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Master gardener John Montgomery began work on his Stanley Park rockery at age 65, after immigrating from Scotland and getting a job with the parks board. Photo courtesy Chris Hay


The lost garden of Stanley Park

by Naoibh O'Connor-staff writer

Dressed in a formal, darkly coloured three-piece dress suit and hat, a grey bearded John Montgomery poses with his adult daughter along a winding path flanked by an elaborate rock garden.

Tall trees line the background in the black and white photograph shot in the early 1900s.

Nothing in the picture suggests the precise date, location or that it's anything more than a family memento of a visit to an unnamed, albeit carefully landscaped park.

Chris Hay, Montgomery's great-grandson, found the old photo in his personal collection after a visit to Scotland in 2000. The trip piqued his interest in that branch of the family tree-in particular the roots of Montgomery who was born in Scotland in 1844 and later immigrated to Canada.

When Hay, a letter carrier, returned home to Coquitlam, he contacted his aunt Mary Peterson-Montgomery's granddaughter-for clues about their relative. And he stumbled upon an unexpected slice of Vancouver's past.

"You do know of John Montgomery's rock garden in Stanley Park?" Peterson asked a perplexed Hay.

Montgomery, he discovered, played a role in the history of the city's greatest park, but his contribution has long been forgotten, his garden a memory buried in time. Its location and other details were only uncovered by 60-year-old Hay after five years of sometimes tedious, although ultimately successful searching marked by persistence and good fortune.

Started in 1911, Montgomery diligently tended to the garden in his senior years until his death in 1920 when it spanned close to a mile. Parks board records indicate the rockery included a sunken rock garden featuring "almost every kind of rock plant, flower, water lily and various flowering shrubs." The garden also had perennials such as irises, alpines and heathers. Larger flowering plants included rhododendrons, azaleas and roses. "It had numerous arbours all throughout the garden," adds Hay.

Most traces of it were lost by 1960, and it became at most a footnote in Vancouver's history. Hay hopes to rekindle interest and possibly garner recognition for his great-grandfather's hard work and dedication. That could be difficult. Not only is the story of the rock garden largely unknown, both Stanley Park advocates and the parks board are reticent about allowing more plaques or memorials in the park. Yet after spending years chronicling the story for posterity, Hay is convinced this forgotten moment in the history of Vancouver deserves acknowledgement.

Back in 2000, when Hay began his research, all he had for solid leads were the mysterious photo, a death notice and a clipping of an old undated letter to the editor from an unidentified newspaper that mentioned the garden. His detective work was underway.

Born in Strachur, Argyll, on the western coast of Scotland, John Montgomery earned his living as a butcher. He married Barbara Allan Campbell at age 29 in 1873 and raised nine children in Peebles-22 miles south of Edinburgh. Gardening was a hobby, granted a serious one. By 1905 Montgomery established himself as a master gardener in his town, according to an entry in a family marriage registry.

The hobby turned into a job when he moved with his wife to Vancouver in 1908, following in the footsteps of four of their children who had previously immigrated.

Montgomery landed a position with the parks board a year later at age 65, conceiving the Stanley Park rock garden after eyeing boulders left over from the excavation for the construction of the park's pavilion in early 1911. The rocks were slated for burial in a deep hole, but Montgomery told park commissioners they were priceless and asked to build the rockery.

Eventually nearly a mile long, the garden started close to the Coal Harbour entrance to Stanley Park at the main park drive, followed the north ridge of the pavilion grounds and continued behind the pavilion to Pipeline Road. An expansion in 1916 extended the north end of the garden in the flat land leading down to Coal Harbour.

When Montgomery died in 1920 at age 74, newspaper articles lauded his horticultural masterpiece. One article headlined "Park Rockery his Memorial" noted: "By the death of Mr. John Montgomery on Sunday night the city loses one whose name will always be identified with the wonderful rockery garden in Stanley Park for which he was responsible, the creation of his genius and a work of art."

Even the parks board recognized the garden's significance in its 1920 annual report: "The continued development and growth of the Rockery will call for more attention than our appropriation permitted during the past year. This garden, representing as it does one of the outstanding features of our park system, extends for a mile, and to try to maintain it with only one regular gardener is to attempt the impossible, if it is to be kept to the standard worthy of its importance. At least one extra man will in future have to be allotted to this work. Its contents represent the work of years' accumulation and development, and are far too valuable to risk deterioration and loss thro' lack of proper attention."

Sitting on a grassy patch of Stanley Park below the pavilion where his great-grandfather's rockery once flowered, the irony of a past parks board's warning to keep his ancestor's legacy intact isn't lost on Chris Hay. "That's exactly what happened," he says while scanning the surroundings.

Behind him are the two remaining small sections of the garden-both largely camouflaged by tall, shady trees. Dirt and gravel trails snaking through the greenery reveal what few boulders and plants remain. No marker suggests their origin or singles the sections out from other parts of the park.

The site is so inconspicuous that it took Hay years to track it down. Beginning in 2001, he sacrificed holidays and weekends to sift through parks board records and newspaper articles at the library and city archives. No one at the parks board could offer any clues.

Most of the history collected over the years is at the city archives and information going back that far is limited, according to parks board staff. When Hay checked the Vancouver Public Library, he only unearthed two 1921 glass negatives in its special collections department. Neither image identified the rockery's precise location.

Hay dropped the search until April 2003 when a hunch at a collectibles show in New Westminster prompted him to sort through stacks of old postcards.

"I'm just walking around looking and I noticed a large collection of postcards. So my mind just twigged-maybe there might be a picture of the garden in a postcard," he says.

Several hundred postcards later-success: a vibrantly coloured 1945 postcard depicting the rock garden and pavilion. "So now I had the exact location and proof of where it was," recalls Hay. "That was major. Up to that point I had no idea of where it was."

He also discovered, almost by chance, his oldest find-a 1916 postcard-at another table. "I was just about to leave and I went past a table that I hadn't stopped at. I was tired, but it was the only one I hadn't checked. I discovered [the postcard]," he says. "It's the earliest picture I had of the rock garden and I later discovered it was taken by the first official photographer of Stanley Park."

Months later, Hay visited the park with an American "Montgomery" cousin. They used the postcards to find the rockery's exact location, which produced another welcome revelation-part of the original garden and some rocks remained, hidden by trees.

Hay continued his archival research, thumbing through pages of old parks board annual reports and minutes, most of which were handwritten. It was "pretty hard going," he admits, but nothing dissuaded him from his mission to find out more about Montgomery and the garden.

"I know with family history, you often hit a brick wall, but you never really give up. It's always lingering in the background that you may find something later on. It just takes hours and hours of searching through films and things like that," Hay says.

Reading a parks board annual report revealed the extent of the nearly mile-long garden-and convinced Hay the story should be shared.

"Up to that point, I had basically been writing a family story, but when I came across that I knew it was more than a family story-it should be something everyone is made aware of, especially because this individual built it all by himself and he was into his 70s at the time. I don't know how he did it. You look at some of the pictures and it's just amazing. When you look at the rocks and the number of them, you wonder how he did it."

The commitment and perseverance that helped Montgomery to build the garden seems to have been inherited by Hay, judging by the exhaustive research that led to the source of his elusive undated letter to the editor.

The brief letter began with "Sir" and went on to praise an article about the rockery by a particular journalist, with the writer noting that it was disappointing the story failed to mention its creator, John Montgomery.

Hay was unable to find any newspaper whose letters to the editor started with "Sir" until 2004 when by chance he came across the reference while doing other family research. Letters beginning with "Sir" appeared only in Sunday editions of the Province and proved a valuable find.

Ever resourceful, Hay looked up the death registry for the name of the letter writer, tracking it to 1932. He then discovered the Province's Sunday edition began in 1925, which narrowed his search to a still daunting seven-year period. Hay scanned the archives chronologically, a year per weekend-1925 proved fruitless, as did 1926. But he decided to scan the first three months of 1927 that weekend, without expecting to find anything. "I was even nodding off at times," he laughs. A full-page feature article and photograph about the garden titled "Where Spring Carpets the Rocks with Bloom and Verdure" published on March 27, 1927 was his reward. (The letter to the editor appeared a week later.) "That just took my breath away because all I'd found were little references here and there. I'd never seen an article on the garden," he recalls. "It looked beautiful to me. It showed off the importance of the garden to have a full feature on it."

Written by Ogilvy Irving, the article offers fulsome praise for the rockery: "It has been said that flowers only flourish radiantly in the garden of someone who loves them, so indeed are we doubly blessed in having such a profusion of bloom and color in a rockery where all may delight in the fragrance and beauty of spring flowers with as much joy and pride as if it were their own."

Although most of his great-grandfather's legacy has disappeared, Hay hopes at least a portion of it can be restored and dedicated to Montgomery, possibly with a plaque in time for the 100th anniversary of the pavilion in 2011. "The gardens are so closely associated with the pavilion, it would be nice to have the two of them recognized as having a common origin," he says.

Hay suspects most of the rock garden, which he describes as the oldest existing formal garden in both Stanley Park and the City of Vancouver, likely vanished due to lack of money, other priorities in the park taking precedence, or from increasing shade from the growing trees. But he doesn't think that should mean Montgomery's extraordinary effort should be forgotten.

Public recognition might also have an added bonus-earning heritage A status for Montgomery's old house at 1560 Comox St. It's already earned heritage B significance, but heritage A status can be awarded to properties that are associated with a person or event of significance to the city.

But Hay's desire to bring public recognition for his great-grandfather's legacy so far has little support.

Ron Rothwell, a member of Friends of Stanley Park until a year ago when it folded, is against memorials of any kind in the park. He wasn't aware Montgomery's rock garden existed, but suspects budget constraints sealed its fate.

"My own attitude is that there are some things that would probably be best left out of the park at this stage of the game. The park can do a lot of things for a lot of people," he says. "[A rockery] is a type of landscaping that is, how shall we say it-English, and it may have been important to him-I'm not trying to demean what he did or anything like that. But it strikes me as maybe not being very central to what the park might mean to British Columbians."

Rothwell believes Stanley Park represents the struggle between nature and human intervention. He says nature should have its way, while acknowledging Stanley Park is punctuated with a few formal, highly structured elements.

"The Friends of Stanley Park have always

been against memorials. It might be possible to argue that this person was part of the park therefore it might be more legitimate than a type of memorial like putting up something to remember Herbert Hoover's visit," he says. "But in general terms, we opposed the AIDS memorial, we opposed virtually every monument. I've spoken personally against the Air India memorial, the women's memorial. We just think that parks should be left as parks."

Even a small plaque is too much for Rothwell. "I don't know how you feel about it, but when I walk down the seawall, it's almost like visiting a graveyard if you read the plaques. It's in memory of this, in memory of that, in memory of something else," he says. "At some point or another it represents privatization and our view of parks is that they are public spaces and to put something private into a public space is inappropriate."

The parks board is also unmoved by the rock garden story and Montgomery's efforts as a past employee. According to Jim Lowden, director of Stanley district for the parks board, past staff are typically not commemorated. Jim Cunningham, who built the seawall, and Bill Livingston, who built Queen Elizabeth Park and VanDusen gardens, are the only exceptions.

Both earned small plaques. Cunningham's is on a stone just above the seawall near Siwash, while Livingston's is in the quarry garden at Queen Elizabeth Park.

"We've scoured around and that's it. And both of those date back to the '60s when it was done," Lowden says. "It's just not the practice. The only people that tend to get their names spread around are the politicians. If you look at any of the opening plaques for anything, it's basically the elected board of the day."

The danger of singling staff out, even if they contributed a lot in their day, adds Lowden, is knowing when to stop. "If we start doing that, I could say without reservation there are 50 worthy souls at least who've made major contributions to the park system and we should start commemorating all of them, too."

Lowden isn't familiar with Montgomery or the rock garden, but points out Stanley Park has evolved. Only certain aspects are protected such as heritage buildings, the totem poles and attractions like the Ted and Mary Greig rhododendron garden, which was donated. "You wouldn't want to do away with that without some serious thought. And the entire forest itself is something we treat with kid gloves," he says.

He isn't surprised Montgomery's contribution virtually vanished. "The park is not a static entity. It tries to respond to every generation of users and each of those generations has slightly different interests and needs," Lowden says. "We try to respond to it, recognizing always that first and foremost the aspect of the park that's most important is the natural part."

Hay respects the opinions of Rothwell and Lowden, but he suspects neither are fully aware of the role the rock garden played in both Stanley Park and the city.

"Yes things come and go and we have to accept changes, but the past should still be remembered and celebrated along the way," he adds, stressing his effort to publicise the story is not out of self-interest, but out of an interest in local history and a desire to share it with Vancouverites.

"A memorial was not the intention of my proposal, but rather a plaque to identify the rock gardens as a historical site within the park and to note the close connection with the pavilion. I consider it a historical site because landscapes, according to the City of Vancouver, are historic sites just as much as buildings."

And if no plaque or restoration occurs, Hay is happy his great-grandfather's contribution has finally been documented. What began as a simple story involving his family became a quest to uncover an unknown chapter in Vancouver history.

"I'm really pleased to have finally put the story together," he says. "It took basically five years to fall together and slowly evolve, but in the end is was well worth every minute of it."

published on 08/18/2006

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