Saanich Archives tackles oral history project

Phyllis Roberts born in landmark house on Blenkinsop Road in 1917

A picnic in Saanich

A picnic in Saanich

On a sunny afternoon in August four years ago I drove along Blenkinsop Road looking for the turn off to the historic Mercer home. Built on land that William Mercer had purchased from Adam Glendinning in the early 1900s, the landmark house at 4366 Blenkinsop Rd. had been a wedding gift from Mercer to his son Robert, and bride Gertrude, in 1916.

It was Robert and Gertrude Mercer’s daughter, Phyllis Roberts, who I was scheduled to meet that afternoon.  Born in 1917, Phyllis had grown up on the family property, and in the 1970s had built her own home next door where she was still living in 2012.

Over the next two hours I listened to Phyllis’ recollections of growing up in Saanich in the 1920s. Her childhood was spent roaming over Mount Douglas, picking daffodils and playing with imaginary friends. “Oh they were great,” she told me. “They did everything I liked and they never argued with me.”

Phyllis showed me a number of items that had come from her childhood home:  a wooden egg carton with metal springs, milk tins from the Mercer dairy, and an iron that she often saw her mother using.  As I picked it up to feel the weight, Phyllis told me that her mother had ironed everything, heating two or three irons on the stove at once and swapping them as they cooled. Dresses, sheets, tablecloths, tea towels – everything was ironed.

Phyllis had attended Cedar Hill School and later Mount Douglas but was too independent to enjoy the structure and sedentary nature of the school day.  “My mother used to say that these would be the best days of my life,” she recalled. “I remember thinking that the rest must be pretty awful.”

The interview with Phyllis Roberts is one of more than 120 recorded interviews at Saanich Archives.

The project started in the late 1970s and the interviews were then recorded on cassette tapes. These tapes were digitized in 2008 for preservation and access purposes. Digital audio has been used to capture the interviews since 2007.

As well as interviews with longtime residents, the oral history collection features conversations with former elected officials and retired Saanich employees. The interviews provide an opportunity to document personal experiences that are often missing from written records, such as those of women in the workplace or the experiences of childhood.

There is a wisdom about the present that can be gained from listening to the elders in our community. In each oral history interview I have done, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to listen, ask questions, and to see the world through someone else’s experiences.

As I drove away from my meeting with Phyllis Roberts in 2012, I had a different perspective on Saanich. Now when I travel through the Blenkinsop Valley, I imagine Phyllis as a child in the 1920s, picking daffodils and exploring Mount Douglas.

Phyllis Roberts (nee Mercer) passed away in November 2015 at age 97. You can listen to her interview and other oral history recordings at Saanich Archives.

Caroline Duncan researches and writes about local history.  She is the archivist at Saanich Archives and Oak Bay Archives.