Vancouver's Oldest Building

This is where it all started, where Vancouver began in a two-floor wooden building that sits on a cliff perched above English Bay at the foot of Alma Street on Point Grey. But it wasn’t always there. The rough-sawed cedar plank pioneer store was initially erected on the south shore of Burrard Inlet for British Captain Edward Stamp’s British Columbia and Vancouver Island Spar, Lumber and Sawmill Company, established in 1865. 

Its sturdy walls stood for sixty years at the foot of Dunlevy Street, the heart and soul of the logging settlement of Hastings Mill and Granville when timber was king. It was a good place just to get warm around the fire drum, share gossip and pick up supplies like picks and nails, or tonic and tobacco or staples for the winter. Cloves and fenugreek, linseed and caraway made settler food a little easier on the palate, and pioneer wives could find fine cloth for their dresses. There were blankets and tin for potlatches and loggers from the camps would come by boat to pick up mail. Tall ships brought news from the four corners of the earth. A good card game could shutdown the mill! 

The store’s first life as a social and service centre lasted some twenty years until the second general store went up and the old store was relegated to storage in 1887. It had seen the best of Vancouver’s early history, when the west was wild, before the railway came. The old mill store, that had been the city’s first post office, library and community centre, and had played a pivotal role in the Great Fire 1886, would sit virtually unnoticed for forty years. But behind a common false front with the ‘new' store (also rapidly becoming old!), it remained a perfect intact relic of Vancouver’s pioneer past, the oldest building in the city. 

From the 1860s through the 1920s, settlement on the Burrard Inlet was closely tied to the history of the Hastings Sawmill. Acquired by lumberman John Hendry in 1889, the mill remained, until the First World War, Vancouver’s largest industrial enterprise. In 1919, on the occasion of the visit of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, it boasted “peak production". But the winds of change were blowing through Vancouver, which was on the verge of leaving its lumber village status behind to become Canada’s third largest city. By 1927, in the name of progress and future development, the Hamber-Hendry family sold the Hastings Mill land to the Harbour Commission, the mill was dismantled and its equipment dispersed to smaller operations across the continent. The mill office, an 1895 show home, was donated to the Anglican Church and turned into a Seafarers mission which it remains until this day. The other buildings were slated for demolition in 1929. It gave Vancouver’s decade-old female historical society, the Native Daughters of B. C. Post No. 1, a new cause: to save the original old mill store.


Rescue of the Old Mill Store

“They are going to tear down the old Hastings Mill store!" 

In 1929, those words spread in disbelief and the store took on an almost mythic quality. Public outcry after the City Council decision to demolish Vancouver’s oldest building was the support the Daughters needed. They had already secured a lease from the Provincial Government on waterfront property at Jericho, for the purpose of building a clubhouse. So when the “Old Mill Store" was threatened, the Daughters rallied.

A committee was formed to approach the Hon. Eric Werge Hamber. Owner of the Hastings Mill and business manager for the Hendry family, Hamber listened with interest. The delegation of forward-thinking women had a proposition. Tow the building by water from the foot of Dunlevy through the Narrows up to the very site granted to the Daughters, at the bottom of Alma on Point Grey. The future Lieutenant-Governor didn’t skip a beat. He promptly agreed, giving official title of the heritage store to the Native Daughters of British Columbia, Post No.1.

The building fund coffers brimmed to the max. Ten thousand dollars in “cash and kind", small donations and handsome private gifts, as well as financial and material support from local businesses helped send Vancouver’s oldest pioneer on its “journey home", the banks of Jericho. It would become both the lodge of Post No.1 and a shrine to “the early pioneers of Vancouver and British Columbia."

It was July 28, 1930. The old Hastings Mill store and post office was hoisted aboard a large scow, and towed some ten kilometers from Burrard Inlet, through the Lions Gate and across English Bay to its new location. It was all captured on a film, by the original moving company, F.W. Gosse. Barged by Captain J. Cates & Sons and accompanied by the Harbour Board yacht, Fispa, with tea catered by the Daughters, Vancouver’s first “skyscraper", the Marine Building can be seen in one view of the young city. Today, the footage is shown on a small TV screen, one of the few concessions to modernity in the old pioneer museum. 

After the barging of 1930, the Native Daughters and Sons, with the help of local woodworkers, carpenters, glaziers and electricians, set about restoring the exterior and refurbishing the distressed interior. The old shelves were ripped out and a stone fireplace was built “to add a homey touch", but the rest of the building was kept intact with the original main post and beam features.

On a rainy January, 10, 1931, under a sea of black umbrellas the Hon. R. Randolph Bruce, Lieutenant Governor of B.C., opened the building with the unveiling of a bronze plaque. A year later, on January 16, 1932 it was officially dedicated as a “Museum of B.C. Historical Relics in Memory of the Pioneers" by Premier Simon.F. Tolmie.

Old Store Reborn

The first exhibit in 1932 included art and photographs from the Vancouver Pioneer Association, documented by the city’s then newly-appointed archivist Major J.S. Matthews, and a wide range of First Nations artifacts. The Native Sons of B.C. loaned, and later donated, their collection, of which the magnificent array of baskets remains one of the largest exhibits in the museum. Originally the building was called the “Pioneer Museum" in memory of the pioneers, but it became popularly known as the “Old Hasting Mill Store Museum" and eventually the colloquialism won out. 

Lieutenant Governor Eric Hamber was first to contribute Hastings Mill memorabilia, including cannons that had arrived in the mill’s first shipment of supplies from England and the old copper bronze bell that was used to sound alarm or summon meetings. You can see the old bell outside the museum today. Hamber’s wife Aldyen (daughter of the lumber giant John Hendry) also became an Honorary Native Daughter.

Another major benefactor, Watercolour artist and First Nations historian Mary DesBrisay, gave the museum some exquisite pieces. In appreciation, she was also bestowed the title of Honourary Native Daughter. In recent years, Vancouver’s first female Police Sergeant and Native Daughter, Phyllis Mortimore, donated her pioneer father’s Kwakiutl baskets bought in the Alert Bay area in the early 1900s.

In the thirties, the society was in arrears with unexpected rising city taxes that had come with amalgamation. They tried for a short time to grow potatoes on the property but the crop was poor and what little money was made was turned back to the depression-era farmer. The Daughters were forced to give up their lease on the prime waterfront real estate. With all their energy going into the new war effort, the grant for the land was returned. The plot the historic building sits on is now leased from the Parks Board for a nominal fee, the larger property long ago turned into parkland.

Throughout WWII, the store served as a Red Cross Depot and work room. “There was at least four sewing machines buzzing and plenty of knitting needles clicking," said Trustee Lillian Hornibrook, “to make sweaters, balaclavas, gloves, socks and vests for the men the overseas."

In the archives, there are dozens of receipts for everything from gauze bandages to overcoats.

More than sixty years have passed since the Old Hastings Mill Store reverted back to a museum, after the war. Acquisitions grew and the Native Daughters' societal status continued. There was a Heritage Canada award. And in the mid-1980s Chief Factor Terry Davies, another daughter of pioneers, oversaw extensive upgrading and refurbishing, including a new caretakers' suite to assure 24-hour security.

The original old-timers, who once entertained Vancouverites on Sunday afternoons in the store with tales of the pioneer days, have all gone. But one step over the threshold and their spirit is palpable. It’s like walking back in time into a warm country home with an eclectic collection of artifacts: a simple kitchen chair saved from the Great Fire; a piano that arrived in Vancouver in 1894 as bridal effects from England via Cape Horn; Joe Forte's oil lamp; August Jack Khatsilano’s hand-carved rubber lacrosse ball; the city’s last (or was that the first?) Hansom cab. Every item has a story.

© Jacqui Underwood 2009