A while back, some good friends of mine moved into the little red house at 821 Keefer Street. It was a charming little house with a nice back yard, with plenty of potential for a garden. My friends had plans to convert part of the main floor into a studio; one of them was an artist.
To help celebrate their move, I undertook a study of the history of their old house and gave it took them as a housewarming gift. There were about ten houses included in the study. Later, there was an opportunity to be interviewed about my work by the Vancouver Courier and I asked a number of clients and house history recipients if they would mind being interviewed. My artist friend was one of those who said yes.
Some weeks after the Courier article came out, my friend was contacted by Norah M., the great niece of Harvie Robertson, the carpenter who built the house. I was thrilled to know that there was family still around and asked my friend to ask if there might be any photos of the builder and his family. Norah very kindly invited me over to her home on the North Shore. There she showed me a number of photos of the builder and his strikingly beautiful wife, Hattie. She even showed me pictures of Harvie’s old carpentry tools. Her brother owned them. Norah and I talked about how those tools might have actually been used by Harvie to build his house at 821 Keefer.
Over the next weeks Norah was able to send me scans of the photos I had seen, and here’s the treasure part I alluded to earlier. Norah told me that her brother was not attached to the tools in the photo and that he had expressed interest in selling them, possibly at a garage sale. He heart leapt in my throat. I croaked, “How much does he want for them? I am interested if I can afford them.” Long story short, a few weeks later, I was the very proud and awed owner of a set of beautifully made hand-crafted carpenter’s planes of a variety of sizes.
I treasure these tools. They are a tangible link to the pioneer folk who built my neighbourhood. Over the years clients have given me an antique whiskey bottle found under the floors of a miner’s cabin on the 800-block of Dunlevy. I was even given a cleaver and a nasty looking tool with many nails sticking out of it used by Chinese butchers to move pig carcasses hanging on tracks downstairs at a sausage factory on the 700 block of East Pender. But Harvie’s tools will always have a special place in my heart.
Over the last month or so, I have guided a number of history walking tours through my neighbourhood, Vancouver’s old East End. And whenever the tour stops in front of 821 Keefer, I take out the two largest of Harvie’s planes and show them to the group. I think Harvie would be pleased with the looks of awe and admiration his tools receive from the people on the tour. I know I am.
An Overview of the History of 821 Keefer.
Ontario-born carpenter Harvie Robertson built 821 Keefer in 1900 shortly after he moved to Vancouver from Ontario via the United States in. He built the house without a proper cement foundation. Like many house builders in the neighbourhood at the time, he laid out logs in a row on the ground, trimmed them, and built the house on top of them.
The 1901 Canada census indicates that Harvie made $600.00 a year working as a carpenter. Prior to that he had owned a business in the unit block of East Cordova Street where he and his partner sold tents and awnings to prospectors leaving for the Klondyke Gold Rush. (See photo above). By the time Harvie got around to building his Keefer Street home most of the lots in the immediate vicinity had already been developed. The occupants of the neighbouring houses were mostly British or Canadian born, but included a sprinkling of Newfoundlanders, Americans, and a bit later, some Scandinavians.
In 1910, a Japanese family moved in to 828 Keefer, across the street, and in 1911 a Russian family moved into 800 Keefer. The first Italian family to move in to the immediate neighbourhood arrived in 1915. It’s interesting to see that even in the boom years of 1908 through 1910 that the house next door at 827 Keefer stood empty for a full three years.