Ucluelet Celebrates George Fraser Days
Sidney, British Columbia
Joseph Gable, the dean of all American rhododendron growers, wrote twenty years after George Fraser's death, "So both I and those who grow the varieties of rhododendrons I have concocted and disseminated owe a debt we can not figure in dollars and cents to the kindly advice and generosity of my old friend George Fraser."
On May 29, 2004, many of Fraser's admirers gathered in Ucluelet, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island to celebrate the 150th anniversary of this rhododendron pioneer's birth. Among the many rhododendron people to attend were Her Honor Iona Campagnolo, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, and Mike Stewart, president of the American Rhododendron Society, who drove up from his home in Oregon. When he came to Victoria, B.C., from Port Angeles in Washington he still had a five-hour drive before he arrived at Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
The George Fraser Committee organized a lovely lunch which was sold out, and both Her Honor and Mike Stewart gave speeches honoring George Fraser. The luncheon and other festivities were exceptionally well organized by Wanda McAvoy and her small number of committee members.
Her Honor was presented with two plants, Rhododendron 'Fiona Christie' and a plant of the Fraseri Group, both of which she has had planted in the garden at Government House in Victoria. These are in a prominent place among the rhododendrons, some of which are nearly a century old.
It was especially nice to see this old pioneer recognized by the American Rhododendron Society and Mike Stewart. It was in 1991 that Fraser was posthumously awarded the ARS Pioneer Achievement Award, a very rarely given award.
Fraser had died in 1944 while World War II still raged on in Europe, and few paid any attention to his passing. When he was being carried from his house to a waiting speedboat, which would take him to the hospital in Port Alberni, he said to his friend Bud Thompson, "I don't know where I'm going to end up, but it doesn't matter as I've had my heaven here on earth." He died peacefully two days later. He was buried in the Ucluelet cemetery and the location was duly noted, but no marker was placed. His body lay in this unmarked gravesite for the next forty-five years ignored by all.
In 1990, three of us decided that this old pioneer should not be forgotten. Stuart Holland, former chief geologist of the province of British Columbia, Frances Gundry, an archivist with the provincial archives of British Columbia in Victoria, and myself undertook the task of researching the life and work of George Fraser. Not only has this been an interesting task but has resulted in George Fraser receiving some well-earned credit.
The author Bill Dale and ARS President
Mike Stewart at the George Fraser Memorial.
Photo courtesy of Bill Dale
The Lions Club of Ucluelet saw to it that his grave was fixed up and that a concrete marker and a headstone with his name was put in place. Wanda McAvoy has seen that fresh rhododendron trusses are put in place here each May.
A bronze plaque was put in place on a yellow cedar log on Peninsula Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Ucluelet.
A park was renamed the "George Fraser Memorial Park," and it is here near the waterfront and near where his home was located where the Lions Club of Ucluelet placed a large monument in his honor.
These are but a few of the belated acknowledgements to this pioneer's recognition.
George Fraser's Scottish Roots
In 1871, George Fraser started on a life in which he would be recognized for his achievements worldwide. It was that year when he got his first job as a 17-year old lad at Christies Nursery in Fochabers Scotland. One hundred and thirty-one years later he would be recognized when the Fochabers fiddlers came to Victoria, B.C., in 2002. They played a musical tribute to this old pioneer in Beacon Hill Park where the Fraser stone is located. It was here where the band played, and their featured dancer, Fiona Christie, danced a Scottish dance as a tribute to the man.
In 1948 a seedling rhododendron had been found in Fraser's old garden at Ucluelet. It was dug up and taken to Victoria where it has grown ever since. Cuttings were taken of this plant and are growing well. The plant was named 'Fiona Christie' and the name registered with the American Rhododendron Society.
In 2002, Fiona Christie was given rooted cuttings of 'Fiona Christie' which she took back to Scotland and which are now growing happily in her grandparents' garden some 131 years after George Fraser had worked there.
There is a group of volunteers who are seeing that Fraser is not lost in history. This group, the George Fraser Project Committee, has planted over 200 rhododendrons along the road leading into Ucluelet and around the "Welcome to Ucluelet" sign. One of the featured plants at this sign is that of Rhododendron 'Caroline Gable', named by Fraser's old friend Joe Gable.
In 1948, a Victoria, British Columbia, fisherman by the name of Grossmith went up the west coast of Vancouver Island, taking his bride along. They stopped at the village of Ucluelet where they went ashore and visited the abandoned site of George Fraser’s nursery. Fraser had died in 1944 after having lived in Ucluelet for fifty years. He had been the first foreman under John Blair when Beacon Hill Park in Victoria was built in 1889. Fraser had heard that Ucluelet had an ideal climate for growing rhododendrons and azaleas, two species of plants in which he was especially interested, and moved to Ucluelet in 1894.
While looking around the abandoned garden the Grossmiths noticed a small rhododendron seedling growing among some other rhododendrons. They dug it up and took it with them when they returned to Victoria where they planted it in their garden.
I heard about this plant some fifty years later and went to see it when it bloomed. It was by then about 5 feet (1.5 m) tall and 5 feet wide. I was impressed by the bright red trusses on this plant and was given permission to take several cuttings. I also took a description of the foliage and blooms and later registered the name I was to give it, 'Fiona Christie', with the American Rhododendron Society which, along with the Royal Horticultural Society, keeps the registration records.
In 2000, the high school band from Fochabers, Scotland, visited Victoria. I took the bandleader, James Alexander, and their featured dancer, Fiona Christie, to Beacon Hill Park to see a group of rhododendrons that had been planted by George Fraser in 1889. These plants are still thriving near Fountain Lake in the park. There is a small stone near Fountain Lake in honor of George Fraser. Fiona’s grandfather contributed to the cost of installing this monument.
When George Fraser had started his career in 1871 he had worked for one of Fiona‘s ancestors at Christies Nursery in Fochabers. In 2002, the Fochabers Fiddlers returned to Victoria and after a reception at city hall, visited Beacon Hill Park where the band played and Fiona danced as a tribute to George Fraser.
The cuttings of 'Fiona Christie' had rooted and, after an inspection by Agriculture Canada and obtaining a phytosanitary certificate, I gave a couple of them to Fiona when she returned to Fochabers where they are growing happily today.
Bill Dale is a member of the Cowichan Valley Chapter.