A winter’s day at Willows Camp?

Real-photo postcard, author's collection. Believed to be a photo of a cavalry unit at Willows Camp during World War I, when the Willows Fairground was converted into a training base for regiments/battalions bound for combat in Europe (and even one regiment of hapless conscripts sent to Vladivostok to fight the Bolsheviks in 1919).
Real-photo postcard, author’s collection. Believed to be a photo of a cavalry unit at Willows Camp during World War I, when the Willows Fairground was converted into a training base for regiments bound for combat in Europe and even a unit of hapless conscripts who wound up in Vladivostok, Siberia in January 1919 preparing to fight the Bolsheviks. (That story is told in Benjamin Islitt’s From Victoria to Vladivostok, UBC Press 2010.)

My postcard is unused and has no caption. I acquired it on a hunch. One clue as to the locale is the tree branch at right, which look like a Garry oak’s. So the picture could have been taken on any flat south of the Comox Valley, west of Chilliwack or north of California. I had a feeling the locale could be determined if the building in the background at right could be positively identified. I scrutinized images of agricultural exhibition buildings in the BC Archives Visual Records database. Exhibition buildings at the Willows Fairground depicted there were plainly not of the same design. I showed the photo to ever-alert Oak Bay archivist Jean Sparks. She produced the clipping below, a bird’s-eye view of the southern approach to the grounds. There’s a near-perfect match with the building just to the right of and beyond the big tree in the middle of the boulevard — the arena-like structure with the entrance of a stylized square tower topped with battlements. (Click on the image to enlarge.) The roofline is different: the image on the postcard shows a line of windows that isn’t in the Cecil Clark photo. More than likely the roof was modified in the interim. All other windows match; shapes match; location matches. Gary Wilcox’s excellent Oak Bay Encyclopedia website has a sketch map of the Willows Fairground in the 1940s, drawn by long-time neighbour Dave Unwin. That edifice was the Industrial building, purpose-built for exhibitions, I gather.

"Yesterday and Today" by Cecil Clark, a series in The Victorian, a weekly newspaper published 1960s-70s. From the text:  Back in the summer of 1914 the Willows fair grounds and race track took a sudden switch from prize vegetables and stock; and the drumming of racing [hooves] gave way to the drums of war. ... The view [of Willows camp] is southwards from the roof of the grandstand, showing the entrance to the fair grounds. Beyond it, running downhill is Willows street (now Eastdowne) once used by street cars ... Our thanks to Mrs. Harold A. Beckwith of 1930 Fern street for furnishing a picture with so many memories.
Yesterday and Today by Cecil Clark was a series in The Victorian, a weekly newspaper published 1960s-70s. From the text:
“Back in the summer of 1914 the Willows fair grounds and race track took a sudden switch from prize vegetables and stock; and the drumming of racing [hooves] gave way to the drums of war. …
“The view [of Willows camp] is southwards from the roof of the grandstand, showing the entrance to the fair grounds. Beyond it, running downhill is Willows street (now Eastdowne) once used by street cars …
“Our thanks to Mrs. Harold A. Beckwith of 1930 Fern street for furnishing a picture with so many memories.”
Visible on the postcard, in the distance at left, is the fairground portal off Fair Street, near the terminus of the Fort streetcar. (In Jean’s photo, there seems to be a gatehouse and guard where the portal was. To me that suggests the postcard image was earlier than Jean’s. Hmm, it can’t be both earlier and later.)

The portal can be seen in perspective in an earlier photo in the Oak Bay Archives. Looming beyond was the old Exhibition Building (1889-1907), our Crystal Palace.

"Exhibition Building [and] gates at the Willows Fairgrounds" Oak Bay Archives Photo No. 2013-016-001. Photographer not known; circa 1900. This was the southern portal to the Willows Exhibition Grounds (Fairgrounds).
“Exhibition Building [and] gates at the Willows Fairgrounds.” Oak Bay Archives Photo No. 2013-016-001. Photographer not known; circa 1900. This was the southern portal to the Willows Fairground.
Next: the horsemen.

One thought on “A winter’s day at Willows Camp?”

  1. I find the old fairgrounds one of the most fascinating facets of Oak Bay’s history. So much happened there.

    We lived across the street from the fairgrounds from late 1951. I have vivid memories as a child playing in the open fields after the exhibition buildings were gone. I knew there was history on these grounds but, as a nine-year-old, was oblivious as to the extent. Over time, some of these memories became disconnected from their space and began to haunt me. For example, I have wonderful memories of roller skating on a concrete slab on the exhibition grounds in the early 1950s but, as the years passed, I couldn’t place in my mind exactly where or what that slab was.

    And I knew there was a race track, because I walked across it every day to get to Willows school. But I had no idea as to where it was, exactly. In later years I tried to pinpoint the track on city maps, but there was little consistency on these maps. It wasn’t until I developed “the hot-air-balloon ride” based on merged aerial photographs that I was able to pinpoint the exact location of the race track. What a sense of completion!

    I think it was dislocated memories such as these that drew me into Oak Bay’s history. So it’s all very personal.

    The website developed into my centennial legacy gift to the municipality. And the book, well it’s progressing slowly. I’m working on several major projects, so everything develops slowly.

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