Museum at Campbell River
Many children in Campbell River will recognize the name of one of Campbell River’s earliest pioneers, despite the fact that he died 93 years ago.
They have played baseball, watched the annual logger sports or enjoyed the playground in the park that bears his name. Or perhaps they have heard some of the more amusing tales from his life that have been preserved through the Museum’s Puppet Theatre. Either way, this somewhat somber man, who kept a diary of his day-to-day life for many of his years in Campbell River, has a name that keeps creating positive associations in the community, especially among young people.
Frederick Nunns and his brother Jack arrived from Ireland in 1887 intent on starting a farm. They came from a big family and had hopes of more siblings joining them in settling this remote land. Some of their siblings visited but decided not to stay, then Jack left for the United States, leaving Fred to live alone as one of the very few European settlers in the Campbell River area. The Nunnses pre-empted hundreds of acres about a mile up from the mouth of the Campbell River.
Fred was known to be a well-educated and well-travelled man. Irish by birth, he was educated in England and then spent time in South Africa serving as a Cape Mounted Police before making his way to Canada. When describing him, other residents of Campbell River say he was “kind, quiet” and “an interesting old gentleman, but rather a recluse.” Mr. Harold Campbell, the first teacher to arrive in Campbell River, boarded with Fred Nunns for a short time. He remembered Nunns’ peculiar morning routine. “Every day in the year so I was told, and I know it was true in September and October, Nunns got up in the morning and lit the kitchen range, and then he would, while he still had his pyjamas on, put his straw hat on his head and walk down to the river. There was a little cul de sac where he waded out to the waist and ducked his head in the river. Then he stepped out, put his hat back on and walked back to the house. He took his pyjamas off and hung them behind the stove. They never needed washing and they would be dry by the night time.”
We know a lot about Nunns’ life thanks to the diary he kept. Journal entries are often short and to the point. “Wednesday Oct. 15 (1890): Rained hard all last night and today.” Or perhaps the more descriptive entry: “Friday Feb. 12 (1892): Fine. Put in almost 40 lbs. potatoes and transplanted some strawberries. My black sow farrowed, had 12. Went down to Hill’s in evening, had tea, swapped a bed for a fore-quarter of beef, returned home 8:30 p.m.”
The weather is a reoccurring theme in his diary. Another theme that we see constantly in his diary is the interactions with neighbours and other people who lived in the area. It is clear that his life is fairly lonely, however these interactions seem to be a highlight of his days. In the harsh living conditions of the time, the members of his social circle clearly rely on each other to help make life easier. There seems to be a constant readiness to offer a warm meal, or shelter for the night to a weary traveler. Fred Nunns’ life ended abruptly in 1923 when he collapsed after having six painful teeth removed. It was suspected that he had received an overdose of novocaine which caused his early demise.
Copies of his journal are available to read at the Museum’s Archives Research Centre. The stories have been used to create several of the Museum’s puppet shows, with titles such as Fred Goes to Comox, Fred Nunns’ Pumpkins, Fred Nunns and the Willows Hotel, and Fred and the Salty Cake. The first two of these plays were the first two ever written for the Museum’s Puppet Theatre and have been performed for the past 30 years.