Fishing has historically been a way of life in this area; certainly all varieties of seafood have provided the staple of life for the First Nations Peoples.
For the immigrant population, perhaps more focused on commercial harvesting, one family has been particularly significant in seafood, with the dad, six sons, grandsons and great grandsons, plus the womenfolk of the family, all engaged in the seafood industry.
Britisher William Vowles Sr., and his wife Ada emigrated to America with their children in 1912. They had put a payment deposit for the Titanic sailing but fortunately changed their minds and sailed on another White Star Line vessel – what a good decision! Grandson Ray Vowles has in his possession a steamer trunk with a White Star label on it.
Coming to Victoria, initially the family settled on Phillips Road about 1913, but it seemed Mrs. Vowles didn’t care to live in such remote circumstances, where supplies had to be rowed across the river from the wharf at Milne’s Landing.
They sold the property and bought acreage at Christmas Hill in Saanich where William Sr., built a big house that still stands. It was there that they raised their family, eldest was William Vowles Jr., then Jim and Arthur and daughters Ada and Eva. The family was musical, with all the youngsters becoming proficient at piano or violin.
Though William Jr. would eventually become operator of a flourishing seafood business, before he took on those responsibilities he had headed off to the bright lights of Los Angeles where he played violin with the Los Angeles orchestra. After some twists and turns, he established himself in Sooke in the late 1920s with spouse Sarah Michelsen, daughter of Mandus Michelsen Sr. and Sarah Poirier.
By the 1940s, the family was occupied with their business on Maple Avenue, Sooke Seafoods, which harvested and marketed fish, crabs, scallops, shrimp, and clams throughout Victoria and outlets as far as Seattle. Their sales also featured smoked salmon.
The sons who provided the harvest were William III “Tuck” the eldest (though his livelihood was largely undertaken as a logger in the woods) Ray, Rudy, Steve, Joe and Wally, while mother Sarah supervised the shucking and processing of the seafoods, assisted by all her daughters, Viola, Laura, Beverley, Jean, Linda and Marilyn.
Besides the many years of traditional seafood history of the Planes and George families, there are other multigenerational fishing families in Sooke’s history, particularly the Heggelunds and the Arnets. Perhaps none have had as many commercial fishing brothers though, as the Vowles family. It seems fitting that the perpetual challenge trophy for what we consider the best smoked salmon in Canada, should be presented in memory of William and Sarah Vowles, who started it all.
Elida Peers is the historian of Sooke Region Museum.