Shirley Blackstaff remembers being nine years old and having an interest in history as she explored a woodworking shop on a farm where her father worked as the gardener.
“Up in the attic there were all these interesting artifacts from Tibet that belonged to the lady who owned the property, things she didn’t want because she kept all the good stuff for her house, so I asked her if I could have them and she said sure,” Blackstaff said.
“I was so proud of them as a kid, might have even given some away, but I still have them today.”
The Ladysmith resident was recently honoured at Heritage BC’s 36th annual awards gala event in Vancouver as the recipient of the Distinguished Service Award.
Blackstaff has been a tireless advocate for the history of the waterfront through her work as the volunteer curator with the Ladysmith Maritime Society (LMS) – promoters of local maritime and industrial heritage.
“There was a need for this and being a teacher I like to teach people things,” she said.
Her latest work is what’s been unofficially dubbed by volunteers, including husband Harry, as the Heritage Park Site, where those working under the umbrella of the Ladysmith & District Historical Society are repairing rail ties to move a steam train back into the original locomotive repair shop.
“It’s very unique. It looks very rustic and I think it has a real feel for what we’re doing,” she said, adding that her interest in the project doesn’t lie so much with the train itself but the heritage of the marina.
“I think you get a sense of respect for what people have done in the past and appreciate the old tools and the hard work that they had to do.”
Blackstaff grew up in Duncan and she moved to Ladysmith after accepting her first teaching job here.
Over the course of her career she instructed Kindergarten to Grade 7 and her passion for inspiring others through education has transferred into volunteer efforts with the LMS.
Managing Director of the society Rod Smith said Blackstaff is a“life force” whose efforts have contributed greatly to a unique experience for locals and visitors.
“The work that Shirley does serves us well by providing visitors with the opportunity to learn more about the community,” he said.
“It makes it an exciting destination not just a stopover.”
Under Blackstaff’s leadership, LMS has built a Harbour Heritage Centre, the Heritage Vessels & Maritime Museum and most recently the Sea Life Centre.
Children who come on school visits are treated to boat tours, education on the Purple Martin Recovery Colony and even assemble and paint a small wooden boat they can take home.
“The teachers love it. They say it’s the best field trip they’ve ever had,” Blackstaff said.
“Taking the children around on the field trip is easy and it’s fun for me. I tell them stories and it brings them right into it.”
Volunteers have been integral to the success of all three facilities and she enjoys curating, collecting artifacts and designing the displays.
She’s also assisted in the editing and writing of several books geared toward educating youth and even adults about Ladysmith’s waterfront and the smelter, coal, forest, fishing and oyster industries.
“We’re trying to make education books for every industry of the harbour,” she said, the last of which on the oyster industry by Myf Plecas is expected to be published in the very near future.
“Then the children can read them and the teachers can teach it and they can learn about their own local history because we don’t really have that many local history books for children.”
Asked how Ladysmith compares to other places on Vancouver Island in preserving its heritage, Blackstaff credits the work of the B.C. Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan but said she sees potential for Ladysmith too.
“I think we’re just starting,” she said. “We’ve got a long way to go and I need more helpers.”
Rob Johnson helped in spearheading the effort to gather letters of support from the community, including Smith and Mayor Aaron Stone, for the Heritage BC nomination.
“Her primary drive is to help educate people and to share experiences,” he said.
“Without the work that her and Harry are doing and coercing other people we would have lost so much.”
Outside of volunteer efforts in the community, Shirley and Harry are fond of restoring a Züst made famous after finishing third in the 1908 Great Race: New York to Paris.
They acquired it by chance and it’s all the more rarer considering the first and second place vehicles are in museums.
Blackstaff even tracked down a copy of journalist Antonio Scarfoglio’s account, complete with pictures, of travelling along in the car.
It helped her and Harry take a memorable journey across the U.S. with the Züst for the 100th anniversary, where they found several of the points referenced by Scarfoglio.
Blackstaff has also authored a book about the car but left out the story about when they went to Vancouver to pick it up.
“We were walking down an alley and there was a small fire right next to this shed. Harry had a fire extinguisher in his truck and put it out but that was the shed the Züst was in so we stopped it from burning.”