The Case of the Stolen Chimney

The Case of the Stolen Chimney

By PATRICK S. WOLFE

This is a story about the danger of assumptions and how the acquisition of material for a simple home renovation project turned into a crime. It took place in Oak Bay, a suburb of Victoria, British Columbia, about 1970.

Our protagonist, Jan White, who owned a barber shop in the community, needed bricks to face his home fireplace from floor to ceiling. He turned to the classified section of the newspaper and found what he was after: bricks, eighteen cents each.

He phoned the number in the ad and spoke to a gruff fellow who advised that some chimneys were being taken down, an early stage in the demolition of a large building at the southeast corner of Newport Avenue and Windsor Road.

“Where the Newport Grocery used to be,” the gruff fellow added.

Jan knew the building. Having grown up in south Oak Bay, he had often walked by it as a kid. It housed several smaller stores that fronted onto Newport and looked across to Windsor Park.

“I’ll be there on Sunday at 8:00 a.m.,” the gruff fellow said. “If I’m not there, just load the bricks,” he noted momentarily, giving himself some wiggle room. “I’ll be there by the time you’re finished.

Over the intervening decades this wiggle room contingency has taken on the tenor of a warning. The fellow’s inability to be precise would come to hint at an uncertainty that, in retrospect, hung over both the unspecified schedule for the building’s demolition and the deal they’d struck for the bricks. But none of this became clear until after the fact.

When Jan arrived at the site at 8:00 on Sunday morning, the fellow was nowhere to be found. Nor were any of the chimneys down. After waiting for an hour, Jan found a phone and called the guy, who, despite being decidedly hung over, promised to be there soon.

Had Jan disengaged at this point he would have lost a few hours of his time and foregone the bricks he hoped to purchase, but he would also have avoided considerable grief. But he didn’t disengage. Instead, he took direct action. He pulled down one of the chimneys.

This took a bit of planning. He’d parked his pickup at the back of the building. There were four chimneys back there where the structure was only a single story. He needed to figure out which chimneys served what sections of the building; while parts of it were boarded up, other parts were still in use. He didn’t want to take the chimney of a store that was still operating. To better assess the situation, he walked down the driveway to Newport Avenue to examine the windows out front, particularly those of the three smaller stores. One of these was still open for business, but two were shuttered, their windows covered with brown paper. Or, maybe it was the other way around, two open, one closed; some details have been forgotten over time.

Having selected his chimney, Jan exercised an abundance of caution by putting plywood sheets on the slopping, shed-style roof where he expected the chimney to fall. He tied a rope from the back of his truck to the chimney. When he started the truck and slowly pulled away from the building, the chimney toppled just as he anticipated and broke apart when it hit the ground close to some blackberry brambles. All of this, he points out, was in the clear view of numerous back windows of the Haro Apartments that still, today, front onto Beach Drive and Goodwin Street.

Oak Bay Archives photo

Oak Bay Archives photo. Building at the southeast corner of Newport Avenue and Winsor Road prior to its demolition in mid 1971. Its primary tenant had been the Newport Grocery. The telephone pole on the right hides a driveway between the topic building and one to the right, 1175 Newport (with the large, stripped awning), which was occupied on the main floor by Morgan’s Grocery. Although only one chimney is visible above the topic building, there were actually several others in a line to its right, which are not visible due to the angle from which the photo was taken.

Jan filled his pickup with bricks, drove home, unloaded, and was back at the site before 12:00 noon for a second load. There was still no sign of the gruff fellow who he’d only spoken to the two times on the phone. By the time Jan had unloaded his second load he had several hundred bricks, which he figured were enough for his job. He phoned the gruff fellow once more, but there was no answer.

Two days later, Jan was back at work in his shop. One of his customers that day was a member of the local constabulary.

“Somebody stole a chimney,” the cop announced when he was seated in the barber’s chair. “Can you imagine that? Took it right off a store.”

Jan had difficulty breathing for a few moments when he heard this. And he had trouble concentrating on cutting the cop’s hair as he listened to the rest of his story. Jan learned later that one of the stores in the building had converted to electric heat and no longer had a chimney. This unknown fact had thrown off his calculations, causing him to mistakenly pull down the chimney of a store that was still in business. The chimney’s disappearance had been discovered on Monday morning soon after that store’s furnace was turned on. Later that day, a metal chimney had been installed on an emergency basis.

“I was having an ulcer,” Jan said, recalling his shock as he absorbed the cop’s version of what had occurred.

Jan was more than happy to ante up the $54.00 he owed for the three hundred bricks he’d acquired, but now it appeared that the cost of the deal had suddenly increased in unexpected ways. Before going home after work, he returned to what was now the scene of the crime, the place that had transformed him from innocent protagonist to criminal perpetrator, and he saw for himself the new metal chimney standing in the place of the one he’d purloined two days before.

The next few weeks were painful. Jan was tied in knots owing to the possibility of being discovered. But it wasn’t long before things blew over. Eventually his wife, Linda, who he’d confided in, felt safe sharing the story with a few friends. In 2015, the broad outline of the events in question came full circle, resurfacing at another Oak Bay barber shop where Jan worked on Saturdays.

“You’re not Jan the barber, are you?” a customer asked when he was seated in the barber’s chair. “We were talking about you at Camosun College the other day. You’re almost famous. You stole a chimney, didn’t you?”

The building at Newport and Windsor was torn down in mid 1971. Jan confessed to his inadvertent crime when a version of this story was provided to Oak Bay’s chief constable in early 2017. The chief constable advised that “the ‘limitation of action’ for a theft charge is well past, [Jan] is in the clear.” Whether the gruff fellow who posted the ad for the bricks ever learned about the stolen chimney and its metal replacement, including the inconvenience to both the proprietor of the shop and the property owner, is not known. That part of the story remains a mystery.

An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Jan White worked as a barber for more than 55 years.

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