For 45 years, Whippletree Junction has sat on the eastern side of the Trans-Canada Highway, just south of Duncan, watching tens of thousands of cars speed past each day.
Its jumble of salvaged buildings and old-world charm has served as a rest stop for tourists, a curiosity for locals and a coffee stop for the generations that built up the Island.
But in the last few years, that quirky and eclectic strip of stores and services has also tucked away a few Island gems and offbeat offerings, and there has been new life breathed into its lungs as a new vision starts to emerge.
According to Alice Hung, whose family has owned a part of Whippletree Junction for 35 years, the little business centre is coming into its own.
“It’s coming along, slowly but surely,” Hung said. “Right now, things are evolving. We are in a new chapter of it and we are trying to make it more successful for the businesses, and we are working hard on that.”
Hung believes by establishing the site as a more community-friendly place and populating it with local artisans and a wide variety of hyper-local businesses, they will find the mix that brings in traffic.
That could mean adding a permanent market or studios for artisans who will teach courses and give presentations in what was once an antique mall, and hosting more community events.
Whippletree was established in 1969 when Randy Streit built a store and other businesses using remnants of Duncan’s Chinatown, which he had been contracted to tear down in 1968.
Streit and brother Ernie ran Streit Bros. Antique Trading for 34 years until closing it in 2007. And over the years, old buildings saved from demolition in Sooke and Cobble Hill expanded the site.
Ernie Streit — Randy died in 2001 — sold their portion of Whippletree to Hung’s family six years ago, putting together a land package that includes more than four hectares.
“This used to be a tourist stop, and was known as an antique place, but times have changed and people now have a different outlook,” said Hung, noting with control of the entire site they can develop a plan. “Things have to change and we have to find our new niche.”
That change is already underway as new tenants have moved into the site over the last few years, adding more artisans to a mix that included Leola’s Studio and the Loom.
Christina Platt’s Bamboletta Dolls is one of the newcomers. Bamboletta, which this year won Small Business B.C.’s Community Impact award, moved in four years ago.
The company, which employs more than 30 local women and makes about 80 handmade dolls each week that retail for about $240 apiece, makes dolls from all-natural materials that feature neutral expressions to encourage children to play as they wish.
Platt has resisted the temptation to license her work and mass-produce the dolls, yet Bamboletta has grown and the work done in the studio barely keeps up with demand.
“It has sort of organically grown, and it’s done it in the way I wanted so it embodies the values — handmade with love and lots of care — that I believe make our dolls so special,” she said. “I resisted all licensing and overseas production, the way of the money, and really held true to what I believe.”
And Platt is proud that she is located in the Cowichan Valley and that by employing so many women has created a strong economic ripple through the community.
“I fell in love with Whippletree Junction. I thought what a funny little place,” she said. “It has the character I loved and it feels like such a good fit for us.”
Platt said there is massive potential for a site that features a unique courtyard, a fountain made of reclaimed sawmill and car parts, and a walk that is reminiscent of B.C. in the late 1800s.
Lori Shreenan is another recent addition to the quirky mix.
The hair stylist, who worked out of her salon in Victoria’s Chinatown for years, has established Shreenan’s Barbershop Girl in a small spot in Whippletree’s rear courtyard.
“This was kind of on my wish list,” she said of the offbeat location. “I love the Island but I didn’t want to be in Duncan or Victoria. I’d rather be in a place like Shawnigan or Cobble Hill, and this seems to be the perfect space — it’s a home setting, there’s a cat and a dog here, and you can plant a garden.”
Shreenan said she will still style women’s hair, but she wanted to flex her barber’s licence in the new space that has a laidback barbershop feel.
Debra Else is one of the longest-serving tenants at Whippletree.
Her aromatic 5,000-square-foot Whippletree Furniture location specializes in Natuzzi leather and has seen the site slowly evolve over 28 years.
“I think the mix is getting there; there had been a glut of furniture stores, but now there’s a good mix with the barbershop, the doll-maker, building supplies and Leola’s weaving,” she said. “It’s quite diverse.”
Like Whippletree Junction, Else’s store has evolved, having started as an antique-restoration business.
But her clientele still ranges from the locals, many from Victoria and the north Island, to tourists.
“We deliver and have done sales in Alberta and Saskatchewan,” she said. “Often it’s people on holidays finally having time to shop.”
Over the last few weeks, 180-Degree Building Solutions opened its doors at Whippletree, and Scoop Natural Foods signed a lease to open in mid-August. Both cited the vision of establishing a community that reflected a return to traditional ways of doing things as reasons for picking the spot.
“There are newer locations with all the bells and whistles, but we wanted a more humble location that reflected who we are, a sense of the country mercantile,” said Pam Stiles, who with husband Cam will open Scoop Natural Foods, selling natural foods and small kitchen appliances.
Pat Woodland, who along with business partner John Lohsen just opened 180-Degree Building Solutions, said the appeal of highway exposure was a selling point, but the mix of local artisans sealed the deal.
“We liked where it could be going — developing a community of locally produced products on the craft side and local food,” he said. “We hope that it will create a central attraction so people come to see what’s going on and get involved in that kind of activity.”
Woodland said his business — building design and construction with a focus on healthy building and using natural materials and non-toxic finishes — dovetails nicely with the overall theme at Whippletree of returning to traditional means of production.
They might be businesses that look to the past for inspiration, but Hung believes the new direction and mix are moving Whippletree forward.
“They are all owner-operators, so there’s a lot of energy there,” she said.