John Manson's barn

The Cortes Island Story, As Experienced By One Of Its First Settler Families

By Roy L Hales

This morning’s episode grew out of an examination of how our attitudes towards nature have changed since the first Europeans arrived. One of my sources had a story every bit as important. Michael Manson’s grandfather came from the Shetland Islands and founded Sunny Brae Farm in the late 1880s. Mike told me the Cortes Island Story, as experienced by one of the first settler families.

The Farmer Gene

PLaces Mentioned in the Cortes Island Story podcast – adapted from Google Maps by Roy L Hales

Mike explained, “I think I probably became a farmer in about 1964. My uncle Jack had a bunch of axes on the back porch and this great big old growth broom[1], we called it. The farm was beginning to slide into decay in spots since my grandfather had been dead and I was out there with this great big double bit axe trying to swing it, chopping down the broom. There was something about my grandfather’s old barn and seeing the old ploughs  and yokes in the barn and fields and split rail fences. Its my earliest memory and it has been in my blood. I call it the farmer gene.”

It took Mike more than five decades to realize his ambition. He  became  a partner in a successful off-island land surveying firm. Only he never lost contact with Cortes, and in 2012 Mike took an early retirement so that he and his wife Donna could devote their energies to Sunny Brae Farm.

Cortes Island Story

The Cortes Island Story
John Manson & Margaret Smith at the time of their marriage. Margaret’s black wedding dress in currently in the Cortes Island Museum – photo courtesy Michael Manson.

There is a sense in which this family’s story is microcosmic history of the island. One of Mike’s principal sources of information was his father, Nicol Manson.

“He had a wonderful memory, partly because the adventures of his life were indelibly burnt in his brain. They weren’t to be forgotten. So he was good at telling stories but when he did tell stories, especially those involving his father and mother, his face would take on a glow. He had the utmost respect and highest regard[for his father], as did his sister {Rose]. They would always talk about Pop as if  he were larger than life.  I think they couldn’t believe what these pioneers had accomplished, carving a home out of this wild land.”

The Mansons saga starts with two brothers, who left their ancestral home to settle in British Columbia.  Mike Manson[2] arrived first and acquired a trading schooner. After John arrived, they set up a small trading post, at what is now known as known Manson’s Landing, on Cortes Island.

Sunny Brae Farm

The Cortes Island Story
John Manson with rifle in his hand at Mitlenatch Island

John found an ideal 115 acre property in the south of Cortes. Throughout most of the surrounding area, the old growth forest stretched down to the shoreline. However the shore of this property appears to have been already cleared. So Manson named his property Sunny Brae Farm, “Brae” being a Scottish term for “grassy hillside”. 

Mike believes his grandfather discovered an old indigenous summer camp. Numerous artefacts subsequently dug up on the farm and the presence of nearby shell middens, attest to the [Tla’amin?] First Nation’s presence. The site may have been abandoned after the smallpox epidemic of 1862-63 eradicated as much as  two thirds of the population. 

Over the next forty years, the Mansons enlarged the cleared portion of their property to 40 acres. 

During the 1890’s, John Manson returned to the Shetland Islands and was married. The Cortes Island Museum describes Margaret Smith as his childhood sweetheart. She had most likely never seen gigantic Douglas Firs and Cedars like those in British Columbia. Nor did Margaret have any previous experience with large predators. John built a safe place for her in the attic of their first shack, where she could take refuge in case of a wolf attack when he was away on trading expeditions. 

(Read about John Manson poisoning the last wolf on Cortes Island and of the species eventual return.)

According to a news release from BC’s Ministry of Agriculture, Sunny Brae Farm farm “raised sheep, pork and poultry and produced potatoes, vegetables, apples, eggs, cream and butter. Produce was sold to local families and logging camps as far away as Vancouver.”

European Civilization Comes To Cortes

The Cortes Island Story
The skid road upon which my father would have been brought home in the rowboat at the tender age of one week.

Gradually, European civilization came to the island.

“My grandmother [Margaret] was very religious … She read her Bible for an hour every night. She was looking for help. God was, she hoped, beside her … There was no doctor … This was a tough place to be …”

In the early 1890s John Manson rowed ninety miles to pick up two girls in Knight Inlet. This increased the number of students on Cortes to the point that they could import a teacher and have their own school.

The first settlers on Cortes had a choice of taking a small boat, or walking through the woods, to visit someone.

“We have an old letter somewhere, my aunt is at Squirrel Cove[3] and she is hoping to come to Sunny Brae for Christmas, providing the weather is good enough that they can get the boat around because there isn’t a road from Squirrel Cove to here and they are not going to walk through the forest and the wood – not with the family and kids.”

By the end of John Manson’s life, they had crude roads and wagons.

“Shirley Guthrie, or Shirley Beaulieu,  who works at Bertha’s store [4] has told me on numerous occasions how she and one of her brothers would lay in wait for my grandfather to come down the road with his horse and wagon.  As he passed, they would jump up on the back of his wagon. They thought that was great fun.”

Uncle Jack’s Farm

The Cortes Island Story
Jack & Nicol Manson falling a tree at Sunny Brae Farm – courtesy Michael Manson

A newspaper account of John’s funeral,  in 1957, states that Chief Billy Mitchell of the Klahoose Nation, “said that he and many other chiefs up the coast were greatly saddened by the loss of John Manson.”

His eldest son, Jack, inherited the farm. He was a WWI vet, “a logger and a great deer hunter.” Jack Manson is credited with shooting 600  deer before he died.  Consequently, they were scarce around Sunny Brae for decades to come. As Jack never married, Michael Manson inherited the farm at the age of seven. 

Michael Manson’s Early Years

The Cortes Island Story
Michael’s mother Vera at Sunny Brae sometime prior to the earthquake of 1946 (story in the podcast) – courtesy Michael Manson

His parents Nicol and Vera Manson, were school teachers at Alert Bay and Port Alice on the West Coast. Nicol was born in Nanaimo and brought home to Sunny Brae via the union steamship. Vera came from England at a very young age. They were married in 1941, the same year a Japanese sub shelled Vancouver Island.

“I was born in Victoria, but I don’t think I ever had a summer where I wasn’t on Cortes. So for me, in a funny way to seems like I’ve been here all my life,” says Mike.

“My earliest recollection is flying over by float plane, there were certainly no ferries and the union steamship was no longer running. One year we came over by water taxi. My mom had a fear of flying, so one time she convinced the pilot into flying 150 feet above the water. So we left Tyee Spit [in Campbell River] went around Cape Mudge [on Quadra Island] and into Manson’s [Landing] 150 feet above the water.”

Some Cortes residents barged cars to the island. Mike remembers the day his father borrowed a vehicle in 1960. Later, they brought their own vehicle over. Every summer  they made the trek from Sunny Brae to Whaletown for ice cream.   

“The roads were so windy and so dusty and my dad refused to open the windows to cool off the car because he didn’t want any dust in. So we’d take this hour long journey. I’d be car sick. We’d be hotter than blazes. We’d get down to Whaletown and Bergman’s store, have an ice cream cone and then come back again …”

BC Ferry, on the Cortes to Quadra, approaching the dock at Heriot Bay run - Roy L Hales
BC Ferry approaching the dock at Heriot Bay, Quadra Island – Roy L Hales

BC Ferries & Increased Population

The BC Ferry started servicing Cortes Island in 1969. Nicol Manson and his sister Rose McKay[5] were among the invited guests on the inaugural run. There was a huge south-easterly that day.

Michael Manson, who told me his family's Cortes Island Story - Courtesy Donna Manson
Michael Manson – Courtesy Donna Manson

“Everybody, including my aunt, were actually throwing up. It was that rough. It was rather a funny start to the ferry service. The ferry was good, it certainly made [Cortes Island] more accessible to us, but the ferry also brought change.” says Mike.

BC Hydro arrived the next year, bringing electricity to homes. Hydro needed long straight lines and straighter highways followed them. Cortes’ population increased. 

“It changed the flavour , if you will … For a long time we knew every family – not personally, but you always knew who was who. You could name them … Slowly but surely with the ferries, now I often feel as big a stranger as I did in the city.”

Back To Sunny Brae Farm

Michael Manson “retired” to become a full time farmer in 2012.

“The biggest thing for me, I do it by choice and I have a safety net – our retirement funds if you will.  If my apples do not grow; if the blueberries don’t grow; if the sheep don’t have lambs: we will be just fine. For my grandfather, this was very serious. I do not know if you’d call it life and death, I suppose he could have gone logging if all faring ended. It is hard work. I’m maybe not as busy as he was, but I am busy every day, every week of the year. Having that social net in the background is a big, big difference,” says Mike.

Donna Manson at Sunny Brae Farm
Donna Manson at Sunny Brae Farm

“For many young folks on this island, who are farming, they work so hard and they do not have that luxury of a net that I have – My hat is off to them.”

There is much more detail, and more anecdotes, in the podcast above.

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  1. The invasive species Scotch Broom
  2. Mike Manson became a local justice of the peace, and was called upon to enforce the potlatch ban at Cape Mudge in the 1890s. He later represented Comox in the provincial legislature from 1909 to 1916. That was when Sir Richard McBride ended British Columbia’s tradition of non-party governments by declaring that his government was a Conservative Party administration. Manson was one of the Conservative MLAs who lost their seats when the party fell from power in 1916, but later returned to politics and represented Mackenzie from 1924 to 1933.
  3. Anna Manson who “married Harry Middleton, the machinist, and lived in the house between the Cove Restaurant and Basil Creek in Squirrel Cove, Cortes Island”
  4. Cortes Market in Manson’s Landing
  5. Mike described his aunt Rose as “A gentle person who I believe was going to join the Convent and become a nun. Needless to say, it didn’t happen. She married and lived in Campbell River where she and her husband Henry(McKay) ran the telegraph office. They would often stay up through the night in order to get messages delivered and especially if they were from Cortes folk.” Campbell River named Rose Citizen of the Year in 1970. The write-up states “When Pearl Harbour was attacked, the coastal communities were in blackout mode, and Rose, true to character, was bubbly and warm, keeping up everyone’s spirits. Rose served as curator for Campbell River Museum and generously shared a wealth of information, especially her knowledge of First Nations people.”

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