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Debate over barn stirs up Harewood's agricultural past

Dickinson Barn, Harewood's last link to historic roots, could be demolished rather than added to heritage registry
Chris Sholberg

One of the last and most important pieces of Harewood's agricultural history could be removed as early as next year in favour of a more modern recreational facility.

Last year, Nanaimo's community heritage commission brought forward a request from the community to have the Dickinson Barn, at 752 Howard St., put on the city's heritage register to recognize its agricultural role in an area known as The Five Acres in the early 1900s.

During the process, the city's parks, recreation and culture department advised the commission against the move, suggesting it had plans for the designated parkland the barn sits on in Harewood Centennial Park. Those plans could include a skateboard park or another recreational amenity determined by park users.

Christine Meutzner, who sits on the heritage commission and is also manager at the Nanaimo Community Archives, said the Dickinson Barn dates back to 1910 when the first section was built, with another section added around 1920.

In those days, it sat on a 10-hectare parcel within the Harewood Estates, a large piece of property purchased in 1884 by Samuel Roberts of the Vancouver Island Coal Mining and Land Company. Roberts then subdivided the property into several parcels, most of them about two hectares, so miners could grow their own food and sustain themselves when mining was in a bust.

The Dickinson property, named for the family that originally ran the farm at that site, was considered one of the largest dairy farms in the area and supplied most of Harewood with milk, cheese and butter, among other goods.

The request to put it on the register sparked a review of the barn, which ultimately gave it a failing grade of 45 out of 100 to determine its eligibility on a heritage register, due mostly to its derelict condition.

Currently used as a storage facility for the parks department, part of the barn "is in terrible shape, there's no doubt about it," said Meutzner.

But she adds that the building does have features of historical significance that serve as a reminder of a time long past, including a small rail track down the middle used to transport products from the barn, and unique detail and the eaves and fascia fashionable in that era.

"Really, we have very little to represent Harewood's agricultural history and it really was a lot of farms," said Meutzner. "My feeling is, and I have some strong feelings on it, that we should try to preserve some of the heritage because it's going to be gone and gone pretty quick."

There is only one item on Nanaimo's heritage register signifying Harewood's agricultural past, a barn in Chase River, and the only other possibility was a barn on Third Street that was sold recently with a property slated for development.

"The oldest section of the barn is the earliest known example of connecting back to the mine company and its decision to rent out five-acre lots in the area for the use of miners to raise own food and for stability when they weren't working in the mines," said Chris Sholberg, heritage planner for Nanaimo. "There are still some five-acre parcels left over in that area, but over time they're developing into new subdivisions so we're losing the characteristic of the area and some people are mindful of that and there should be some elements of that saved."

Richard Harding, director of parks, recreation and culture, said public consultation was sought for the portion of Harewood Centennial Park where the barn is. Early feedback has indicated the public wants improved access to that area of the park, and that facilities like a skate or bike park, community gardens or improved trails have all been suggested.

"There are definitely different options ... that may include removal of the barn or may not include removal of the barn. We haven't gone that far yet in the planning process," said Harding. "There is no point in registering it as a heritage building as we're heading toward a public process."

The findings of the public process will likely go to council in February or March, which will result in a draft that must be approved by the heritage commission and council before going back to the public for more consultation.

"At this point, there is no formal approved plan for the removal of the barn," said Harding.

Historically, Meutzner says that relics of the past have often taken a back seat to the wishes of bureaucracy and politics, and she is concerned that if the Dickinson Barn goes, so too will the last remnants of Harewood's agricultural history.

"This has happened in the past," she said. "If parks and rec or another city department has plans for something, instead of us working collaboratively together, heritage usually gets trumped, that's just the way it is. Another big sticking point is that it would cost an awful lot of money to fix that barn up and I appreciate and understand that."

Harding confirmed the barn and immediate surrounding area looked "a little tired," which was why the public consultation process began.

At a heritage commission meeting 18 months ago, members debated strongly both for and against the historical value of the barn. It was eventually decided there would not be a push to add it to the heritage registry.

"Some of the members of the commission still felt strongly that even if it failed the point evaluation, it should still be recommended to council to be put on the register," said Sholberg. "What happened in all this discussion is we consulted with the city's parks department, but they said to us, 'in a couple of years' time we want to develop this whole area and expand the park site', so we ran into that, it was sort of the final straw in the debate."

He added that the commission as a whole "felt comfortable with its final decision" not to place it on the heritage register.

But there are still people who feel strongly that, as the last chance to recognize Harewood's roots, the barn should be spared.

"I mean, geez, if you knock everything down then there's no past, there's nothing. It will be like we sprang up like a mushroom on a wet day or something," said Meutzner, adding that the conversation on the barn is timely as society moves back toward local food sustainability.

"In 10 years it will just look like a suburb of Nanaimo, but it used to be it's own community with its own government. It only became part of Nanaimo in 1975 and I don't think people know just how distinctly different from the rest of Nanaimo it really was."

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