The Chicken Coop
Mac and Irene McGregor's backyard hen house stood on stilts on the steep hillside that is Fraserview, overlooking the railway tracks and the muddy Fraser River, which separates the South Vancouver community from the farms of Richmond (formerly Lulu Island). Access to the barn was via a door at the top of a short flight of stairs. The interior was plain with simple wooden tables and chairs, crude washrooms (think: buckets, not toilets) and a small bar.
It is not known how Mac provided music for the parties. He may have wired it into The Coop from his living room sound system or he may have built a small DJ booth as part of the dance hall's bar. Either way, the music was played loudly, the beer flowed and the neighbours recall the police and ambulance attending on more than one occasion. Shindigs ended with a mass exodus of cars grinding their gears up the short, unpaved stretch of Elliott Street to the welcoming plateau of a two-lane Marine Drive.
A small cover charge was sometimes collected and guests who didn't BYOB could usually buy a bottle from Mac, which, under the strict liquor laws of the day, made The Coop a boozecan and McGregor a bootlegger.
Thelma Brown's late husband Orville grew up across the tracks from the McGregors' in a riverside squatter's shack. Orv was also Mac's step-brother. Thelma recalls attending parties at The Coop and the floor sagging and bouncing during waltzes, polkas and the odd Schottische (a slower, step-hop move that originated in Bohemia and made its way to B.C. via Scandinavia and the prairies.)
Fraser Valley guitarist Ernie Straiton played with the Vancouver country outfit Hobo Hank and the Sons of the Delta through the 1950's. He attended a handful of jam sessions at The Coop, but has no recollection of Loretta Lynn ever being there. He knew the future Queen of Country through his good friends in Lynden, Washington: John and Marshall Penn and Roland Smiley. The Penn brothers were the nucleus of The Westerneers, the band that Loretta joined before she formed her own unit: The Trailblazers.
Straiton, a BC Country Music Association Hall of Famer, went with John Penn to see Loretta's movie, Coal Miner's Daughter when it was released in 1980. He remembers the pair howled with laughter at the film's wild inaccuracies.
As for The Coop, it was a "rat hole" according to Ernie. He fondly recollects, "It was an off-scene kind of place. I'd get there and fight for a parking space and then hide my gear so no booger would steal it." (In those days, the section of Kent Avenue at the foot of Elliott Street was a stubby little dog leg that did not extend West and terminated quickly as one headed East.)
Chuck Mackenzie was raised in a house on Harrison Drive, up the hill from The Coop. His family liked music and his parents hosted Sunday country jams in their basement that featured many of the same pickers who played at The Coop. He also attended some gatherings at the chicken shack, but not the ones Loretta played. "I tried to get in to see her, but the place was full." He recalls that the McGregors whitewashed the barn inside and out, which gave the joint a fairly clean look.
Mackenzie's buddy, Gord Lundy is a guitarist who used to tour with some of The Coop musicians and his memory of the place is that the room had the foul odour of poultry.
The McGregors sold the property circa 1971 and Mac offered his audio gear to Thelma Brown's son, Brian, who would later play rhythm guitar for the Vancouver rock group Foot Lucy. Mac's sound equipment, which had been state-of-the-art in the early 50's was, by the 1970's, looking a bit Edison-esque. Brian declined the offer, but his sister Wendy still owns a keepsake from the couple – her first-generation Barbie dolls sport clothes sewn by Irene.
In the early 1970's, John Widman bought The Chicken Coop property and some land to the east of it, subdivided the parcels and built five Vancouver Specials (inexpensive, roomy, two-storey, shoebox-shaped homes that were popular with the city's working class at that time.) Widman, almost certainly unaware of the aviary's role in hatching Loretta's career, likely demolished The Coop because it straddled the newly created property lines. He may also have viewed the structure as an eye sore.
It is puzzling that the developer chose not to raze the McGregors' tiny, 1949 bungalow and build a sixth new home for his project. Perhaps Widman ran out of money or maybe he developed an affinity for the cute abode which today affords passersby a glimpse of what life was like along the river 70 years ago.
The only photo known to exist of The Chicken Coop is a circa 1961 aerial shot of the lower reaches of Elliott Street. The image was taken from a plane flying over east Richmond, looking back across the Fraser River. Originally shot in black and white, the picture was hand colour tinted to brighten the landscape. In the centre foreground of the frame is the tugboat and barge company North Arm Transportation, which continues to operate today at that location with the framed image hanging in the reception area. Gino Stradiotti, one of the company's principals, is the grandson of the first Stradiotti, also named Gino, who settled in the neighbourhood in 1920. Gino Jr. says the photo was sold to his father and uncles who ran the tugboat business that was originally known as Stradiotti Bros. The photographer is not known, but some have suggested it may have been the prolific B.C. aerial shutterbug George Allen.
Regardless of who snapped the pic, it is an amazing historical document because it illustrates the community at a crucial point in its evolution from an area dominated by farms, fishing and forest products to the residential district it is today. The photo's background is filled with 1,100 new homes that were part of a 1950's, federally funded development to house war veterans and their families. The subdivision was officially called Fraserview, but was also referred to as The Working Man's Shaughnessy because its curving streets resembled the city's toney, old-monied neighbourhood of Shaughnessy. Another nickname for the subdivision was Diaperville, because so many of its new residents were the product of the post-WW II baby boom. The soccer fields visible at the top right of the photo and the long, low building (Sir William Osler Elementary) in front of them, were created for that demographic spike.
The newly laid streets were named after famous golf courses, a nod to the 280-acre Fraserview Golf Course, visible on the right middle ground of the photo. The golf course, like the subdivision that would later borrow its name, was built with federal funds provided to employ "relief" workers during the Depression of the 1930s. The links are among the busiest in B.C.
Not visible in the photo, but running through the golf course, is Vivian Creek, a deep-cut ravine lined with thick trees that conveys some sense of the wild nature of Fraserview before the European settlers arrived in the 1800's. Teeming with trout and salmon, the creek would have been one of several streams that tumbled down the hillside. Today the narrow trickle disappears into a culvert as it passes under Marine Drive, the street that slices horizontally across the middle of the image.
The dark roof and one window-dotted wall of The Chicken Coop are visible in the image, tucked behind the smallest house in the first row of residences. The Stradiottis' tug boat company is obvious on the river bank pier. The family also owned a big chunk of property uphill from the dock where they built three homes for various members of the clan. The two large homes on Marine Drive have swimming pools visible in their backyards, indicators that business was good for the brothers.
The Stradiottis were well liked in the community and active in their church, Corpus Christi. Together with other members of their congregation they helped create Holy Family Hospital on Argyle Street a few blocks to the west. The family sometimes hosted their Pastor James Carney for Sunday dinner, but it is not known if he attended on afternoons when The Coop was in session. And if he did, no one knows what the future Archbishop of Vancouver thought of the loud noises emanating from the yard across the lane.
By the 1950's, the commercial fishery on the North Arm of the Fraser had collapsed. The long narrow farms that fringed Vancouver's riverfront were replaced by industry, much of it sawmill related. Kids could still find orchards to raid, but the Chinese vegetable farms and truck farms (so called because the growers sold their produce from their vehicles in the streets) were gone.
Despite the steady advance of housing down the neighbourhood's south slope, there were still plenty of interesting spaces for adventuresome youngsters to explore. Daren Morris who grew up at the foot of Argyle Street used to sneak into the stockyards at Fraser and Kent and ride the sheep. He and his buddies took care not to be spotted by the armed watchman. Daren also recalls tobogganing down a mountainous sawdust pile at Northern Building Supply, across the street from his house. Once he reached the bottom of the run, Bert Thomas, the lumberyard's owner, was there to grab him by the lapels and toss him over the property fence. Daren did not realize that sawdust piles contain air pockets that can collapse without warning and smother a person. He later got to see Bert's friendlier side, when the lumber dealer provided Morris and his twin brother with scrap material to build a crude boat. They paddled out into the Fraser at slack tide and Daren's sibling suddenly decided he was not pleased with the vessel's handling, so he took their rock anchor and drove it through the hull. It was not the first time the boys swam in the river and there were others who tested the waters.
Vivian Lindberg recalls her husband working at the Canadian White Pine mill as a young man. At the end of a hot, dusty shift, he used to strip naked, put his clothes in a waterproof sack and drift down stream to his parents' squatter's shack.
Many other stories that capture the rustic nature of the area can be found in the following books: Collected Memories: A Guide to the Community Markers of South East Vancouver(1997); Short Pants to Striped Trousers: The Life and Times of a Judge in Skid Road Vancouver, by Wallace Gilby Craig (2003); and The Story of South Vancouver and John Oliver High School by Ken MacLeod (September, 2012).