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  • Writer's pictureSaanich Pioneer Society

Finding Mrs. Willoughby

Preparing preserves for the Saanich Fair, ca. 1952 (Saanich Pioneer Society Museum 1989-001-1323; Archives F2051Ph #10)
Preparing preserves for the Saanich Fair, ca. 1952 (Saanich Pioneer Society 1989-001-1323; F2051Ph #10)

The photograph shows a group of smiling women, each holding something relating to the Saanich Fall Fair: plump fruit, preserves in jars, freshly baked bread and other goodies, a silver prize platter. The year was about 1952, and the ladies were busily preparing a display for the Fair in Mrs. Nimmo's dining room. (On the wall behind them, we see a framed image of the Saanich Public Works (Engineering) staff of Ward 6, 1938; Mr. R.E. Nimmo was the Foreman. See Saanich Archives photo 1998-001-001.) With only a virtual Saanich Fair in 2020, we were eager to share this throwback of some of the tangibles that we associate with the longstanding annual event.

A label on the back of the photo tells us the names of each of the women (left to right): Mrs. Turner, Mrs. Doney, Mrs. Bickford, Mrs. Michell, Mrs. Willoughby, Mrs. Nimmo. But as is the case with many archival records acquired in the past, the married women are listed only in relation to their husbands. For example, Mrs. Jane Smith (nee Jones), wife of Mr. John Smith, would often simply be written as Mrs. John Smith. As we come across this practice at the Saanich Pioneer Society, we work to determine these first names and add them to the record, restoring identity. Luckily in this case, we already knew nearly all of them and a note was added to the label: Mrs. Catherine Turner, Mrs. Adelaide Margaret (Peggy) Doney, Mrs. Marion Bickford, Mrs. Florence Michell, and Mrs. Lilith Nimmo. But Mrs. Willoughby, standing and wearing the dark coat, remained elusive.

Working with the Willoughby name and her association with the Fair, we began our search.

A hunt through the 1950s editions of the digitized British Colonist revealed some relevant details. As it turns out, Mrs. Willoughby had earned the right to show off the prize platter, which is in her hands in the photo. The newspaper, which referred to her only as Mrs. B.M. Willoughby, regularly published her name as a winner of agricultural-related prizes. At the 1950 Fair, she won in a whopping six classes under the Bottled Fruit and Jam Section. In May 1951, she received recognition at the Royal Oak Garden show in multiple categories: "lady's corsage bouquet and gentleman's buttonhole", "bowl of tulips arranged with one or two other flowers", and "decorated table, novice class". We were quite certain that we had found the right person, but still had not learned her name.

An online search for Mrs. Willoughby + Saanich Fair brought us to a July 2010 article in Seaside Magazine by local author Valerie Green. The piece, on Prospect Lake history, explains that the Beaver Lake Store (4808 West Saanich Road) was built by Eulalie and Bruce Willoughby around 1933 and that the couple ran it until 1947. The District of Saanich Heritage Walking Tour for Prospect Lake provides more information. The description for Beaver Lake Store reads:

Eulalie (Harrison) Willoughby, Marie Oades & Bruce Willoughby, Owners; circa 1933. The facade of this building is a replica of the small store building that stood here from 1933 to 2008. The facade was replicated as a reminder of the small neighbourhood businesses that grew up to service the growing population of this rural area. The original business was a confectionery store that cousins Eulalie Harrison (1881-1982) and Marie Oades, built on rented property on the east side of West Saanich Road. When their landlord raised the rent, they hauled the building across the road, renting and later buying the new property.

Not only did we determine Eulalie's first and maiden names, but we also learned that she was a rural entrepreneur. In fact, according to genealogical records at BC Archives, she was already a storekeeper when she married widower and farmer Bruce Marlow Willoughby at St. Michael's Church, Royal Oak in October 1933. In 1934, Eulalie and new husband Bruce added a gas pump to the property, operating a gas station in conjunction with the store. (See Saanich Heritage Register, p. 138)

Eulalie (nee Harrison) Willoughby died in Oak Bay on November 19, 1982 at the ripe age of 101 and is buried at Royal Oak Burial Park in Saanich. She was survived by Bruce, who died almost exactly fours years later at age 100. On her death certificate, her occupation was listed only as "Retired" without a business or industry included.

While you might not be able to visit the agricultural exhibits when the Labour Day weekend comes around this year, you can take a moment to remember - by name - some of the women, like Eulalie, who showcased their talents at the Saanich Fair and contributed much to their community.

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