By Thelma Silkens
Museum at Campbell River
The city of Campbell River today offers many shopping venues but 100 years ago, when it was just a fledgling community, only one general store served the needs of the local area’s population.
That store was built by entrepreneurs Charles and Fred Thulin, who also built the Willows Hotel. It was located at the site of the wharf that was constructed in 1906 and included a post office.
A guest at the Willows Hotel in 1910 described the store as “a most satisfactory place to buy anything from a comb to an insole…”
Stores like the Thulins’ served many needs for the region, but everywhere along the coast, many people still relied on the regular steamship runs to and from Vancouver to bring freight and special orders.
This included Fred Nunns, an early pioneer, who in 1912 wrote this complaint in a letter to his brother: “We have a store about 1½ miles away, but their prices are so high, I get my goods from the Hudson’s Bay Store in Vancouver.”
On Quadra Island, the Quathiaski Canning Company store served the needs of the local population.
The store had an assured clientele; fish sold to the cannery was paid for with tokens redeemable only at the company store, until Chief Billy Assu led a protest that had the system revoked. Later, trading produce or livestock for goods at the store helped many islanders through difficult times.
In 1917, Walter Crawford, who had been the village’s first wharfinger, opened a store to serve residents in what became known as Campbellton.
The store was first called Crawford and McNeil’s, then with succeeding ownerships, the name changed to Alex McLean’s General Store, then the B&G (Brown & Gillespie) Store, and finally Tops Café before the building was demolished in 1959.
In the Salmon River Valley, Hans Otto Sacht opened a store to serve the native village and farming settlement at Sayward. Sacht acquired a clear, 40-foot (12 metre) Douglas fir board from a local logging company for his store counter and trade passed over this famous long counter for half a century.
Rene Harding described going to the store as a child in 1920:
I looked around. Men’s rain clothes, mackinaws, gumboots and caulk boots hung along one wall. There were lanterns, hardware, and all manner of tools piled in another area, and in the middle of the floor were stacks of sacks containing flour and other stuffs, big boxes of cheese, a barrel of salt pork,… and only Hans Otto Sacht knew what.
The Thulin’s Campbell River General Store was destroyed by a fire in December 1917 but the owners quickly established a temporary business nearby, and by 1920 had opened a large new store on the previous site.
In 1926, Frank Cross and David Vanstone bought the store and added a meat market at the back, that was run by the Comox Co-operative Society.
Jean (Reid) McNeill was employed at the store in 1928 and later wrote of her experiences:
There were only the three of us. We worked long hours from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and I had half a day off once a week. It was a friendly store, and many interesting visitors dropped in.
We had actor John Barrymore and his wife Dolores Costello, who came each year and would shop in the store, the King of Siam and his brother, and many others.
In the late 1940s, the Laver family purchased the business, and renamed it Laver’s Department Store.
This was auspicious timing as during the 1950s the area experienced rapid growth and increased prosperity.
The big old building that housed the store became a downtown landmark, and Laver’s Department store was a local institution until it closed in 1981.
“Laver’s was marvellous,” said one former customer. “I’m sorry it’s gone. It leaked a lot and there was always patching being done to it, but the people there made it a lovely store. The staff cared about you and knew all the customers by name.
“I miss it because if there was anything you couldn’t find elsewhere you knew you could always get it at Laver’s.”
Descendants of the original Thulin family continue today in the family’s retail tradition and operate Home Hardware. In Campbell River, although many older buildings have disappeared, there are still many retail businesses that are small and locally owned.
In a world where so much is available to us, it is encouraging to see the trend towards shopping locally and supporting our entrepreneurs.