It was this essay, written in 1966 by Sid Belsom, a member of the original Comox Strathcona Natural History Society, that gave Hollyhock Flats it’s name. We urge readers to follow the article to the end. The first three and the last seven paragraphs are particularly relevant to today’s fundraising drive to restore the old Field’s Sawmill site.
By Sid Belsom
Over the years swamps and marshes have been portrayed in many characters, mysterious, ominous, frightening, etc., but seldom are they thought of as interesting and beautiful.
To the passengers of the hundreds of cars that travel between Courtenay and Comox, the marsh between the road and the Courtenay River is probably a very drab and uninteresting sight that doesn’t even warrant a casual glance.
However, for the interested, this “drab” swamp is full of life and beauty, and in spring and summer it is transformed into a botanical bonanza. Starting early with Trilliums, Easter Lilies, Bleeding Heart, Peacock (or Shooting Star), Skunk Cabbage, these being followed by Blue Camas, Yellow Monkey Flower, Blue Eyed Grass, Musk Flower, Wild Lily of the Valley, Wild Ginger and Chocolate Lily.
By May and June, the whole area is literally painted with Indian Paint Brush, the blush of which is liberally dotted with the white of thousands of Tall White Bog Orchid, with the edge trimmed with Chocolate Lily.
As spring warms into summer, and the spring flowers fade away, the colour continues as the scene is taken over by the Wild Hollyhock, St. John’s Wort, the Purple Loosestrife, Water Parsnip, Silverweed, Fireweed and Hardhack.
In the wet spots throughout the summer will be found Veronica, Brooklime, Canada Mint and Hedge Nettle. Under the shade of the trees will be found the Star Flower shoulder-to-shoulder with the Wild Lily of the Valley, on the edge of the gravel the Self Heal ekes out a living whilst in the tangle of logs at the edge of the road where nothing else grows. Longstem Greencaps grow in abundance.
With the smell of fall in the air, the Douglas Aster is still putting up a brave show with the Blue Sailors, Gumweed, Cats Ears and Agoseris, but now the swamp is preparing for its winter sleep leaving pleasant memories to the few that have savoured its months of glory, enjoying each flower as it buds, blooms and dies, its place being taken by the next species and the next, the colour changing week-by-week as species follows species in this parade of colour.
Also adding to this profusion of colour are the shrubs that thrive here, the western Dogwood, Ninebark, Red Berry Elder, Waxberry, Honeysuckle, Black Twinberry, Saskatoon Berry, Ocean Spray, Salmonberry, Thimbleberry, Blackberry, Wild Rose, Sweet Gale to name some that call the swamp home.
These shrubs also add the colour of their berries to the scene as anyone that has admired scape and black berry of the Black Twinberry will agree. They also help the other inhabitants of the swamp, the birds. The summer picture would not be complete without the sound and sight of the Red winged Blackbird, the flash of the yellow on the tail of the Cedar Waxwing, the furtive rustle in the thick brush indicating the presence of a Towhee or Song Sparrow, proud “Poppa” Robin with a beak full of worms, the thrill of finding a Killdeers nest in the gravel and the amazement of not being able to locate it the next day, the busy chatter of the Chickadees and Siskins in the tree tops.
With the fall comes an almost complete change of bird populations, the Gulls begin to appear on the gravel bar at the edge of the swamp, the migrating Bonaparte Gulls usually being the first to appear followed by the Glacous Winged Gull that stands by us all winter.
The Mergansers and Grebes begin to appear on the river, the Coots will be found dabbling in the mud in the shallow water. The scaups and Scoters begin to appear and are soon joined by an occasional Goldeneye, Bufflehead and Loon while the Kingfisher looks from a high vantage spot of his dinner.
During the dull grey days of winter, the contrasting white of the Trumpeter and whistling swans can sometimes be seen as they feed there, whilst around its perimeter the Heron patiently waits for his next meal to come swimming by.
By the end of February, however, one begins to sense a stirring amongst the inhabitants of the swamp, maybe it is just a glimpse of the breeding plumage that now adorns many of the male ducks, or the exuberant display of the bubbling Bufflehead who seems to be willing to show off his dashing ways to anyone with time to stand and watch.
Yes, there is vibrant life and beauty in the swamp, if you have eyes to see it.
One cannot ignore the human touch, however, as the piles of indiscriminately discarded garbage are all too evident, dumped by people who have no eye or feeling to appreciate nature’s prolific display.
There is little doubt that in this river marsh there are more varieties and a more prolific display of our native flowers than any area of comparable size in this area (with the possible exception of Puntledge Park), but you won’t see it rushing by at 40 miles an hour.
Nature does not die although it appears to when it rests until it is ready to burst out anew each spring.
However, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that to some people this area is not looked upon as a storehouse of nature’s wonders, but as a prime piece of real estate that would make a first-class industrial site, and the green they see is not the marsh grass, but dollar bills. If this happens, it will surely die and nothing will revive it ever.
So, if you live in this area why not grant yourself an occasional few minutes this spring and summer to take a closer look while the chance is still there.
If you do take the time to look, please reap the harvest of pleasure with your eyes and heart, not by picking the flowers.
Published in the Comox District Free Press, Spring 1966
After the timber company Interfor closed Field’s Sawmill in 2004, they authorized Merville photographer Tim Penney to document what remained of the iconic Courtenay business. Penney visited the site in November 2005 and captured images with Nikon D100 and D200 cameras of the abandoned sawmill, which had been left undisturbed after the last working shift. The house builder and cabinet maker by trade has made photographs since 1955.
Penny has shared some of his images with Decafnation. You can enjoy them here.
There was a time when diners at The Old House restaurant used to gaze across the Courtenay River toward Field’s Sawmill, and consider the nonstop activity of moving and milling large logs an additional delight.
As they ate, more than 160 workers operated heavy equipment, tugboats pushed logs into booms tied to a wall of pilings and cranes pulled the logs from the river. It was fascinating entertainment.
And the view brought comfort. During the 1970s, the sawmill represented the economic strength of the logging industry that supported numerous Comox Valley businesses and jobs.
The Field’s Sawmill site today. A pile of rubble, acres of pavement and sprouting alder trees.
Of course, not many people at the time realized the artificial piling wall had formed a choke point that intensified flooding up-river and created a killing ground for harbor seals to feast on returning salmon.
Nor did the diners see sawmill workers landfilling the marsh area between the river and Comox Road with oil cans, wood chips, wire and other debris. That would have essentially destroyed the adjacent Hollyhocks Marsh had concerned citizens at the time not successfully pleaded with the Provincial NDP government to stop the dumping.
And no one paid much attention when the City of Courtenay approved a sawmill application to store PCBs on the site, which may have easily seeped into the river and its estuary and the surrounding agricultural land.
The diners did not know they were feasting on the site of an ancient First Nation’s village, called Kus-kus-sum, which became the final resting place of many K’omoks ancestors.
As overseas lumber markets turned to other suppliers, the sawmill faltered and the timber company Interfor closed down the sawmill’s operations in 2006. After a barge towed away the sawmill’s large structures and equipment, the site quickly morphed from a visible symbol of economic prosperity to the community’s most glaring eyesore.
And so it has remained for the past 11 years.
But now, Project Watershed (PW) and the K’omoks First Nation (KFN) have a plan to restore the sawmill site to its natural habitat. They have accepted an offer to purchase the property and eventually transfer ownership to KFN and the City of Courtenay.
The joint media release from PW and KFN does not mention any role in this deal for the Comox Valley Land Trust, and we hope that’s just an oversight. Without a binding covenant to be overseen by the Land Trust in perpetuity, a future City Council could unwind this landmark agreement.
To complete the $6 million purchase and restoration project, PW and KFN must raise at least $500,000 from the local community to facilitate acquiring the balance of funds from grants. And they only have 18 months to do it.
The Comox Valley community must open their pocketbooks and support this project, starting with a fundraising kickoff event Sept. 21 on the river-front lawn in front of Locals restaurant, which is part of the KFN traditional territory and a sacred site.
Not only will site restoration erase our most prominent eyesore, but it will ease up-river flooding pressure and increase the percentage of returning salmon that make it to their spawning grounds.
There’s potential to rejuvenate the abandoned Field’s Sawmill site with beautiful natural habitat, and some public access to trails and viewing areas. The piling wall will be removed and the site, whose soil has already been remediated, will be turned back to its natural salt marsh state.
An overhead view of Field’s Sawmill prior to 2005. Hollyhocks Marsh is the undeveloped area to the right of the sawmill.
So it’s lucky that one of North America’s most respected landscape architects, Will Marsh, now lives in the Comox Valley. He has volunteered to assist in the concepts and planning for the restored area.
Marsh, author of “Landscape Planning: Environmental Applications” and several other books on related topics, taught at the University of Michigan for 30 years, and then at the University of British Columbia, which eventually led him to the Comox Valley.
He is a leader in the movement to integrate environmental landscape design into urban planning. And that’s a perfect fit for the Comox Valley, which suffered from developers-gone-wild in the 1980s and ‘90s.
As late as 2007, developers had their eye on the old sawmill site. The owner of the Old House Village Hotels and Suites proposed a residential and commercial complex that would have joined the two sides of the river with an overhead walkway. They billed it as the Comox Valley’s interpretation of Granville Island in metro Vancouver.
That would have been a garish misuse of the Courtenay River and its shoreline.
Fortunately, many citizens opposed this plan at the time, and the City Council rejected it.The site’s location close to the river and in the flood zone made it unsuitable for any large scale development.
But those citizens also promoted the idea of returning the land to its original estuarine river marsh. The city should have pursued that idea, but sadly did not.
Thanks to Project Watershed and the K’omoks First Nation, and with community financial support, the Comox Valley now has an opportunity to right that wrong.
RELATED POST: 11 Interesting facts about the history of Field’s Sawmill
#1 — The Field family — father Clarence and sons Ron and Roy — founded the original sawmill in 1947 on the site of Arden Elementary. The original property in the Arden area was owned by William Duncan. He built a barn and the building that became the original Fields Sawmill, which was moved to the Courtenay River location in 1949.
#2 — The Fields sold the sawmill to employees Errol Zinck and Bill Phillips in 1969. They resold the mill after just a few years to Peter Gregory of Gregory Manufacturing Ltd.
#3 — Primex Forest Products bought the mill in 1973, primarily to mill and export yellow cedar to the U.S. and Japanese markets. At its peak, Primex employed 160 workers at the Courtenay site.
#4 — Comox Valley citizens tried several times during the 1970s to persuade the City of Courtenay to move the sawmill and protect the Courtenay River estuary. In 1976, Ted Burns tried to move the mill to Vancouver — even Union Bay was suggested — but relocation proved too expensive.
#5 — Primex applied to the City of Courtenay in 1993 to use the site as a storage facility for PCBs. Citizens were shocked because these toxic chemicals could easily seep into the river and the estuary, and maybe even into Farquharson Farms agricultural land located across Comox Road. But the concerns fell on deaf ears at City Hall as the council approved the request.
#6 — A slowing timber market forced Primex to layoff employees in 2000. The workforce shrunk to 115.
#7 — Interfor bought the sawmill from Primex in 2001 in a deal that including the ACORN mill in the Lower Mainland. People suspected that Interfor didn’t want the Field’s Sawmill but got it as part of the ACORN package.
#8 — Interfor said it lost $8 million in the fiscal year 2003-2004, and the mill had several temporary closures.
#9 — In 2004, Interfor closed the mill. They blamed lower-priced competition for the Japanese market from Chinese and European suppliers. It paid severance to employees and demolished the mill in 2006.
#10 — The provincial Ministry of the Environment investigated site soil contamination. It reported no ground water contamination,only surface contamination, and therefore there was no contamination leaching into the river due to a clay layer on the surface. The province did eventually issue a Certificate that remediation was complete.
#11 — Interfor put the 7.8-acre property up for sale in July 2006 for $5.3 million. Project Watershed began negotiations with Interfor in 2014.
Sources provided by Project Watershed staff:
CV Echo April 18, 2008
Donaldson, Betty (2010, Apr 2). “A Brief History of Sawmill Location” /Comox//Valley//Record/: Print.
Editor (2013, Aug 22). “A Look Back into The History of The Comox Valley, Field’s Sawmill” Comox Valley Record: Web 25 Aug. 2017.
Macfarlane, Bill (2006, Feb 10). “An economic Force that sadly is no more” /Comox Valley Echo/: Print.
MacInnis, Bruce (2006, Feb 8). “Field Sawmill Site to be Sold” /Comox Valley Record/: Print.
Martin, Debra (2006, May 16). “Interfor wants to cash in on property, urges city not to pick 19^th St. Bridge” /Comox//Valley//Echo/: Print.
Masters, Ruth (2006, May 23). “Fields Mill and Interfor” /Standing Up For Parks, Wilderness, and Wildlife/: Print.
Ocol, Mary Anne (2007, Apr 13). “Little Contamination Found on Sawmill Site” /Comox//Valley//Echo/: Print.
Racansky, Beth (1993, Nov 10). “The Storage of PCBs at Field Sawmill” /Biology 102/: Print
Wiens, Christina (2007, Jun 5). “Old House Owner has Vision for Sawmill Site” /Comox Valley Echo/: Print.
Weins, Christina (2007, Jul 24). “Field site gets multiple offers” /Comox Valley Echo/: Print.
Wiens, Christina (2008). “Still no sale for sawmill site” /Comox valley Echo: /Print.
Decafnation is seeking a dozen people passionate about civic engagement and the importance of an informed electorate.
In just over 12 months, Comox Valley voters will elect people to manage the affairs of Courtenay, Cumberland, Comox and the three unincorporated areas of the regional district, School District 71 and other municipal positions.
The community is best served if voters choose based on an understanding of important community issues, and an equally thorough knowledge of how each candidate proposes to address these issues for the common good.
To do our part, Decafnation hopes to collaborate with a number of people willing to serve voluntarily as Civic Journalists.
Over the next 12 months, these public journalists will investigate the Comox Valley’s most critical issues and report on them in-depth. And we’ll shine the same bright lights on the candidates who seek municipal office, and ultimately endorse a preferred slate of candidates.
If you’re passionate about the Comox Valley community and want to contribute to public understanding leading up to the 2018 fall elections, then contact Decafnation.
The only requirement is a serious interest in civic politics or some specific issue vital to the future livability of the Comox Valley.
How to contact Decafnation:
Leave a message on our Facebook page or in the comments section at the bottom of this article.
What happens next:
After you express interest, we’ll meet to discuss this Civic Journalism project in general, and your individual interests in particular.
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