There was a time when many Christmas gifts were made by hand and when we think of an old fashioned Christmas, many of us conjure up images of wooden toys sitting under the tree.
At the Museum at Campbell River, an exceptional collection of handmade wooden toys is on display as part of the Festival of Trees; toys that were meticulously crafted by a resident of Campbell River, Ron Francis.
Ron has been as busy as an elf in his workshop; he says that he spends eight to ten hours there almost every day. His workshop is part of his house, and looks just how you would expect it to look, with a pleasing mêlée of odds and ends of tools and partially completed projects, as well as the requisite sawdust. The final products that comes out of that workshop are beautifully finished and are in fact, too nice to be called just toys.
Wood working was one of the first careers Ron embarked on in the 1940s in his native England, and the one he has returned to in his retirement years. Ron emigrated to Canada from England after World War II, following his older sister who had married a Canadian serviceman during the war. Ron himself had been in the service in England joining the Welsh Guards where he recalls being posted to both the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace.
Ron Francis as a Welsh Guard.
When asked if he met any royalty, he replied that yes, ‘they had shaken hands’. In Duncan, he joined the Canadian Scottish and ran a sea cadet corps in Maple Bay. He was approached by the Royal Canadian Navy in 1957 and asked to become a gunnery training officer aboard the training vessel HMCS Oriole, and he stayed with the navy until 1966.
He came to Campbell River in 1965. By then already a man of many talents, he responded to an ad for a journeyman plumber in Campbell River and went to work for George Clark. True to his pattern of having multiple careers, while still working as a plumber, Ron established a fish guiding business in Campbell River in the 1960s, starting out with a 20 foot plywood boat that he had built himself. With the help of his wife Grace, who arranged their customers’ travel and accommodation requirements and did the bookkeeping, they built a solid business and a good reputation. He eventually bought the Chinook, a 28 foot cabin cruiser with twin engines, lots of cabin space and a big deck at the back for fish. The boat had the distinction of being decorated inside with reliefs of beautiful native carvings and native paintings created by the previous owners. Ron owned it for 22 years. By the end of his guiding career, Ron had amassed about 1600 pieces of various fishing gear and the Museum acquired 300 of these pieces in 1988, many of which are on display in the Museum’s sportfishing gallery.
“One very, very interesting item,” Ron said at the time, “is a five inch, black Bakelite reel, made by Allcock in England. This reel was used exclusively by Painter’s Lodge… the reel is in very good condition.”
The Festival of Trees and Ron’s display of wooden vehicles will be at the Museum until December 31st. The pieces Ron produces are mainly wooden vehicles made to scale; ranging from jeeps to touring cars, old logging trucks and an old fashioned fire engine. Railroad fans will appreciate his replica of an old time locomotive. They are normally housed in specially made display cases in his living room, but he will be bringing them out for a public viewing for the Museum’s Festival.
For the month of December the Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Come in and enjoy the seasonal ambiance of Christmas past!
– By Catherine Gilbert, Museum at Campbell River