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 Reid Dickie

            Though this rarely happened, it left an indelible impression.

I remember the eeriness of wakening in the middle of the night to the urgent clangor of the fire bell, knowing it signified some unknown disaster, likely for someone you knew.Lights flicked on all over town, a mass of responsibility and curiosity aroused. Suddenly the streets filled with vehicles and volunteers. As they got the truck from the basement of the Town Hall in their heavy fire gear and hats, ordinary guys you saw every day transformed into firefighters – potential saviours, heroes.  A volunteer firefighter is among the highest expressions of altruistic intent, of helping your neighbour without reserve.

Fires in small towns could erase whole sections of the community, redefining the town’s character and development. Shoal Lake’s first major fire occurred just a few years after the village moved to the north end of the lake. On September 10 1889, a huge fire devastated all but one building of the business section, at the time located along North Railway Avenue.

The fire started at the Grand Union Hotel stables and a stiff northwesterly wind drove the flames down the whole street. At the end of the day, despite the best efforts of the bucket brigade, eight businesses, including two hotels, lay in smoldering ruins. As a result, business concerns rebuilt south of the tracks, changing forever the layout of the village.

Shoal Lake fire brigade about 1900

The next major fire wiped out one of Shoal Lake’s oldest landmarks. Lakeview House, a boarding house built in 1885 by pioneer William Bates, burned down in 1906. That year the village government acquired a modern double cylinder chemical fire engine. The contraption cost $1000.

The chemical fire engine consisted of two 40-gallon water tanks mounted on an axle and two wagons wheels. During filling, baking soda was added to the water. Attached to each tank was a lead container of sulfuric acid. When a lever inverted it, the acid mixed with the soda producing carbon dioxide gas, building up pressure within the tank and forcing the water out the hose. Its limited water capacity meant the engine was only moderately effective.

The engine was horse-drawn so when the alarm sounded any man with a good team threw on some harness and took off for the fire hall. The first team to arrive at the fire received three dollars.

In 1907, two blazes wrecked havoc in the business area and changed the face of Station Road. Fire destroyed Scott’s Hall, located where Preston’s Place stands, which housed furniture dealers, harness makers and other businesses. Later that year fire swept away the Miller and Simpson Block and the Menzies Block and the businesses they housed. Situated among the blocks was the 1894 Baptist Church, destroyed but for the pulpit and the organ.

Shoal Lake Presbyterian Church burned down in February 1914. A replica opened in May 1915.

Most businesses and homes in early Shoal Lake were wood frame construction making them excellent fuel for fires. Various and primitive heating, cooking and lighting methods caused many fires. The lack of effective fire fighting equipment also accounted for fires causing devastating, multiple losses.

The formation of the village’s first organized fire brigade with a fire chief and appropriate training occurred in 1909. It included an agreement with the CPR to use water from their storage tank when needed. The tank, which supplied steam trains, sat just west of the station.

In March 1910, fire destroyed J. B. McLachlan’s implement building. A week later fire wiped out the Farmer’s Trading Co. Building and its contents. This was formerly Thompson Hall, located on the present site of the Ukrainian Hall. Both losses were a major blow to the burgeoning village.

Christmas Day 1911 was far from merry in Shoal Lake. Citizens awoke to the frantic clanging of the fire bell. On North Railway, a disastrous fire devastated the Jubilee House, a livery stable, harness maker and block.

Jubilee House, its annex and the rest of the street destroyed by fire Christmas Day 1911.

In 1914, the beautiful Westminster Presbyterian Church burned down. The business area suffered more losses in 1916 when two fires took out four major businesses.

Then in 1922, a week after Thornbeck and Scholes’ acquisition of Smellie Bros. store, their own store, located on the east corner of Station Road and The Drive, was destroyed by fire. The Smellie Brothers Store then became Thornbecks.

Shoal Lake has lost several hotels due to fire. In 1923, the Albion went up in flames.

Tragedy ensued when the Shoal Lake Hospital burned down in 1929, claiming the life of a five-week-old girl. The new hospital opened the following year. In 1931 a garage containing twelve vehicles and a harness shop burned.

Among the most devastating years for the village was 1949. A major fire struck January 21 erasing a hardware, novelty shop, furniture store and tin shop from the business directory. On February 6, eight more business went up in a blaze. The fire, again on the east corner at Station Road and The Drive, wiped out a butcher shop, poolroom, barbershop, dentist’s office, Dr. Bardal’s office, pharmacy and veterinarian.

In 1950, the new up-to-date 550-gallon fire engine arrived. That year fire completely gutted Beamish’s Service Station and Bus Depot.

Though they battled bravely, the Shoal Lake Fire Department couldn’t save the old section of the hospital in 1954.

Another fire in 1954 destroyed the 1930 hospital building but left the new wing on the south end undamaged due to the stellar efforts of the Shoal Lake and surrounding towns’ fire departments.

On a cold November night in 1965, fire consumed the garage and contents of W. J. Fowlie & Sons, located, somewhat ironically, where the current fire hall stands. The garage, built by W. H. Beamish, was one of the oldest business structures in town. The fire engine failed resulting in a total loss for the Fowlies though insurance covered everything.

The positive result of this fire was a meeting the next morning of village council and the fire chief to arrange repairs to the engine and protective gear for the volunteer firefighters.

In the early 1970s, two fires again changed the face of Station Road. The Nychuk Block burned down in 1970 leaving six families without homes or belongings.  In 1972, Menzies’ Clothes Store was lost. This was the original Smellie Brothers store built in 1892 that later became Thornbecks.

A spectacular fire destroyed the modern Manitoba Pool Elevator on April 21, 1980. The 7-year-old, 160,000-bushel structure was nearly full at the time. In a show of support for the town, Manitoba Pool Elevators rebuilt the facility in time for the next harvest.

The landscape along The Drive changed in 2002 when fire destroyed Linda Rose Café, one of the oldest business buildings in town.

Over the decades, there have been numerous house, trailer and barn fires, each its own tragedy, each attended by brave volunteers.

As life became more complicated and Shoal Lake developed more amenities, the role and job of the firefighter also became more complex. New fire trucks in 1986 and, most recently, in 2006, meant updated training with the new technology.

Shoal Lake Fire Department members pose with the fire truck in front of Shoal Lake’s new fire hall in 2006.

The fire department is required to attend traffic accidents, offering The Jaws of Life and airbags when required. An inflatable Zodiac boat and wet suits ensure capable water rescue. The coming of the airport necessitated training in aircraft evacuation and crashes. Shoal Lake’s Department has a rescue snowmobile with sleigh for winter use.

The Manitoba Office of the Fire Commissioner provides fire and rescue training for volunteers. Shoal Lake has eighteen to twenty-one trained men and women ready to respond. The department offers junior fire training for 16 year olds.

From bucket brigades to baking soda and sulfuric acid to The Jaws of Life, over the decades the Shoal Lake Fire Department has evolved and adapted. Their volunteers – past, present and future – deserve our admiration.

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This feature was published in Crossroads This Week July 20, 2007 and  awarded third place in Best Historical Story category of Manitoba Community Newspapers Association Better Newspapers Competition held at the Delta Hotel in Winnipeg on Saturday, April 5, 2008.


Reid Dickie

             In the early days of pioneer town building, fires were frequent and disastrous, especially in Shoal Lake. Many communities had a town bell located in a central location that served as a fire alarm. Early fire engines were horse drawn so, when the fire bell sounded, every man with a suitable team quickly harnessed up and hightailed it to the fire hall.

Later, when fire trucks became accessible, the alarm drew volunteers from their work or their beds into the unknown, meeting at the town hall where the engine lived. No matter who responded, a bell provided the alarm and summoned the firefighters and the support of the townspeople.

Today’s method of alerting firefighters is much more sophisticated and discreet, using pagers through the 911 emergency system to summon them. To know when there is an emergency, Shoal Lake citizens need to listen for the blare of the fire engine’s siren when it leaves the fire hall.

Shoal Lake’s first fire bell arrived in 1907 and the community was determined to make it usable as soon as possible. Installed atop the Miller Block on Station Road, the bell lasted only a few months before, ironically, the block burned down, taking the bell with it. The town ordered a new bell and, so as not to lose another one to fire, installed it on its own tower behind the town hall about 1910.

Shoal Lake’s 1916 bell and tower behind the Town Hall.

Perhaps due to inadequate size or volume for the purpose, the village ordered a new, larger bell with a deeper tone. It was installed on the tower in 1916 and, thereafter, pealed out the times and events of days for almost seven decades.

The bell was strung under a pyramid roof atop a forty-foot tall metal tower. There was a small platform beneath the bell and all four sides were open. A ladder lead to the bell and the pull rope dangled freely.

Besides acting as a strident fire alarm, the bell served other purposes. It was rung at noon and one PM to signal noon break. It had been rung at nine AM and six PM when we first came to town. Morning was dropped, then six, leaving just the midday tolls. For many years, Abe Gardiner was the town’s precision bell ringer.

In the 1920s, a nine o’clock curfew was imposed on Shoal Lake children and the town bell rung to signal the curfew hour.

An important use of the bell and its tower in my youth was its dare value. Being a peaceful kingdom, the bell tower ladder wasn’t secured so anyone could climb to the top. Climbing to the precarious top of the structure was full of danger, thus a suitable test of one’s bravado.

Another dare was to ring the bell at one in the morning. Due to the dire consequences of being responsible for waking the world without a fire to fight or falling forty feet, these dares were seldom taken. The bell and its tower made cowards out of many teenage toughs in Shoal Lake.

Mounted on the sidewalk in fron the new Town Hall, the old bell is still ringable and gives a clear tone with a long sustain.

When the new Town Hall was built in 1986, the bell was taken down and its tower dismantled. The council kept the bell and mounted it on a support at ground level in front of the new building. It is painted shiny black complete with its turning wheel; it can be rung by hand. One of my rituals when I return home is to ring the bell and hear its haunting, poignant chime. Though it doesn’t carry far from its lower location, the old town bell, familiar as a friend, still has great tone and a long sustain.

Thereafter, a siren was tried for a while but it was incredibly loud and startling if you were near the town hall. Today the hours pass incognito. No siren or bell heralds noon or any other time anymore.

The constancy of the town bell gave it distinction. You heard it every day. It is a pleasant memory to preserve, the sound of a certain bell echoing across the years.

I recall the more somber tones of Shoal Lake’s church bells as they tolled Sunday mornings. Sometimes, when there were prayers, bells rang in the evening at the Catholic churches.

The other daily sound in Shoal Lake is train whistles. The CPR mainline runs right through town, past the grain elevators, past the train station before it was moved and over the train bridge westward into the blistering heat of July and eastward into the swirling snows of dark December. With three crossings within the one-mile distance across town, the trains give at least three long warning blasts.

The train whistle was a familiar and plaintive cry suggesting speed and motion, Doppler-effecting past open windows and echoing through memory. So familiar was the train whistle that, when daily passenger service was instituted in 1903, the 4 AM Flyer became such a regular feature that many used its daily arrival as their alarm clock. When passenger service was cut back to three days a week in 1931, early risers had to find another way to greet the day.

My most intense memory of the train whistle is sitting on the sharp cinders with friends tucked up under the wooden trestle of the train bridge, feeling our guts vibrate and our spines tingle as a hundred-car train loaded with harvest screamed and thundered past two feet above our heads, its whistle and roar deafening, its steel unbearably close. If the train was traveling fast enough the bridge swayed a little, adding greatly to the thrill.

After I’d grown and left the little town, when I would phone home, in the background I would sometimes hear the faint sound of the train whistle as it sped through town about a block from our house. It always evoked a warm nostalgia, the smell of hot railway ties in the summer, the faceless weird slugs left after a train passed over our pennies, more than a stirring of memory; it was a reawakening of youthful joy.

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 Reid Dickie 

            Before cars arrived in Shoal Lake, horse and buggy was the main mode of getting anywhere. Livery stables supplied needed animals and wagons as taxis or rentals and housed those of travelers passing through town.

Shoal Lake usually had more than one livery stable, which created an element of competition between them. Two ads ran in the Shoal Lake Star in March 1900. Jubilee Livery, attached to the Jubilee Hotel, touted its first-class single or double rigs. Proprietor McKinnon offered commercial driving – a taxi service – and reasonable rates. Most livery stables, like the Jubilee, had experienced hostlers (today we call them wranglers) to tend the horses.

Typical livery rates about 1912.

In the same Shoal Lake Star, R. H. Sykes advertised his livery and feed stable. Sykes promised first-class horses and rigs for business or pleasure driving. He, too, had reasonable prices, commercial driving and experienced hostlers. Sykes lived just down the street from his stable. Sykes’ Livery stood on Fourth Avenue at #615, on the spot where my parents, Bruce and Helen Dickie, built our house in 1962. When excavating the basement, we found layers of well-composted manure and hay and a couple of horseshoes.

Shoal Lake had at least two carriage makers in the early 1900s. John Simpson was a busy local builder and contractor who ran a shop that built and repaired wagons and carriages. J. A. Chambers also offered wagon making and repairs. A number of harness makers and blacksmiths served the horse industry over the years.

The first “benzene buggy” in Shoal Lake belonged to either E. E. Greenshaw or Fred Arnold (depending on which history you read) and appeared in the rutted streets about 1905. Seven years later 20 automobiles chugged about town. The huffing sound of the motor and stinking exhaust of early cars often terrified horses, causing many buggies and passengers to wind up dumped.

Shoal Lake veterinarian Robert Lawson was keen to buy a new Ford. A telegram informed him that 1914 Ford Touring Cars were $650 and Runabouts $600 FOB Walkerville effective August 1, 1913. Dr. Lawson bought a Maxwell a few years later. In 1920, it was stolen from his garage, one of the first car thefts reported in town, but later recovered near the U.S. border.

Proud early car owners pose on Station Road 1913

In 1917, gas was 36 cents a gallon. The Manitoba Motor League, Shoal Lake Branch, held its first meeting in 1918 with 88 members. A major topic was conserving fuel to support the Allies. That year the Manitoba Motor Act declared no males under 16 years or females under 18 years shall operate a motor vehicle. Owner’s wives and children over those ages needed a one-dollar permit to drive.

The first fuel company to open a supply depot in Shoal Lake was Imperial Oil in 1921. Texaco and BA followed suit with their large white storage tanks lined up north of the tracks just west of Highway 21. Shell’s tanks and office were kitty-corner across the tracks.

The Shoal Lake Star noted in 1922 that Fords were actually utility cars after seeing a good-sized calf occupying the backseat of one in town. From the “Cars are a Pane 1926” file: a local gent was parked in front of Thornbeck and Shoales Store on Station Road one February day. When he cranked his car, which he’d left in gear, it jolted forward and sent him through the store’s huge plate glass window. The car stopped at the foundation. The gent escaped, beet-faced but uninjured.

This list features everyone in the Shoal Lake district who owned a car in 1912.

A major change occurred in 1929 when the town speed limit went from 12 mph to 15 mph. As the town became busier, parking quickly became an issue. Shoal Lake’s recurring traffic dilemma was persuading drivers to park at a respectable and practical 45-degree angle from the curb. In the late 1920s, council passed a by-law requiring 45-degree parking. Drivers ignored it. In 1947, it was still an issue! On Saturday nights, when all the stores stayed open late and the town bustled, drivers parked willy-nilly, angering merchants.

With no money for gas, horses staged a revival during the 1930s although a new service station opened in 1933 where the Royal Bank is now. Apparently, this took some getting used to because, within a month, two cars were set ablaze by people carelessly lighting cigarettes while gassing up. Red Indian opened their ultra-modern filling station in 1936. Today we call it Central S. In 1954, Brown Brothers at the south end of Station Road offered free gas if you could guess the amount your tank would hold.

An evocative local expression of car culture was Shoal Lake’s Parview Drive-in Theatre located just north of town on Highway 21, which ran its first movie in June 1980. However, the drive-in movie has had its day; both the building and screen are gone from the landscape.

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Reid Dickie


            In the 1890s, if you had nine brothers and sisters, it was likely that only five of you would live to adulthood. Communicable diseases encouraged by lack of hygiene caused frequent child mortality. Children routinely died of measles and typhoid. In 1904, one in seven infants died in their first year; by 1912, it was one in five.

In February 1904, after new cases of scarlet fever, Shoal Lake School was closed for fumigation. In 1906, a diphtheria epidemic claimed many children.

The Spanish Flu epidemic that killed millions worldwide took its toll in Shoal Lake in December 1918. Five people a week died from the scourge despite the best efforts of many volunteers in the specially set-up flu hospital. As well as closing the schools, a flu ban restricted certain activities and gatherings. It wasn’t rescinded until the third week of January 1919. Many locals stood by brandy and garlic as an effective Spanish flu treatment, claiming it helped them survive the plague.

In 1923, the Shoal Lake School Board met to discuss the smallpox menace. They decided it should be mandatory for all children attending school to be vaccinated with the intent of keeping the disease out of town. Their decision seemed to have the desired effect.

I have vivid and somewhat horrifying memories from 1958/59 of my Grade 4 class all lined up waiting for our “shot” from the public health nurse. The vaccinations were given in the old two-storey high school. Since the high school was a dark, foreign place to us tykes, its legendary ambience added to the overall terror of the experience. There was much fearful wailing; many children fainted.


            Candles, coal oil and gas lamps kept the darkness at bay before electricity arrived. Since there was no provincial hydro system yet, communities used generators to create their electricity. Having electricity was a big selling point for small communities and helped attract people to the town.

With great foresight, Shoal Lake council passed a money by-law in 1913 for $15,000 to install an electric light plant. The following year the system needed another $11,000.

Originally, the village planned to install an alternating current system but a petition to council requested a direct current storage battery system supplied by a diesel engine. The request was granted. Galt Engineering Company installed the system and a series of electrical engineers ran the plant, which started on June 5, 1914.

In 1915, the first electric sign in Shoal Lake, installed at Wicks and Kennedy’s Ford dealership, directed night travelers to where they could get gasoline. That year another $9,000 was required for the light plant.

The CPR station was wired for “lights” in 1918, demonstrating to the community, many of whom were leery about electricity, how simple and safe it was to use.

The light engine, housed in the brick building on The Drive behind the town hall (later it was the Masonic Hall and the Fire Hall), experienced complete breakdown in February 1919, requiring extensive repair.

The old light engine continued to have problems until 1923 when a money by-law was passed to purchase two new engines for $7200. To pay for the new equipment, the flat rate was replaced with metered use.

The light engines and all their problems ended in 1936 when the coming of Manitoba Hydro rendered them obsolete. Hydro poles were installed around town, providing business and residential service as well as the village’s first electric streetlights.


            Early telephone systems were privately owned and operated. In 1903, Randall and Greenshaw put a system into operation in Shoal Lake, giving new meaning to “private.” The places that received telephones were the office of Greenshaw and Short, Randall and Greenshaw’s elevator and Randall and Greenshaw’s residences. If the public wanted it, they promised to make their system widely available. They ran a line to Kelloe that connected with another private system to Solsgirth and Birtle.

Switchboard used in Shoal Lake telephone office.

By 1906, many homes and businesses had telephones. The Star offered printed copies of local telephone numbers for 10 cents. Directories for local and long distance were in the works.

The following year Shoal Lake had 58 telephones listed. The person who had phone number 1 was Frank Miller whose block first housed the telephone office. Long distance service began in earnest in 1907 with connections to Carman, Boissevain, Dauphin, Carberry, Brandon, Deloraine, Austin and Elgin.

Rural phone service began in 1909. Large gangs of men installed the poles so by the following summer farmers had “the phone.”

The Shoal Lake exchange of Manitoba Government Telephones from 1921 to 1968, which frequently won awards for Best Kept Premises.

Early computers and telephones interfaced in Shoal Lake in 1966. A new method of recording and coding long distance calls called “mark sensing” was introduced. The system, used by Shoal Lake’s 12 telephone operators, created customer statements with greater speed and efficiency using IBM cards.

1968 was the year Shoal Lake converted to dial phones after a sixty-year history of using single or double digits and rural party lines. On July 25, 1968 Dick Edmundson, then president of the Chamber of Commerce, made the first long distance call on the new dial system. He phoned former Shoal Lake resident, Gunnar Johnson who resided in Victoria BC.

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