This article was originally written by Vern Wellburn for the VCCC Antique Chapter history on there pioneering members.
Gerry Wellburn, my father, was born in Yorkshire, England in 1900. Like many English schoolboys he was interested in trains. He was also active in the local stamp collectors club. His family emigrated to Victoria in 1911 where his father opened a grocery store.
Young Gerry was fascinated to learn that the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island had issued their own stamps before joining Canada in 1871. He immediately began collecting B. C. stamps and historical documents. He continued to add to this collection until the 1980’s when he had it photographed and then sold in an auction in Toronto.
After graduating from Victoria High School in 1916 he went to work for the CPR who sent him to Vernon as a wiper in the Locomotive shop. In 1918 he became ill with influenza and returned to Victoria to recuperate. During this time he helped with the Boy Scouts and joined the swimming club. Here he met Phil Foster (who later collected antique cars). He also met my mother and gave up thoughts of returning to Vernon to become a locomotive engineer.
Gerry got a job in the circulation department of the Victoria Times newspaper and in 1922, when on a sales trip to Courtenay, he was offered a job with the Gwilt Lumber Company. In 1928 he started his own sawmill and logging business in the Cowichan Valley. 1928 was not a good year to start a business! The mill was shut down and Gerry was out of work for many months in the early 30’s but by 1934 things had improved and “Wellburn Timbers” grew. In 1945 he sold the company to H.R.MacMillan and then stayed on as manager until he retired in 1963.
Gerry was active in community affairs and made friends with the young vice principal of the high school, Laurie Wallace. This friendship was to have a major impact on Gerry’s relationship with government in later years when Laurie became Provincial Secretary.
The early 1950’s were a period of great change in B.C. It was “out with the old and in with the new’. Because of the depression followed by the war companies could not afford to buy new equipment or it was not available so in 1950 many companies were operating obsolete 1920’ machines. This was particularly true in the forest industry. It was convert “rail to truck” and “steam to diesel” -- the scrap dealers had a bonanza! When Gerry saw his beloved locomotives being broken-up he became alarmed! “We are throwing away our heritage” he said. So he put his stamp collection on the shelf and started to collect everything: logging equipment, locomotives, trucks, buggies, farm tractors, fire engines, you name it!
In 1955 Gerry bought a three-foot gauge steam locomotive and when his friend, Bob Swanson, the inspector of railroads, said that it could be operated he laid some track to try it. This was the start of “Grandpa’s Railroad”. Many volunteers, including the Blackstaff brothers (Harry and Jim's father and uncle), Neil Brady-Browne and Dave Proctor came on the weekends to lay track and play with the equipment.
My family and I were living at Port Renfrew at the time and we would drive to Duncan on the weekends and stay overnight so that I could work on the railroad. On one of his visits to us Gerry spied a 1918 Federal Truck, “the Scrambola”. He found the owner and bought it. I arranged to have it shipped by rail to the camp where we were living and then with the help of one of the mechanics we got it running and gave the camp kids a ride. This was my first experience with antique vehicles.
In 1957 Gerry was told about the proposed vintage car run from Fernie to Victoria to celebrate the centennial of the founding of the colony of British Columbia. He purchased a 1924 model ‘T’ (he called it his 1921 honeymoon car). He also located a 1924 Morris Cowley for me. The run was a lot of fun and a great success! We met Quint and Hazel MacAdam, Paul and Rose Bolam, George Hoffman and Doris Cockle (they married later), Cliff Scroggie and many others. The Vintage Car Club was formed after the run and both Gerry and I joined.
My mother was enchanted with Art Fulawka’s yellow Packard on the run so she asked Phil Foster to find one for her. He located the 640 touring in Courtenay and bought it for Gerry who immediately had it painted yellow.
Phil Foster and Cliff Scroggie had collected cars and by 1960 they had about 15 of them, mostly antiques. It was Phil’s ambition to have a car museum, but when he became ill in 1962 he was forced to consider selling them. Several Americans were interested but Phil wanted them to stay in Canada. He contacted Gerry and as a result he and I bought Phil’s share of the collection. Gerry got the 1912 Hupmobile, 1902 Holley, 1911 Stanley, 1909 McLaughlin, 1912 Detroit Electric, 1911 Mitchell, 1907 Model N Ford: and I got the 1912 McLaughlin and 1910 Russell. The 1912 Ford (Elizabeth) went to the Provincial Museum.
By 1963 “Grandpa's Railroad” was out of control! He had over a mile of track and a “city” of storage sheds on his 12-acre property. It was a private collection and did not have the facilities to service the 100 or more visitors who would show-up on a weekend. With the help of his good friend Laurie Wallace, the B.C. Forest Service and the local community, the beautiful piece of property on Somenos Lake, north of Duncan, was obtained and the collection was moved and taken over by the Cowichan Valley Forest Museum Society. The car collection was not included in the transfer. Gerry Wellburn worked as an unpaid volunteer Manager for 12 years to get the Forest Museum started.
In 1966 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the joining of the colonies of Vancouver Island and B.C. and in 1967 we celebrated the centennial of Canada. Laurie Wallace was in charge of events and with advice from Gerry arranged for the government to sponsor a provincial run in each year. Gerry drove his 1921 ?? model T and I drove the Russell. He loaned the Mitchell to a friend for the first run and the Stanley and Detroit Electric to others for the second one.
In the early 1970’s Hall McKenzie of Duncan sold his oil business and then sold real estate part time. Hall was a vintage car enthusiast and he worked with Gerry at the Forest Museum to try to raise money to build a car museum in Duncan. Sadly for them and luckily for me they were unsuccessful. Hall was undaunted and when he heard of the proposal to have a worlds fair in Vancouver he convinced the government to start a car collection as an attraction for the event. The wonderful collection he amassed didn’t fit the Expo theme but it became the major exhibit in the transportation museum in Cloverdale. After a political controversy this museum was closed and the cars auctioned. None of the cars, carriages and trucks, sold or given to Cloverdale by Gerry and me were in the auction and they are now scattered in museums throughout B.C.
In 1975 a Mrs. King donated her husband's truck collection to the Provincial government. King had owned a trucking business in Vancouver and when he had a dispute with his employees in the 1940’s he had simply closed the door of his warehouse. Some of the trucks were like new. Laurie Wallace asked Bob Swanson and Gerry to form a committee to advise the government on what to do with this donation. As a result a truck museum was formed and located in a warehouse in Richmond. The trucks were later transferred to Cloverdale and after the auction they were given to the Teamsters Union for their museum in Chilliwack.
Gerry was a collector and artist. He was interested in display; he was not a mechanic. In 1973 I suggested that if he gave me the Holley I would fix it up (not that I am a mechanic) and we would take it to England to the “London to Brighton Run”. This turned out to be the first of many of our great adventures with the cars. We drove the 1912 McLaughlin to an International tour in Calgary, took the Stanley on several one-and-two cylinder tours, completed the Malahat Challenge and took the Packard on many May Tours.
Gerry Wellburn died in 1992. He had a wonderful life; he contributed greatly to the preservation of B.C. history and to the Vintage Car hobby --- and he had a lot of fun doing it.