A trip to Downtown Oyster Bay in 1974 would inevitably have meant a visit to the Driftwood Dining Lounge. Praised for its excellent homestyle cooking, it was a popular truck and dining stop south of Willow Point.
Today it is the only visual reminder of what used to be a very busy place.
The Driftwood began as the Blue Grouse cafe in 1946, then in 1968 was purchased by Bill and Elinor Coward. Their daughter Marcia Wilson said her parents worked hard to improve the restaurant’s reputation. They were determined to keep the restaurant open year round and her father’s goal was to entice truckers using the Island Highway to stop in. In those years, the coastal Island Highway was the only one that ran north and south on Vancouver Island. Coward would ensure that trucks could enter the parking lot even after the worst snow storms. He put a piece of plywood on the front of his truck and would plough all the snow clear.
Coward knew his clientele. As a newspaper man wrote in the Entertainer in 1974 – “If the truckers stop – the food is good.”
Oddly enough, this was the Cowards’ first venture into the food business. As friend and writer Arthur Mayse said; “They took a frightening plunge… but Up-Islanders have this habit of biting off more than they can chew and managing somehow to handle it.”
Elinor told him that they didn’t know anything about restaurant cooking when they started out, but just cooked as they did for themselves and their children. Their formula worked, and while husband Bill was away working at Upland Excavating to support the restaurant, Elinor and the staff were building a reputation for good food and pleasant surroundings. A restaurant critic gave the following description in the Entertainer of February 1974:
“The licensed dining room in the Driftwood has the atmosphere of a country inn with the panelled wood walls, the grandfather clock and fireplace flanked with a gigantic dieffenbachia.” He also went on to rave about the food, noting that the restaurant specialized in seafood.
“The plate was heaped with prawns in crispy batter, breaded oysters which were huge and juicy, tender scallops and cod in batter.” And like many customers, he completed his meal with homemade pie, that daughter Marcia said was a speciality of her grandmother’s.
The restaurant by this time had 38 staff and Marcia described it as a ‘happening place’. But it took a few years to get it to that point. One of their biggest challenges in the early years was providing enough water for the restaurant. Marcia remembers her father filling garbage cans full of water from an outside pump to meet the needs of the restaurant for cooking, cleaning and consumption. Finally, in 1971, they were able to put in a drilled well and plumbing, and no longer needed to haul water. They also had a gas pump installed, sold ice cream from an old fuel shed, and added on a 13 seat cocktail lounge that her father named the K444, after one of the ships that had formed the Oyster Bay breakwater.
Most of the breakwater had been taken apart by 1956, but the K444 was there into the late 1970s, and Marcia’s father had salvaged some mementos from it for his lounge.
The idea for the breakwater came from Alfred Simpson, who had purchased the land for the purpose of logging in the early 1940s and soon found that the fierce southeast storms that blew in winter were tossing logs in all directions. The first ship to arrive was the St Paul in 1942, a three masted sailing ship. Then he added a couple more.
However, it wasn’t very effective as the ships weren’t stable and shifted around, and the bay still wasn’t protected. Locals nicknamed the breakwater ‘Simpson’s Folly’. In 1944, HR MacMillan took over the logging operations, named the business Iron River Logging and brought in more than one hundred houses to accommodate workers and families. MacMillan also brought in more vessels and stabilized the breakwater.
Included in the breakwater were the destroyer Burns, the Union Steamship steamer Lady Pam, the Consolidated Whaling Company tender Gray, the Island Tug and Barge Company’s barges Drumwall and Betsey Ross, the San Francisco car ferry Golden Bear, the steam freighter Chatham, and freighter Border Queen, the tug Cape Scott, and two naval vessels, HMCS Levis (K400) and HMCS Matane (K444).
For the full story on the breakwater, read Rick James’ fascinating account that forms part of the temporary exhibit ‘Rust in Peace’ at the Museum at Campbell River.