Sharon Viala, left, and Sherri Brubaker bade farewell to Whittome Travel earlier this summer. (Warren Goulding/Citizen)

Saluting Duncan’s Whittome building and the family that built it

Whittome history is Duncan history as family a pillar in its business community for a century

Today’s Whittome Building is the second incarnation for 64 Station Street in Duncan

The first building, of wood frame construction and also of two storeys with an ornate false front, was the home of the International Order of Independent Oddfellows (IOOF). Its tenants also included the office of the Duncan Echo (Ormond T. Smythe’s short-lived competitor to Harry Smith’s Cowichan Leader), Dwyer’s Imperial Furnishing store (men’s wear) and the Cowichan Bakery.

This structure was destroyed as collateral damage in the great Cowichan Merchants’ Building fire of November 1911 and rebuilt by contractor Bob McLay. Work on the new building, this one of brick, began in mid-September 1912 and was essentially completed by March 1913.

In 1934 Messrs. J.H. Whittome & Co. purchased the IOOF Hall and moved across Station Street to what’s now the Whittome Building after commissioning the indefatigable building contractor E.W. Lee to renovate the old hall for use as a real estate, insurance office and “stock board room.” The new office boasted of a 36-foot-long counter and a two-storey steel-lined vault with an automatic fire door for storing important papers. Stocks and bonds had “their own sanctuary behind a sound-proof partition running across the office to the height of the ceiling [which] close off all the rear part”.

All told, the new office was intended to be “a hundred times more convenient than the old one, where the staff and public have constantly to be running upstairs to the board room.”

Twenty-six years earlier, on April 18, 1908, the Cowichan Leader reported the “very gratifying news…that Mr. J.H. Whittome will take over his old business and be a permanent resident of Duncan once more. Mr. Whittome is one of the best-known men in the district and his many old friends will be pleased to know of his return to business.”

The business in question, which he’d sold to James Maitland-Dougall, was that of real estate and insurance and the well-known businessman was James Henry Whittome “of the town of Duncans” as it was in 1908. The first of four generations of his family to do business in the Cowichan Valley, he arrived in Duncan in 1892 to farm and, two years later, married Clara Florence Jaynes, daughter of William Penn and Clara Rhead Jaynes. But, after four years of working the land, he chose instead to sell it, and founded the real estate and investment company that long bore his name.

He also served a single term on North Cowichan Council in 1901. (Eleven years later, he’d decline an invitation to stand for mayor of the newly-incorporated City of Duncan.) He hung his shingle in a building on the north side of Station Street that he co-owned with Clermont Livingston, manager of the Tyee Copper Co. which owned the most successful of Mount Sicker’s three producing copper mines.

The above reference to Whittome’s “return to business” refers to his return to Duncan after two years in South Africa. With the failure of the Tyee Company, he acquired full title to the Station Street building and, when not attending to business or at his comfortable home, ‘Dogwoods,’ on Maple Bay Road, he actively participated in the Cowichan Agricultural Society and as a Freemason.

In 1911, a company history tells us, G.H. Townsend joined the firm as a partner to, in Whittome’s words, “handle the increased business offered to me and so as to give better attention to my clients”. Townsend’s experience in investments enabled the firm, which continued under the J.H. Whittome banner, to engage in the sale and purchase of stocks and shares on the London and other exchanges through 1970.

JH.’s son Robert joined the firm upon his return from overseas service in the First World War. He expanded the company in 1936, the year of J.H.’s death, aged 65, of complications following a heart attack, to include Whittome’s Travel; an agency of Canadian National Railways, it was operated by Jim and Dorothy Whittome on the ground level.

The company moved out in 1969 but returned to the Whittome Building in 1982. By 2000, it was believed to be the second oldest travel agency on the Island and advertised itself as “a full service, independent agency” that offered services in air, cruise, rail, bus, land tours and sun destination packages.

In 1938 Robert opened a branch insurance office in Victoria “with a franchise territory of Vancouver Island and the adjacent Gulf Islands.”

After several changes of address in the capital, the company settled into it own offices, also known as the Whittome Building, expanded to Chemainus in the early 1960s and increased its real estate activities in Victoria and Saanich by acquiring the historic real estate and insurance firm, Rithet Agencies, in 1976. Further expansion to Shawnigan Lake and Mill Bay followed and at one time the company boasted of having seven branch offices for insurance, real estate and travel,, from Victoria to Chemainus.

“For many years we were the leading real estate and insurance firm in the Cowichan Valley,” great-grandson James L. Whittome, the third generation of his family to join the firm in 1957, said of the original company in 1996. “In those early days, many of the properties were bought sight unseen. People would write from overseas and purchase a farm or some property.”

This trusting approach had changed over time, as had property values. Today’s million-dollar lakeside properties had been advertised for just several thousands of dollars a century ago when a dollar went a lot farther (but was harder to earn). A prime example is a 68-acre farm in Maple Bay, listed shortly after the turn of the last century at $6,800.

James assumed the company presidency upon the death of his father, Robert, in 1978. By 1988, Whittome’s was still in business via its subsidiary, Cowichan Estates, a land holding company. James L. operated a law practice across the street from his father’s former office on Station Street, and his son Robert, great, great grandson of J.H., also a lawyer, had his office above Whittome’s Travel.

Of his family’s five-generation involvement in the Valley, James L. said, “We’ve kept abreast of change and continued our long-term commitment to Duncan’s growth. The company has always taken a lot of pride in the business community.”

The company had been known since the 1950s by its logo, a unicorn, which was chosen for its symbolism of integrity. “It has been the paramount policy of the Company through the years that ‘INTEGRITY’ comes before all else; we are proud to say that this approach has had its rewards in many ways.”

In 1998 the two-storey Whittome Building underwent a $250,000 renovation, interior and exterior upgrades to increase the existing 12,822 square feet by adding 1,138 square feet of retail and commercial space to the rear of the structure facing Government Street without altering the front facade. This was a joint venture between Cowichan Estates (Whittome’s) and Bruce McLay who’d restored the adjoining Cowichan Merchants’ Building two years earlier.

In June 2019 Whittome’s Travel on Station Street closed its doors after 83 years, another casualty of the internet.

“The family is sad to see the end of this wonderful experience,” said Dorothy Whittome. “Whittome’s was a big part of travel for all those years. A lot of clients have relied on Whittome’s.”

It’s worth quoting from John Henry Whittome’s obituary in the Leader: “…A figure in the whole growth of the district, attaching to whom was an importance not generally recognized, Mr. Whittome possessed capabilities of unusual merit. He was for many years assessor for the Municipality of North Cowichan, and had an exceptional knowledge of land and timber values with a reputation in this respect unequaled on the Island.

“He was interested in early mining ventures in Cowichan, and to his grasp of conditions a number of local enterprises owe their existence. His support of progressive moves was always available, and his advice on various matters was highly appreciated by many residents.

“In private life he was keenly interested in horticulture, and his home at Quamichan Lake had a setting among dogwoods of great beauty. ‘Dogwoods’ was the name he gave to it. Fishing and shooting were also his pastimes.

“Mr. Whittome was identified with the Cowichan Agricultural Society, in whose work he took much interest. He had been a member since 1900 of Temple Lodge, No. 33, AF&AM. Not taking public office [sic], he nevertheless had a full knowledge of public affairs in the district, working in the interests of general upbuilding…”

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