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Book review: A history of a remarkable structure from Victoria’s past

The B.C. Agricultural Association Exhibition Building at the Willows By Stuart Stark Historic Media, 349 pp., $29.
The B.C. Agricultural Association Exhibition Building at the Willows by Stuart Stark
The B.C. Agricultural Association Exhibition Building at the Willows by Stuart Stark

The B.C. Agricultural Association Exhibition Building at the Willows
By Stuart Stark
Historic Media, 349 pp., $29.95

A year ago, Stuart Stark’s comprehensive look at the history of agricultural exhibitions in Greater Victoria gave us a fresh look at a part of our past that has been all but forgotten.

While the book’s title refers to one building, the book itself deals with much more than a structure that stood for just 16 years. The book became a valuable addition to the storehouse of knowledge about our past.

Stark’s book won a communications award presented by the Hallmark Heritage Society, and the honour was well deserved. After all, nobody alive today can remember a building that was erected in 1891 and burned to the ground on Boxing Day 1907.

But what happens when a writer and researcher publishes a groundbreaking, overdue book such as this? New information comes to light, including details in fact as well as photographs. That is why many authors would like a do-over, chance to expand or correct the content of the first effort.

After Stark's book was published, many people came forward with photographs from private collections. Stark also did additional research, and the result is a revised and expanded book with 30 more pages of text and photographs.

The remarkable exhibition hall, designed by Cornelius Soule and completed in 1891, was an important feature of the exhibition grounds east of Victoria, in an area that became part of Oak Bay when the municipality was created in 1906.

It was, however, only one element of the history of agricultural exhibitions, and Stark takes us through 80 years of that history, putting the building into context.

Agricultural exhibitions were designed to promote the viability of farms in an area. The first one was held in the Victoria area in 1861, the year before the city was incorporated, and they continued, in fits and starts, until 1941 when it closed for the last time.

In a few years, through fire and demolition, the buildings that made up the exhibition grounds disappeared. In 1949 the 66-acre property was subdivided, and today people are living on those grounds.

That history should make this book a prized item for anyone living on the former grounds, basically the area that surrounds Carnarvon Park along Eastdowne Road.

The new photographs in this book include a panorama of the building’s interior in 1901. There are also photographs of exhibits and a stereoscope view from the building’s tower.

Photographs of rare wireless technology installed at the Hotel Mount Baker, used when the Duke of York came to open the Agricultural Exhibition in 1901, help to put the importance of the building and the exhibition into the appropriate context.

Author Stark is a heritage consultant who has worked on the preservation and restoration of many old buildings. He is also a lecturer on historic topics, so is certainly well qualified to wrote about the old exhibitions and the exhibition halls.

Of special note is the work of Ron Soule, a great-grandson of architect Cornelius Soule, who takes us around and into the old exhibition building through computerized recreations. The artwork helps to give readers a better appreciation for the stunning building that captured the sense of pride that was being shown in exhibition buildings are around the world.

If you liked the first edition of Stark’s book, one might say, you will love the second one. And if this edition helps to unearth more treasures of our past, that will be an added bonus.

The reviewer is the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Times Colonist.