In the winter of 1950-51, I got permission from Head Office to move the Ile-a-la-Crosse store up to the lot in the village and contracted the same Meadow Lake firm who had moved our Green Lake post to do the job. The store basement was dug and concrete walls built. Then our large warehouse was moved by tractor and placed on the foundations. Bill Watt and his staff packed all the store stock into fish boxes and moved them over to the warehouse on the new location which was then used as a temporary store. The store itself was a little more difficult, as it was a wing-type construction. Shaped like the letter T, the main store took up the centre with a wing on one side as office and post office and a wing on the other side for heated grocery storage. The two wings were carefully detached from the main building and the whole moved over in three sections and fitted on the new basement. The move took about three weeks to complete and because of its new location in the village, sales increased greatly.
About a year previously, Bill Cobb was transferred back to Winnipeg from Edmonton and appointed manager of Central Post Division. There had always been a divisional manager for Eastern Post Division stationed in Montreal and one for Western Post Division stationed in Edmonton, but having a divisional manager in Central Division was something new. Up until now, we had always run our districts, making our decisions as we went along and, if we had any knotty problems to discuss, we went straight to the General Manager.
Now everything had to go through the divisional manager and things were different. There is no doubt that Bill Cobb had the qualifications and the experience essential for his job but he was a complete autocrat. Nothing, but nothing could be done in his division without his say-so. I found him impossible to work with and difficult to work for. Fortunately, Saskatchewan District sales and profits kept increasing so he had little to criticize.
In 1952, there were the usual changes of post managers. Bob Middleton went from Buffalo Narrows to Port Simpson, B.C. and I moved Steve Preweda down from Portage La Loche to replace him. It was almost a chess game. Each move demanded another, so Stan Woodard went from Patuanak to Portage La Loche and Jim Watson, a young clerk from Aberdeen, Scotland was promoted from Ile-a-la-Crosse to Patuanak. Jim had the makings of a good post manager but he couldn't keep his hands off anything mechanical. He longed to be a mechanic. He took his typewriter apart and when he tried to put it back together, he had several pieces left over. The same thing happened to his side-band radio by which he communicated with Ile-a-la-Crosse. His electric light plant, outboard motor and even his Bombardier went the same way. He was costing us a small fortune in replacement engines, radio sets and other mechanical items. Finally I had to warn him to leave things alone, otherwise, he could not stay in charge of a post.
Wally Buhr departed from Montreal Lake to Moose Factory and later became manager of Manitoba District. I moved Jim Boatman from Southend to take his place and put a clerk from Pelican Narrows in charge. Tommy Cockburn had been a model apprentice and his manager at Pelican Narrows, Andy McKinley, had a high opinion of him and was sure Tommy would make a good post manager. Alas, this was not the case.
I visited Southend several times and, on the surface, Tommy appeared to be doing all right. But when his apprentice clerk was moved for the summer months, Tommy fell apart and when I dropped into Southend in the fall, the place was in a terrible mess. When he brought cases of merchandise from the warehouse into the store, the empty cardboard cartons were left lying on the floor and the post was ankle-deep in garbage. Strolling down to the lakeshore, I found the post canoe with the engine still on the stern loosely tied up and bumping badly against the rocks. He had gone up the lake to visit fishermen at Co-op Point and, on returning the previous night, had failed to tie up the canoe properly. The canoe pounded against the rocks all night and now had two holes in the bow.
It was enough for me. I suspended him on the spot and sent him back to Winnipeg by the outgoing mail plane. I wired District Office with my report and asked for a replacement immediately, as I was remaining at the post to clean it up. What a mess it was! Even the bedrooms were filthy. It took me an entire week to get the place shipshape, just in time for Roy Simpson and his wife to take over. Roy was a farm boy from Saskatchewan and proved to be one of the best managers I ever had. After we had taken a change of management inventory and checked the annual requisitions, which were woefully inadequate, we made out the supplementary requisitions for the following year's supplies and I left, knowing that the post was once again in good hands.
On a subsequent visit, I learned that all the white fishermen on Reindeer Lake were aware of Tommy's behaviour but none of them said a word to me until after he had gone. He started visiting up the lake, staying overnight at first and then lengthening his trips to two or three days. In mid-August, when the Roman Catholic Bishop visited Southend, Tommy wasn't there and the post remained closed for a week. The fishermen ran a sweepstake on how long it would be before I found out.
Len Coates moved down to Stanley, replacing Bill McKinnie at La Ronge. To take his place at Stanley I got Victor Mackay, another Scottish clerk who had served his apprenticeship in Saskatchewan District before being moved east to the charge of Nipigon House.
On November 23, 1952, a wire arrived at district Office from Buffalo Narrows.
JOHN MARSHAL, MANAGER DILLON, MISSING AND BELIEVED DROWNED. STOP. COME IMMEDIATELY.
I flew out from Winnipeg that evening, arriving in Buffalo Narrows by noon the following day. I talked to Steve Preweda, our store manager, and the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The story they told me was later confirmed.
John Marshall had decided to make one last trip to Buffalo Narrows for the mail before freeze-up. Accompanied by an Indian, he set out by boat but found that the narrows at old Fort Point was frozen right across so they turned back to the post. Thwarted in his first attempt to make a final boat trip, John decided to take his clerk, Ron Still, and a native straight across the lake to a small bay on the far side and land them there. He told them to pick up the telephone line trail which ran south from Portage La loche and travel along it to Buffalo Narrows. They were to overnight there, pick up the mail the following morning and return to the bay where John would be waiting to pick them up.
Ronnie telephoned John at Dillon the next morning confirming the time of their meeting and set our with his Indian companion. The night had been extremely cold and they arrived at the bay to find it frozen over for some distance out from the shore. Beyond the ice, a thick steamy fog was rising from the freezing water.
The smooth unbroken shore ice showed that John Marshall had not yet arrived.
'John should be here by now,' said Ron, checking his watch. 'Can you hear anything? This fog is so thick I can't see anything.'
'Listen! I can hear the motor. He's coming,' said the Indian.
The sound of the motor came nearer and nearer but still they couldn't see the boat.
'Fire your rifle in the air. He'll hear it and get his direction,' said Ronnie. Both men fire several rounds and then listened intently. The motor stopped. Then started up again.
As the sound of the engine faded in the distance, Ron started calling John's name. It's no use calling. He can't hear you over the sound of the engine. Wait until he circles around and we'll fire our guns again,' advised the Indian.
Although the two young men could hear the boat circling around several times, the noise grew fainter and fainter and then died away in the distance. They stayed in place for some time, firing their rifles at intervals, but on hearing nothing, decided to walk back to Buffalo Narrows. They tried to raise Dillon on the telephone but there was no answer. John Marshall had not returned to the post. They reported immediately to the mounted Police and search parties were sent out along the eastern shore of Big Buffalo Lake. They met with no success.
Ronnie still and his Indian companion managed to cross the thickening ice at the Old Fort Narrows and walked along the shore to Dillon. There was no sign of John and the natives there advised them that he had not returned the previous day.
I talked to Ron Still by telephone and asked him if he could look after the post until I had time to get another manager. If not, I emphasized, I would get the services of a helicopter and come over myself. But Ronnie was made of stern stuff. He had only a few months of experience with the Company but he assured me that he could look after the business affairs satisfactorily until we got a new manager. He ran the post alone for two weeks until the ice became thick enough for Mike Ferguson, a senior clerk, to cross by Bombardier to take charge.
Several weeks later, the prow of John Marshall's boat was found showing just above the ice. When it was chopped out there were two large gashes almost four feet long running along each side of the boat at the waterline. It seemed evident that John Marshall had lost his sense of direction in the fog and kept trying to run through the skim ice until the cedar wood was worn right through and the boat filled with water and sank. Although dragging operations were begun immediately in the surrounding area of the lake, his body was not found until open water the following spring when it finally came to the surface.