For 55 years, one of the oldest buildings in Victoria — and B.C. — served as a rough-and-tumble garden shed, with even historians unaware of its existence, never mind heritage.
Now the Colwood Dairy and Cheese House, built in 1852, is slated to be front and centre at a Goldstream Avenue condo development, restored and open to the public. But that will happen when Goldstream Projects hits 20 sales out of 100 planned units — pretty well the minimum to make the move.
The dairy was “extremely under the radar” after the 1950s, said heritage consultant Stuart Stark. It fell derelict, without a roof and windows but with the staying power conferred by 46-centimetre-thick stone walls.
Yet it sits on what was once the 250-hectare Esquimalt Farm, owned by Capt. E.E. Langford, who called the family home “Colwood” in honour of his birth place in Sussex, England.
Which is how three local municipalities came upon their names.
At one point, Colwood Coun. Cynthia Day heard that a bygone owner threatened to destroy it in order to keep heritage buffs at bay. Now, both Stark and Day are involved with turning the 16-by-20-foot house into a tangible reminder of the earliest European settlement on Vancouver Island.
The only two surviving buildings from Greater Victoria’s other early farms are both National Historic Sites — Craigflower Manor (1856) and Craigflower Schoolhouse (1854). The cheese house deserves that status as well, Stark said.
“It’s beautiful,” said Day, who marvels at how intact the oldest-known building on the West Shore has remained — all things considered.
Developer Dave Vidalin said he expects the cost of moving and restoring the cheese house to come in at “well over $200,000.”
But nearly eight months after Vidalin and partner Jim McLaren and municipal politicians were photographed about to break the ground, it’s still unbroken — and it’s likely to remain so until March. As of last week, only 16 units had been sold.
The building is both “awesome and so cool,” Vidalin said.
“I think it’s fabulous that a developer has seen the potential,” said Day, chairwoman of Colwood’s parks, recreation and culture committee.
“Culture is very hard to define, but it is that thing that gives us a sense of place. Colwood sort of suffers from amnesia with the past because so much development happened in the 1970s that we tend to forget.”
Esquimalt Farm was built for the Puget Sound Agricultural Company — a subsidiary of the Hudson Bay Company — to provide food and encourage British settlers north of the Oregon Territory, which had recently been ceded by Britain to the U.S.
Fort Victoria depended on this farm for some of its grain, milk, butter and cheese, not to mention the quick lime from the farm’s enormous kiln, which was used to make the lime mortar and plaster to help construct the brick buildings of downtown Victoria, Stark added.
Esquimalt Farm had tremendous importance, not just in this supporting role but as “a community unto itself,” he added.
The farm was home to the first school in Colwood, taught by Langford’s daughters in a special room behind the family’s 1,500-square-foot house, several workers’ cottages, four cowsheds — three of them 17 metres long — two wells, two brick ovens, lime and brick kilns, a granary, pigsties, horse stable, and a large barn as well as the cheese house. A cricket field played host to competition between Royal Navy personnel docked in Esquimalt Harbour and the Fort Victoria team. Weddings were held on site and travellers traditionally stopped on their two-day horse journeys to Metchosin from Fort Victoria, Stark said.
The condo plans call for construction over the foundations of the other Esquimalt Farm buildings, now underground. All were built of timber and are long gone. The dairy survived due to its masonry construction, which was required to keep dairy products cool.
“I am pleased that the heritage of the area will be highlighted and preserved as much as possible,” Day said. “Not all of the buildings have survived. The Dairy and Cheese House represents something built so well that it has survived 160 years, a centerpiece for promoting heritage education where artifacts and archival documents can be displayed for the public.”
The cheese house was still in good shape in 1920, then fell into disrepair and by 1956 had no roof, door, windows or part of its north wall. It was repaired by a Mr. Trealor, who used his retirement to install the roof, door and windows and then a power line for his tools. “Today, the old building looks good for another hundred years,” reported a 1969 edition of the Daily Colonist.
Last summer, archeologists started to remove a concrete floor installed in 1956, screening the dirt for artifacts and uncovering the original brick floor.
A large metal bucket found on the site was taken to the Royal B.C. Museum for conservation.
Still to come is a new system by Nickel Brothers House Movers to manoeuvre the building to the front of the site. “It’s very small but very fragile,” co-owner Allan Nickel said.
REGION’S SEVEN OLDEST BUILDINGS
• St. Ann’s Schoolhouse, circa 1844, next to the Royal B.C. Museum
• John Tod House, oldest continuously lived-in house in Western Canada, 1850-52, Heron Street, Oak Bay
• Helmcken House, 1852, original site on Royal B.C. Museum grounds
• Colwood Dairy and Cheese House, 1852, Goldstream Avenue in Colwood
• Four-Mile House, 1854, at 199 Island Highway
• Craigflower Schoolhouse, 1854, junction of Craigflower and Admirals roads
• Craigflower Manor, 1856, junction of Craigflower and Admirals roads
MAKING THE CHEESE HOUSE AFFORDABLE
• Colwood will have ownership and public-access rights to the Colwood Dairy and Cheese House. The city will collect fees to facilitate its heritage status.
• The city will collect $250 for each of the 100 planned condo units as an amenity charge. The money will provide $25,000 for the Colwood Dairy Conservation Reserve Fund to pay for signs or installations to enhance the building’s historical content.
• A further $500 per unit will be charged to fund Colwood’s planned new firehall, and $1,000 per unit for general community amenity charges, said Iain Bourhill, Colwood’s deputy director of planning.
• The total charged at time of the building permit: $175,000.
• 35 per cent of the site, adjacent to Millstream Creek, will be turned into public park.
• Below market rent will be charged for 10 per cent of the units for at least 10 years.