In early May a moving truck pulled up in front of Oak Bay’s municipal hall and dropped off 35 boxes.
It was the entire research collection of retired University of Victoria professor Larry McCann, which the historical geographer spent more than two decades collecting for his book, Imagining Uplands: John Olmsted’s Masterpiece of Residential Design.
And now the material from all 35 boxes will live on in Oak Bay Archives. It’s the biggest score since archivist Caroline Duncan arrived in 2016 (there are another 14 regular volunteers with the archives, all working on various projects).
Today Liam Dyson, right, met Larry McCann. Dyson spent two days a week this summer volunteering at @OakBayArchives to inventory & re-house McCann's 35-boxes of research documenting Uplands. Top left/after, bottom three/before (move-in day). pic.twitter.com/1MOiPJuotH
— travisApaterson (@TravisAPaterson) August 28, 2019
“It’s an amazing resource for us,” Duncan said. “It’s by far one of the largest donation of records to Oak Bay Archives. We are so lucky to get this.”
McCann’s work was made all the more sweeter last week when federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna anointed the Uplands neighbourhood a national historic site during her visit to Cattle Point.
That designation is largely due to the work of McCann, though the application was helped along by a team of Oak Bay residents, David Anderson, Rick Marshall and Martin Segger.
To gather the materials documented in the “McCann records” the author traveled are afar. McCann visited the Hudson Bay Company’s own archives in Winnipeg. He found a rich history of the Olmsted in an archive near the office John his brother Frederick ran their landscape architect firm in Brookline, Mass.
And he also spent many a day in the dusty, musty corporate archive below Oak Bay municipal hall.
“Giving this to Oak Bay Archives is me giving back,” McCann said. “It took me several attempts to convince Oak Bay [administration] to let me in there.”
Eventually, he was granted access to the historical records found in the corporate and planning archives. Between it all he found a deep, rich set of data and detail to tell the story of Olmsted. From the Olmsted personal archives he accessed a series of about 5,000 daily letters between Olmsted and his wife that charted Olmsted’s various travels. The architect not only designed Uplands, but had designed 40,000 acres of parks in major cities by the early 1900s. His legacy of designs include the Seattle, Spokane and Portland park systems, plus work in Winnipeg and Calgary’s Mt. Royal neighbourhood.
McCann also split up a 4,000-book collection, giving half to the Vancouver Island University as a resource to support its new master in community planning program, while donating others to historians.
It a blessing for Oak Bay Archives this spring to receive a timely phone call from Liam Dyson, an Oak Bay resident going into his fourth year of history at the University of Toronto. Home for the summer, Dyson spent two days a week this summer volunteering to do the inventory, sorting and re-housing of McCann’s documents into official archive folders and boxes.
It includes thousands of slides all shot by McCann, and hundreds, if not thousands, more photos, many of which were documented by McCann’s UVic students. There are rare documents that precede development in Oak Bay from the land-use title office and also a dozen personal journals, one from 2004 to 2006 that features McCann’s initial outline for the book.
“I enjoyed going it very much, and I especially spent a lot of time reading documents from the Hudson’s Bay Company,” Dyson said.
McCann himself was raised in Oak Bay on Brighton Avenue where he played roller hockey as a teenager in the 1950s.
His dad, John Bernard “Bern” McCann, was a local builder that included a role as the superintendent during construction of the McPherson Library at UVic. His mother was named Mary Olive, nicknamed “Maidie.”
As a teen McCann ran with a gang of seven boys who called themselves the Mitchell Street Blue Bombers. Four of them ended up going on to earn a PhD at university. McCann started with an honours level undergraduate degree at UVic and went on to earn a master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Alberta.
He authored plenty of books, such as Heartland and Hinterland: A Geography of Canada, and most of his research was for macro topics such as the coal industry, steel industry and Irish history. Yet most of that research ended up in the trash, he said.
His work on Oak Bay and the Uplands began shortly after he took a position as an instructor at UVic in the early 1990s. It was a land planning class. That’s when he used the Uplands as an example of private design and land use, before B.C. established planning legislation in the 1920s.
“I would take the class on a walking tour to visit Uplands’ Midland circle where the [B.C. Electric] rail line ended,” McCann said. “Then I’d send all 50 kids off to find remaining evidence of the train track. And they’d find it.”
Upon retirement, McCann put a renewed focus on his Uplands research. He found sympathy for the amount of days John Olmsted travelled to do his work. McCann was able to revisit the day Olmsted visited Victoria, and Oak Bay, for the first time in 1907.
He was persuaded – reluctantly – to come to Victoria, McCann said.
“It was a storm, and as he arrived by boat a ship was [battering] against the shore near Cattle Point,” he said.
“It was a dreary two-day visit but he saw the beauty of it. He loved oaks, so among the Garry oaks of Uplands he was in heaven.”
At the time, Uplands was a 456-acre parcel carved off the HBC’s previously existing 1,126-acre Uplands farm. The more McCann dug into Olmsted’s story, the more he felt there was a book there.
“I grew a fondness for Olmsted,” McCann said. “If it wasn’t for [his story], I wouldn’t have written the book [Imagining Uplands].”