Happy birthday, Laura Dunsmuir!
Happy birthday, Laura Dunsmuir! Despite not living to see her 158th birthday, Laura lived a long life, and outlived her husband, James Dunsmuir, by 17 years. She died August 3rd, 1937 at the age of 79.
On February 13, 1858, Laura Surles was born in North Carolina. The daughter of a moderately wealthy planter with high aspirations for his children, Laura attended the Wesleyan Female College in Hamilton, Ontario. Laura’s autograph book from her time at the WF College is filled with loving comments from friends dating from March - June of 1874. The book can be seen in the museum here at Royal Roads University. Her older brother, Hannibal Pearce, was also attending the nearby Dundas Wesleyan Boys’ Institute, which had just opened in January of that year.
Meanwhile, with coal baron Robert Dunsmuir’s fortunes increasing, his 22 year old son James was also sent from Nanaimo to the Dundas Wesleyan Boys’ Institute in Ontario, for some higher education and to learn a bit of refinement. James and Hannibal became friends and it is not too difficult to conclude that James and Laura became acquainted in Ontario and would have had many mutual friends. Another autograph book in the museum, belonging to an Ida Moore of Mount Fairview, Dundas, contains a beautifully written quote from her friend James Dunsmuir, signed in January of 1875.
James left Dundas and enrolled at the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in Blacksburg, Virginia, to study mining engineering. No doubt aided by his friendship with Hannibal, James was able to win the affections of Laura and they were married on July 5, 1876 at Old Sardis Church, Cumberland County, when Laura was 18.
However, it is often said that James was not Laura’s first love. The principal of the local school in Little River, NC, Mr. Lunsford Richardson, is said to have stolen her heart in 1875. Coming from a humble family, he was not considered an eligible match for the daughter of a planter, and lost out to the obvious fortunes of the Dunsmuir family. Lunsford’s humble background did not stop him from being successful, as he quit his short-lived teaching career and pursued his real interest in pharmacy. He was the creator of a Croup and Pneumonia Salve, more commonly known as Vick’s VapoRub!
Did Lunsford leave a love letter for Laura? Amid the 1874 notes from her WF College friends in the autograph book is a mysterious note from “L”, dated May 23, 1876, less than two months before her marriage. It reads: “To my friend Laura: When weary leagues between us both are cast, and each dull hour seems heavier than the last, ‘tis but this simple boon I ask – that you will sometimes think of him who will often think of thee. Hoping that smiling Plenty may be thy constant attendant, and that eternal Wisdom may be thy guide and Omnipotence thy helper. I am ever yr. friend, “L”, May 23rd 1876. A stain on the page indicates there may have been a pressed flower there at one time, perhaps a forget-me-not?
If you have stories to share, know someone who does, or would like to know more about the museum and archives, please contact me at extension 4122, or by email.