The End of the Trail

Controversy brews over the future of former local naturalist and writer Mack Laing’s Comox homes

Hamilton Mack Laing’s former home, <a href=

Shakesides, herpes
has weathered more than 60 winters and now it sits at the epicentre of perhaps its most turbulent storm yet. Laing lived in the home, Hemorrhoids
which sits in what is now Mack Laing Nature Park in Comox, until his death in 1982 at the age of 99. Photo by Paul Hansen” src=”https://www.infocusmagazine.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/mack-laing-shakesides-602×901.jpg” width=”602″ height=”901″ /> Hamilton Mack Laing’s former home, Shakesides, has weathered more than 60 winters and now it sits at the epicentre of perhaps its most turbulent storm yet.  Laing lived in the home, which sits in what is now Mack Laing Nature Park in Comox, until his death in 1982 at the age of 99. Photo by Paul Hansen

There is something strangely alluring about old houses. Beyond the tattered, crumbling façades, stories of time and place reside between old walls, echoes of yesteryear, tangible reminders of local history. Such is Shakesides, an ailing relic set amongst the forest on the shores of Comox Estuary, home of the late Hamilton Mack Laing.

Made from a kit home in 1950 by Laing, Shakesides has weathered more than 60 winters and now it sits at the epicentre of perhaps its most turbulent storm yet. A structure worth keeping, worth the time, money and resources to maintain it and allow the visual story of Mack Laing to organically unfold? Or is the relic an increasingly dangerous ‘eyesore’, beyond repair, an irrelevant, derelict, and unnecessary structure, and void of the necessary resources to mend and maintain it?

The cedar roof shingles of Shakesides are peeling and layered in moss and lichen, the shingled side walls brown, faded, tired. Various plants and vines have interwoven themselves up and across the outer structure, entangled, roaming uncontained. Several windows are boarded, venetian blinds hang lopsided from inside the front room. On top, two loft windows with small triangular roof panels watch down over the house and the vast foreground beyond like the old eyes of an ancient owl. It evokes an image of a figurative guardian of the land. But the owl’s window-paned eyebrows are cracked and peeling too, and in desperate need of care.

Even the boardwalk, which winds its way right in front of the dwelling, has seen better days. Unruly weeds grab at the feet of passersby as people stop to embrace the scene before them, both man-made and natural.

To stop and look across the tidal waters of the estuary brings into clear view the Beaufort Range, a vast green blanket of growth with its stark ridgeline silhoutte traversing the sky. To the right, the Comox Glacier shines down, glowing bold, white, majestic. It represents a stunning vista, a panorama so magnificent that one simply cannot resist to stop and stare.

Two hundred metres from Shakesides, also on the estuary and surrounded by trees and abundant birdlife, is the site of the former Baybrook house, Laing’s first Comox home, constructed in 1923. Baybrook lived numerous iterations, having been sold to a local family in 1949, and then again in 2006, but where the structure sat for close to 95 years is now rubble and a solitary cement slab, left by demolition workers following orders from Comox Council.

In the early hours of August 2 of this year, a giant, mechanical claw put a sudden, confronting end to this part of Comox’s history, sparking a heated debate that continues to gather flame and fury. Finger pointing, accusations, and blame have enraged the issue; of blatant disregard for Laing’s will, wanton destruction of a natural heritage zone, name calling, slander, lies, bullying, outright arrogance and ignorance, and even identity misrepresentation.

According to author and former Comox Valley resident, Richard Mackie, who in 1985 wrote Laing’s biography entitled Hamilton Mack Laing: Hunter-Naturalist, Laing was, “By training a teacher, artist, popular writer, and journalist,” and today his “legacy remains far reaching and very much alive.”

Born in Huron County, Ontario, in 1883, Laing’s family moved to Manitoba and settled on a dairy farm in Clearsprings where he became a keen hunter and observer of nature. Educated locally, he moved to the Winnipeg Normal School in 1898 and in 1900 he qualified as a rural school teacher at the age of seventeen. A gifted teacher, he taught his students nature study, helped introduce the Scouting movement to Manitoba, and in 1908 was made principal of Oakwood High School at Oak Lake, where he remained until 1911.

In 1905, he earned a diploma in story writing from the National Press Association of the United States, and his first published piece of fiction was The End of the Trail, published in 1907.

After briefly visiting BC in 1909, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, in the summer of 1911 to further his studies and three years later he graduated with an art diploma. In the same year he bought a motorcycle and drove from New York to Winnipeg, the first of several “expeditions.”

In 1920, he decided to return to Canada. He chose Comox—described to him as ‘a very birdy place’—and in 1922 cleared his land with little assistance and built his home from a Stanhope Aladdin Ready-Cut kit. Five years later, he married Ethel Hart of Portland and together they established a successful commercial orchard—Baybrook Nut Orchard—which included walnut, pecan, filbert, hazelnut, apple and plum trees. They also grew mushrooms and an assortment of vegetables. In 1944, his wife Ethel died of cancer after a short illness. Laing was devastated. In 1949, he sold the Baybrook property and orchard, retaining four acres along Brooklyn Creek, and in 1950 he built Shakesides on the adjoining lot, in what is now Mack Laing Nature Park.

Mack Laing harvests filberts at the Baybrook Nut Orchard, circa 1947.  Photo courtesy Comox Archives & Museum Society (A2002.001.001)

Mack Laing harvests filberts at the Baybrook Nut Orchard, circa 1947. Photo courtesy Comox Archives & Museum Society (A2002.001.001)

Laing was an avid photographer, taking many photos of local wildlife, scenery, people, and the work done on his land. He kept detailed diaries and observation notes. His reputation as an expert on birds flourished during these years. He had many visitors during this time, including fellow naturalists, artists, hunting and fishing companions, and writers.

Over his lifetime, Laing published more than 700 articles, 22 of which were featured in scientific publications of his day. His works were described as a “delight to read.” Additionally, Laing collected more than 10,000 vertebrate specimens in his lifetime, the majority for the National Museum in Ottawa.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, he continued to study, write and photograph with fervor, and in 1973 he bequeathed his Shakesides property to the Town of Comox. He continued living in the house until his death in 1982 at the age of 99 years.

He was, without question, a hardworking man of great skill and supreme talent. According to Mackie, “(Laing’s) importance lies in the strength of the friendships made over his long life, in his collections of birds, mammals, and plants housed in Canadian and American museums and universities; in his influential nature stories published in newspapers and outdoor magazines, his attitude to nature and to predatory animals… which he never lost, and which he disseminated through his work.”

A plaque erected in 1983 in Mack Laing Nature Park reads, “he gave his home and land to the Town of Comox, in trust, in perpetuity, for conservation and to encourage appreciation of nature.” Laing’s will stipulated the preservation of Shakesides—his second home—as a nature centre, and provided $55,000 for its maintenance. According to Comox Mayor Paul Ives, this fund is still safely stowed in council coffers, but the suggestion by some that this amount is equivalent to about $300,000 in today’s currency has little merit says the Mayor. Ives claims the actual amount to be somewhere closer to $75,000.

In 2009, the Town of Comox, working together with the Nature Trust of British Columbia, purchased three parcels of neighboring land—including Baybrook—for a little more than $1.2 million.

“We did that to add to the green space,” says Ives. “We have essentially doubled the size of Mack Laing Park.” Then, soon thereafter, on the back of official property assessments undertaken by both a professional structural engineer and architect, the Town of Comox declared that Shakesides was structurally unsound and was therefore to be demolished.

Regarding Baybrook—named by Ethel Laing as a place where Brooklyn Creek meets Comox Bay—the same assessment concluded the structure could be carefully rehabilitated and adapted to a new public use. Nonetheless, council were concerned about safety issues and the possible burden on local taxpayers to foot refurbishment and maintenance costs. After lengthy discussions, they made their intentions public; Baybrook, too, was slated for demolition.

The Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS)—a small, local, volunteer body created to ensure the legacy of Laing—rallied behind these findings and urged the Town of Comox to preserve Laing’s original dwelling, Baybrook, as a nature centre in lieu of Shakesides. The MLHS got a legal opinion that the Town should transfer its trust from Shakesides to Baybrook. The society also got the support of various heritage agencies, provincial and national, voicing their support for the preservation of Baybrook. Interestingly, they also learned, and confirmed, that part-time Comox resident Alice Munro had spent several months at Laing’s former house.

Mack Laing checks the nuts on the filbert trees of Baybrook Nut Orchard, circa 1970.  Photo courtesy Comox Archives & Museum Society (A1998.001.580)

Mack Laing checks the nuts on the filbert trees of Baybrook Nut Orchard, circa 1970. Photo courtesy Comox Archives & Museum Society (A1998.001.580)

In an official letter from Heritage BC dated June 23, 2015, Executive Director Kathryn Molloy writes “Because of Baybrook’s rich heritage value… we believe that Baybrook should be conserved for present and future generations. We encourage the Town of Comox to retain the Baybrook property and use the building in ways that will conserve the heritage values of this significant site…”

Additionally, according to the MLHS, Heritage BC offered to assist with restoration costs to the tune of $150,000 and that other sources of funding were available to offer viable, cost-effective preservation options. Mayor Ives was quoted by the Comox Valley Echo on August 11 as saying, “They just said funding might be available,” suggesting the funding was far from guaranteed.

From the National Trust of Canada, a letter dated July 31, 2015 from Natalie Bull, Executive Director: “Baybrook was the home of esteemed naturalist, collector, author and educator Mack Laing from the time of its construction in 1922 until 1949, representing his most active and prolific period of research and writing… The National Trust urges the Town of Comox to reconsider its decision to demolish the important heritage property. We encourage you to recognize the heritage significance of Baybrook and to take advantage of Heritage BC’s offer of assistance…”

Despite impassioned pleas from the MLHS and Canada’s most prominent heritage agencies, in February the decision to demolish Baybrook was upheld and early on the morning of August 2 the order was carried out. Despite several angry and frustrated protestors, the big rigs rolled in.

“It amounted, in my opinion, to a battle of wills between Ives and Loys Maingon (MLHS’s President),” says Richard Mackie. “Ives was determined to win, and he did win—but the people of Comox have lost an important house and part of their heritage. Given the written promises of financial and institutional support for Baybrook’s preservation, I can only conclude that Ives’ actions were short-sighted, spiteful, and vindictive. Everyone in the Comox Valley would have benefited from the preservation of this house.”

In his own defence, Mayor Ives says, “We need to step back from the emotional side and start to work together.” He added that the Town of Comox respects the heritage value of the Mack Laing area, and has, as a rule, embraced green space. “Just look around our town and see the good work that’s been done,” he said, highlighting numerous local parks and forested areas, including Filberg Park, Marina Park, and the North East Woods, as natural areas of council focus.

Stephen Hume, an outspoken Vancouver Sun journalist who delved headlong into the issue, wrote in an August 5 Vancouver Sun article, “Comox council is left with the embarrassing dilemma of whether it wants the community celebrated for cultural stewardship or stigmatized for demolishing heritage that belongs not just to the municipality but to all British Columbians and Canadians.”

In a letter to the Editor, published in the Comox Valley Echo on August 18, Loys Maingon, said “Mayor Ives has stated in press and on television that ‘Baybrook had only some or little heritage value’.”

Maingon went on to add, “He (Mayor Ives) has also cast doubt on the availability of funding, as though these organizations would write strongly-worded letters with no intention of supporting their words.”

The Mack Laing saga has an equally vocal flip side, as evidenced by the very next letter in that same issue of the Comox Valley Echo. It reads, “Congratulations to Comox Town Council for ignoring the out-of-town hysteria and proceeding with the demolition of Baybrook. Removal of this non-descript, derelict eyesore has opened up a beautiful view of the water and mountains. It is gratifying to know that decisions about the use of public property are made by Comox taxpayers through their elected representatives—not by outside special interest groups.”

A closer look at the MLHS website or the online version of Hume’s Vancouver Sun articles underscores the vitriolic, sarcastic, and barbed war of words that has ensued between several main protagonists. Assertions and accusations include, “The MLHS and their supporters are the only people who saw any heritage value in a derelict shack, briefly occupied by a minor historical figure who spent most of his life in the neighboring Shakesides property,” and, “I hate it when democracy and responsible civic decision-making get in the way of the pipe dreams and historical fantasies of a few (very few) conflicted individuals.” Subsequent responses speak of the “shameless acts of few power intoxicated, vengeance seeking individuals.”

What about old houses, then? Are they simply feeble, irrelevant shacks of a bygone era, serving no purpose and yet requiring dollars to keep erect? Would Hamilton Mack Laing, as a naturalist, have been so unforthcoming to the idea of having his former houses felled and in their place, perhaps, a pavilion offering up information, pictorials, quiet surrounding trails, a place to sit and appreciate the birds and the local scenery? Mackie, having lived in Shakesides for three months immediately following Laing’s passing in 1982, says he thinks he knows the answer.

“Laing was first and foremost a teacher and he knew that teachers need a place to teach,” Mackie says. “And naturalists need a place to teach. Baybrook was the ideal place for all that and more.”

Mackie offers up his take on old houses, too. “Old houses and buildings are often the only physical reminders of a community’s past. Their destruction—whether by arson, neglect, or civil edict—always represents a permanent loss of a community’s history, identity and stories. Historic buildings anchor a community to its past in tangible and lasting ways, and their demolition severs those links for future generations, cutting them adrift.”

The furore over Mack Laing’s houses rages on with no end in sight. Both sides are bracing for more action. Meanwhile, as if oblivious to it all, the sun rises and falls on the vast Beaufort Range, the Comox Glacier sits high and proud, the tides at Comox Estuary ebb and flow as they’ve always done. Birdsong is all around. Nothing much has changed in this regard since Mack Laing heaved hammer and hoe in this same spot more than 90 years ago. Shakesides, with its alluring beauty and ancient owl eyes, rests peacefully. For now.

And the powerful, subtle words of Henry David Thoreaux, etched into Laing’s epitaph in the park just behind Shakesides, echo timelessly across the water and land and glacier: “Be not simply good, be good for something.”