It’s hard to find a piece of real estate in our region with a history more fascinating and mysterious than Grouse Nest. Our illustration today shows Grouse Nest under the tenure of Rod and Isobel Knight, in the late 1950s, when it was a popular resort.
The original Grouse Nest, much earlier than this photo, was the weekend/summer home of Victoria financier George Gillespie, of Gillespie Hart & Co. Located in a picturesque cove at the far eastern end of Sooke Basin, it was a centre for social activities of well-known Victoria families. One of the Gillespie sons, Alexander, also built a home in 1911 on the East Sooke shore, called Glenairley. When a gravel road connected East Sooke Road to Sooke Road in 1929, it was named after George Gillespie.
It was in the 1930s that Grouse Nest was sold to the Knight family, who operated it as a resort. In 1939 the Knight’s son, Roderick, purchased the stately home from his dad. When war was declared that year, Rod Knight, a former British naval officer, felt the call to serve, but before Isobel would let him go, she wanted a telephone. Rod strung a line tree to tree, to give her the comfort of a connection to the outside world.
When I chatted with Rod Knight many years ago, he explained that it was the downdraft in a sawdust-burning kitchen range that led to the destruction by fire of Grouse Nest Resort in 1950. He then set up a sawmill, milled his own lumber and rebuilt, with the result shown in the photo. Their leaflet advertised resort activities such as rowboating, tennis, fishing, ping pong, darts, bridge, canasta, plus swimming in the resort’s outdoor pool and dancing on Saturday nights at Sooke or Colwood. The Knights raised three children.
When they retired in 1963, they sold to Hassam Kamil, here from Europe, and this is when the mysterious stories began. A number of A-frame structures were built on the property; small planes with pontoons flew over the waters of the basin, passengers disembarking at the dock, while limousines were seen on the road from Victoria.
Particularly rampant were stories of enormous expense being undertaken to glamourize the existing structure, architects and skilled craftsmen knowing no bounds. Ultimately, later, there were stories as well of unpaid bills. There were rumours as to the origin of the family – was it true they were Egyptian, or Arabian, and that there were many languages spoken? There was talk of intrigue and of exotic looking women dripping with jewels. It was understood that there were a son and two daughters in the family, and that there were private tutors.
Kamil had expansive plans for development of East Sooke lands and for several years, ongoing zoning, land use and water supply discussions took place, apparently leading to the abandonment of his development plans. In time, the lands were separated into blocks and auctioned off by Laurel Properties in 1985. A 116 HA portion was bought by CRD Parks, and is now used by walkers daily. Since the 1980s, a variety of owners have held the block with the Grouse Nest structure itself, and sometimes even that ownership seems mysterious today.
What I know myself, is that when I started as executive director of the museum in the 1970s, one of our summer students was Sheila Kamil, whom I found to be a likeable and conscientious girl. Every day at 5:00 pm her dad would drive up to the museum, come in to wait for her, and say to me “Thank you for teaching my daughter how to work.”
Elida Peers is the historian of Sooke Region Museum.