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General News · 10th September 2012
Carrie Saxifrage
“Brigitte’s Beach” is the small cove that is separated by a rocky outcrop to the south west of Hank’s Beach. It is part of the general Hank’s Beach destination, although it has always had a different land owner, in recent years the Loon Ranch and now Treedom (if you aren’t familiar with Treedom, see end note). Brigitte’s Beach is best reached by descending a signed trail through Treedom’s ecological reserve and walking or clambering (depending on the tide) toward the left. In 2009, Treedom deeded a conservation covenant to The Land Conservancy of BC to protect public access and the wild attributes of the 2 acre waterfront bluff area in perpetuity.

Adjacent to the trail on a bluff, cement statues of Brigitte (pronounced “Brigitta”) look out to sea. People who come upon the statues may think they are each of a different woman, but they are of the same woman seen through different eyes. Twenty five years ago, Volker Steigemann held a class in cement casting. Brigitte Grosse, who owns the Loon Ranch with her husband Hannes, was the model.

It is impossible to name a place for all the people who have loved it, so it was the beautiful statues that inspired the Treedom land partners to call the beach after Brigitte Grosse. Brigitte played a vital role in the history of the land and her images will look out to the sea long after many of us are gone.

Brigitte, like the goddess she is named for, looked after the hearth of many children before she “retired” to the Loon Ranch in her early 50s. She graduated from high school in the years before World War II wanting to attend art school, but her father advised against it. He opposed the German government and believed that art school may not be a safe choice at that time. In fact, the Nazis closed the art schools and sent the young women to the Russian front. Many did not return.

Brigitte followed her father’s advice and pursued a certificate in child care. Many children were at risk for tuberculosis in the hard years after the war. In the early 1950s, the German government sent vulnerable children between the ages of four and twelve to spend seven weeks at Brigitte’s house on an island in the North Sea. There were no cars on this island and a small railway travelled from the ferry to the village twice a day. At first Tante Mutti, Brigitte’s mother, did the books and cooked for the twelve children who stayed there. These were the best years for Brigitte, who enjoyed creating the feeling of a big family while the children enjoyed a healthful respite.

Brigitte Kuehnel met and married Hannes Grosse on this island. Hannes attended a boarding school 10 kilometers outside of the village. If there was a village dance, Hannes would show up for the 10pm curfew at his boarding school and then run the 9 kilometers back to the village. None of the other boys dared join him – his feats became a school legend – so he arrived back at dances on his own. One night, Brigitte’s father took pity on him sitting by himself and invited him to join their group. Brigitte was 26 and Hannes was 20. They fell in love and married.

In 1956, Brigitte and Hannes bought a larger house near Munich in Bavaria which held up to 50 children. For over twenty years, Brigitte cared for at risk children while Hannes studied art and established an international reputation. As the years progressed, the children’s problems increasingly shifted from poor health to difficult family situations. Brigitte’s role shifted from caring for the children to overseeing a large staff. As government salaries dropped, so did Brigitte’s ability to provide the staff the children needed.

Finally, she and Hannes sold the big house and bought a large farm in eastern Bavaria. It was the late seventies and their neighbours were hippies who went back to the country to live. Brigitte and Hannes enjoyed these neighbours, but Hannes had the idea that they should move to Canada. They wanted to live where there were no nukes, so they chose BC. For a long summer, they searched for a farm without finding the 100% right thing. Then a Campbell River realtor introduced them to Bruce Ellingsen, a Cortes realtor at that time.

Hannes and Brigitte first saw the Loon Ranch in early September, and it was beautiful. The owner lived in Vancouver, and people were squatting on the land. Brigitte and Hannes used their last one thousand dollars to make a down payment. In the spring, they returned with their daughter Iris and son in law Volker, who had both just graduated from woodworking school. Iris and Volker were not too impressed by the dirt roads of Campbell River.

The farm was known as the “Jap Ranch” after Nagasu, a Japanese-Canadian farmer. According to Wilf Freedman, Nagasu came to the island with a group of Japanese horse loggers who logged the south end of the island. When the crew moved on, Nagasu stayed on the quarter section that now includes the Loon Ranch. He planted the large apple and pear orchard and had a huge strawberry farm. A steamer anchored off the Loon Ranch to pick up produce for Vancouver markets. During the war, Nagasu was removed from his land and put in an internment camp in the interior of BC. The government sold his land and he never saw it again. He returned to Japan, bitter from his mistreatment.

Brigitte and Hannes renamed the farm the Loon Ranch shortly after their arrival, in honor of the loons that call along the shore. The loons still thrive, but the fish stocks have plummeted since the early years when Hannes could quickly catch a fish for dinner from his canoe and dip net into thick schools of herring.

Over the years, Brigitte and Hannes and Iris and Volker built beautiful Bavarian style homes with exquisite carving, managed the huge orchard, and raised sheep and goats. When Hannes arrived at the mail with his home made cheese, his basket was soon empty. The two immensely creative families have created substantial bodies of art. Hannes’ meticulous paintings evoke the changing and abiding sea. Volker’s etchings and carvings and Iris’ drawings reveal a deep connection to natural materials and to the places they love.

Now Hannes and Brigitte are old and are thinking of selling their land. “It is too isolated here for me now,” Brigitte said. When one of the island’s most beautiful farms sells, Iris and Volker will still own a part of it. Brigitte and Hannes will build a new cottage on Iris’ land so they can stay on Cortes for half the year.

Like the statues of Brigitte that all look like a different woman, a place means something different to each person who knows it. Many people have enjoyed Brigitte’s Beach before it was so named and will continue to do for a very long time. If you stumble upon the statues of Brigitte and are intrigued by their gaze, remember their inspiration, Brigitte Grosse, who has loved the Loon Ranch and its waters for over thirty years.

Treedom is eighty two acres of land stewarded by six families, a thriving forest stretching from the Seascape/Sutil Point road intersection to Hanks beach. Over half the land is protected by covenants held by The Land Conservancy of BC: two waterfront acres at Brigitte’s Beach and a forty acre Protected Forest Area which allows for ecosystem based forestry. The balance of Treedom land is in private residential use.