“I originally came here in January of ’71, looking for land. A guy gave me a job for the summer, beginning in April, serving coffee to the fishers and the loggers. There was a little cafe just above Mansons Lagoon, across from what used to be the Barton store – which I understand is now the Cortes Island Museum. It was dragged up the road and put in place to become the museum,” he says.
Beginnings of the Oyster Business
Kirmmse tried a variety of jobs that summer. He bailed hay for Ken Hansen, on what has since become Linnaea Farm. Jack Parry hired him to bag oysters, in the era before there were oyster leases or trays.
“We had these big burlap sacks that were draped over holders that looked like there were rebar welded together. The sack would sit right down in the middle of this thing, so you could bag the oysters right into the sack. It was all piecework, you got paid by the bag,” he began.
“We were given these tire irons, the spring from old cars, to whack the barnacles off of the oyster shells, because they were all beach oysters.”
They were given rubber gloves to protect their hands, but the cost was deducted from their pay.
“So, at the end of the day, Jack Parry would say, how many gloves is that today Kirmmse?”
There were people who harvested oysters during the winter nights, but Kirmmse was not among them.
Working on the tugboat
After Parry discovered that Kirmmse had served in the US Coastguard, he was transferred to the tugboat transporting oysters to the city.
“Which was a lot more fun than working on the beach!”
They didn’t know how long oysters could remain out of the water without spoiling. The three day limit in use at that time came about because that was how long it took to transport them to Victoria.
Kirmmse remembers the day that some European customers landed their float place next to the tug.
“We knew that the oysters were a little bit off. They had been out of the water too long, but we were told to shut-up about that. We showed them these huge sacks of oysters and I guess they were reasonably impressed,” he said.
He remembers his first trip to Vancouver.
“I was sitting on the fan tail, drinking beer and smoking dope, all the way down. So we got to Vancouver, where the railway yards are and I went to Kitsilano to pick up another baggy,” he said.
“When I took that ride down to Vancouver, I thought what a fantastic country this is. I just couldn’t believe my good luck to end up in Canada. Nixon was the President of the United States.”
Squatting in Squirrel Cove
Kirmmse had slept in a bunk behind the cafe in Mansons Landing, while he was working there, but this arrangement ended after he moved on to other jobs.
He squatted in an abandoned house in Squirrel Cove that summer.
Doreen Reedel, who owned what would become the Squirrel Cove Store, used to deliver vegetables around the island.
“I met Les first. I heard some guitar music. Holy cow, I thought I was living next to Eric Clapton. This guy was amazing, but he was very shy. I don’t know where Ron Forest lives now. I heard that both brothers moved across the straight to Powell River, but they built a huge log cabin which I haven’t seen since.”
(Ron Forest currently lives beside the public wharf in Squirrel Cove and the ‘huge’ log cabin still stands on the hill overlooking his place.)
The move to Whaletown
That summer, Kirmmse purchased the land in Whaletown, where he currently lives.
“It was funny because when I was walking up and down Robertson Road, to meet my new neighbours and I ran into Howie Roman and his brother David. They grew up about fifteen miles from where I grew up in Long Island, New York. And there was another New Yorker there, a beautiful Afro-American woman from Haarlem. So I was surrounded by New Yorkers, even though I was 4,500 kilometres from New York City.”
Links of Interest
- (Cortes Currents) articles about Cortes History
- (Cortes Currents) Four decades of gillnetting in British Columbia
- (Cortes Currents) the Mansons Hall Story
- (Cortes Currents) The 1960s-70s: a time of transition
- (Cortes Currents) Catching Fish and Chips
Top photo credit: Fish boats tied to the Whaletown dock during the 1950s; fish scow at the end of the float – item 2007.001.408, May and Elmer Ellingsen fonds, CIMAS
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