During the early years of Big River, the lumber company owned and operated the entire town. Private businesses were seldom allowed because it was a "Company Town". The Company had the responsibility for everything from housing, boarding places, school, post office, and hospital as well as all the business places. When the need arose for a blacksmith or a barber, it was the Lumber Company that arranged for such services to be provided to accommodate the workers of the community.
One of the earliest general stores was located near to the location of the present post office. That particular store was not company owned so did not last long before it was closed down.
Mr.E.C. Brownfield was a gentleman who did not quite agree that the Company should control all areas of business and proceeded to make plans to build his own store. The Company, however, stood firm on their policy and would not allow Mr. Brownfield any land on which to build. Being a very resourceful person, this did not daunt him and Mr. Brownfield began a correspondence with the government officials. He soon had their permission to build his store on the base-line or road allowance, the only surveyed land over which the Lumber Company had no control.
The building was a very large one, two storeys high and room enough for living quarters in the back. It was built on the hill just north of where the Catholic Church is today, overlooking the 'sliding hill' and Cowan Lake. For many years it served as a general store for the community. It was later remodeled into a hall and an apartment house. During this time it was known as Hillcrest Hall. The building was demolished in the late fifties, but had been a landmark for years.
In dealing with the businesses of Big River, over the years, it is necessary to picture the needs and changes as they took place. First there was the Lumber Company era, in all its glory. These were booming years and hundreds of people came and left the town. They were busy years and business was good; the mill produced to its full capacity with plenty of employment. Then came the "big fire of 1919" that all the old-timers remember so well. This brought an end to the big payrolls and the boom days of Big River.
With the surrounding forests lying burnt and black, the Company could do nothing but leave. Many settlers left at this time too, some following the Lumber Company in their move and others to various places. A new era began for those who chose to stay.
The lumber company offered the whole town for sale for the sum of twenty thousand dollars, and five local men bought it. They received title to all the land and all the buildings in January of 1922. These five men were E.C. Brownfield, Peter Figeland, Anton Johnson, W.W. Turple, and John Waite; they formed the Big River Development Company. Each member owned part of the town and could pretty well do as he wished with it. Private business began to flourish as, gradually, the people emerged from the control of the Company and became more independent. The Development Company encouraged growth, and while times were hard and money scarce, a gradual form of business took place. Farming, fishing, freighting, and small mills began to give the community enough employment to survive during the hungry thirties and to begin to grow again over the next twenty years.
We present here, the story of some of the business places and how they served the community.
The lumber company, realizing the need for a baker, allowed Louis Godin to build and operate a bake shop. His bake shop was constructed where the present Red and White Store is located and was later enlarged to a general store. The Godin bake shop lasted until the 1920s. George Thibeault, Pete Godin, and Wilfred Godin, all worked there at various times.
George McKnight also had a bakery. It was situated where the bus depot is today. In 1929, he converted his bakery into a beer and wine shop. The equipment from the bakery was purchased Phillipe Beauleau who set up a shop on First Avenue South; he ran this business for a short time.
George Thibeault making bread in O.P Godin's bakery
Mr. Pete Godin opened and operated a bake shop in the back of his store. Louis Chenard and George Bull worked in the shop to make a daily supply of fresh bread. In 1948, Wilfred and Yvette Godin opened a bake shop and lunch counter on the corner of Main and Fourth Avenue. The Godin's kept the shop open until 1960. In 1961, Mrs. Elizabeth Becker acquired the equipment and in 1964 she moved into a new shop where the present bakery is today. In 1968, it was sold to Mrs. Watson who ran it until 1973 when Mr. and Mrs. Albert Carter bought it. Members of the Carter family operate the bakery at the present time.
There were no banking services until October, 1949, when the Canadian Bank of Commerce opened a small branch near the present location of Al's Jewelry. In the lumber mill days a large vault was used for banking purposes, this was located behind the building that is now the Rex Cafe. This vault can be depicted in some of the old pictures.
The first bank was only a shack on skids and not completely finished or equipped. Mr. Sanderson and a clerk made the initial opening of the branch and Mr. M.V.Cummings was the first manager. He arrived with his wife and family in December, 1949. The bank building, as well as the living quarters, was very cold. Living accommodations included an apartment building which housed Dr. Crux and family as well as the George Apps family. It was arranged with Waite Fisheries Ltd. to build three new houses on the hill behind the hospital. One of these homes was purchased by the bank to accommodate their managers.
Rex Cafe, showing the old company vault
In the early years of banking, it was found that most of the larger businesses were heavily involved with banks in the cities, and that they would not be able to arrange their banking with the Commerce in Big River for several years. The district was only in the homesteading stage, consequently there was not much prospect for the time being. It was necessary to look south for business to keep the doors open. Farmers and business places from Shell Lake and Mildred opened accounts and in a few years bank loans enabled farmers to make improvements and to change over from horses to motorized farm equipment. Loans were made to the North as well, to Dore Lake and Sled Lake and to northern mink ranchers.
The property on which the bank now stands was purchased and the original small building was skidded across the street to this location. In 1967, a new bank building was opened and services the community today.
Bank Managers who have served in Big River are the following: M.V. Cummings, W.J. Reynolds, F.B. Reed, J.D. McKay, J.Y. Tessier, N.S. Wettergreen and B. Ilsley. The present manager is Gordon Meadows.
Most parents acted as barbers for their families and many children sported the 'bowl' haircut, or the short, short, summer cut. Frank Beeson became the first barber during the Ladder Lake Company years. His shop was where the Second Hand store is located today. Mr. Beeson died in 1921.
Howard Darbyshire owned a barber shop in the 1930 - 1940 period. Mr. Edgar Wiggins opened a shop on Second Avenue in 1950 and operated it for ten years. Since 1960, our barbers have been Mr. and Mrs. F. Coates and Ed Kreinke.
Pete Bouchard came to Big River in 1911 and opened a barber shop in 1922. The building also supported a pool hall and later a theatre. In 1940, this building burned down and Mr. Bouchard rebuilt the theatre on the corner of Main and Third, its present location. Pete continued his barber trade until he retired in 1950.
Horses played a very important role in the early days. The lumber company built a large barn which was capable of stabling forty teams at one time. This was a t-shaped barn, located down by the lake, west of the station and was very much in use during the mill days. When the Lumber Company left, the barn was used by freighters and two men operated it, Mr. Brotherston and Fred Coates. Mr. Coates eventually took it over and managed it for many years.
Mr. Geoffrey owned a feed shed across the tracks from the present elevator. Harry Sweet also operated a livery barn for a time. With horses in general use, there were several feed barns in town and some in the country as well.
Good blacksmiths were in constant demand during the early years, and many men tried their hand at this business. Alonzo Chamberland, his father, Paul La Gouffe, Jim Tapley and Henry Bouchard were among the first and the best in this field.
The Bouchard Shop was located just west of the present Gulf Station. Jim Tapley had his shop near the I.C. Fish Company land. In 1931, Ted and Ed Otte operated a blacksmith and car repair shop; John Redikop and Albert Kainz worked for them. The need for blacksmiths was greatest in the days of horse and wagon; this trade gradually gave way to garages and repair shops.
Henry Bouchard's blacksmith and repair shop
The large L-shaped boarding house was built by the Lumber Company to accommodate the many single men they employed. It was also a pool room for recreation. Many of the guests in those early days remember the excellent meals served at the boarding house. Mrs. Clara Klyne, Mrs. Jim Morrison, and Mr. Williams were a few of the first cooks. The Boarding House accommodated two hundred guests and was one of the main buildings of the early years.
During the Big River Development Company years, it was sold to a woman in Prince Albert. She rented it out to travelers as apartment quarters. In 1925, the boarding house was destroyed by fire and another landmark was lost to flames.
Ladder Lake Lumber Company boarding house
The Boarding House Burning
With employment capacity of one thousand men, the Company was forced to supply fresh meat that would be readily available. They opened a butcher shop and hired Jack Hurd and Harry Gilbert as butchers. The shop was located near to the boarding house and operated for many years before it was destroyed by fire.
Mr. Briscoe owned a butcher shop which was located near the site of the Legion Hall. Several of the general stores installed a meat counter in later years and this custom has continued over the years. Some of the early store owners with meat counters installed in their stores included Walter Glowaski, O.P. Godin, Joe Friedman and Waite Fisheries Ltd.
"Grannie McKnight", as she was affectionately known, ran a confectionery and restaurant in the mill days. Her small but lively business was situated on the site of the present day theatre. She opened her restaurant in the spring of 1915 and continued business until 1923. An added attraction to lunches and meals served there, was Mrs. McKnight's homemade ice cream.
Mrs. Minna Brownfield served meals in the Lakeview Hotel. Opened in 1926, meals were served in the large dining room of the hotel.
Mrs. Pearl McNabb operated a restaurant called the "Rex Cafe" in the 1920s. This building was located south of Yurach's Store.
The present Rex Cafe was first operated by Der Tom. A cafe adjoining the theatre has had several managers, among them are: Kelly Shatilla, Bill and Mary Buckingham, Ruth and Art Buckingham, and Mr. and Mrs. Skilleter.
View of town showing Yurach's store and McNabb's boarding house and restaurant.
Yurach's General Store and McNabb's Cafe
During the early 1920s, a group of local farmers went into the cheese making business. Bruno Lemiere was the man who looked after the processing of the cheese while the farmers supplied the milk. The location of the first cheese factory was where the Bergan Home is today. The business flourished for several years before it was dissolved.
A few years later, O.P. Godin backed Fred Croteau and cheese production began again on the same location. However, in order to produce cheese, milk had to be received early in the morning, road conditions were so poor that the farmers had difficulty in delivering the milk. This caused the factory to close down again after two summers operation.
In 1940, another cheese factory was established after an application had been approved by the Dairy License Board of the province. The factory was managed by George Croteau of Debden. Part of the financial backing was provided by O.P. Godin, a local merchant. This was during the war years and the need for the production of local cheese was necessary because the supply from overseas was non-existent.
The Dray business played an important part in the town, delivering express and freight from the train to individuals and places of business. Most transportation was done by rail as the roads were poor. Frank Fowler (Paddy Hines) had the cartage for quite some time. Olaf Anderson was drayman during the 1930s. Chris Wopenford drove after that, followed by John Hoehn and Jim Forbes, Mr. Jake Belfry and Harry Sweet operated a dray business for several years as well.
Mr. McClaskey, a pharmacist, had a drug store in O.P. Godin's general store in the early years. Mr.Payne came to Big River in 1935 and operated a drug store for some years. He joined the army in 1940 and upon his return he closed the drug store and began working for O.P Godin.
For many years prescriptions were phoned to Shellbrook and would come up by bus.
In November 1964, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Hartnett opened the present drug store.
The elevator when it was owned by Searle
The elevator was built in 1939 and opened for business in August of that year. It was opened by Searle Grain Company of Winnipeg. At that time, it had a forty thousand bushel capacity and was operated by Mr. Ken Knetchell. During 1940, Searle Grain sold an average of twelve carloads of flour and feed per year.
Robert Halliday became the operator from 1944 to 1947. Later Walter Videen and Ed Pederson were elevator managers.
In 1952, Malcolm Scrivens became operator. During his first year more grain was brought to the elevator than was shipped out. This was due to the grain being used for the horses of the freight swings.
Mr. Elmer (Bud) Juker became operator in 1966. In August, 1966, Searle Grain and Federal Grain amalgamated into the Federal Grain Company Ltd. This company sold to Saskatchewan Wheat Pool in 1972.
The elevator now holds a thirty-five thousand bushel capacity and has been a great service to Big River since its origin.
As automobiles became more popular, Henri Bouchard converted his blacksmith shop into a garage for modern machinery.
Mr. Bouchard became an expert mechanic. He continued his blacksmith trade as well by working with iron works.
Among the first garage operators were the Otte brothers and Tom Young and Sons. Young's Garage was first located on First Avenue north of the hotel.
Early gas pumps owned by Edward Otte,
(L-R) Jim Otte and Helen Otte in 1928.
In the early 1940s, it was moved to the site of the present day Gulf Station. Youngs sold the garage to Nick and Sylvia Shukin and it is now leased by LaPlante and Hannam.
On the lot across from the Gulf Station, another garage was built by Ernest Delisle in 1940. This garage burned several years later.
Jalmer Johnson and Dan Rowgowski built a garage and welding shop in 1948. Mike Skopyk bought it in 1952 and still operates it today.
Grant and Vivian Gould, own and manage, the Shell Service Station that was built in 1961.
Both Eddie Wirtz and Paul Colleaux had garages for a time.
In the 1940s, an Imperial agency was established in Big River. Before this time, fuel was hauled by truck from Prince Albert; this trip would take an entire day. The installation of large reserve tanks allowed fuel to be shipped further north. The forty-five gallon barrels were filled at the Esso and then trucked to Buffalo Narrows.
The first Imperial Agent was Paul St. Arnaud, followed by his son Edmund. Edmund had the dealership until 1952, when Gordon Geitz took over the business. In 1962, Carmen Weir became the Imperial Oil Agent.
Carmen was in partnership with his brother, Lindsay, in Prince Albert. They were, at this time, involved with Imperial Oil. When Carmen Weir and his family moved to Big River, Gordon Geitz had already established the service station and garage. The first staff members at Weir's Esso Service were Ralph Morin and Ray Webb.
When the Big River Development Company bought all the land and buildings from the lumber company in 1922, Mr. Brownfield became owner of the company store and warehouse. He established his general store there. After the original buildings burned down, Mr. Brownfield saw the need of a hotel. Using the brick from the old mill site, he constructed a two storey building. Guest rooms were upstairs and on the ground floor was the large dining room with big round tables carefully covered with linen table covers. Mrs. Brownfield served excellent home-cooked meals to the hotel patrons from the spacious kitchen. In the corner part of the ground floor was a general store.
The hotel was named the Lakeview Hotel and still bears this name today. Mrs. J.K. Johnson was one of the first guests to stay in the new hotel in 1926. The hotel had the only power plant for quite some time. Often it was the scene of a showing of films so those sponsoring the event could use the electricity. Carl Brownfield helped his parents run the hotel and on their retirement, John Brownfield took over and later sold to Paul St. Arnaud and Lorenzo Tremblay. The first bar appeared in the 1940s and of course was for "men only".
Other hotel owners have been the following: Schwann, Pecarski, Stalker, Barre, Mysko, Mieklejohn, and its present owners, Wayne and Audrey Hammon.
The Big River Lakeview Hotel
There seem to have been several small milk delivery routes in the early days of Big River and many of the local residents kept their own cow in the backyard.
Swea and Gus Swanson delivered cans of milk to the hotel and to restaurants, from the farm. They pulled the full milk cans into town on a hand sleigh on their way to school. Often they had one of the younger children sit on the can to give it balance and keep it from tipping. During the summer a small wagon was used.
Around 1913, Albert Fortin ran a large herd of milk cows and had a milk route in town. His farm was west of the Forestry. A little later, Thomas Tremblay, established a milk route and delivery in town from his farm just south on Ladder Lake. The Tremblay sons Gaudoise and Gus, helped with this. Some of the round tokens used as milk tickets are still around today as souveniers.
Hubert Michel delivering milk
Charlie Michel and family operated a milk service from their home property, which was just east of the present day Max Wilson home. Mr. Tallman had a milk business too. It was operated from his farm home about two miles down the railway tracks along the river.
The largest milk supply and delivery was that of Joseph Otte, who supplied a daily delivery to residents for many years. His dairy farm was just north of where George Otte's home is now. He had a barn there and ran a fairly large herd on the quarter section. Mr Otte was also a market gardener, so he supplied fresh garden produce to residents as well. George Otte took over the dairy after his father retired and continued in this business for many years. In the late 1940s, he sold out to Armand Chenard and a year later it was sold to Hubert Michel. Many can recall the large white wagon and faithful horse, Bob, used to make deliveries each day. It proved to be a favourite place "to catch a ride" and many young boys and girls made the rounds with the milk wagon. Milk was selling for seventeen cents a quart at that time.
Pasteurization became the law in the early 1950s so the small dairies were forced out of business as the expensive equipment necessary for pasteurization was not practical in such a small area. Milk has since been brought in from Prince Albert on transport trucks.
Big River has never had a regular newspaper, at least not one that lasted very long. Back in the 1920s, Mr. MacDonald had a small paper printed for a short time and later Mr. Craddock issued some copies of "The Hornet".
Mr. Forbes had a new stand in part of the Post Office where he sold magazines, novelties, school books, greeting cards, and papers.
The Big River Lumber Company installed its own generating units and therefore was among the first to have electrical power.
A steam boiler was brought into town for power in 1936 under the partnership of Ed Otte and Pete Godin. At first, poles and wiring were set up throughout the town supplying only a few houses with power. Ed sold out to Pete in 1938 and Pete Godin then hired John Tradell. In 1940, Pete had Ted Otte and Lionel Frechette operating the plant. In 1941, the first diesel engine was installed. The era of the steam engines was coming to a close and in 1944, the steam boiler was replaced by another diesel engine.
When Pete Godin moved in 1945, he sold the plant to Ernest Delisle but unfortunately the plant burned. In 1948, Len Waite built a power plant and named it the Big River Light and Power Company. It produced 110 volts A.C. and stood back of Waite's warehouses. Kay Hanson operated Len Waite's plant and read the meters.
Before Len Waite built the power plant the power in town was D.C., which was direct current. The lights in town would gradually dim as the steam boiler ran down. Once it was charged up again the lights would come on, full power. All the outlets and electrical appliances in town were wired for D.C. and when Len Waite built his plant it had A.C., (alternating current), A.C. being completely different, and made it necessary for everyone to have their homes completely re-wired. All electrical appliances had to have the alternating current as well.
Taken from the minutes of the Town Council, dated September 13, 1949, is the following: "Bylaw 38 - to sign contract with the Big River Light and Power Company to supply electric light and power to the Village of Big River."
The Big River Light and Power Company was sold to the Saskatchewan Power Commission in 1956.
Mr. T. Arsenault operated a shoe repair here in the early years. His shop was moved to several different locations during the years. The first shoe repair shop was where the R.C.M.P. barracks are today. The second place was on Fourth and Main Street, where the Co-op store once stood and the third location was across from the present rink on the highway.
In the late 1920s, when the R.C.A.F. camp was being built at Ladder Lake, much of Mr. Arsenault's business was that of repairing boots and shoes used by the construction workers at the base. Funds for the shoe repair were provided by the Federal Government. Besides shoe repair, Mr. Arsenault worked at repairing harnesses for the freight swings.
Mr. Horace Chenard is said to have made the finest boots a man could wear. These were all hand-made and highly-prized footwear. Mr. Chenard also made special shoes for one local gentleman who had frozen his feet very severely and could not wear ordinary shoes.
Mr. Hendrickson operated a shoe repair shop during the mill days.
In later years, Mr. Louis Bradley repaired shoes and harness.
The lumber Company had the first general store in the area, followed closely by the Brownfield store on the hill. Shortly after the Big River Development Company took over, several new general stores sprang up. One of these was operated by the Freidman Brothers, Joe and Rueben. Their store later was remodeled and became the cheese factory.
Jarvis and Shields had a general store on Second Avenue North. Mr. Halle owned and operated a store in the early years. This was located at the end of First Avenue and was the same building in which Tommy Thibeault had previously had his store. Wilfred Godin also had a store there.
Louis Godin continued to operate his bake shop, but soon enlarged it to include a grocery and dry goods department. An ice cream parlour and drug store were added when Pete Godin assumed the management from his father.
The Pete Godin family moved to Quebec in 1945 and sold the business to a group of local men. Three of these were, Nels Edson, Vernon Johnson and Paul St. Arnaud. This group later sold their shares to Eikel and Lomsnes who sold again to Joe Freidman. When Joe left for the east to retire, he sold the business to the present owners, Anna, Rider, and Leonard Lomsnes. The store is now known as the Red and White Store.
O.P. Godin's Store
Harry South's store in Bodmin was moved into town and located on First Avenue and Main. Mr. and Mrs. Tom Huxted operated a general store in this building for many years.
Mr. Mathews started a hardware store where Yurach's Enterprise is today. In 1928, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Yurach bought this store and made it into a hardware and grocery store. Later it was managed by Bill and Marg Yurach. In 1965, the family built the I.G.A. Store, which was managed by George and Neil Yurach.
Walter Glowaski built a small general store on First Avenue and after he moved away, Kathy Waite operated the Shop-Rite Store there.
Around 1937, several local men formed a Co-op and opened a general store across from the present day Pharmacy. Some of this group were the following: Ron and Dave Morrison, Robert Wood, Richard Bell, Fred Bond, Ernest Straub, Sam Lyons and Paul Dube. It remained open about ten years. Some of the managers who worked there are the following, Kurt Bengston, Doreen Bell, Ron Morrison and Mary McTaggart.
Waite Fisheries Limited opened a general store in 1943 and later enlarged the building to include a dry goods store. The building included office space for the fisheries and fish filleting and packing areas. There was also a refrigeration room and storage. They opened a Filleting Plant at Dore Lake in 1945 and bought out Big River Fisheries the same year.
Waites Fisheries Limited
When the company owned town it is necessary to provide people with some kind of recreation; therefore a theatre was built where the present one stands today. When they sold out and moved the mill, the theatre became the property of the Development Company and continued to serve as a theatre until it was destroyed by fire while under the management of Anton Johnson.
Hugh Green is said to have operated a "show hall" in 1912, and Mr. Haplin ran a dance hall pavilion out by Ladder Lake.
Mr. Horace (Pete) Bouchard operated a small theatre just north of J.K. Johnson's home. This building burned and the following year Pete and Fred Bouchard built the present theatre.
The Lumber Producers
Big River Lumber Producers was operated by Joe Freidman and Andy Sundby and was located where the Pool Hall is today. Several years later it was sold to Beaver Lumber Company who ran the business for a while under the management of Walter Braidy.
Big River Lumber Producers and The Beaver Lumber Company
Saskatchewan Timber Board
J.K. Johnson purchased the original Company Mill site from Peter Figeland of the Development Company in 1922 when private business was encouraged. Mr Johnson operated a lumber business for many years and then sold the property to the Saskatchewan Timber Board in 1946. Plans for a new government owned sawmill were soon under way. Mr. J.K. Johnson was hired and remained the first Superintendent for several years while the mill was under construction.
Saskatchewan Timber Board Planer Mill, 1953
The new mill was officially opened by the Hon. J.H. Brockelbank on June 22, 1950 under supervision of W.E. Montgomery. The construction engineer was Mr. S.A. Wienstein.
The sawmill and planer mill operated for sixteen years before fire once again changed the history of Big River. On a windy day in May, 1969, the Big Mill was completely destroyed.
Once again plans were made to reconstruct the mill, this time at a new location on one of the piling yard sites. Hon. J. Ross Barrie outlined the plans of the new construction in a sod turning ceremony held Oct. 17, 1970. The mill was in operation the following year. Just five years later it closed and the lumber industry moved from Big River to Bodmin where it is presently located.
Saskatchewan Timber Board lumber shed, Big River, 1953
Big River Lumber Company Store, 1912
The Saskatchewan Timber Board Retail Yard began in 1950 in an office located behind Waite Fisheries Limited. Later it was moved to a location east of the present Fire Hall where it served this community for many years.
Tommy Huxted Store and Saskatchewan Wheat Pool elevator.
Every attempt has been made to cover the business places that have served this community through the years. Some have surely been missed and we regret this. The places of business and the people mentioned have been taken from the responses to our letters and from what information we could gather. Our sincere thanks to those who responded.