HBC Montage.

Events and Tragedy

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In early January 1953, I flew by scheduled plane from Prince Albert to La Ronge to pick up a charter flight to Brochet. After lunch, I went over to the store (below) to pick up my sleeping bag which I had parked there after my last trip. The store was closed, as it was their half-holiday, but Len Coates, the manager, unlocked the office door and we chatted for about fifteen minutes. Then I picked up my bag, Len locked the office door and went back to his house, and Rene and I took off in a Stinson to fly the two hundred odd miles to Brochet. When we landed just before dark, Bill Garbutt handed me a telegram which had just been delivered. I opened the envelope and was aghast to read a wire from Len Coates that the La Ronge store had burned down. I couldn't understand it. I had left La Ronge barely three hours ago. The La Ronge Store and Manager's Dwelling. First thing next morning, back we flew to La Ronge. The wooden structure was completely gone; only the cement foundations remained. Fortunately, the dwelling house and nearby warehouse were untouched by the fire which had obviously started at the back end of the store, well away from the furnace. The only thing Len and I could come up with was a short circuit. The cash register which stood on the counter at the rear of the store was plugged into an electric outlet on the floor and we surmised that snow had gotten into the outlet, gradually melted and caused a short circuit. Len advised District Office and I sent them a wire saying I was on the spot and would look after things.

The warehouse was a large, substantial, unheated and uninsulated building and we decided to convert it to a temporary store. We scrounged around and got together sufficient lumber and plywood from a community project - a curling rink - on the strict understanding that we would replace anything we used as soon as possible. We hired two local carpenters and set them to work nailing the plywood sheets on the inside of the 2" x 6" studding and filled the space between with dry sawdust from the local sawmill as insulation. Then we erected shelving and counters. While I was supervising this, Len drove into Prince Albert with his stockbook and ordered a complete supply of groceries to be delivered by truck. Her brought back an oil space heater and a supply of stovepipes. Within a couple of days, our makeshift store was ready and warm for the arrival of the groceries which came the following day.

I notified District Office by wire of our activities and assured them that everything was under control. In the meantime, they forwarded a complete set of accounting forms, stationery, and counter slip books, a cash register, a safe, and sufficient sortergraf units to handle our credit accounts. More than that, they sent up Alec Anderson, the divisional accountant, to assist us in opening up a new set of books.

Within a week of the fire, our store was open for business, but it had been a hectic week: unpacking, marking and filling up the shelves. Alec Anderson was a great help. After the safe had cooled off enough to be handled, he opened it and found that all the ledgers - though badly charred - were still legible and thus we had the December month-end figures to carry forward. But when the cash box was opened, the bills were badly scorched and the change was melted into an almost solid mass. Alec carefully closed the cash box without disturbing anything. 'I'll take this into Winnipeg with me,' he said. 'I feel sure that we will be fully reimbursed by our bank.'

One problem arose with our sortergraf accounting system. Usually, credit sales bills were made out in duplicate and the previous balance for each customer brought forward and added to their latest purchase. The original was given to the customer and the duplicate copy filed in the sortergraf under the customer's name. But our sortergraf had been completely burned up and we had no records. We had no difficulty with the native debts; most of them had been paid in full at the end of December and Len knew exactly who had an outstanding balance and the amount.

The white customers' monthly accounts were a different matter. Alec sat Len and his staff down at tables in the hotel and asked them to write down the names of all the customers they could remember and what they thought their outstanding bills were. Amazingly, the four different lists, independently made up, were almost identical. The most gratifying thing that happened was that almost all our customers, on their next trip to the store, brought their latest counter slip copy with them saying, 'I know your books were all destroyed but this figure on the bottom is the amount I owe you.

Len and I made up orders for dry goods and hardware and sent them to Winnipeg for rush shipment. Within a month of the date of the fire, the store was back in full operation.

Rupertsland Trading Company got on the job right away and by the beginning of the summer tourist season, a newer and bigger store with the latest fixtures was built on the site of the old one.

There was the usual shifting around of staff that summer. Early on, Frank Milne retired to operate his own business at Meadow Lake, and Jim Boatman moved from Montreal Lake to replace him at Green Lake. Jim was in turn, replaced by Ed MacLean from Cumberland House. Jim Boatman didn't remain at Green Lake for long, as he was promoted to a post in Manitoba District. I was sorry to see him go.

Victor MacKay moved down from Stanley to Green Lake and Roy Simpson was promoted from Southend to Stanley. His place at Southend was taken by a newly promoted clerk, Gordon Brown.

Jim Watson was transferred to another district from Patuanak and was replaced by Gerry Parsons from Manitoba District. Andy McKinley retired from Pelican Narrows and, to my great surprise, instead of returning to Scotland as he had always planned, took over the free trader's store at Pelican Narrows from Shorty Russick. He had married late in life and had a young daughter, Pearl. Mrs McKinley was always worrying about her daughter's education. She wanted to get out to the city where Pearl could go to school with other white children. And now here she was going to school at Pelican Narrows. I wasn't too worried about Andy being in opposition to the Bay. He had served the Company for many long years and our method of operation was ingrained in him. Much better to have a former Bay man who would always keep a level head in opposition than some unknown trader who could get up to all kinds of tricks to steal trade from us. So I remained good friends with both of them and always made a point of walking over to visit them whenever I went to Pelican.

Andy's replacement was Ray Evans, clerk from Stanley, but he didn't stay long. He was transferred to MacKenzie River District and replaced by a young Scotsman, Jim Smith, who had just returned from a trip to Scotland and brought back his young bride. Mrs Smith had left a good job in a factory in Paisley. She was a city girl and didn't take kindly to life in the bush. In a short time, Jim Smith quit to take a job with the Department of Indian Affairs. I felt sorry for Mrs Smith. She had always worked and knew little of cooking and housekeeping. Her main culinary achievement was 'mince and tatties' - hamburger meat and potatoes to the uninitiated. David LaRiviere, a French half-breed assistant at our store at Green Lake took over the charge of Pelican Narrows.

I was getting fed up with all this moving around of staff. With the exception of Bill Watt and Bill Garbutt, all my experienced hands had gone. I had no sooner got a clerk trained to take over the management of a post than he was transferred to another district. I complained to the Personnel Manager but Dick Phillips loftily told me that all staff transfers were made with the best interests of the Company as a whole at heart and that I must learn to take the 'broad view'. Broad view, my foot. My only interest was in the successful operation of Saskatchewan District and it was galling to see young apprentices, whose training I had watched carefully, and young post managers whose long-term promotion to larger posts in the district I had carefully planned ahead, being whisked away to some other district. No wonder my stomach was in knots.

As part of clerk training, I thought it would be a good idea to designate Beauval as a 'jumping off' place. It was a small post, only thirty miles from Ile-a-la-Crosse and the manager there, Bill Watt, could keep an eye on a young man finding his legs at his first essay into post-management. Jock Mathieson, however, was the stumbling block. What to do with him? Transfer him to an inland post? I thought it would be better all round to pension him off. He hadn't many years to go and the Company would benefit in the long run. I submitted this plan to the Head Office.

The services of any post manager with more than twenty-five years in the Company could not be dispensed with without approval of the Canadian Committee. My proposal was considered at their next monthly meeting. Back came their reply. They had carefully studied Mr Mathieson's dossier and had concluded that because his son was attending the local school, it would be a hardship for the family to be sent where no school was available. They further concluded that Mr Mathieson's abilities as a competent post manager had always been in doubt, but no action had been taken by the Company. The fault, therefore, was the Company's, and not Mr Mathieson's, and he should remain at Beauval until he reached full retirement.

There goes my training post, I thought ruefully, but in a way I was glad. Despite his faults, I liked old Jock. He was a faithful and honest employee and regardless of his limited capabilities, had always done his best for the Company. After my initial disappointment, I had to admit the Canadian Committee's decision was a wise one and it made me feel proud to be a 'Bayman'. I wonder how many companies today would arrive at a similar decision. So Jock remained at Beauval until his son finished school; then after a short period in charge of Dillon, he retired honourably.

When the La Ronge area experienced a mining stampede in 1954, the post had an extremely busy year. The objective of the stampede wasn't gold, but uranium. Prospectors were all over the place, flying in and out of La Ronge and staking claims in some very unlikely places. Floyd Glass had quit his job as Northern Administrator with the Saskatchewan Government and gone into business for himself at La Ronge, starting up a commercial air company named Athabaska Airways. He purchased four Cessna aircraft and set up a base on the waterfront on a piece of land in front of our store which the Company had rented to him. His planes, as well as the The Hudson's Bay Company store at La Ronge, 1954. Government Airways craft was kept busy all day flying out prospectors to unknown locations. No one would talk about where they were going or what they had found.

For days on end, aircraft owned by mining and prospecting companies carefully flew grid patterns over extensive pieces of territory north and east of La Ronge. Towed by cable behind each aircraft was a torpedo-shaped object which picked up any anomalies in the ground below. These were recorded by delicate instruments located in the body of the plane. Later, the locations were plotted on maps and checked by ground parties of prospectors. It was all very hush-hush.

Naturally enough, this activity brought in a lot of extra business and Len Coates made a name for himself when one day he forgot to include the fresh meat order being flown out to Hunter Bay. On discovering his mistake he immediately chartered one of Floyd's light aircraft and sent it out with the fresh meat It cost the Company about a $100 to charter the plane but it was the best advertising money ever spent. The word quickly got around that the Hudson's Bay Company always delivered. As a result, most of the prospecting business came our way, leaving the government trading store out in the cold. The rush continued for about a year until it became evident that, while there were traces of uranium in the area, there were no profitable deposits and interest shifted away from La Ronge and back again to Uranium City on the north shore of Lake Athabasca. Only one mine was opened and worked - La Ronge Uranium Ltd. - about eight miles east of Stanley and near Nistowiak Falls. When the mine closed down, the boom was over.

January 2, 1955, was a black day for me. I received a wire from Buffalo Narrows notifying me that Stan Woodard and his wife and family had been killed in an air crash. I flew up immediately.

Stan had decided to take his vacation during the winter and boarded the scheduled aircraft, a twin-engine Anson, at Portage La Loche with his wife and two small children. The only other passengers were three Indian children going down to Ile-a-la-Crosse. The pilot was Stu Miller. Coming in for a landing at Buffalo Narrows, the plane suddenly lost altitude and crashed, killing everyone on board. The North lost a good pilot in Stu Miller.

The bodies of the Indian children were flown to Portage la Loche for burial.

It was my sad duty to identify the bodies of Stan and his family. Later I attended the funeral at Prince Albert and expressed my deep regret to the parents of both Stan and his wife, Beatrice. They were a lovely couple. He was a first-class post manager and would have gone far.

After the funeral, I flew back to Portage la Loche and carefully inventoried all their personal possessions, including a host of new toys which the children had received as Christmas gifts. In conformance with the grandparents' wishes, everything was handed over to the local mission to be given to Indian children.

I moved Roy Simpson over from Stanley to take charge of La Loche. I had no immediate replacement for Roy but District Office sent up Bert Swaffield as an interim manager. He was an experienced arctic post manager whose father had been in the Company's service before him; he was then in Winnipeg attached to Arctic Division office. He held the fort at Stanley for a few months and replaced by Jock Holliday, another relief man.

In the spring of 1956, Gordon Brown was appointed to Stanley and his place at Southend taken by Horace Flett, a seasoned trader from the Nelson River District. Bill Watt was transferred from Ile-a-la-Crosse to Winnipeg District Office where he did relief post management work until his retirement in 1958. When I replaced him with Gerry Parsons from Patuanak, I moved Sangster Jessiman in his stead. Gerry didn't last long at Ile-a-la-Crosse. The post was too big for him to handle and eventually he quit and went to work for the Saskatchewan Government Trading Company. Leonard Budgell, a Newfoundlander, came from Pikangikum in northern Manitoba to take over. He was a sound, solid trader and I was happy that Ile-a-la-Crosse was in good hands. But the loss of Stan Woodard and John Marshall had been very hard to take and my health suffered.

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"Date Modified: June 30, 2024."

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