Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War

A Vargas Island beach party in 1913. Many of these settlers would enlist and fight on the Western Front, leaving their families behind on the island. Credit: Ron Macleod.

Guest Curator, “Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War”, Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum

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 Tofino Clayoquot Heritage 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
Presenting an illustrated talk on Vargas Island Ranchers at the Tofino Legion
Vargas Island resident Signaller Harold Monks’ photo album from the First World War on display, March 21 2019 during a presentation at the Legion on “Vargas Island Ranchers Go to War”.

“Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War” had an enthusiastic response from museum visitors and the local community. The Museum also 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.

The Museum noticed 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 the Vargas Island Post Office (her house at “Suffolk Bay”) during the First World War. Next door neighbour and friend Mr. P.A. Hovelaque (far right) helped Mrs. Malon around the house and garden.
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.

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