Over 100 Years in Bloom! The tale of Robert and Jennie Butchart

By Norman K Archer

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In 1824, Edward Aspdin, an English bricklayer from Northfleet in Kent, was granted a patent for the process of making a new and durable mortar. He called his creation “Portland Cement” because it resembled the stone that was quarried on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. It was this new building material that captured the imagination of a canny Scot from Ontario named Robert Pym Butchart.

Born in Owen Sound, Ontario in 1856, Robert was one of George MacLauchlan Butchart’s 11 children. A few years before Robert was born, his parents and older siblings had moved from Forfar, not far from Dundee in eastern Scotland, to open a hardware store. Robert grew naturally into the hardware business.

At age 27, he met a charming 18-year-old Irish colleen named Jeanette Foster Kennedy and his destiny underwent a dramatic change.

Jennie was always the adventuress. She loved ballooning, flying, horseback riding and painting. They were married in Buffalo, but it was on their honeymoon in England that Robert was introduced to the manufacturing process of Portland cement and, encouraged by his visionary bride, he saw the enormous potential the substance would have in Canada. Assisted by his brother David, they pioneered refinements, including the storing and shipping of cement in sacks instead of the barrels that everyone else used. The enthusiastic Jennie studied chemistry so that she could be an integral part of the process.

In 1903, Bob Butchart heard of huge deposits of powdery white limestone, ideal for cement production, on Vancouver Island. Since Owen Sound was fast gaining an unsavoury reputation, he and Jennie felt it was not the right kind of environment to rear their two daughters, Jenny and Mary. So, when the old Fernie farm around the Tod Inlet came on the market, Bob Butchart jumped at the chance to buy it along with the surrounding acres of limestone deposits.

By 1904, the Vancouver Island Portland Cement Company was in full production with himself as Managing Director and a 26-year-old newcomer from Ontario, Harry Ross, as treasurer. Thirteen years later, Harry married Bob’s young daughter, Jenny. Harry’s premature death in 1930 ended the 14-year marriage. The couple’s 12-year-old son, Ian, was destined to become the man to bring his grandmother’s garden into world prominence.

At first, Bob was nervous that the demand for cement would not be great enough for the supply. He need not have worried. Builders on the Island and in Vancouver bought it by the ton, and the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 drove up the price. As architects dreamed up ways to make buildings taller, so the demand for cement grew.

But Jennie was concerned. She was happy in their little three-room cottage, but the cement works was spoiling her outlook. “You’re ruining the country, Bob, just to get your old cement,” she complained.

She would be the first to admit that she knew nothing about gardening, apart from scattering a few sweet-pea seeds around her cottage door, but little by little, the gardening bug bit her.

She took the piles of clay and sand left over from the cement processing and moulded them into the gentle slopes that now form the Upper Garden. She transformed the rough farm pasture into tennis courts and lawns. Then she gave her attention to the rugged slope that ran down to the wharf. Japanese gardens were becoming fashionable. Hatley Castle had one, designed by a reputable landscape architect, so why couldn’t she? Jennie hired his services, but put her own stamp on the design. She erected the red lacquered gate and planted two copper beech trees at the entrance - two of the oldest trees in the garden - and was fortunate enough to encourage the rare Tibetan Blue Poppy to flourish there, as it does to this day. “Butchart’s Gardens” was on its way.

But the old quarry vexed Jennie the most. The three-and-a-half acre eye-sore left by her husband’s huge production venture was soon abandoned since the limestone being harvested from the site was no longer of good enough quality for Portland cement. She had tried with some success to screen the cement works from her house by a row of Lombardy poplars that she planted in 1910 and are still there today, although they’ve surpassed their normal lifespan.

The quarry itself was littered with old, rusty abandoned tools and machinery, debris was everywhere, rough jagged rocks were scattered around and it was waterlogged - a disaster area. With the help and advice from several experts and friends, Jennie set to work. Pipes drained the water to a huge catch basin, which became the lake for the Ross Fountain. Cartloads of rich black topsoil were hauled in from neighbouring farms; the horses had enormous problems, coping with the mud. The story has it that Jennie herself was lowered by the Chinese workers in a basketwork bos’n’s chair, dangling 50 feet in mid-air to plant the ivy that still grows in the rock face of the Sunken Garden.  The first tearoom was perched above the southeast rim.

Jennie’s greatest delight was to entertain visitors who enjoyed her gardens. She wanted people to appreciate the beauty of her flowers, not to peer for names, so the Gardens have, for the most part, respected her wishes and not labelled the plants. She was a hands-on gardener and on one occasion, while dressed in her old work clothes, two visitors, thinking she was a paid worker, plied her with questions, which she happily answered. As they left, they offered her a tip.  “Oh, no thank you,” she said, “the Old Lady wouldn’t like it!”

And then there was the occasion when a visiting group was enjoying tea and, ever the gracious hostess, seeing two ladies seated at a table, Jennie walked over, smiling and said, “May I sit with you?” “Certainly not!” they replied, not recognizing her, “there’s an empty table - go and sit there!”

Jenny was always happy when people visited her gardens. There was no protocol. You parked your car and wandered through the gardens, staying as long as you liked. She had one firm rule. Everyone was to leave by sunset. She was most annoyed when she and Bob arrived home late one night to see a car still parked on the property. “I will teach this person a lesson he’ll not forget,” she said.  They were woken up early next morning by a commotion outside. Her gardener was complaining loudly that someone had flattened all the tires of his new car while he was hard at work through the night hours. Jennie never let on.

When Jennie died just before Christmas in 1950, seven years after her husband, Victoria was robbed of a beautiful woman. But her legacy of beauty lives on to the delight of the millions of visitors who have stood awe-inspired at the accomplishment of her vision, over 100 years in bloom.

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Showing 1 to 3 of 3 comments.

This is the best historical account I have found of the gardens. I spent 2 weeks on a farm near the Butchart Gardens and almost didn't go. I'm so glad I went. Spectacular!

Posted by Ruth (Phoenix, AZ) | July 17, 2016 Report Violation

My husband and I had the pleasure of touring the Butchart Gardens in July 2013.We left in awe.It was so beautiful.I wish I could go every year anbd see that magnificent place.

Posted by Sharon Bland | July 22, 2013 Report Violation

A wonderful and fascinating account of the gardens' history! Thank you so much! I was lucky enough to visit them last Summer (2009) and to have Norman as a tour guide! It was a memorable day, to say they least and that memory will stay with me for a long time! Bless you, Norman. Our loss was Victoria's gain!

Janie (Chichester, Uk)

Posted by Janie | April 9, 2010 Report Violation

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