inland route, the train, or the weekly steamer from Victoria to Nanaimo.

This was back in 1861 when it was merely a cattle trail. Rumour had it that in 1884 the route was upgraded to a wagon trail. In fact, in 1870 two government surveyors said that a road should not be built.

It took a determined man, with a goal to improve his lot. The first-time Major J.F.L MacFarlane took the route with his friend Arthur Flint, from whom he bought his Cobble Hill farm unseen, it was a grueling affair. He recalled later that "When we reached the rising ground beyond Goldstream we got off the wagon and walked until we got to the top and then looked down the steep hill. I thought we could now have a welcome rest. Not a bit of it! It was much too steep. Having no brake I tied the wheels together and got down "by degrees" the way they say that the lawyers get to heaven." "While we were enjoying our lunch and thankful to be on level ground again, I turned to Flint. "Never again" said I, "will you find me driving on this so-called road." "My dear fellow," said he, "if you want to drive to Victoria this is the only one." "What!" said I, "then I will get a better road built." That was what started it all." * 

MacFarlane needed a way to get his produce and those of his fellow farmers of the Cowichan Valley to the Victoria market. After all, he was one of a group who started the Farmers Institute. He was tired of taking an exhausting three-day wagon ride to Victoria from Cobble Hill.

 

Major MacFarlane, armed with a hand-compass and an aneroid barometer, mapped out a route from the Cowichan Valley to the Goldstream lowlands. It took him over three years of crawling over every nook and cranny, sailing his sloop up and down the Saanich Inlet, and patrolling the area on a railway tricycle to determine a viable route.

The automobile stopped part way up the steep hill from Goldstream was one of many that couldn't make it on a single run. Overheated radiators and flat tires on the Malahat section of the Island Highway were normal for many years on the gravel road. (View Royal Archives, Pearce collection)

 

MacFarlane needed a way to get his produce and those of his fellow farmers of the Cowichan Valley to the Victoria market. After all, he was one of a group who started the Farmers Institute. He was tired of taking an exhausting three-day wagon ride to Victoria from Cobble Hill.

Major MacFarlane, armed with a hand-compass and an aneroid barometer, mapped out a route from the Cowichan Valley to the Goldstream lowlands. It took him over three years of crawling over every nook and cranny, sailing his sloop up and down the Saanich Inlet, and patrolling the area on a railway tricycle to determine a viable route.

Malahat summit, ca. 1914 Automobiles pass very carefully on the narrow road between jutting cliffs and a steep drop down the mountainside - no guard rails, just a Go Slow Here road sign.
(Image E-00422 Courtesy of BC Archives - Adjusted from Original)

 

Originally the powers to be offered deaf ears to his proposal, but as it was an election year. MacFarlane, being undeterred, collected hundreds of signatures with his fellow Cowichan farmers and their voices were heard. Work on the gravel road began in 1903 and was completed in 1911.

In the words of Major MacFarlane.

From a letter to the Victoria Times August 29, 1938

"Sir - In a very excellent article by Mr. Frank Giolma in your Sunday’s issue, the writer however makes a grave mistake in his reference to the Malahat Drive. He states, "this was built by the Provincial Government in 1914 to replace the 'Old Summit Road'. There are two mistakes in this: First, there never was an ‘Old Summit Road’; second, the present road was finished and opened for traffic a week before Christmas, 1911. I had the honor to be first to drive over and ‘hanseled’ it with a bottle of Burke’s whisky to the road gang."

"Shortly after I had come to British Columbia and taken up land at Mill Bay, I inquired at the Department of Works why it was that there was no road going north from the Capital City? The reply I got was that the Government had sent out surveyors and engineers for forty years at intervals and that they had invariably returned and reported that it was impossible to find a line."

"I asked for a map and told them I would find a line and mark it on the map. I did so, but it took me many weary months. Everyone seemed to think it nonsensical for me to say a thing could be done when Government officials said it was impossible! H.B. Thompson, M.P.P. for Victoria, gave me a helping hand by employing Frank Verdier, a noted timber cruiser to go over my line and report on it. So Frank went over and blazed the line, reporting it quite feasible. The present road was then built."

"J.F. Lenox MacFarlane, Major (retired) 1353 Pandora Avenue, Victoria BC August 29, 1938." *

* MacFarlane, John M. (2013) Major James Francis Lenox MacFarlane’s Version of the Siting of the Malahat Highway. Nauticapedia.ca 2013. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/MacFarlane_JFL_Letter.php

I ask you, what would the good Major think of his folly now

 

The first automobile made it over the mountain on June 3, 1911, according to notes on this photograph by William Penman.
(City of Victoria Archives, PR19-4987 M00679)

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