This is a tale of two Helens, Dawe and McCall, and their crucial role in preserving the history of the Sunshine Coast. Helen Dawe, a WWII navy veteran, spent 18 years gathering an impressive array of materials that cover the years 1870 to 1983. Helen McCall, a single mother, photographed the Coast and its inhabitants creating postcards to sell to locals and tourists, and in so doing, became one of the Coast’s most important chroniclers from the 1920s to 1940s.
The Helen Dawe Collection is housed in a small room at the back of the Sechelt Public Library. Ann Watson, archivist for the Sechelt Community Archives, is dwarfed by the amount of material that surrounds her. There are over 5,000 images being stored here, not including the maps, charts, documents, books and newspaper clippings that comprise the Dawe collection. Helen kept meticulous notes which accompany much of the materials she collected, those notes often containing the smallest bits of information and detail. “Anything she says you can guarantee that it is factually accurate,” says Watson. Moving to Sechelt upon retiring from the Vancouver Pubic Library, and without a family of her own to raise, Watson says Dawe “devoted her time just to preserving the history of Sechelt. She was married to her archives.”
At the Sunshine Coast Museum and Archives in Gibsons, there are over 1600 photographs in the Helen McCall Collection. McCall grew up in West Howe Sound and learned photography in Vancouver in 1916, not exactly an ordinary thing for a woman to do in those days. She also had to learn to develop her photographs in a darkroom without electricity and running water, spending many hours carefully exposing her prints to daylight. Matthew Lovegrove, Curator and Manager of the Museum, finds McCall’s story remarkable and her contribution to the archives unique. “I think that Helen’s photography is special because her spirit is infused into her photography,” he says. “In many of the images, you can feel the connection that she had with the people and places of the Sunshine Coast.” She photographed every aspect of life on the Coast: public and private functions, dances, concerts, regattas, sports meets and picnics.
Both Watson and Lovegrove agree that archives are important to a community’s identity. “Archives are crucial in documenting the heritage of the Sunshine Coast as they provide first hand evidence of people, places and events,” says Lovegrove. Thanks to the two Helens, and the archives, the Sunshine Coast’s history is in good hands.
By Arts Columnist Anna Nobile