In the first issue of the Vancouver Times, from September 5, 1864, there’s an unassuming ad with not a lot of context to go with it.
It’s the habit of this journal to ‘go down the rabbit hole’ on things we find in old newspapers that seem unassuming but may open the door to some great story from yore, and this ad for ‘Bunster’, which we can assume is a drink but may have also been a medicine or a health tonic or whatever folks considered something to put in their bodies at the time, is exactly the sort of mystery we like.
Though the newspaper the ad ran in was known as the Vancouver Times, it was actually a Victoria-based outlet. At the time, more business was done in Victoria than Vancouver proper. In fact, more business was done in Steveston than in Vancouver due to the roaring salmon trade, which led some to refer to the fishing village as ‘Salmonopolis’ back in the day. So the Vancouver referred to in the Times is actually Vancouver Island, not the city of same.
So our first stop in researching what a Bunster was is to search for Bunster and Victoria online. Quickly, the story becomes clearer – and then a little murkier.
Arthur Bunster was an Irish born gent who traveled to Victoria shortly after British Columbia became a thing, and was fond of both a drink, and business adventures. After a few short and aborted attempts at local business dealings, he purchased the Colonial Brewery in 1859.
Victoria was going through a boom in brewing at the time, stemming from the gold rush and Victoria’s position as the closest city to where the ore was being dug out of the ground. Those with experience in San Francisco’s gold boom knew that the guys who made the big money sold picks and shovels – and beer – to the miners. So, with ‘spring water’ in abundance, the Victoria entrepreneurial class was big on booze.
The Silver Spring Brewery, Victoria Brewery, Phoenix Brewery and more proliferated, and would be around at least until the national brewers like Labatts and Molson pressured them to merge, purchasing many, and shutting many down.
But while the sun was shining, Bunster, not content with making a great profit off brewing ingredients shipped from the south, compelled local farmers to grow local hops, offering prizes for the folks who could do it on a commercial scale, which quickly saw BC become a North America hub for the crop. Brewers in the east would pay handsomely for western hops. He was, by many accounts, the father of the local hops industry.
The Colonial Brewery burned down in 1868 but was rebuilt the same year. Bunster wasn’t the sort of guy who brewed his own ale, so he had a series of brewmasters working for him to run the show. Which was good, because he needed the time to enter politics.
Arthur Bunster joined the Victoria city council in 1869, was elected to British Columbia’s first provincial Parliament in 1871, and elected federally as the member for Victoria in 1874, serving two terms.
He’s remember for two notorious events which did little to bolster his reputation. First, he petitioned to stop Chinese immigration by bringing about a $50 poll tax (and would later try to bring about laws about keeping out immigrants with long hair, an attempt at stopping the Chinese without naming the Chinese).
Second, he’s remembered for smacking fellow Liberal MP Guillaume Cheval in the House of Commons when the two reportedly had a fistfight on the floor of the national legislature.
Here’s the thing: I think Bunster was as active in the United States as he was in Canada, and perhaps ran out on some bad debts in doing so.
It’s known that Bunster had traveled the continent extensively before settling in Victoria, and indeed found his true love in Wisconsin, according to a book called Upstarts and Outcasts: Victoria’s Not-so-proper Past, by Valeria Green. But before he left Wisconsin, I suspect he established a legacy of sorts in that state, and not necessarily a good one.
According to a group calling itself the Janesville Brewery Research Project (which is well worth a look and whose scans we’ve made use of here), “According to the 1857 City Directory, Alfred W. (A.W.) Bunster operated a liquor store and the only mention of a brewery in Janesville was from a distributor from Lill & Diversey out of Chicago. A.W. Bunster continued to operate the liquor store until sometime until late 1861 or early 1862 when the property appears to have been foreclosed upon (both Henry and Alfred Bunster were listed several times in the Gazette as facing property foreclosures and delinquent tax bills). It shouldn’t come as any surprise that by the time the 1862 City Directory was produced, the Bunster’s were no longer in town.”
I suspect Alfred W. Bunster built a brewery (in fact, he built a city block) but quickly ran shy on funds, took out some more loans and got in over his head, so he duly leased the brewery to another company, and the liquor store he ran to someone else, raising whatever dough he could in quick time.
We know he ran up bad debts because, well, he advertised it.
We then suspect, once he’d found tenants for his buildings, Bunster (and his brother?) scarpered, with his new wife in tow, and headed for Canada. Though Bunster’s Liquor Store may have continued to exist in some form for the next five years, old man Bunster was (we think) otherwise occupied with his new brewery, purchased in Victoria in 1859, and his future political career, which made no mention of a rough time in Wisconsin.
Which would also explain why the Bunsters completely disappear from Wisconsin life, and how they ‘came from nowhere’ to dominate Victoria’s municipal scene.
Now, it could be that Alfred Bunster and Arthur Bunster are two different people. It could be a coincidence that one materialized in BC, with a Wisconsin-born wife, right about the time the other Bunster disappeared from Wisconsin with debt issues. It could be that they were related. It could be a complete coincidence that they both ran breweries with their name on them at the same time.
But I doubt it.
Either way, Arthur Bunster would eventually move to San Francisco and try his hand at the real estate game. He drowned in the Bay in 1991, around the same time his Victoria brewery, which he’d sold to his brewmaster shortly before leaving town, went broke, removing the Bunster name from another city evermore.
CHALLENGE: The BC Archives have a scan of a letter Bunster wrote while he was running Colonial Brewery and I’m damned if I can read the majority of it. Anyone want to have a crack?