How B.C.’s first dairy co-op defined downtown Duncan

The Cowichan Creamery Co-op supported rural farmers for almost a century.

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At the corner of Duncan Street and Queens Road in downtown Duncan, there’s a hidden history of the Cowichan region’s rise as a hub for agriculture and farming through the 20th century. 

And the product that made Cowichan food famous? It was butter. 

That was the site of the Cowichan Creamery Co-op, the first dairy co-operative in British Columbia. The enterprise was key to Duncan’s economic prosperity, especially for rural farmers, says Kathryn Gagnon, curator of the Cowichan Valley Museum & Archives. 

Prior to the co-op, farmers in Duncan worked independently from each other and used different butter-making methods. This made the quality irregular, and farmers also had difficulty reaching markets. 

A network of farmers decided that creating a dairy cooperative would improve their businesses. Through establishing a co-op, farmers could pool resources together and set a uniform standard for Cowichan butter. By sharing profits and losses, a cooperative would also give them more financial security. 

They established the Cowichan Creamery Co-op in 1895 and opened for business a year later. It ran for more than 70 years and was the first dairy cooperative west of Ontario. 

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“They could finally have consistency in the quality and Cowichan became famous for the butter that they produced,” says Gagnon. Farmers would take their milk to the co-op and the in-house butter-makers would churn butter to a signature quality. They eventually set a standard for high-quality dairy products.

Products were transported all over the province, with over 47,000 pounds of butter shipped out in the co-op’s first year. The Creamery later expanded to other ventures such as grading eggs, producing feed and repairing farm equipment. 

“It helped set the rhythm for rural life in Duncan,” says Gagnon. “When you think of rural life and all the people working independently, it really made an impression in terms of organizing for both quality and the delivery of products.”

The location at Duncan Street was chosen due to its proximity to the coldwater spring needed for washing butter. The building was also constructed at a prime location at the heart of the downtown core, a hub of economic activity. It was just northeast of the Duncan train station, making it accessible for many businesspeople who passed through. 

“There were many factors as to why Duncan was experiencing a boom, but certainly the creamery was one,” says Gagnon. “It was providing food and shipping it off among the growing population in B.C.”

What happened to the Cowichan creamery?

Three major fires swept the creamery after it was built, Gagnon says. The buildings caught fire in 1910 and 1946, and was rebuilt each time. The co-op was an economic driver and well worth the cost of repairs. Like other buildings in Downtown Duncan at the time, the creamery was constructed with wood, making it vulnerable to fire. 

“People who have lived here for many years will remember some of those incidents that happened with the fires,” says Gagnon. 

The Duncan creamery succumbed to a third  fire in April of 1968. After that, the creamery relocated away from the downtown core. The cooperative became inactive in the 1970s and dissolved in 1988, Gagnon says. 

The Caprice Duncan theatre was built in the Creamery’s place in the 1980s. Gagnon says, “When I go to the theatre, I think of all the activity and all of the economy that was created because of that creamery.”  [end]

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