What a Life: Dave Hunter

·6 min read
Dave Hunter was best known for his private museum of vintage telephones.  (Jeff Hunter - image credit)
Dave Hunter was best known for his private museum of vintage telephones. (Jeff Hunter - image credit)

Some people have hobbies.

And then there's the late Dave Hunter of Orwell Cove, P.E.I.

Dave died this past July. And like many families during the pandemic, his wasn't able to hold a public funeral to honour him.

We've been running a series this summer on CBC P.E.I. called What a Life. We're making up for lost time and celebrating the lives of some of the great Islanders we've lost in the last year and half.

I had half a dozen people tell me I should profile Dave. I spent an evening on the phone with people who loved him, so I could get to know him better.

It turns out, the telephone was the perfect tool for that job.

Huge collection of vintage phones

"I've been a phone collector since… forever," said Karel Jennings with a laugh.

The Telephone Museum of Prince Edward Island
The Telephone Museum of Prince Edward Island

Karel is in St. Marys, Ont. He met Dave online more than 20 years ago.

"Dave was really active on early vintage telephone forums and things like that," said Karel. "Places where you go to ask questions and get wiring diagrams and that sort of thing."

For a young guy like Karel getting into collecting vintage phones in the early 2000s, Dave was the ultimate resource. Dave's collection and knowledge was legendary.

He never knew he touched so many people. — Linda Hunter

"Dave was fantastic at answering questions and answering them in a way that didn't make you feel like you were asking stupid questions," said Karel.

"He was always very kind about it. Even when you went to visit him, Dave had a little stash of, like, various phones and things like that. You never left empty-handed. He would just ask me, 'Hey have you got one of these?' And I'd say, 'No I don't have one of these.' And he'd hand it to me and say, 'Well, now you do.'"

Karel finally met Dave in person about eight years ago. He was visiting family in New Brunswick and had to pop over to check out Dave's famous collection.

That collection had grown so much over the years, Dave turned it into the Telephone Museum of Prince Edward Island.

"There was just a wide-open display of telephones, chronologically. Everything was labelled, but you could touch it. It wasn't behind glass. It wasn't the kind of place where you could look but not touch."

Dave had equipment dating back over a century, including historical phones like one from the first car ferry to service P.E.I.

'It was quite a surprise'

All this would add up to a pretty interesting life.

The Telephone Museum of Prince Edward Island
The Telephone Museum of Prince Edward Island

But Dave had another passion.

"I got to know David when I got interested in genealogy, probably around the year 2000," said Gordon Furness, who lives in Vernon Bridge.

"When I first got the internet, I looked at the Island Register website. There was a lot of information on there. There were query boards for people to inquire looking for their ancestry. There were family tree files. And just a lot of information."

The Island Register remains the number one resource for anyone researching their family history on P.E.I.

And the site was built and maintained by Dave Hunter.

"It was quite a surprise," said Gordon. "He lives probably 10 minutes from me, and I had no idea that he had that interest until I started looking."

The site looks like a shrine to the pre-Facebook internet.

Don't let the appearance fool you, though — you can find anything there.

The Island Register
The Island Register

"It has a lot of historical links to it from passenger lists from ships that have come here, to ships that were built here on P.E.I., genealogical files from different families from all over the Island," said Gordon.

"I'm not sure how many people have visited, but I think it's up to seven to eight million, or possibly more now."

Through the Island Register, Gordon was able to learn about his roots. He even found distant relations who had moved off-Island generations ago.

"Over the generations, people had lost contact," said Gordon. "His website helped me to fill in a lot of gaps. Some of those people came to P.E.I. to meet with me, see where their people were buried, see where they lived. I'm only one example of that, but there were many other researchers like myself that had people who came here to visit."

Messages from all over North America

I made one more phone call.

Linda Hunter met Dave at a dance in Montague when she was in her early 20s.

She liked him. So she married him.

I asked how long it took before she learned about his telephones and his genealogy.

"Oh, not too long," she said. "He had three hobbies in his lifetime that were his loves. There was amateur radio, that's where you talk to people all over the world. And then of course the genealogy. And his phones."

Linda didn't always share Dave's passions, but there were some adventures she did go along for.

"We used to go to graveyards and check all the headstones and check if we had any relatives," she said. "We did a lot of that kind of thing together. That part of the genealogy I liked. It was interesting, some of the things you would find on gravestones."

In the middle of Dave's museum sits a vintage telephone switchboard.

He salvaged enough parts over the years to get it working again. He loved to show it off, connecting the lines to connect one person's telephone with another.

Dave was a quiet guy, but he spent a lot of time talking to people on the other end of a computer or phone.

Sharing information. Connecting people.

Kind of like that switchboard.

"I got emails and messages from people all over the U.S. and Canada," said Linda. "There's a lot of people who knew David's work, but have never met him. There were people who were looking for their families, and they would find bits and pieces on this website. So many people. There must have been 1,000 or more who contacted me through mail or email or messages through Facebook."

"It's amazing how many people we can touch without even meeting them," I said.

"Yeah, and I know David never realized," said Linda. "He knew what he was doing was a good thing. But he never knew he touched so many people."

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