Swiss Family spend twenty years farming on our island
As a boy growing up on the next Island John and his Mom would row across the channel to our Island in their 14 ft Turner, the Emu, to buy fresh butter from the Swiss who owned the farm from 1938 – 1957. Along the way, John would occasionally drop a line in the ocean to catch a cod to trade.
To John’s young eyes the four farmers were serious yet kind people. The two men he remembers, as stoic, very tall and impressively strong. The two women, slow to smile would always find a token treat to give to the boy, his favorite being their dried sugared pears. Followers of a strict Reformed Lutheran creed, the women wore floor length, high collared black cassocks and black handkerchiefs on their hair.
John tells the story of a hot summer Sunday in the early 50’s, when he and his mom Margaret made the trip across to the farm for some fresh dairy. Margaret as young women on hot summer days in the 50’s were want to do, was dressed in short shorts and a skimpy sun top and had brought with them their camera. They were not greeted as warmly as would have been normal. The farmers strictly observed the Sabbath and the visit during their service on a Sunday, with Margaret in skimpy clothing was glaringly unwelcome. As polite as Anna could be, it was made obvious that John and Margaret needed to leave. Lesson learned, Margaret always wore slacks when visiting and never tried to take pictures of them or visit on a Sunday again.
Paul, Anna and Hans Wyss arrived on the “S.S. Volendan” at Ellis island in New York with their mother Anna on January 4, 1922. Their prime language was German and although the younger generation could speak English, Anna never learned.. They travelled with Robert and Elizabetha Laeser and their daughter Elise. The seven had come from Switzerland where Anna left behind her ex-husband Franz. After a brief stop to visit Anna’s brothers in New York they headed to the dairy farming community of Tillamook, Oregon. There was a large Swiss community in Tillamook, with friends and associates from their hometown with similar religious beliefs and a common interest in dairy farming. Elizabeth Laeser died 6 years later at 65 years of age and her friend Anna died in 1932 at the age of 71.
The three Wyss children immigrated to Canada in February of 1934 with Elise Laeser and her father Robert to a dairy farm they leased together in the Duncan area. At the time, there had been a merge of the Russian Evangelical and German Reformed churches creating the Pacific Northwest synod. Not all of the members in Oregon were pleased with this collaboration and some left the denomination. Perhaps it is coincidence but certainly one explanation for the Wyss and Laeser’s departure from their Oregon home of eleven years. The five farmed in Duncan for four years until Robert died in 1938 at 70 years old. They likely left their Duncan farm to get away from the gawking eyes on the streets of town, for the peace and privacy which farming on a remote island could provide.
The four remaining at this point were, Anna 48, Paul 45, Hans, 43, and Elise 49. They pooled their resourced to buy the DeCourcy farm from Mary Connolly who had won it in her lawsuit against Brother XII and the Aquarian Foundation. On July 11, 1943 they bought the farm at the north end of on our Island.
Paul and Hans converted the Aquarian Foundation’s dormitory into a barn for the 6 or 8 cattle which they used for meat, milk, cream and butter. The cows were taken to Nanaimo for butchering. They had a 36 foot double ended fish boat, called the “M/V DeCourcy”. It was stripped of fishing gear which they sold to John’s dad Bill, who was a commercial fisherman. Instead of the fishing gear they had a pen on the stern of the deck to transport their livestock. They didn’t sell their dairy in Nanaimo but they did sell their beef and lamb in Nanaimo. They had a large Clydesdale work horse.
In Ruth Loomis’s book Small Stories of a Gentle Island about her life on Pylades, she describes a winter visit to the Farm with a rare visit to the root cellar with Paul “we stepped down several steps to the shed’s thick, planked door. Opening it, he moved us quickly inside to keep the freezing air out and lit a kerosene light, hung permanently in place. There stood the produce of a farm, so well managed for twenty years! Apples, winter pears, carrots, potatoes, turnips, beets and crocks of bubbling sauerkraut. Each area was vented properly for temperature and breathing. One was lined with canning jars full of plums, summer pears, green beans and pickles.”
Elise had a separate small home behind the farmhouse, closer to the orchard. She was the seamstress of the group and sewed their clothes by hand. The two women spun their wool and knit gorgeous sweaters. Bill still has one which designed for the crew of the Messenger III, with a picture of the boat on the back.
Hans died on November 3, 1949 at 54 years of age and is buried in an unmarked grave on DeCourcy. Anna, Paul and Elise continued to live and farm on the island until Paul died in 1962, he is buried in Nanaimo. At the time, Gerry Hill, the owner of Yellow Point Lodge was in the process of buying the island. The purchase price was $5000.00
Unable to cope with the demands of the farm on their own, friends then helped moved the women to Denman Island where Elise died in 1971. Anna lived until she was 90 years old, dying in Victoria in 1980.