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Spilsbury's coast :pioneer years in the wet Westby Howard White
1. Red's Sea Diner
2. The Governor
3. Savary Island
4. Wild Animals and Wilder People
5. Swallow Hard If You Feel Something Hairy
6. Engineer from Fourth Reader
7. Voice from the Sky
8. A Radio Expert is Born
9. Five Hundred a Month
10. I Take to the Water
11. The Radio Boat
12. The Cannon that Flew over Lund
13. A Stormy Honeymoon
14. Living Aboard
15. Spilsbury & Hepburn Ltd.
16. Pearl Harbour Panic
17. War Work
18. Robert B. Gayer
19. I Discover the West Coast
20. We Take to the Air
DURING THE FIFTIES when I was a boy growing up in my dad's logging camp on Nelson Island I used to think nothing we did quite counted. I owned a bit of a reputation around camp for the way I could skip across a slimy boomstick, but when I looked in the grade one reader my correspondence course provided, which I did almost monthly, the boys and girls there walked on sidewalks. All mention of boomsticks was carefully avoided. I could run the camp tender home from Garden Bay when the men got too drunk to do it themselves, but Dick and Jane could run elevators in apartment buildings, something I was sure I could never manage. Their fathers worked in offices, not under broke-down logging trucks.
Nothing was for us. The weather forecasts, on those rare occasions when our radio worked, always talked about "the lower mainland" and "the Kootenay region," never Green's Bay. We had weather in Green's Bay too, and a lot more of it out in Agamemnon Channel sometimes, but the world just sniggered at the thought of it, apparently.
Everything came from somewhere else. Even things that were specially ours, like Caterpillar tractors or ball bearings, came from places like Peoria Illinois or Kalamazoo Michigan. Those were the real places. The boys there would no doubt make short work of me. I seemed to be lost in a nonplace inhabited by shadows, and I felt it deep inside.
There were only a couple of things that didn't fit the pattern. One was Easthope motors. They were made by people around the coast. Pete Dubois' uncle was married to one of the Easthope's sisters. But they were still from Vancouver, and Vancouver was the City, closer to Peoria than Pender Harbour.
More amazing was the Spilsbury and Tindall radiophone. We didn't actually have one of these in camp, but all the bigger fishboats did, and all the tugs and government boats. You'd see them in wheelhouses, jutting out from the wall, the sender and receiver separate, like two cases of Pacific milk. They had very fancy meters on them, banks of silver switches and dials, and wrinkle paint like binoculars. They looked as real and big-time as anything from Kalamazoo. Radio-telephones were even more impressive than ball bearings because they were more scientific and amazing. Yet they were made by a guy who lived up by Powell River, on a little island just like ours. He even had a boat, so I was told, and came around to the camps like Pappy's store boat. He'd never come into our camp, but a lot of the men knew him.
This filled me with wonder. If one guy around here could get onto the Kalamazoo level, it was at least possible. We weren't trapped here in limbo, just kind of bogged down, like the D8 the time they tried to drive across the cranberry bog at Goose Lake. Perhaps the reality we lived was not quite so counterfeit as I had come to think, if things like the S & T radiophone could come out of it. Spilsbury and Tindall became a very important symbol in my juvenile cosmos.
If I had known just how much Jim Spilsbury, the man who made those radio-telephones, was "a guy from around here," and how much of the unique edge-of-the-world culture of our coast was woven into his achievement, I would have been even more excited. When I became involved in writing down the story of the coast many years later I began to run across the Spilsbury name in a remarkable variety of contexts. Frank Lee, one of Pender Harbour's more senior pioneers, told me he had been neighbours with Spilsburys in Whonnock, before the Lee family moved to the coast, which seemed like before the dawn of time. The Spilsbury family were considered Whonnock's earliest settlers and have their name on a principal road, but when I began looking in on the history of the Powell River-Savary Island area, I found the name again on an important landmark, the northern tip of Hernando Island. That area claimed them as pioneers too. Lorne Maynard, an old coastal skipper, told me I should see Spilsbury about steam logging because he'd run steam donkeys. Geordie Tocher, who gained a certain amount of grudging respect among the oldtimers by sailing a BC fir log to Hawaii, told me if I wanted to see the most authentic paintings of coastal landscape ever done, I should go see Spilsbury's collection. When I started looking at the story of pioneer flying on the coast, everyone said Spilsbury was the man who had been in the middle of that.
It was to get the flying story that I finally did look Spilsbury up, and the tale he had was such an entertaining one I decided to make a book of it. But once I began probing the man's background I realized his life was far more than flying, and far more than radio. Eighty-two at the time of writing, his life has paralleled the history of the coast through this, its most active century. Because of his energies and his intelligence, he was involved in almost everything that happened. It is hard to name an erstwhile stumprancher or gyppo logger between Cape Caution and Point Atkinson that he doesn't have an anecdote about, usually a good one. It is hard to name an activity from homesteading to steam logging to police work 'to, pleasure boating and mountain climbing that he wasn't personally deeply involved in. And all his memories are clear, backed by a vast collection of photos and journals, and told with all the warmth of a great personality.
Cold type isn't a wholly adequate medium in which to capture such a personality, particularly in the hands of one who never did 'finish his correspondence lessons, but in so far as I succeed, I succeed in showing the coast at its best.
Pender Harbour, 1987
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