Fifty years on the rocks

Some people questioned Jack Campbell’s sense when he left his home in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1966, bought a small business in a tiny fishing village and moved his family there.

It was 1966 and he had deep roots in Windsor. His parents operated a store, Campbell’s Red and White, near the crossroad to Martock and Chester, and were heavily involved in local politics. And he had a young family to support.

It was a calculated risk. That year, preparations for Canada’s centennial, a major tourism event, were well underway. Gas was cheap and young families across North America were buying cars and setting out to explore the continent.

Jack felt that tourism was a business of the future for Nova Scotia. After a few renovations and some menu upgrades he opened the Sou’Wester Restaurant in Peggy’s Cove in the building that previously housed the Light View Tearoom. It was early on Mother’s Day weekend 1967; he planned to serve meals all day. He closed at 2:00 p.m. after running out of food.

He had a winning business.

Jack’s son John was just two years old when his family made the move to Peggy’s Cove. By the time he reached elementary school, the little village was home and the families that lived there were his friends.

On his way home from school John would often stop at the artist Bill deGarthe’s house at the other end of the village. Sometimes deGarthe would hand him a chisel and allow him to chip away at the large granite boulder that he was painstakingly turning into a memorial to local fishermen.

None of the detailed stuff, recalls John. “He only let me work on the spots where he needed the rock taken in a lot.”


John Campbell

Today the granite memorial is one of the most photographed pieces of art in the province. “There were only about four people who had a hand in that,” he says. “I was one of them.”

Today John runs the restaurant and gift shop business that his father started. With less than 40 permanent residents, many of them active fishermen, Peggy’s Cove offers cruise ship passengers and tourists a chance to experience a Nova Scotian fishing village.

Dennis Campbell (no relation to John) started taking tourists to Peggy’s Cove and the Sou’Wester when he was just 15 years old. Thirty-four years later Dennis owns Ambassatours Gray Line, one of the largest tour companies in Eastern Canada, taking about 75,000 tourists to Peggy’s Cove every year. He says the Sou’Wester is an “absolutely critical” part of the tourism infrastructure in the cove.

“We couldn’t operate the way we do without it,” he explains. “The Campbells have done an amazing job. The view is spectacular, the food is great and it’s not overpriced like you might expect at a busy tourist spot. Our customers are always surprised that it’s as good as it is.”

The Sou’Wester boasts fresh seafood, dramatic panoramic views, and East Coast hospitality. “Here you can still come to a village in Nova Scotia and have a really good chance of seeing fishermen out working,” says John Campbell. “Sometimes you can even see tuna being hauled out of the boat.”

He helps the experience along even further by providing space for a local lobster fisherman to fix his gear in his parking lot.

But popularity is a double-edged sword. On busy summer days, the influx of thousands of tourists can overwhelm the village. Tour buses crowd the narrow roads, making it slow and difficult for everyone to get around.


It usually falls on Campbell, the owner of the only large parking lot in the village, to do something about it. He provides free parking for hordes of visitors in cars and 20 or more tour buses at a time, whether they patronize his business or not. Over the years he’s paid out of his own pocket to maintain the village trails and invested around $400,000 in washroom facilities that he lets the general public use.

He even gets involved in life and death issues. During the Swissair disaster the Sou’Wester became a marshalling point for media and military personnel. Campbell and his staff are often at the centre of high-profile rescues, when hapless tourists stray too far out on the rocks, sometimes ending up in the turbulent waters.

But most days are good days there on the rocks. Today, 50 years after opening, the Sou’Wester is busier than ever. As Peggy’s Cove has grown in popularity, so has the restaurant.

But Campbell, like his father before him, accepts that success in measured tones, resisting the urge to expand the business much beyond the food and souvenirs that have become its mainstay.

He has no plans to change the signature items on the menu (lobster, fish and chips, seafood chowder, and ginger bread) and no plans to expand the Sou’Wester’s building. “I’m not sure what we could do to expand,” he says. “I could build another building but this building is as big as its allowed to get.”

Instead Campbell has plans to honour his old friend Bill deGarthe. His father and deGarthe were close friends and Jack Campbell bought the rights to much of deGarthe’s work before the artist’s death.

John has started to reproduce them and plans to create a space dedicated to deGarthe and his work next summer. “Bill deserves a lot of credit for what happened here in Peggy’s Cove,” says Campbell. “I think it will be a nice addition to the shop.”

CLARIFICATION: The print edition of this story described the business that preceded the Sou’wester in Peggy’s Cove as a “lunch counter.” According to the original founders’ family, it was actually a “tea room.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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