The Cowichan Valley farming community came together on Wednesday to honour Russell Stewart, a person known for his generosity towards friends and strangers alike.
“He was super good. He helped everybody, he helped me,” said Ron Halk, who retired from the mill and started working for Stewart at the farm for 30 years ago. “He gave lots of stuff away. He was that type of person. If somebody came in and didn’t have quite enough (money) it was always ‘that’s alright don’t worry about it’.”
Stewart, who owned Russell Farms Market in Chemainus, died on July 8 at the age of 78. Friends say he was out on his tractor the day before he died, doing what he loved the most, working on the land.
“That’s all he’s done all his life,” said Halk, who rode Stewart’s tractor at the front of a procession of dozens of tractors.
The tractors, driven by farmers both young and old, left the market at 11 a.m. and travelled down the back roads towards Duncan before being escorted by RCMP across the Trans-Canada Highway toward the Cowichan Exhibition Park.
Hundreds more waited there to fill the exhibition hall for a memorial service.
Stewart is an historical figure in the Valley in the truest sense of the word.
His mother Katie and dad Laurence provided the work ethic that kept Stewart going so long. Laurence was still working at age 97 and died at 98.
Russell’s Garage was the original gas station on the current farm market site, but Stewart didn’t much like pumping gas. That’s when a market and then a restaurant were built on the location.
The restaurant was called the Red Rooster for good reason. When Stewart was four years old, he was attacked by none other than a red rooster, so it only seemed fitting to the family to choose that name to commemorate such an auspicious occasion.
Don Allingham, one of the organizers of the parade, said Stewart was a family friend and “a man I respected greatly.”
“He was a pillar in the community and had a heart of gold; Charity, giving vegetables away and helping people out,” he said.
Halk also remembers one day when Stewart saw a man who was having relationship troubles riding his bike near the farm and trying to find a way to Vancouver.
“(Russell) pulled twenty dollars out of his pocket and handed it to him,” Halk said. “He was friendly that way. He was a super good guy.”
But great businessman like Stewart are also charitable and he never wanted for much, according to friends.
“A hard honest businessman. If you had dealings with him, it was with a handshake,” Allingham said describing his late friend.
Stewart also enjoyed hunting, fishing and if you needed to find him a good place to check was the chair where he often sat.
Don Sutherland and Dustin Van Eeuwen also helped organize the procession and both said their families were friends of the Russells.
“He was a longtime farmer in the Valley,” Sutherland said. “My parents went to school with him and we just wanted to show respect for a really good guy and an honest farmer.”
Van Eeuwen described Stewart was both a “mentor” and “family friend.”
“We’d known him for years. My grandpa went to school with him,” said the young farmer. “I’ve got a few good ones (stories) but one if I tell the one I’m going to break down.”
Many had similar feelings – smiling as they shared stories about all that Stewart had done for the Valley while also mourning his loss.
Allingham remembers having coffee with him a few years ago at the Red Rooster when the Lotto Max jackpot was at $50-million.
“He looked me in the eye and said ‘if I won I’d get you to drive me to the Duncan hospital, I’d walk in there and ask them what machine they don’t have and I’d go buy it for them’,” he said. “He wasn’t showboating…that’s the kind of man he was.”
– With files from Don Bodger