Vision 2012: Duncan's cityscape then

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A sleepy farm village named Duncans switched to post-war boomtown, sweeping away its rustic character, a city-born writer says.

"After the Second World War," said Tom Henry, author Small City in a Big Valley; The Story of Duncan, "a chamber-of-commerce mentality with business first, second and third, took over and really pushed away values like shade trees, aesthetics, the usefulness of quiet streets.

"Duncan went from being a beautiful village to an ugly city in about 20 years."

Long before then, Duncan grew from its pioneer roots to become an agricultural hub with stores, hotels and entertainment amusing well-to-do English remittance men who came for fishing and hobby farming.

"Duncan has absorbed the surrounding activities and reflected them," said Henry.

"In around 1912, there was still a daily reminder of Duncan's pioneering remnants: you could look down Station Street to the Evans Farm and still see stumps. The fight against the forest was fresh in people's minds."

Farmers won that struggle.

"You had the Cowichan Creamery where the Caprice Theatre is today," he said of the landmark that later burned.

"There was no refrigeration so farmers had to bring their milk in everyday. The agricultural component was brought home to Duncan every day."

Times changed.

"After late 20s, forestry became the area's dominant activity, and the city started reflecting those values.

"At one time, there were five rail sidings, and it wasn't unusual for four of them to be full of logs — the downtown businessperson was reminded everyday of the logging activity here."

Paved streets replaced muddy lanes with plank walkways; phone service — B.C. Telephone offices were on Ingram Street where the Telus building is — and electricity (Pots & Paraphernalia occupies the former red-brick power plant).

"When vehicles came, they widen the roads and cut down lots of trees like broadleafs along Ingram."

Progress eluded Cowichan's Native people who clung to traditional ways along the Cowicher River, in Quamichan, Somenos and elsewhere.

But a class system bloomed in Duncan with social news reported in the Cowichan Leader.

"There was Chinatown (Government and Jubilee streets, now the Round Building), a working-class area at the bottom of hospital hill (Cairnsmore Street), and a more professional class on hospital hill near King's Daughters' Hospital," Henry said.

"You had almost an aristocracy with monied Englishmen on the outskirts.

"Lots of people said Duncan differed from other Canadian cities because they had three classes: pioneers, First Nations, and English longstockings."

The well-heeled frequented shops on Station, Craig, Kenneth and Ingram streets.

"Duncan reflected the interests of that English class with British newspapers sold, and strange foods available — like toad in the hold ?(sausage dish)."

The Quamichan (near Sands Funeral Home, Alderlea (now the Phoenix Inn) and Tzouhalem hotels also mirrors topmost tastes.

"The Tzouhalem was very elegant," Henry said of the gravel lot at Canada and Trunk.

"It served visiting Brits, but that class waned as the logging community grew, and the Tzou became a famous beer hall for loggers."

Dance halls were also hip in the pre-TV days.

"People went out just to go dancing. There was a dance hall at Ingram and ?, and on Station (now ?).

Nearby sat Chinatown peddling food, opium and cheap lodgings.

"The biggest loss without a doubt was Chinatown, " Henry said of the site razed in the '60s.

"Duncan could have had an amazing feature, but it's easy to judge people's past actions — the Round Building seemed like progress."


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