Giordano, the first child in his generation of the Negrin family, was born in the Veneto region of northern Italy in 1890. His mother had three more sons before she was widowed and the landless and now fatherless family struggled to make ends meet, laboring for landowners in the village 40 miles north of Venice.
In 1907 Giordano left for New York and in 1918 went on to Washington State and Alaska Territory where he worked in sawmills and goldmines. In 1920 he returned to Italy to visit his mother and while there met and married America Lazzarin. She was 30 and he was 33.
In 1921 they came to Vancouver Island. Their son Bennie was born in Nanaimo on Oct 23, 1921. Bennie’s sister Alba was born in 1926. The family lived on Jinglepot Rd. and Giordano, now known as Gordon outside the home, worked in the mines. He was injured at the Jinglepot Mine and was unable to work for four years (1924 to 1927) during which time they lived in Vancouver and Bennie started school at Strathcona Elementary. The family returned to the island and rented Marshall’s farm in the Millstone Valley where they began a dairy operation as well as raising chickens, pigs, calves and vegetables. Bennie and Alba walked along a logging railway grade to attend East Wellington School.
The Negrins moved to Lantzville in 1935 when their lease was up at Marshall’s. They rented the Walter Auld farm property behind the current Lantzville business district. Bennie and Alba attended Lantzville School.
In 1938, Gordon and America bought the land on Lantzville Rd. from the Thicke family that is known
as the Negrin farm today. They moved the dairy operation to the new location and the two generations managed a dairy herd for a total of fifty years.
Only a family can operate this kind of small dairy operation. Long hours of hard work, seven days a week, were part of the package. 35 dairy cows were milked by hand.
Bennie met Lorraine Dunbar from Pleasant Valley in 1943 and they were married in 1945. Bennie built the “little house” for them next to the original Thicke farmhouse where his parents were living. When their children were born (Danny 1947, Donald, 1949 and Diana, 1951) Bennie and Lorraine swapped houses with Bennie’s parents who lived out their days in the smaller house. True to his Italian heritage, Gordon had a one acre vineyard in a sunny location close to Lantzville Rd. for many years.
During the postwar era the Canadian family farm reached its peak and began a slow decline. The Lantzville area was no exception. One by one the old farms went out of productionas resource and town jobs lured workers away and prices of farm products fell as agribusiness and supermarkets came to dominate the food industry.
The Negrins persevered and where Bennie had delivered milk by bicycle as a teenager they progressed to delivering to 150 customers a day by truck. Surpluses went to the Nanaimo Dairy and later to Palm dairy. Other farms going out of production created an opportunity for Bennie to rent some of their fields for hay production. He rented the Dunbar farm from his in-laws for 35 years and also cut hay on the Doumont, Ecclestone, Gee, Petchauer and Blood properties and others over the years. Even with this hay production they usually purchased 25 tons of alfalfa from Washington State annually which they mixed with their own hay to feed the cows. Bennie and Lorraine remember 1957 as a wet year when they lost much of their hay crop (3,000 bales on the Dunbar farm) and were forced to buy a second load of Washington alfalfa.
The farm property was extended several times. The first parcel was purchased from Charlie Thicke in 1938. This was followed by an adjacent parcel purchased from Dave Thicke and another strip on the east side from Mr. Kelly which had originally been part of the Henry Doumont farm. These three pieces of land formed the nucleus of the farm and still do. In 1968 the Negrins acquired the fields on Harby Rd. west at the bottom of what is now the golf course. This rounded out the farm at its largest extent but was eventually sold off as were the portions of the original Thicke properties above the re-aligned Island Highway which had cut off direct access to the farm in 1959. Until then, Lantzville Rd. had been the highway.
Most of the farm work was done by the family but haying season required more labour when 10 to 12 local young people would be hired for a week to ten days. Corn and oats were also grown for cattle feed. A vegetable garden and 600 chickens rounded out the long days work. Eggs were delivered along with the milk.
The farm always required a team of horses and one that made the move (and helped with it) from the Marshall property to the Aulds operation to the beginnings of the current farm was a mare named Enis, a standard workhorse weighing around 1300 lbs.
The postwar years saw some mechanization of farming and the Negrins bought their first tractor, a Cockshut,
in 1948. This tractor proved too small and an Oliver was purchased in 1954 and eventually two English made Leylands. One of the latter may be familiar to local residents as the tractor Ken Spence still uses to tow the hay wagon at Minetown Day. Automatic milking machines were introduced in 1949 and were upgraded several times over the years. Mechanized milking still required work but the whole operation took less time than milking 35 cows by hand into a pail. As well as working the farm Bennie took outside jobs in the area, especially in the late forties and early fifties in order to finance the transition to mechanized farming. On one of these jobs he drove a gravel truck for K B Fraser logging for $35 a week including the maintenance of the truck on Sundays.
In 1978 they closed the dairy business, sold the milk cows and raised 15 to 25 beef cattle each year. While beef cattle still require daily feeding they are tougher than dairy cows, live out of doors year round and don’t require milking. Beef prices vary a great deal however and in the first year the beef-on-the-hoof price fluctuated from $1.49 per lb to .79 cents. The Negrins fully retired in 2004 selling the last of their beef cattle.
Bennie and Lorraine made a trip to Italy in 1985. They visited some of the remaining relations and family connections there. Bennie, who had spoken Italian at home until he went to school, was still able to communicate in the language as it was spoken in his father’s generation.
Bennie says that in spite of the hard work and struggle of farming, he doesn’t regret having spent his life at it.
He and Lorraine are never lonely and often have a kitchen full of visitors. Farmers are always at home.
Note; the above article was written from interviews with Bennie and Lorraine in 2009. Bennie passed away in 2011.
B. Blood, Jan 2016