He spent over 20 years in Shoal Lake, making significant contributions to its evolution from a few shacks on a hillside into a thriving village of over 600. He wore many hats in this frontier town. He saw opportunities where ordinary men saw nothing and he took risks, making himself and his family prosperous by any prairie standard of the time. He was a postmaster, real estate baron, builder, contractor, raconteur and cunning adversary. He was widely admired, respected and missed when, in 1904, he left the community, moving to the United States for health reasons. That occasion prompted the editor of The Shoal Lake Star, W. A. Myers, to deem Matt Thompson “the Father of Shoal Lake”.
Matthew W. Thompson was born near Hamilton, ON in the 1830s. He came to Manitoba about 1881 and squatted on a lovely piece of land on the southwest quarter of a section that overlooked a lake fed by a small creek. The lake was Shoal Lake.
That early in the village’s formation there was much confusion about surveying and exact property lines. As a result, some land could be claimed by squatter’s rights, which is what Matt Thompson did. Only problem, John Baer was already squatting on the same quarter and had been for several months.
Being a wily Scotsman, Thompson decided to stake his claim with a bit of theatrics. Capitalizing on the fact Baer didn’t know him very well, Matt Thompson came up with a plan to scare away the competing squatter. One starless night, Matt put a horse collar around his neck and, feigning insanity, visited Baer’s shack. It worked! Thompson got his quarter and the opportunity to buy up most of the rest of the section cheap. Quarter sections were $10 with certain improvements expected. Matt Thompson then sold off the building lots in the village as demand required.
Matt Thompson’s own homestead was on the west end of the section, along what is now Hwy #42. When the railway came through, he gave up a large portion of this land for its construction.
You can determine the exact location of his homestead by the street names in that part of town. Thompson Street feeds Jane, Elizabeth and Helena Streets and runs parallel to Mary Street. They are named after Matt’s daughters Elizabeth, Jane and Mary. Not sure where or if Helena fits in the family tree although there is a “Hannah (Thompson) Richards and Baby” listed as being interred in the family burial ground.
Matt Thompson was the first postmaster in Shoal Lake after the village moved from the south end of the lake, where it had its genesis, to the north end when the railway went through in 1885. It was a frantic winter sliding the village’s buildings – mostly log structures – north across the frozen lake toward the new townsite.
Thompson assumed postmaster duties for Shoal Lake Post Office on April 1, 1886, a position he held until the end of 1902. The post office was housed in Thompson Hall, an early hub of the community.
Thompson Hall, built circa 1885, was located on South Railway about where the Ukrainian Hall is now. Matt named it after his family and offered it to the community as a place to meet, confer, pray, laugh, sing and dance.
Rather than pursuing one of the revival designs popular at the time, Matt Thompson built a welcoming and interesting structure that suggested its many uses. It was a two storey wood frame building with a steeply pitched roof and three gables cutting the façade roof, the centre gable larger than the others. It had tall multi-paned windows all along the front. There were shops on the main floor. The large open second floor was used for gatherings.
Thompson Hall served diverse community needs. During the week, public meetings and local concerts were held in the Hall. On Fair Day, it served as the display hall for handicrafts, baked good and preserves. Methodists and Baptists, before their church was built, held services and Sunday school in the Hall.
In the late 1880s, as the settlement grew, the one-room school quickly filled. Thompson Hall was used for classrooms while a second, then third room was added to the school.
Numerous lodges used the facility for meetings. The Sons of Scotland, Braes O’ Mar #151 met the first Thursday of every month. The Maple Leaf Tent of KOTM gathered every third Monday. KOTM stands for Knights of the Maccabees, an insurance/fellowship/networking arrangement where members paid a monthly fee and received insurance benefits when stuff happened. The Maccabees converted into an actual life insurance company in 1962, changing its name to The Maccabees Mutual Life Insurance Company.
After Matt Thompson moved away, Thompson Hall became the Farmer’s Trading Company. It continued as a major retailer and meeting place until the building and its contents were destroyed by fire in March 1910, just months after being purchased by W. A. Findlay, J. S. Charleson, Smellie Bros. Ltd. and Findlay & Short.
Thompson Hall was just one of many buildings Matt Thompson constructed in Shoal Lake’s earliest days. Sensing the potential of the little settlement, he built several blocks for businesses and residences. He also built houses.
Matt wasn’t the only Thompson making pioneer history. His brother Joseph brought his wife and four small children from Ontario to a homestead northwest of Kelloe in early 1882. After they arrived on the claim, the arduous task of hewing a home from the unforgiving prairie meant it would be over a year before Joseph’s wife, Elizabeth, saw another woman.
Persistence, hard work and good humour paid off and, by the end of the 1880s, Joseph and his family had built a practical yet rather elegant two-storey house with steep cross-gabled roof. It even sported a pointed Gothic window under the gable eave. Its design had many of the same elements as Thompson Hall. The house was passed on to future generations of Thompsons.
In May 1889, Joseph Thompson became one of the first trustees of the newly created Union School Division of Kelloe. He was a keen horticulturalist and planted numerous trees and shrubs on his homestead and, in his later years, in Shoal Lake where he lived with his children.
When new homesteader Matt Thompson sat outside his little shack overlooking the rippled lake, he saw the possibilities, he envisioned a town sprouting up around him and he recognized how to profit from it. Perhaps he dreamed the town into existence. For that reason, Matt Thompson is The Father of Shoal Lake.
The Thompson family cemetery is on Matt’s homestead and is Shoal Lake’s only Municipal Heritage Site, a designation acquired in 1988. This peaceful little corner of the town, 101 Elizabeth Street, between Helena and Elizabeth, coddles the remains of a dozen members of the Thompson family. Among the trees are the graves of all the women who have streets named for them. Joseph Thompson, Matt’s brother is buried there, as is his wife, Elizabeth. Matt and his wife Carrie are not as they passed away in the U.S.
Attesting to its significance, the Thompson family cemetery is listed online on the Canadian Register of Historic Places, an element of a provincial-federal heritage awareness program called the Historic Places Initiative. It is fitting that the brave and adventurous spirit of the Thompson family will be celebrated and made available to the world on the HPI website. www.historicplaces.ca
ROBERT SCOTT, ENTERPRISING VISIONARY
Robert Scott had a vision for Shoal Lake that combined progress, pride and duty resulting in an active, exciting hub where people came from near and far to buy and sell, rest and relax. Scott believed in the locals, the lake, the land and the little settlement’s future.
Born February 22, 1858 in Arman Dumfrieshire, Scotland and described as an “aggressive merchant” and a “very enterprising young man,” Robert Scott was one of the first and most successful entrepreneurs in Shoal Lake. Information on Scott’s life before coming west is scarce but one thing is certain, he traveled the Carlton Trail searching for a new life. When he arrived at The Narrows at the south end, something stopped him, some intuition or circumstance told him this was the spot.
The North West Mounted Police detachment was built at The Narrows in 1875. A few businesses sprang up around it to service the NWMP, their mounts and the constant river of settlers heading west. Robert Scott took his first sojourn into what he calls, “the Indian Treaties” in 1877, carrying a load of dry goods for himself and another merchant from Winnipeg to Prince Albert, then in the North West Territories. Comprising seventeen laden Red River carts pulled by horses and oxen, they set out April 14, arriving 42 days later. Their passage through The Narrows and encountering the NWMP was Scott’s first exposure to the little shallow lake. He saw the potential.
In his hand-written account of the Winnipeg to Prince Albert journey, Scott describes the goods he carried to sell along the way: “There was thirty black silk hats with a large bunch of artificial coloured flowers for each hat. They were used for trimming the fronts. Then there was thirty parsons black broadcloth suits. The Indian chiefs and councilors were very indignant and proud of themselves when they were dressed in those gay paraphernalias. The Indian went simply wild when they saw those hats. They had never seen one before.”
Scott set up his store near the NWMP barracks in 1877 and, though he built a small warehouse for storage, he never actually constructed a building for the store itself. Instead, he ran it out of a tent. Beside his police and pioneer customers, Scott did a thriving business with aboriginals, mainly Sioux. He exchanged goods for furs rather than cash, extending credit in spring and summer and collecting in fall and winter when the furs came in. It was a barter system the Sioux knew and understood. Scott used that to his advantage.
When the settlement moved to the north end of the lake after the railroad’s arrival in 1885, Scott simply packed up his canvas tent and stock and easily shifted his business to the new townsite. Seeing the potential of the location, Scott bought 100 acres of land in the townsite section for $1500 from William Bates in 1885. Bates was an early homesteader who bought almost half the section, sharing the rest with Matthew Thompson, “the father of Shoal Lake.” Some of this land Scott used for his own businesses, some for residences. By 1886, he’d built two stores and a grain elevator, all north of the tracks.
Very much a visionary, Scott saw Shoal Lake as a recreation hub and relaxation spot. To that end, Scott built a number of lovely cottages on both sides of the lake about 1886. Well-built and charming, the cottages attracted vacationing city people. Some can from as far away as Ontario, seeking the clean prairie air. These cottages were later moved into the village, becoming family homes.
The year 1889 was significant in Scott’s life. He began building the first Shoal Lake Creamery on the east side of the lake in May 1889. Scott’s creamery recorded a number of firsts over the course of his ownership including the first cream pasteurizer in Manitoba.
His award-winning creamery eventually had a capacity of 8,000 lbs of butter, 500 gallons of ice cream and 5,000 units of milk per day. It supplied bottled milk to stores covering an area of more than 2400 square miles.
Robert Scott married Elizabeth Findlay in 1889. She was the second daughter of James and Emma Findlay who came to the area from Ontario in 1879, making them one of the district’s pioneer families. Elizabeth had two brothers and a sister, Scott’s new in-laws who helped him on a number of projects.
Destiny balanced Scott’s good fortunes that year with a substantial loss. In early September 1889, a stiff northwest wind fanned a fire that swept through the business section north of the tracks destroying eight businesses including Scott’s Store. The loss devastated the village and changed the face of Shoal Lake forever.
The people rebounded. Thereafter the business section blossomed along Station Road where Scott built two stores side by side, one general and one hardware, opening them in 1892. His large general store had its own dressmaker and millinery and was well known in the district for its fine quality and tasteful merchandise.
This building, later known as Thornbeck’s, then Menzies until it burned down in 1972, was one-storey pale buff brick with a central entrance and tall display windows across the façade. There were three sections with the hardware store occupying the one on the north side and the general store in the other sections. The south section later became Paterson’s Café.
John Simpson, a well-respected local carpenter, built the store for Scott. Simpson had a carriage factory in Shoal Lake but he did major building contracts too. Besides Scott’s Store, Simpson also built the Creamery for him in 1889, Simpson-Miller Blocks, several houses and helped on many more construction projects.
According to an ad in a May 1899 Shoal Lake Star, Scott’s General Store was touting a recently added millinery section with special prices on the latest styles of trimmed hats ranging from $1.25 to $3.25. Ladies’ blouses ranged from 50 cents to $1. In March 1900, Scott was promoting a pre-stock-taking sale – 20 % off for cash purchases. He also pitched 500 pairs of children’s, ladies’ and men’s’ slippers priced to clear at 10, 15 and 25 cents a pair!
Robert and Elizabeth Scott had two children. Walter was born in 1891 and Margaret in 1899. Tragedy struck the family in 1897 when young Walter was killed in a riding accident.
Shoal Lake Creamery was over capacity with butter in 1898. Always searching for his next opportunity and never afraid to venture far afield, Scott sent a boxcar of Shoal Lake butter to Dawson City, Yukon to capitalize on the Gold Rush, which had begun the previous summer. William Findlay, Scott’s brother-in-law, took the shipment north with very profitable results. William reported that if you took the dance houses, saloons and gambling halls away, there wouldn’t be much left of Dawson City.
About 1900, Scott’s trading adventures even took him and Elizabeth to the Orient with a shipload of, you guess it, butter. Sealed in 2 and 5-pound cans to prevent spoiling, they sold 150,000 pounds of butter, trading some of it for silks and other exotic fabrics for the store back in Shoal Lake.
One consistent pattern of Scott’s business success was his excellent timing. In 1902, he opened a large grain elevator. He’d built a small one north of the tracks in the late 1880s. The capacity of his new venture was 100,000 bushels, just in time to handle the incredible increases in grain production occurring every year.
Robert Scott’s business acumen had become renown throughout the province. In 1902, Scott’s portrait was included in a book of prominent Manitobans called “Representative Men of Manitoba. History in Portraiture. A Gallery of Men, Whose Energy, Ability, Enterprise and Public Spirit Have Produced the Marvelous Record of the Prairie Province.” Published by The Tribune Publishing Company of Winnipeg, the book featured dozens of black and white portraits including the one accompanying this feature.
After nearly thirty years in business in Shoal Lake, Robert Scott needed a change. In 1904, he sold his holdings, lock stock and barrel, to the Smellie Brothers of Russell, entrepreneurs of the same caliber as Scott. The Smellies even bought the family house.
Robert and Elizabeth lived in town for a few more years. Scott’s Hall, which he’d built on Station Road, was destroyed by fire in 1907. The couple moved to Winnipeg about 1911 where Robert successfully tried his hand at real estate. His timing was advantageous again as Winnipeg was experiencing a boom time with a fast-growing population.
During the World War 1, the Scotts moved to Victoria, BC. There Robert died in 1922 and Elizabeth in 1955.
J. D. MCLEAN: A PIONEER AND HIS LEGACY
Much of the landscaping around Shoal Lake can be attributed to James Dickson McLean. Trees, shrubs and flowers were J. D.’s passion, anything that had to do with horticulture sparked his interest.
Leaving Paisley, ON, he came west with his parents in 1881 at the age of seven. J. D. grew up in Shoal Lake, attending school here. He opened a tinsmith shop in the rapidly growing village in 1900, adding a hardware store shortly after. In 1906, he married Barbara Ross and built their lovely Queen Anne style brick house, which still stands on South Chestnut Street. James and Barbara had one daughter, Christine, born in 1920.
J. D. pursued his interest in landscaping and created an eye-catching display of plants and trees to highlight his new home. Some still grow on the property. J. D. sold his hardware to O. C. Snyder in 1921 and became an agent for Patmore Nursery in Brandon. As their representative, J. D. created award-winning Patmore Nursery exhibits at the Brandon Fair.
In 1928, he planted the spruce grove at the north end of the lake. He chose special trees that could withstand the prevailing northwesterlies that swept across the lake. Although past maturity now, the spruce grove has been the subject of many tourist photographs for its luxurious green against the blue lake water. At the official opening of Lakeview Park in August 1967, J. D. had the honour of unveiling the cairn that still overlooks the park and his grove of spruce trees.
Predeceased by both his wife in 1962 and his daughter in 1968, J. D. McLean lived to be 97 years old. He passed away in 1972 but his legacy to Shoal Lake continues to wave in the prairie breezes.
J. D. McLean’s legacy to the community includes a wonderful example of Queen Anne style architecture in the brick house he built on South Chestnut Street about 1907. Queen Anne architecture dominated house-building in western Canada between about 1890 and 1915. Ornate and eclectic, the style borrowed elements from various eras and could be applied in brick, wood and other materials. Characteristically, Queen Anne style aims for extravagantly picturesque and irregular plans and rooflines. Exuberant features like bay windows, turrets, towers, decorative chimneys and elaborate verandahs in a variety of surfaces resulted in many unique buildings.
Several Queen Anne style houses were built in Shoal Lake during that time, notably Captain Johnson’s house, the home of entrepreneur Robert Scott, Frank Simpson’s house and Morey’s boarding house, all distinctive examples of the style. Alas, the McLean house is the only example of the style still standing in Shoal Lake.
A heritage buff might describe the McLean house this way: This delightful house rests on a fieldstone foundation. Its red brick, in standard running bond, has acquired a soft patina over the decades. There is contrasting brickwork around the doors and windows, on the quoins, the belt course and in the dogtoothing just under the eaves.
The large wraparound verandah is made of buff coloured bricks and has square pillars supporting the roof. It completely replaced an open wooden verandah covering the east and south sides of the house. The original verandah had turned pillars and filigree fretwork along the eaves giving the place a light, airy feeling. There was a metal railing along the edge of the verandah roof, providing a large second-floor balcony. The fieldstone front stairway was built when the verandah was changed. The chimney, featuring a chimneypot, has contrasting bricks.
The major feature of the home is the fine corner turret with its many windows and a steep six-sided roof topped with a lovely finial. Two gables with fish-scale shingling and bull’s eye windows balance the turret. The colour combination of the brick and the bluish hues of the roof and gable ends works well.
The filigree iron cresting along the roof ridges is often the first thing to go on houses from the era but here most of it remains in good condition.
There is a bay window on the side behind the verandah. An enclosed porch stretches across the rear elevation. There are some nicely turned posts supporting the rear porch roof. With the exception of the brick verandah, the exterior integrity of the building has been preserved very much as it was built.
Shoal Lake is lucky to have such a fine example of Queen Anne architecture, one that contains so many elements essential to the style.