Vargas Island Rancher

In Spring 1914, Harold Monks, twenty-one and a half years old, left his life as an accounting clerk in industrial Earlestown, Lancashire and travelled to the West Coast of Canada. Harold arrived in Tofino and waited on the dock for his “Canadian” cousins to come over and meet him on their once-every-ten-days shopping trip. They loaded Harold’s steamer trunk into a boat (hopefully they had borrowed a neighbour’s motor launch!) and made the six kilometre trip to the north west side of Vargas Island.

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Vargas Island in Clayoquot Sound. Detail from a 1913 British Columbia Department of Lands map. Harold Monks collection.

Vargas Island was a recent “ranching” settlement. While Vargas Island had been used as hunting and fishing base for the local First Nations groups for centuries, it had only been opened up for settlement in 1908. Two local entrepreneurs, Pierre Alexis Hovelaque and Frank Garrard, hoped to clear and improve land and sell it off for profit. Their business idea didn’t come to fruition. But the island did start to attract settlers who took out pre-emptions of land, a way to get Crown Land cheaply by clearing and cultivating it (somewhat like prairie homesteading). This 1913 British Columbia Department of Lands map shows Vargas Island to have two Indian Reserves (coloured in red), a Timber license (green) and two large crown grants (yellow). The “white” areas mean that land was open for “ranching” — but of course the map doesn’t show that the island was almost entirely covered in a west coast rainforest!

Meet the cousins

In the early 1970s, Harold was interviewed about his early days on Vargas Island. This audio recording is a valuable first-hand account of some of his experiences. As you can see, Harold was joining a close-knit family group: “I stayed at Harry Hilton’s, that’s the one I was corresponding with before I came out….they were all mother’s side. I stayed with him part of the time, and with Fred Hopkins. It wasn’t far away. Fred Hopkins had property on the beach. Harry’s was inland from the beach, you see, and we had a trail running between them. It didn’t take very long to get from one place to another. Harry Hilton and Fred Hopkins’ wife were brother and sister. And living next to Harry Hilton on the beach was Billy Hilton, a brother. And then on Open Bay was Frank Hopkins, a brother to Fred Hopkins.”

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The Hopkins family at Hopkins Beach on NW Vargas Island, 1915. Photo by Harold Monks

Harry and Billy Hilton (and Esther Hopkins) were the children of Joseph Hilton, the younger brother of Harold’s Grandma Barton. After years in the South Lancashire coal mines, Joseph emigrated to Ontario, where he farmed and brought up a large family. By the late 1890s, the Hilton family had moved west to the new homesteads on the Canadian prairies. By the 1910s, the Hiltons (and Esther Hopkins and family) were living in Saanich BC and about to try ranching on Vargas Island.

Picnic Party on Vargas Island 1914
Picnic Party, Vargas Island, 1914. Harold Monks at centre back, surrounded by cousins and neighbours, all who had farmed for years in Saskatchewan.

Vargas Island Ranchers

Harry and Billy Hilton and their sister Esther Hopkins (and husband Fred) arrived on Vargas Island in spring 1912, after several years homesteading in Saskatchewan. Other neighbours on Vargas Island also had years of farming experience in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Australia / New Zealand. Harold also had farming experience – yes, he’d been a “white collar” accountant in an industrial town, but he had spent a lot of time at his Grandpa Barton’s farm, 12 acres in Pemberton, Lancashire. Yet, none of these self-proclaimed ranchers, were prepared for the very different landscape, climate and growing conditions, not to mention the isolation of living on an island separated by stormy seas from the closest store and post offices.

A pre-emption

After living at Harry Hilton’s and Esther Hopkins’ places, Harold’s plan was to get his own land. Harold chose a vacant piece of land (Lot 1450 – 152 acres) and submitted a written application to the British Columbia Department of Lands. On June 19 1914, the government issued a Certificate of Pre-Emption Record.

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Harold Monks’ Certificate of Pre-emption Record. Royal BC Museum and Archives GR-1014

Clearing the land

Harold’s next goal was to “improve” the land by clearing, fencing and cultivating part of it. Then he could get a “Certificate of Improvement”, a step on the way to getting legal title to the land. Harold’s cousin Fred Hopkins declared his “improvements” in a Land Act document, now in the BC Archives. This statement from 1914 gives a good idea of what kinds of work Fred had done in the two years he’d been on the property: “cleared about 1 acre, half in with garden stuff, balance half which is nearly ready for garden stuff and balance brush, 2 trees burnt off with a few stumps left.” The value of these so-called “improvements” was $200. This 1914 ad for land on Vargas Island appeared The Daily Colonist. It states: “easy clearing”. As you will learn below, this was clearly a case of wishful thinking – or false advertising!

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January 1914 advertisement in The Daily Colonist for 80 acres on Vargas Island. A classic piece of false advertising – clearing was difficult!

Clearing land was not an easy task in the middle of a west coast rainforest! Frank Garrard, who first settled on Vargas Island in summer 1908, recalled that he “cut down the timber, seeding it down in grass, of course we obtained our fuel supply from it.” Garrard had lived on the west coast for many years so was well experienced in the woods. Another settler didn’t have much experience. Ted Abraham, formerly farming in an agricultural area near Palmerston North, New Zealand arrived on the south east end of Vargas Island in summer 1911. Ted recalled in a 1973 interview that he wasn’t very good at chopping wood and cut his foot. He wasn’t able to get to the hospital in Port Alberni, and spent several weeks lying in his tent as he waited for the injury to heal. Even 70 years later there was still a scar! Harold Monks, former accountant, was more lucky, but around 1915 he suffered attacks of lumbago (bad back).

How to get rid of the undergrowth and stumps? Burn them! But maybe it wasn’t that simple. Ted Abraham recalled: “We cleared some land…in New Zealand you know you can put down a few acres of bush and set a match to it and burn it. We thought we were going to do that up at Tofino. With Tofino’s 100 and odd inches of rain it wouldn’t burn…” Helen Malon (Ted’s mother) writes in her diary on April 5 1916: “made bonfires trying to burn stumps.” (Perhaps the “trying” is to be emphasized!) But in June 916, there had been some hot weather, and there were some fires, as Helen Malon’s diary reports on Tuesday June 13 1916: “Fine but not quite so hot. Tommy and George Sye helped Mr. H to do some slashing and burning, especially the latter, at the back of the lot. Had quite an exciting time putting out the fire, one on his place started on the fence.” The next day on Wednesday June 14 1916 was a “Lovely hot day with a strong west wind. Another fire started on Maggie’s place in the afternoon. Luckily P.A.H. and two Indians were here and put it out with gallons of water. No more bonfires, thank you.” (A note — Helen Malon, who lived on the south east side of Vargas Island, was well-to-do and could afford to hire her neighbours to do jobs for her. Harold and his cousins would have to do all the hard work themselves.)

“Slashing and piling was relatively simple, if backbreaking. The stumps were a larger problem,” writes James Murton in Creating a Modern Countryside: Liberalism and Land Settlement in British Columbia (UBC Press 2007). Murton notes: “They were packed with blasting powder and cracked to the point where they could be pulled out of the ground. Blasts had to be contained enough so as not to harm people in the vicinity, and the powder had to be carefully placed in the stump so as to successfully crack it. Yet since each stump was different, success or failure depended on the knowledge and skill of the person setting the powder.”

Vargas settlers had to row over to Clayoquot or Tofino to get their blasting powder from the local store (the product would have come up the coast by steamship). Helen Malon wrote in her diary on Monday August 19 1912: “The boys rowed over to Tofino to try and get powder then came back to lunch.” A few weeks later, she noted on Thursday September 12 1912: “Ted and I rowed over to Clayoquot to fetch stores. Ted rowed and I steered. Very hard work as the tide was against us. We took a box of powder to Arthur at Suffolk Bay.”

If you couldn’t blast the stumps, a stump puller might work. On March 18 1912, Harold’s cousin Harry Hilton wrote to Clayoquot Store owner Walter Dawley to see if there was any potential work: “Two or three weeks ago a party of four of us were up at Clayoquot and secured a pre-emption each. We intended going into residence in the near future and would like to know if it would be advisable to take up a stump puller. If there were any prospects of outside work we will certainly take it up. If you have any stump pulling to be done you might drop me a line. As I am writing other parties in your locality to determine prospects.”

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Harold’s sketch of a Vargas Island oxen in his wartime notebook

Another way to move the stumps was by oxen. One of the settlers at the north end of the island, Jacob M. Eby, had a pair of oxen. Harold recalled: “This fellow had a couple of oxen…huge things…they roamed the island. He made a homemade plow and he’d put them to work [to clear a swamp]…then he’d let them loose…they had great big bells on them…could hear them in the middle of the night. Bang, bang, bang…and we’d hear a crash and they’d gone through the fence into the garden. I’d get up in my pyjamas and get my shotgun and chase after them down the beach. I’d put some salt into empty gun cartridges and close it up and put it in the barrel and off I’d go. And bang bang! Up went their tails and off down the beach they’d go! Oh they were a nuisance…”

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Oxen cleared the land on Vargas Island – and kept Harold Monks awake! These oxen yoke were found on Vargas Island in 1974. Photo by Barry Warner

Building a house

A requirement of “improving” the land was to build a dwelling. Land Act declarations in the BC Archives tell us what the houses were like on Vargas Island. For example, this is what Harold’s cousin Fred Hopkins built:

House made of lumber 14×24
Lean-to 12X24 (perhaps this is where Harold stayed?)
Woodshed 8X14
Chicken house made of lumber 14X16 (funny that it’s almost as big as the house!)

In spring 1915, Harold ordered building supplies. Bills of lading show that these items were sent by the British Columbia Coastal Steamship Service. This schedule for 1917 shows a stop at “Port Gillam” (at the North End of Vargas Island).

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Detail from a BC Coastal Steamship Service schedule August 1917. Chung Collection, UBC Open Collections.

Harold referred to his address as “Port Gillam”, and there was a short lived post office located there, run by Helen Carolan circa 1916-1917. Though, the wharf may just have been popularly called “Vargas Wharf” as Harold’s bill for lumber shows. (Note the comment “next boat”, meaning the sailing of the Maquinna up the coast — it’s arrival was always called “boat day”.)

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Harold’s order for a door from A.B. Cushing Lumber Co. It was to be shipped from Vancouver to the Vargas Island Wharf by the “next boat.”

Getting stores by boat

Vargas Island ranchers like Harold had to go by boat to Clayoquot or Tofino to get “stores” (supplies), usually when the “boat” (coastal steamship) came. Harold recalled: “the relatives stopped over at Clayoquot and then after they’d got through there they’d come over here (Tofino) and then off they’d go home for 10 days. That’s how we’d lived over there.” Harold added: “There was one fellow there. He was the next pre-emption to the one I had, and he had a power boat, and once in awhile we’d be able to make connections with him and get a ride in on it. Otherwise we’d be rowing with a canoe or something like that, you see.” Here is a snapshot of Harold in his outrigger canoe.

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Harold Monks on canoe at Vargas Island in 1915. Harold Monks collection.

Referring to the powerboat, this may have been owned by Harold’s neighbour Jacob M. Eby (the Dutchman?) but another neighbour, Bill Longworth, definitely had a gas engine for his boat. Harold’s cousin Harry Hilton mentions this in a June 12 1915 letter: “Will you please send out by Don Forsythe a can of gasoline. Same can be charged as Boat Hire. I don’t care to ask Wm Longworth for the use of his boat without supplying Gasoline for his little engine.”

This letter is also of note because it shows that Vargas Island ranchers like Harry Hilton were getting their neighbours to pick up supplies for them. The BC Archives has a large collection of letters sent by Vargas Island residents to Walter Dawley at the Clayoquot Store ordering supplies. The shopping lists were usually accompanied by a cheque that the “bearer” (the neighbour) would have cashed — or in the case of Harold’s cousin Fred Hopkins, the goods would go on the store credit (Hopkins had a continual cycle of being in debt to the local store!) The letters are a really good way to see what kinds of things Harold and his cousins and neighbours may have ordered. This letter from Fred Hopkins dated 1912 is a great example (note that Longworth and his engine were doing the shopping!):

“Will you please let Longworth have the following for me

1 large tin butter
2 sides good bacon
1 bag flour
1 bag wheat
1 plugs McD Smoking and chewing
1 can coal oil
50 cents Sunlight Soap
1 large tin syrup”

Hopkins was hoping to get good bacon. Harold’s neighbour “Old Captain Cleland” also sent this unintentionally humorous letter to the store about some ham:

“I am returning the ham which I got from you as I think it is rather high. The last one also was not good and half of it had to be cut away. If you can find a good fresh one, will you kindly send it over by Mr. Hilton, but if not, credit me.”

Yours faithfully,
F Henderson Cleland

How did these ranchers pay for their “good bacon” and “high ham” and the like? Cleland (and his rich mother) had money, but most of the ranchers like Harry Hilton and Fred Hopkins and Harold Monks had to get a job. Harry and Fred both worked on building the Vargas Island wharf. Harold got a job working on road building on Vargas (for $1 a day) and then in summer 1915 and 1916 he went to fish for the cannery at Kenn Falls.

“We all scattered”

War was declared in August 1914. Over a period of 3 years, the Vargas Island ranchers gradually left the island. “Thirteen of us enlisted”, recalled Harold (the actual number is seventeen). A review of when the ranchers arrived on Vargas Island and when they enlisted show that most of the men stuck it out up to 3 years before leaving. By that time, they were able to fulfill their duties on their land, i.e. do the required improvements and fulfill residency requirements. In spring 1916 new legislation was enacted The Pre-Emptors Free Grants Act which meant that pre-emptors like Harold could leave their land without penalty, and would be able to receive the land for no cost when they returned from active service. This legislation would have been an incentive for some Vargas residents to enlist…but most had already done so. They’d figured out that living on a somewhat isolated wilderness island was not as practical as it seemed. Harold Monks, one of the last to arrive on the island in spring 1914, joined up in April 1917.

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Harold Monks’ Crown Grant for his Vargas Island land. Image from Historic Crown Grants database.

Harold returned from military service in summer 1919 and got a Crown Grant for his Vargas Island lot under The Pre-Emptors Free Grants Act. But…he didn’t return to live there. None of Harold’s cousins and neighbours went back. Harold recalled, “none of us returned. We all scattered.”

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Harold and former Vargas cousins and neighbours meet up in Saanich at the end of 1919. Harry Hilton, Fred Hopkins, Harry Harris, Gerry Lane, Harold Monks

Harold continued to pay taxes on his lot for several years and occasionally used his shack. He stopped paying taxes in the mid 1930s and the land reverted to the Crown. The shack remained there until it fell apart and was just a pile of rubble in the middle of the wilderness.

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A family group visits the site of Harold’s shack on Vargas Island, 1974

Read more in “Vargas Island ranchers at home and at war”, an introduction to the 2019 exhibit I guest curated at the Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum.