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VISIONS IN THE DARK Shoal Lake at the Movies

BUTTERY DAYS: Shoal Lake Creamery






Shoal Lake at the Movies

 Reid Dickie

             Though the Avalon Theatre is the one in most recent memory, it was not the first theatre in town. The first movies in Shoal Lake were likely shown in a playhouse that was built in 1908, considered at the time as one of the finest venues in the West.

            The Shoal Lake Star mentions in April 1915 there was a big turnout for Newell’s moving pictures offering a new show every night. “Enjoyable entertainment,” crowed the editor. The following year coloured moving pictures were shown, again to great interest.

            Another early theatre was the Bijou where my mother, Helen Murchie, paid a nickel to go to movies in the 1920s. It burned and, for a time thereafter, the Masonic Lodge ran a movie theatre in their hall. There is also scant reference to a Starland Theatre.

            Early silent movie fare included newsreels and adventures. The Tunney-Dempsey fight was shown on December 30 and 31, 1927 and the new Rin Tin Tin film, The Million Dollar Collar, ran in April 1930.

            Arising from Celtic mythology, the island of Avalon was home to their gods and loomed large in the life of King Arthur. Transplanted from Arthurian England to the broad Manitoba Escarpment was the enchantment supplied by the Avalon Theatre.

Past its prime, the Avalon Theatre awaits demolition.

            However, the building that borrowed that evocative, legendary name was a chunky rectangular box covered in ugly asphalt shingles. The Avalon Theatre sat at the very end of Station Road where it intersected The Drive, some of Shoal Lake’s prime real estate. Nearly everybody passed by it at least once a day.

            The Avalon’s flat rectangular façade sported a small marquee. On both sides of the doors were huge posters for current and coming attractions and a pair of windows. When the large garishly coloured movie posters held in place by chicken wire gates on either side of the theatre entrance changed, you noticed. Centred above the entrance was a small window into the projection room.

            The words AVALON THEATRE were spelled in large red wooden letters that stood out from the building.

            The Avalon was built in 1945 with a seating capacity of 350 people including a balcony on either side of the projection room – a large venue for a town of about 750 people. The Larry Cameron family built the theatre and Mrs. Cameron ran it. D. W. Findlay was the builder and architect.  

Admission prices for Avalon Theatre in early 1950s.

            After the Camerons, the Avalon was operated by Johnny C. Rutherford and thereafter by Maurice Drul. You may recall Drul’s big black Pontiac Bonneville parked in front of the theatre.

            Rutherford purchased and installed a modern film system at a cost of $4000 in 1948. The next technological update was in 1955 when Cinemascope came to town! A larger screen and anamorphic lens were installed to create the wide screen experience.

            Newsreels, adventure serials and cartoons preceded the feature fare, which was all Hollywood: the usual spooker stuff for the teens, popular and B movies and epics for everyone.

Moviegoers and gossip columnists had a field day with Burton and Taylor’s tumultuous relationship on and off screen.

            The Shoal Lake Star reports that in early July 1957, the Avalon Theatre screened Elvis Presley’s first film, Love Me Tender.  The Avalon received huge promotional posters of scenes from one of the Biblical epics starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which they tacked up along the inside walls of the theatre. The film came out in the early 1960s and the same imposing posters, though somewhat moldered, were still up in 1979 when the place was demolished!

            Following a tradition begun in the 1920s, Saturday nights were significant in Shoal Lake because all the businesses stayed open til 9 o’clock. That’s when farm families came to town to shop, socialize and maybe see a movie. There were two showings Saturday nights at the Avalon, one at 7 another at 9:30. I remember Saturday nights after dark with the stores brightly lit, the sidewalks alive and the main drag jammed with cars and trucks. (In contrast, on Wednesday afternoons all the businesses closed for what was called “the half day.” Shoal Lake’s annual fair was always on a Wednesday so perhaps this accommodated the fair.)

            Occasionally the Avalon served other purposes. Though it wasn’t built to accommodate elaborate live performances, I recall a few town Christmas parties and musical events at the Avalon. The Star mentioned a two-night performance of Uncle Ezry’s Hayloft Jamboree was presented there in November 1950.

            The Avalon Theatre’s heyday was during its first fifteen years. Known early on as the Show Hall because it had The Show, it was the only show in town until TV happened. By the time I starting attending the movies, (we moved to Shoal Lake in 1957) its decline had begun. Hollywood it was not. By then it was a dank barn with giant steel cables strung through it to keep the side walls from collapsing outward. The floor was always sticky, springs sprang from many of the red velvet upholstered seats, and, in its last years, a large brown stain covered a corner of the screen bringing its own colour mix to the movies.

            Some of the most intense moments of my callow years were inspired by the visions that arose on the Avalon Theatre’s screen. Halfway through The Blob (when The Blob comes through the projector holes in the movie theatre) I ran screaming from the theatre, out into the street and halfway across town, driven by knee-numbing terror, home to see a look of horror come over Mom’s face as she realized my state. She sensed the nightmares to come. They came and we dealt with them.

            The Avalon Theatre had a balcony, which was one of the three best things about it – the smell of popcorn and the movie were the other two. The balcony meant either you were on a date or tormenting and embarrassing your friends who were trying to date.

            The other use of the balcony was its educational value for the newly pubescent who needed to learn the bases. We watched older brothers or buddies on their dates in the balcony, studying their every move, their finesse, often not sure how or why that would feel good but drawn toward it nonetheless.

            In spite of the balcony, television eventually put the kibosh on the Avalon Theatre, that and its decrepit condition. You could track the slow demise of the Avalon Theatre by the days it was lit. When we first moved to town, you could attend a movie every night but Sunday. Then it dropped Wednesday and Thursday screenings, then Monday and Tuesday were gone. The Show became a weekend event unless a blockbuster required a longer run.

            After having supplied the town with entertainment and education for 34 years, the Avalon Theatre went dark for the final time. The theatre building so familiar at end of Station Road was demolished in 1979. Today the site is the car lot for Woodworth Dodge Chrysler.

            Shoal Lake did not go long without access to the silver screen. Evans Parobec began building the Parview Drive-in in 1979 just north of town on Highway 21. Its first movie was shown in June 1980. However, the drive-in movie has had its day, too. Both the building and screen are now gone from the site.

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 Reid Dickie

             So far, only one company has put Shoal Lake on the international map. Just one product has garnered the town a reputation that stretched from coast to coast in Canada and beyond to Europe and the Far East. The company was the Shoal Lake Creamery and the product was butter.

            But before the euphoric buttery days ahead, Shoal Lake tried a cheese co-op. In early 1886, a group of 50 enterprising citizens formed a committee to build a co-operative cheese factory in Shoal Lake. The factory was erected on the west side of the lake and managed by Mr. Waldock. By May 1886, three milk routes had been let and the machinery started arriving. The Baptist Church held their early services in a room adjoining the cheese factory.  Though it had some success, the cheese co-op didn’t last long. 

Shoal Lake’s first creamery was built on the west side of the lake.

           Perhaps the cheese factory’s greatest moment was when the Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. MacDonald himself, arrived by train and briefly addressed the cheering throng at the Shoal Lake station. The train station was decked out in bunting, flags and streamers, festooned with gay displays of wild flowers, grains and vegetables and a formidable mountain of locally made cheese. Commenting on the cornucopia of produce displayed about him, MacDonald seemed especially attracted to the local cheese. The aging PM, on his way to a meeting in Birtle, was doing some stumping for an election he’d call and win in February 1887.

            Sir John A. notwithstanding, it took a visionary spirit like Robert Scott to find a profitable outlet for local milk. In 1889, Scott built one of the first creameries in Manitoba on the east side of Shoal Lake. A year later, the building burned down and a new one erected just south of the old site. The cellar of the burned place became cold storage and was connected to the new building via an underground tunnel with track and trolley.

            Scott developed routes for milk and cream collection. Early routes ran north of Oakburn then west to Vista and back to Shoal Lake. It was a two-day trip made with a horse drawn wagon holding 240 gallons in six barrels. The trick to milk collecting was to avoid churning the cream into butter. If the driver failed to put the anti-splash top low enough, he wound up with a barrel of butter by the time he arrived at the creamery. After 1921, motorized collection vehicles began replacing horses and wagons.

Cecil Baldrow, whose job description at Shoal Lake Creamery was “cream hauler,” with a load of cream cans bound for the railway station in April 1926.

         The Shoal Lake Creamery was an immediate success. With a large number of local dairy farms, Shoal Lake Creamery was over capacity with butter in 1898. Always searching for his next opportunity and never afraid to follow his adventurous side, Scott looked north and saw potential in the Yukon Gold Rush. No, he didn’t go chasing the yellow stuff. Instead, he transported a boxcar of fine yellow Shoal Lake butter to Dawson City, Yukon capitalizing 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.

            About 1900, Scott’s trading adventures took him and his wife Elizabeth to the Orient with a shipload of, you guessed it, butter. Sealed in two and five-pound cans to prevent spoiling, they sold 150,000 pounds of butter, trading some of it for silks and other exotic fabrics for their general stores back in Manitoba. The Chinese and Japanese paid Scott 17.5 cents a pound for his butter. That’s over $26,000 in 1900 dollars, almost half a million dollars today.

            Shoal Lake Creamery set a number of precedents. In 1896, it installed the first cream pasteurizing system in Manitoba.  They replaced this system with the first coil pasteurizer in western Canada in 1917.

            Cooling the cream after pasteurization required enormous amounts of ice. Every year, in late February, the lake was alive with horses and sleighs cutting huge blocks of ice, loading and transporting them to the creamery icehouse for storage.

            Ice cream was a staple product of Shoal Lake Creamery. Rich smooth ice cream in tubs chilled in salted ice was a welcome treat at picnics and sports days.

Great view of Robert Scott’s creamery and house facing the water on the east side of the lake in early 1900s.

            Buildings and technology are only a small part of any business story. The people are the real story and, in the case of Shoal Lake Creamery, John Roger Nesbitt was a main force. His natural ability when dealing with people and his talent with dairy products resulted in sustained success over his long tenure with the company.

            Born on a bush farm near Brant ON in 1873, after school, John Nesbitt took a dairy course in Belleville, moving to Manitoba in 1896. In the summer, he worked at Shoal Lake Creamery, a relationship he maintained until his death. Nesbitt attended dairy school in Winnipeg in 1897; during winter 1901, he taught milk testing at the school.

            Bob Scott hired young Nesbitt to run his plant for him. Besides those duties, Nesbitt later maintained a herd of fine Holstein cattle for the creamery. James Martin, working closely with Nesbitt, managed the herd.

Shoal Lake Creamery’s bird sanctuary

            Nesbitt was fond of gardening and the farm and creamery grounds were always beautifully kept. He loved birds and maintained a flock of 50 wild geese and some ring-necked pheasants on the grounds and nearby lake.  The area was a sanctuary for the birds to live and nest in but many didn’t return during hunting season.

Shoal Lake Creamery and some of its staff.

            When Bob Scott sold his entire Shoal Lake holdings to the Smellie Brothers of Russell in 1904, he advised them to hire John Nesbitt to run the creamery for them. Being an astute businessman, Albert Smellie, who ran the company along with his brother and silent partner Dr. Thomas Smellie, took Scott’s advice. Their relationship lasted fifty years. Nesbitt even bought shares in Smellie’s company, which eventually expanded to Russell, Roblin, McNutt and Rossburn.

            At the height of their empire building, Smellie Brothers had eight branch stores and five creameries around west central Manitoba. Albert Smellie built on Scott’s original success to make Shoal Lake Creamery one of the best-known creameries in the world. They did it with butter.

            In 1910, Smellie invested in a Babcock tester. The new device meant cream could be purchased based on butterfat content instead of using the older oil test method. In July 1916 between 600 and 700 full cream cans a week arrived by train for the creamery.

            In 1917, Shoal Lake Creamery started making butter for exhibition purposes. Their butter immediately scored annual prizes at competitions across Canada and at the British Empire Exhibition in London, England. Butter put Shoal Lake on the map and kept it there for decades.

Shoal Lake’s award-winning creamery.

Between 1919 and 1929, just in Canadian dairy competitions, Shoal Lake Creamery won 139 first, 100 second, 43 third, 12 fourth, 11 sixth, 6 seventh, 1 eighth, 1 ninth and 2 tenth prizes, over 300 awards in all. In 1923, a quart of milk cost 10 cents.

            At the 1919 creamery butter competition in Winnipeg, Shoal Lake representing Manitoba won with an overall score of 97.40 out of 100. The same year in an open competition of all the creameries in Canada held in Toronto, Shoal Lake Creamery won the silver cup for the best butter in the land.

            The creamery was fortunate to have several expert buttermakers over the years, including Frank Dawson, C. J. Ruddick and John Nesbitt. Nesbitt earned a wide reputation for this work at Shoal Lake Creamery. He was recognized for his pioneering innovation and high standards in butter production with a Honourary Diploma from the University of Manitoba in 1930. Two hundred local people attended a banquet in Shoal Lake honouring the prize-winning achievements of the creamery and John Nesbitt.

            One major contributor to the creamery’s success was the consistent high quality of the raw milk it used for its products. As an example, local dairyman Stanley Hargreaves won a new cream separator at the Manitoba Cow Testing Association contest in 1924. He had the best grade dairy cow, which gave 10,806 pounds of milk resulting in 474 pounds of butter. Stanley also won $25 for the best grade dairy herd.

            The creamery expanded to include egg and poultry processing. During the 1930s farm families did plenty of adjusting the grocery list according to the arrival of the egg and cream cheques from the creamery. Eggs sold for 5 cents a dozen and cream was $1.25 for a five-gallon can.

            In 1939, of the 54 branches of the Manitoba Egg and Poultry Pool, Shoal Lake made two Top Ten appearances: 7th in volume of business and 3rd in low operating costs. In 1946, Shoal Lake Creamery’s own Lillian Alfred received a certificate for her general proficiency of 86% when grading eggs. She was 6th out of 64 egg stations in Manitoba.

1950 credit for cream when the Smellie Brother’s owned the creamery.

            The creamery was the largest single employer in Shoal Lake for several decades. Many families depended on the plant and its systems for their income. Often the first job a kid fresh out of school had was at the creamery.

            On a regular basis, from the early days of the Smellie Brothers ownership, at least 20 people worked full time in the creamery proper. The staff included a manager, assistant manager, buttermaker, ice cream maker, cheesemaker, cream grader, tester, several egg graders, at least three bookkeepers, stableman, cowpuncher, cream hauler, pig feeder and some part-time weekend help. The creamery extended its positive effect to the many dairy farms supplying raw materials for the plant.

            In 1929, at the start of the depression, the Smellies built a brand new building on the site of Scott’s first creamery, which burned down. The new creamery, built of brick and cement, measured 44 feet by 60 feet (2640 square feet).

            In 1937, the creamery modernized from steam power to a fully electric operation. A modern milk processing plant was built in 1951. Milk was delivered daily to homes in and around Shoal Lake.  

            At the height of production, Shoal Lake Creamery had a daily capacity of 8,000 pounds of butter, 500 gallons of ice cream and 5000 quarts of milk. Bottled milk was supplied to an area 80 miles by 30 miles.

            In 1960, Manitoba Dairy and Poultry Co-op (ManCo) bought out the Smellie Brothers. Gradually the creamery lost its processing ability to a larger central plant in Brandon, which had newer technology. The number of area dairy producers was in decline. Before it closed, the creamery was used as storage and transfer point for ManCo.

            Shoal Lake Creamery formally closed on September 29, 1984. The building the Smellie Brothers built in 1929 was demolished in June 1989, a century after Robert Scott’s constructed his first creamery. Today just the cement pad it sat on and a bit of rubble remain.     

1787 words



 Reid Dickie

Teague’s most popular camera design for Eastman Kodak was the Bantam Special. Perfection!

           What do Kodak Brownie cameras, bullet trains, Spartan radios and the Central S building in Shoal Lake have in common? The answer: the same person, an innovative American industrial designer named Walter Dorwin Teague, designed them all.

Colour, style and motion result in one of Teague’s more striking Art Moderne designs in this 1940s Spartan radio.

            From Pendleton, IN Teague worked as an illustrator and commercial artist, notably for Time magazine. A trip to Paris in 1926 exposed him to new ultra-modern designs and materials that captured his imagination. Hired by Texaco to design service stations, Teague employed architectural elements from the Art Deco and Art Moderne schools. The Central S building is a classic example of this style and one of the few remaining in western Canada.

Walter Dorwin Teague at his design table.

            The building, on prime real estate at the intersection of Highways 21 and 42 in the centre of Shoal Lake, was constructed in 1936. It opened for business on July 31 of that year as the Red Indian Filling Station, the brand name used by the Frontenac Oil Company. Formed in 1873, the McColl-Anderson Oil Company in Toronto consisted of a refinery and lubricating oil and grease facility. Around the turn of the century, they shortened the name to McColl Brothers. A merger with Frontenac Oil in 1927 gave the McColl-Frontenac Oil Company Canadian operations from coast to coast. About this time, Texaco began acquiring shares in Frontenac, gaining control of the company in the early 1930s. In 1941, they formally changed the name to Texaco and the brand to Sky Chief and Fire Chief products.

This was the logo my Dad, Bruce Dickie, wore on his uniforms when he was Texaco consignee in Shoal Lake from 1957 to 1968.

            Texaco service stations became a common site along highways all over North America. Unmistakable they had bright white stucco finishes, forest-green stripes and large red three-dimensional stars around the upper area below the roof along with a freestanding signpost bearing the red Texaco star logo on a white disc.

            Teague created two designs for Texaco service stations: a small one like the Shoal Lake building, and a larger example with a breezeway supported by angled pillars that covered the pump area. The prominent decorative detail was the large, 3-D red star taken from the Texaco logo and duplicated on the company’s uniforms, prompting the advertising slogan “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star.” There were about 10,000 such service stations on the continent by 1950, most of them in one of Teague’s two cookie-cutter styles.

Shoal Lake’s Teague-designed Texaco service station with Art Deco/Art Moderne elements evident.

            Teague’s industrial projects always represented the dynamic progress of the 20th century, the streamlined machine esthetic suggesting motion and speed, denoted here by the jutting rounded tower bearing the company name. Elements common to Teague’s designs are all evident in the Central S building: flat roof, rounded corners, symmetrical facades and raised signage, both modern and economical at once. Front doors on both sides of a protruding curved entranceway compliment the double service bays. There was another bay entrance on the east side of the building. Inside was a small storefront

The large version of Teague’s Texaco stations with breezeway.

area, office and storage behind that and the service areas on either side joined by a wide, open backspace.  The building, though small, gives the impression of stability and confidence. Yet there is a charming lightness and optimism to the design that appealed to the newly mobile to “Trust Texaco.”

            Owned by Texaco until 1953, the service station was leased to Dean Brothers, Mr. Burns, Roy Garlick, McLean’s, Mr. Kashton, Louis Bart and John Byram. It was bought in 1953 by John Decelle who operated it until 1960. The small furnace room at the back was added on during this time. Roy Garlick ran it for a few years, followed by Doug Susinski, Don Wiburg and Bill Schwaluk. With the absorption of Texaco into Chevron, Bill Stebnicki bought the building in 1987 and it became the Central S convenience store. Today Mickey and Yvonne Shust are the proprietors.

UPDATE: Posted August 11/2012

Nothing says turn up the tunes, point her toward the vanishing point and step on it like an old Texaco filling station!

Previously I have posted about the Art Moderne Texaco filling station in my hometown in western Manitoba and its designer, Walter Teague. I have few old pictures of the place as it appeared back in its heyday as the Texaco gas station in Shoal Lake. Today it still serves relatively the same purpose. The garage and tire repair are gone, replaced with a convenience store called Central S. You can get gas, wash your car and buy a Pepsi, too. Plunked down in the middle of town, it is still the best location in Shoal Lake.

I recently took pictures of how the structure looks these days. Even though it is completely covered in grey vertical cladding, almost every detail from its original design can still be seen on the building. The rounded corners on the building, the roof and entrance, the prominent stepped signage, the symmetrical windows where the garage doors were, the darker trim at the cornice and around the projecting sign, all still visible, all smooth and optimistic, all telling you that the future is bright! Despite the matching grey Manitoba sky beyond, the colour has a warm, an inviting neutrality. I had forgotten that the building isn’t square on the lot. “It’s squee gee,” as Mom would say. It doesn’t parallel the facing street, The Drive, but tilts slightly toward the intersecting Station Road, Shoal Lake’s main drag.

Rarified 21st century mists of Art Moderne still lurk about the old place, passing along pleasing reminders of gentler, less-pre-occupied times to anyone who can slow down and notice them. Take a deep Art Moderne breath, old friend. You’ve earned it.


            As a fine example of Art Moderne architecture, the building stands among a dwindling number of such historic places left in Canada. Its geometric form, precise location for striking visual appeal and the renown of its creator conspire to make this a little treasure worthy of preserving.

      The company Walter Teague started in 1926 is still going strong today creating innovative and award-winning industrial design.

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Reid Dickie

            Though the word “shoal” has multiple meanings, the one that applies most aptly here is “shallow.” According to accounts from a native missionary doing work in the area in the 1870s, the lake was very shallow and could be forded easily in several places. Thus the descriptive name of the lake and, later, the village.

            Many other Shoal Lakes dot the map of Manitoba but they are all just that – lakes. No other Manitoba town is known as Shoal Lake. The Shoal Lake north of Lake of the Woods, from which Winnipeg draws its water via an aqueduct, is the largest. There is a cluster of three lakes west of Teulon in the Interlake named North, East and West Shoal Lake. Each of them is much larger than our Shoal Lake.

            In 1950, an editorial in The Shoal Lake Star by local Bernard Friesen promoted a name change to Shoal Lake City to distinguish it from the other Shoal Lakes. It didn’t fly.

            Streets around Shoal Lake bear names ranging from the classic and bucolic to ones honouring first settlers to mysterious and evocative.

            Odds are even that in any prairie town you will find either or both a South and North Railway Avenue, like in Shoal Lake. Similar odds apply to Main Street. Here, Shoal Lake rebels. Its Main Street is residential and the most easterly street in town.

             The village adopted numerical avenues that run east/west and some classic street names. Chestnut, Oak, Elm, and Maple Streets suggest peaceful nurturing surroundings.

            Matthew Thompson settled the western half of the section about 1881. Many streets located here bear names of his family. Thompson Street feeds Jane, Elizabeth and Helena Streets and runs parallel to Mary Street, named after Matt’s daughters Elizabeth, Jane and Mary. I’m unsure where or if Helena fits in the family tree.

            These streets named after women run east/west and should actually be avenues. However, perhaps due to Thompson family connections, they are streets.

            Birtle and Newdale are after the nearby towns. McKenzie and Findlay bear the names of early townsite settlers. River Street ends at Oak River. Manitoba Street is obvious. Lake Street is a pleasant cruise along the water.

            Less obvious are The Drive, The Parade and Station Road. The Drive branches off from South Railway and extends around the lake becoming Highway #42. It is a luxurious arc around the lakeshore, a lovely “drive.”

            The Parade leads from Station Road providing access to the park, beach and water, a joyful destination requiring a parade to get there.

            In the early days, businesses and residencies were mostly north of the tracks. The south was a swampy area that required plenty of preparation to develop. The term Station Road may indicate it was never meant to be a major street, just a road into the wilderness from the railway station.

            Any thoughts on Raven Street? Perhaps after Raven Lake?

484 words



Reid Dickie

             “You can take the boy from the country but you can’t take the country from the boy.” While this theory is tested with greater frequency now than ever before, I must confess to being a living example of its truth, though everyone’s experience of this is singular and individual. I beg your indulgence as I share some intimate thoughts on what it means to me to be from Shoal Lake.

            We moved to Shoal Lake from a smaller place, Hayfield, in 1957 when I was eight. I left at nineteen. Those are formative years when one grows from an egocentric to sociocentric worldview, starts taking the role of the other, thinking about thinking and, finally, feeling like a citizen of the planet. Just before I left home, my father said that no matter where I roamed or what I accomplished in my life, I would always think of Shoal Lake as my hometown. He was right.

            Shoal Lake, as a hometown, was a nurturing source and a springboard to launch myself into the world, a place to come from and, when needed, a place to go home to, either physically or in memory.  Many things draw me back. The strong sense of community, which the village inspired, is indelible. This living example of a co-operative community has benefited me in personal growth and working in group situations. Many lifelong friendships with fellow Shoal Lakers attest to the value of a shared source with experiences and beginnings in common.

            Shoal Lake has been fertile ground for much of my recent writing. Researching and writing the historical articles for Crossroads This Week gave me a chance to discover the town’s past, revel in its disclosures and enjoy my hometown in ever-new ways. As a fiction writer, I find Shoal Lake a rich source of characters, situations and conditions.

            More than anything, I love the sense of place Shoal Lake gave me. I come from somewhere. I can point to a dot on a map and say, “That’s my hometown.” I know it’s always there. In addition to the people, Shoal Lake’s powerful sense of place is embodied in, what I romantically call, “my cathedrals.”

            My cathedrals are more humble than the stone behemoths the word usually conjures. Though it was a town with five spired churches (we went to the United), my cathedrals were the movie theatre, town hall, high school, ice rink, trestle train bridge and the spruce grove by the lake. Each carries its own personal significance and teaching.

            The only cathedral left standing today is the grove of spruce trees that decorate a slow incline up and away from the water’s edge at the north end of the lake. As part of village landscaping, J. D. McLean planted the trees in 1928. Vulnerable to the prevailing, often harsh, northwest winds, the trees lean away from the wind.  It’s not a thick grove but an airy and light stand. Under your feet lies eighty years of brown needles thatched in slow decay.

            By the 1960s, the spruces were their most verdant. Early maturity brought a luscious deep green to the shore when viewed in perfect morning light. Under these sheltering branches, many rites of passage and epiphanal moments occurred for my friends and me. Here bonding moments so serene, proving moments so intense and our love for the whole wide world created new beings out of us. Boundless expressions of song and laughter echoed among the trees and into the starry night; acoustic guitars were strummed to bleeding during long rambling confessions of angst, love and guilt.In this confessional, the trees listened patiently, ever returning each of us to sanctity, to grace.

            With the wisdom of age and experience that we sensed as youth, when I walk among these trees today, I am among friends. To walk among them now is to hear the echoes of young voices and see friends splashing in the shiny water, to hear the blues played on a lone harmonica at the edge of a prairie lake by a farm boy whose father works him like slave.

            Confusing, hormone-befuddled days turned into evenings of comradeship, peace and caring, of understandings that curious youth bring only to each other. Spirit lived in this cathedral and still does today. The links we share with our past when using landmarks as guides are the local knowledge and the discovery of Spirit in yet another form.

            Today the trees are past maturity, their trunks mostly bare, their foliage a rickety umbrella high overhead. The overripe spruce are easy pickings for wind; they creak now even in small breezes. Crushing windstorms break off the old trees regularly. Yet they remain my lone cathedral, still bending in the wind, becoming ever more majestic in their age and decay.

            Although grass grows thick over my parent’s graves in Shoal Lake Cemetery and I have few friends left in the town, Shoal Lake is still home in the sense of it being the repository of my growing and changing. It is where those memories reside. It will always be home to the cathedrals that played significant roles in my youth, cathedrals that time and progress have taken away.

            One other thing Shoal Lake taught me: when I left home, I forfeited the right to influence or own my cathedrals anywhere but in memory. As it should be.

890 words


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