It’s quiet on a warm, semi-cloudy day at a nondescript warehouse on Roger Street.
The inside of the warehouse is dark, dusty and the smell of oil wafts in the air. A 1932 compressor, currently under restoration, sits to one side and a Model T Ford frame cluttered with various objects sits to another.
“I’m almost finished rebuilding the compressor and I’m working on the car,” warehouse owner Soup Campbell said. “I’m working on some things outside too.”
Campbell, 78, has a ruddy complexion; pure white hair flecks out from underneath a weathered cap; and his gravelly voice suits the industrial warehouse. Campbell has been a member of the Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society (IHS) since first helping them in 1982.
A cellphone ring tone breaks the silence in the building and the married father of two pulls a phone out of his pocket to answer it.
The moment speaks volumes: a contrast between an older man who is standing amid a past he’s trying to preserve and the new piece of technology that is encroaching.
The moment is telling in another way as well: Campbell and friend Gordon Blake, who is visiting, are both in their 70’s, almost the average age of the IHS members.
While there are more parts available for a fleet of old machines, there are subsequently few younger people replenishing the aging IHS ranks. Rectifying this is important because preserving the past encompasses the future, Campbell said.
K. Gordon Campbell is one of two children and was born in 1934 in Eugene, Ore. The Campbells came to Port Alberni in 1949.
“I got my nickname ‘Soup’ when we were in Eugene and it stuck with me here,” he said. “Only my mother and my wife call me K. Gordon.”
Campbell went to Alberni District Secondary School where he enjoyed industrial arts, drafting and shop before graduating in 1952. He took industrial engineering at UBC for one year before leaving and taking carpentry and welding at vocational college.
A youthful Campbell returned to the Valley, working for contractors and the paper mill first before opening his own ‘Campbell Contracting’.
In 1982 Campbell got a call from someone in the IHS asking for his help to move a large piece of equipment, and a partnership was born.
“I was the only one who had a crane that was able to lift what they needed to move,” Campbell said. “They suckered me into it but I got interested in what they were doing later and stayed with it.”
Campbell has been a mainstay in some of the IHS’s major restoration projects: the Two Spot; steam donkey; roundhouse; and a fleet of trucks and railroad equipment. Working on the equipment is like taking a step back in time but there is also a pragmatic reason IHS members tinker with it.
“A lot of times there’s no money to buy new equipment.”
There’s very little the heritage society hasn’t done that he hasn’t been a part of, lifelong friend Gordon Blake said. “He volunteered with what they were doing and helped out here and there.”
Campbell ponders for a moment what restoration project stands out most over the years. “The water tower at McLean Mill. That took some doing.”
The achievement is notable, Campbell said, because he designed it from a picture and foundation and nothing more. He did most of the work with a skilsaw.
The mill is a historical centerpiece in the Alberni Valley and is part and parcel of Port Alberni’s centennial celebrations this summer.
Campbell has helped out with work at the mill but isn’t taking part in the centennial per se. Some of his vehicles will likely be used at some point, he said.
“We’ve lasted 100 years so it’s important to mark the occasion somehow,” he said.
When you think of Port Alberni’s industrial heritage you think of Soup Campbell, Alberni Valley Museum Director Jean McIntosh said. “He’s been a stalwart, a constant hard worker since the IHS’s inception,” McIntosh said.
The IHS started out restoring a steam locomotive but have grown out and now steward a fleet of vehicles, a steam railway and operate McLean Mill.
“Soup is someone who feels strongly about our history, and that there is value in saving and preserving the old equipment,” McIntosh said.
The Valley more or less looks the same today as it did yesterday but the people and culture, particularly among the young, has changed.
“What the IHS does involves a lot of hard work. That’s something we grew up with,” Campbell said. “A lot of kids today would rather play video games and text. They’re not interested in doing this.”
The cultural shift presents a dilemma for the IHS. Most of its members are retired and age 65 and over.
With no young people joining the IHS, the society which helps preserve the Valley’s once rich industrial heritage is in danger of being non-existent inside of two decades.
But there is a slow trickle of help — and hope. High school graduates require a certain number of volunteer hours.
Some of those students have acquired hours by volunteering with the society. Some of those hours have paid of.
“We have a kid whose helped us since he was 12 and he’s 15 now. It won’t surprise me if he ends up working for the railroad,” Campbell said. “We had another guy help us out who got hired by the CPR after.”
Not every young person sees value in heritage though. The rail tie grappler that Campbell is restoring sports a broken winshield. “I guess some kids thought it would be funny to throw rocks at it and break it,” he says.
Back in the warehouse, Campbell talks about the lack of younger members, saying it presents another problem. The existing members have amassed a vast archive of knowledge about the equipment they preserve: where to get parts, how to fix, what to check. But that information could disappear along with the aging members, something they want to rectify.
Members have talked about recording and preserving what they know to both leave a legacy and a series of how-to manuals.
“But we don’t know where to start. We don’t have any records. What we know is all up here,” Campbell said, pointing to his temple.
“We have to remember our past though to figure out where we’re going and what we’re doing in the future.”