When young Mary Gillis was growing up in Deep Cove, Strathcona Road was just a muddy track.
In 1923, Jack and Christena Gillis bought four lots along what is today Harris Avenue, right down to the waterfront, for $20 each. They chose to build their own home about 300 meters up the hill. The reason: “Only poor people lived on the waterfront,” Christena reasoned. The belief was that “bad humours” from the water would lead to ill health.
Jack, a logger and shipyards worker by trade, built their cabin by hand in 1926. The Gillises, with their daughters Mary and Betty, were one of the first settler families to establish a permanent home in the area. Jack Gillis lived there until his death in 1965.
When Mick and Brenda Webb bought the Gillis Homestead, as it is now known, 40 years ago, it had fallen into terrible disrepair.
“It was very, very shabby. It was rundown and severely neglected,” Mick said. “When we left [the open house], our feet and ankles were just covered in fleabites from the carpeting.”
But they both lovingly and painstakingly restored the home. Today, it is listed as a primary asset on the District of North Vancouver’s heritage registry.
“We just absolutely fell in love with it and we've never fallen out of love,” Webb said. “It truly epitomizes the word ‘home’ rather than ‘house.'”
A few years ago, as a retirement project, Webb’s wife arranged to rent one of their spare bedrooms as a B&B. The extra money was nice but they mainly enjoyed meeting interesting guests. Then, a few weeks ago, they took a booking from Colleen Hawkins and her sister Valerie.
“She said would very much like to bring her mother for Mother's Day,” Webb said. “Her mother is Mary, one of the two daughters who grew up here.”
Mary Babcock, as she is named today, is now 98. She lives at Evergreen House. The trip back to the homestead was her first outing since September last year when she broke a hip.
“It was quite an event – one that I’ll never forget because it was a surprise. They didn’t tell me where we were going,” she said. “It was just wonderful. It was like going back in time.”
Over lunch they discussed the early days of Deep Cove.
Babcock recalls the neighbourhood was nothing but “bush” when she was young.
To get by, they had to work extremely hard. The family’s homestead included a horse, cow, chickens, and a garden and orchard.
Because Jack was often away logging, Christena did almost all of the work of the homestead herself.
“People had to fend for themselves,” Hawkins said. “Granny, she was always a very hard worker.”
They were nearly self-sufficient but they could pick up supplies at the Dollar Mill, which was a 10- to 15-minute walk through the woods away.
To help out their few neighbours, Christena would collect mail as well as milk and bread, making their home the de facto post office and general store for Deep Cove.
“Then it got bigger and bigger and more and more people started to move in. And before long, they wanted mom to have a store, so she had to give up her living room,” Mary said. “But that was alright. We had food on the table.”
They would allow their neighbours to pick up groceries on credit when things were tough during the Great Depression.
Mary also helped earn income, delivering newspapers to the eight or nine other families in walking distance.
For a time, they were the only family in the area with a telephone, so Mary and her sister Betty were often running (or rowing) around the neighbourhood delivering messages to other households.
“I'd walk miles, or it seemed like it, because of houses weren't close together,” she said.
Some of the stories Mary shared over lunch were ones no one in the family had heard before, like the day Jack Gillis fired rock salt from his shotgun at kids trying to steal apples from their orchard.
“That one was new,” Hawkins said with a laugh.
When she was 18, Mary moved out and got a job as a stenographer making $60 per month.
Today, Mary said she is proud of the way the Webbs have kept up and improved upon what is both her childhood home and an important piece of North Shore history.
“It was just gorgeous, the work they have done on that place. Unbelievable. I have to really hand it to them,” she said.
The importance of the homestead’s endurance isn’t lost on the descendants of Jack and Christena either.
“I remember playing in the house. I remember sitting on my grandfather's knee,” Hawkins said. “It's such a central part of our family.”
Webb has been writing a history of the home he hopes to pass on to its next owner and to the Deep Cove Heritage Society. Much of it is drawn from an account written by Christena before her death at the age of 105. The last pages, he’s decided, will be about the Mother's Day that Mary and her daughters spent returning to the family homestead.
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