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Dig this: the Cowichan Diggers Club

Cowichan Diggers Club member Connie C. shows off just a small part of her teapot collection. - Don Bodger
Cowichan Diggers Club member Connie C. shows off just a small part of her teapot collection.
— image credit: Don Bodger

modities in the Cowichan Valley.

Whether it’s for the pure enjoyment of owning a piece to complement a collection, or a potential rare find that could yield a profit, hordes of people regularly scour garage sales, flea markets and the valley’s many antique shops in pursuit of special items.

“Some of us collect a lot of things,’’ said Connie C., a Cowichan Valley Diggers Club member.

“There’s a difference between what we call smalls and people collect large pieces of furniture,’’ added husband Brian.

Herb H. says the Cowichan Valley is to Vancouver Island what Snohomish is to Seattle in terms of an antique market.

“With two malls in Chemainus, one mall in Ladysmith and the other one at Whippletree (Junction) within 20 minutes of each other, you can spend the whole day seeing about 100 different dealers,’’ said Herb.

The overhead being less than Vancouver and Victoria makes potential purchases more appealing.

“You have a better chance of finding something affordable,’’ said Herb.

The availability of items occurs due to what Herb likes to call one of the four Ds — death, disease, divorce and downsizing.

“That’s what loosens things up,’’ he chuckled.

Most collectors come by their hobby naturally.

“I grew up in a house that was full of antiques,’’ said Connie.

“As did I,’’ added Brian.

Needless to say, the two of them together results in countless hours of assembling collections and searching for additions.

Among their longest and largest collections are cloisonné pieces, a decorative art form that evolved in the Middle East used to adorn metal items with enamel or melted, coloured glass.

“We’ve been collecting that for over 20 years,’’ said Connie. “Then I started collecting teapots and it just goes on from there.

“You don’t decide one day I’m going to go out and collect teapots.’’

It just happens, Connie said.

Herb’s obsession with antiques also resulted from his upbringing, but under different circumstances.

“I’m from the Prairies,’’ he said. “I always tell people I wasn’t evolved from the ape, I was evolved from the pack rat.’’

Arrowheads and Indian artifacts are common there as well as such things as metal from old cars, license plates and all sorts of farm machinery.

“From there, I went into coinage,’’ said Herb.

“What got me started coin collecting was with the cadets. We’d go to a Chinese restaurant. I was showing my friends a Newfoundland coin I’d found. A Chinese fellow said ‘You like funny money.’’’

That person had a tobacco tin full of change and Herb managed to trade some ‘new money’ for old coins that included big pennies issued before 1921 and silver nickels smaller than dimes.

Herb’s collection gathered steam from there.

Once people’s personal collections become known, others are willing to help out.

“You know what other people collect and you look out for them so you give them first refusal,’’ said Herb.

“When you get a collection going and you’ve had it for a while, it becomes harder and harder to find a piece you don’t have,’’ said Connie.

That’s what keeps the avid garage salers and treasure hunters on the lookout for themselves and others.

As an example, Connie said she once sought to collect four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie from the famous English nursery rhyme Sing A Song of Sixpence. She intended to do it by acquiring pie birds — hollow ceramic devices, traditionally from Europe, placed in the centre of pies during cooking and used as steam vents.

“I had that collection done in about two weeks,’’ she said. “Everybody helped me.’’

Some things require a different avenue of pursuit, such as Connie’s vanity pieces used to brush off ladies’ hats.

“You just can’t find them here,’’ she said. “I’ve gone to the Internet for those. I now can’t find one I don’t have.’’

There’s always another reason to hit the garage sale circuit, however.

“We call it the thrill of the chase,’’ Brian said.

He’s an avid book collector. But his books and bookshelves were literally weighing heavily on the foundation of the house, requiring him to give some away. Miraculously, the cracking has stopped and the house corrected itself before further damage was done.

The next generation hasn’t always embraced the true value of antiques.

“They’ve all been very vocal, ‘clean this mess up before you go,’’’ said Connie.

“One of the fears of dispersal when we’re gone, nobody knows the value,’’ said Brian.

“It’s the difference in tastes with the young generation. You can’t blame them for that.’’

“My two daughters and their spouses both like the antique furniture,’’ said Herb. “We basically furnished both their houses. They like some of the collectables because they’re functional.’’

One of the saddest things Connie ever saw at a garage sale was a piece of petit point being sold for a quarter.

“On the back, it said “Grandma Evans, age 87,’’ she said.

“Eighty per cent of what I’ve collected is worth about half of what it was going for 10 years ago since the eBay thing,’’ said Herb. “A few items keep going up, mostly high-end stuff.’’

Herb said the younger generation simply isn’t interested in the really old stuff because they didn’t grow up with it and the market has changed dramatically.

“At the shows, we’re still getting tremendous turnouts,’’ he added. “If you don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re going to make a fortune, it’s a wonderful, wonderful hobby.’’

 

Meet the Diggers

 

The Cowichan Valley Diggers Club is the longest continuously running club of its kind in B.C.

April will mark the 40th anniversary of the club.

Meetings are held the second Wednesday of each month except July and August at the United Church in Chemainus.

“We welcome people who are interested in joining,’’ said longtime club member Herb H.

“We’re certainly looking for younger people. An average of about 35 people attend the average meeting.’’

The average age of the members is also about 60.

“We’re trying to get it down a little,’’ said club member Connie C.

Following a break for the summer, “September is a show-and-tell of the best thing you found in the summer,’’ said Herb.

October’s meeting features an auction, with mini displays in November and a Christmas pot luck party in December.

January is a loonie toonie event, February features a display at the Cowichan Valley Museum in downtown Duncan and March is the big Diggers’ Show at Chemainus Elementary School. Graveyard tours have traditionally been done in May and the year-end party is in June, traditionally held at Bright Angel Park.

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