Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War

A Vargas Island beach party in 1913. The men would soon enlist, leaving their families behind on the island. Credit: Ron Macleod.

In winter/spring 2019, the Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum hosted a travelling exhibit from the Royal British Columbia Museum, “British Columbia’s War 1914-1918”. To complement this travelling exhibit, the Museum looked at one of Clayoquot Sound’s war stories, that of Vargas Island, the site of a short-lived “ranching” settlement. There were many stories to tell of how this island was settled just before the war, and how the war impacted the residents. Most of the men on the island enlisted and went overseas, and left families behind on the island.

I guest curated an exhibit, “Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War”, based on the experiences of my grandpa Harold Monks, who settled on Vargas Island before the war. I had been researching Harold’s experiences and those of his family, friends, and neighbours on Vargas Island. Using Harold’s own memories, snapshots and documents as a starting point, I discovered land records, diary entries and letters from other residents to expand the story. I collaborated with the Museum to create exhibit displays, background articles and an illustrated lecture introducing the exhibit.

Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War exhibit
Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War on display at the Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum

“Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War” had an enthusiastic response from museum visitors and the local community. The Museum noticed a “huge” positive response from local residents. There was a lack of awareness about how many local Clayoquot Sound residents served in the First World War, and many people didn’t know just how many pioneers had lived on Vargas Island. In particular, kayak and boat guides who had told stories of Vargas Island for years commented that they had learned so much from the exhibit and they could now share it with visitors. There was also a strong response from out-of-town visitors, who were “awed” at the Vargas Island people’s day-to-day lifestyle, especially after reading the “Women at Home” portion of the exhibit based on the diaries of Mrs. Malon, Vargas Island’s postmistress, who waited from letters from her two sons fighting in France.

Mrs. Malon (far left) at her home, the Vargas Island Post Office (see the sign at right), during the First World War.
Arthur Abraham’s first letter to his mother Mrs. Helen Malon, in August 1914 after he left Vargas Island to enlist. Mother and son would not see each other again.

Ava Hansen, Operations Manager, Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum had this to say about the project:

“Being familiar with Stephanie’s online historical publications, Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum was keen to reach out to her to invite her to curate an exhibit on World War One history in Clayoquot Sound. In delving in to her grandfather’s history in Clayoquot Sound, Stephanie discovered and spun in stories of so many other west coast characters! We were astounded by the amount of research and diligence that went in to the production of Stephanie’s exhibit and exhibit opening talk – it was above and beyond what we had hoped for in terms of amount of content and contextual information, ease of process, and contribution of artifacts and photographs for display.

When Stephanie came to Tofino she immersed herself in the experience of connecting with historical locations, travelling by boat to some key sites from the Clayoquot Sound WWI story.* Not only did she dive back in history, but she brought history to life for all of us museum staff, visitors to the exhibit, and audience at the exhibition opening. Often funny, always clear and thorough, she painted a vivid pictures of the times. Stephanie brought to light precious details of so many stories long time locals were unaware of — taking us on a fascinating and sometimes emotional journey into the past and connecting it with the present. In coordinating the production of the guest exhibition Stephanie was a delight to work with! It has been such a privilege.”

*See photos of my museum visit to WWI related graves at Morpheus Island Cemetery here