The reason my maternal grandparents built their cottage in 1938 in South Beach, Gimli, Manitoba was because my grandmother Winifred’s older brother Percy Harris built there first.
So why did her brother build a cottage in Gimli sometime before 1912?
Lake Winnipeg, the world’s eleventh largest freshwater lake, was a short trip away from the stifling Winnipeg heat. The small Icelandic settlement of Gimli offered beautiful beaches. The railway had given quick access to the lake since 1906 and many churches had already established Fresh Air Camps for city children along its shores. Instead of just day-tripping many took the opportunity to purchase land and build their summer getaways. The May 25, 1912 edition of the Manitoba Free Press listed a number of prominent Winnipegers as summer residents of Gimli.
“The most beautiful cottage of the number is owned by E.W. Derby, of Winnipeg, who opened it for the season last week. His summer residence is situated close to the town park. This park is a beautifully wooded area of closely growing spruce trees…..Building operations have commenced on a cottage for W.J. Osborne of the Winnipeg Electric Street Railway Company. A number of cottages, the lumber for which is on the ground, will be built shortly. Among those who have already located their summer homes in Gimli, on Loni Beach, are A.F. Andrews of the Ogilvie Flour Mills company, D. Ernest of the R.J. Whittla Company Staff, Henry Downing the well-known real estate dealer, Albert Johnson, A.S. Bardal, undertaker, J. Vopni real estate dealer and building contractor, P.D. Harris of the teaching staff of Central Collegiate, Dr. Stephanson M.D, J. Hiebert of Altona and others.”
This included my great uncle Percy D. Harris (b 1880). He built Whippoorwill Cottage at what is now 34 South Colonization Road. Percy came west to Manitoba in 1891, just a year after my grandmother was born in Forest Ontario. He was her older brother whom she barely knew and the reason she ‘immigrated’ to Winnipeg from Toronto sometime in the early 1930’s. Older by 20 years! With that age split Percy and Nina’s kids felt more like an uncle and aunts to Winifred than cousins.
My grandmother Winifred married a man named Percy as well, Percy Wallace Carter. Grampa had a good position at T. Eaton Co as a shoe buyer.
He was prosperous enough to own a car and obviously to build a summer home which was erected at the end of Benedict Street, right on the lake. It was just around the corner from brother-in-law Percy’s Whippoorwill Cottage. The families spent many a day together swimming, boating and picnicking at Willow Island.
Because of rising lake levels, in 1954 my grandpa had the foresight to move their cottage to a one acre lot on the SE corner of South Colonization and Hannson Ave. Just a long stone’s throw from Whippoorwill Cottage.
Percy and Nina Harris had a son George Harding (1900-1976), and two daughters, Florence Ada (1903-1983) and Mary Elizabeth, nicknamed ‘Bessie’ (1905-1974). Both girls followed their father into the teaching profession. Long vacations for school teachers made having a cottage the perfect escape from the hot, noisy, and fumey city. Uncle Percy tutored my mother in many subjects to help her gain confidence in her schoolwork.
Florence taught at Lord Selkirk School (1929-41) and Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute (1946-62). After that Florence authored numerous school textbooks including The Art of Poetry and A Packet of Prose, published by McClelland and Stewart Ltd. In 1967, in commemoration of Canada’s 100th anniversary, she was one of the recipients awarded a medal presented by the federal government to Manitobans for their meritorious community service.
Sister Bessie married a teacher, D. Harold Turner. As well as teaching school, they offered drama at Stoney Mountain Penitentiary.
Florence never married and had no children. She inherited Whippoorwill Cottage. Along with her wonderful teaching and writing skills she had a generous heart. Regularly she would invite all the children in South Beach to Whippoorwill cottage to play.
Out of her wee kitchen she would emerge with KoolAid made with water hauled by hand from the artesian well down the road served in colourful plastic glasses carried in a wire rack. She sent us out on scavenger hunts and led us in crafts and games. She had the most interesting and unique toys. A huge farm set out on the grass. Betsy McCall doll and clothes, and paper dolls resembling her. And best of all, ‘Aunt’ Florence taught me how to knit.
Suffering from some type of chronic malady, some summer days she just wasn’t up to having kids around. The days that it was okay to go to Whippoorwill to play were the days when Florence would fly a Union Jack flag on the front of the cottage. This was her sign. I would run to the end of Hansson Ave to look down the road to see if I could see the flag flying. Even into the 1960s the Union Jack would fly on the odd day.
In the opening pages of the chapter on Norse Myths in her textbook A Packet of Prose (1967) Florence writes,
One chilly September evening on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, my father and I watched a brilliant show of Northern Lights. They were yellow and green that night, with a dash of mauve here and there. Every few minutes they would arrange themselves into a rainbow-shaped bridge, quivering with movement, across the whole northern sky. I was surprised to hear my old father say lightly, “There must have been a big battle somewhere today. See the Valkyries are carrying the souls of the dead warriors across the bridge to Valhalla. Only the bravest are chosen to go.”
With ease I imagine the spot on the beach where they sat probably at the end of Hansson Ave, old Percy and his daughter. Perhaps he himself knew he too would soon cross the bridge to Valhalla, though being a Christian would have been more likely to call it Heaven. I have sat in perhaps that exact place myself admiring the aurora but most nights only wishing they would appear. Percy died in 1953 when Florence was 50.
Whippoorwill Cottage was sold upon her death yet still stands today behind a big white fence. No Union Jack flies there anymore. I inherited my Grandparent’s cottage. And in honour of my mother’s family I fly a little Union Jack out front. It makes me happily remember those lazy summer days of my childhood and the family that brought me to Gimli, Icelandic for ‘a heavenly abode‘.
Evans Store on Hansson Ave, at the corner of Anna, was a fixture to every kid in South Beach, Gimli. Forever.
My first memory of spending money was at Evans Store. My grandpa Percy would give me a nickel or dime and I would be allowed to walk by myself the 50 feet down the gravelly road to this tiny little convenience store.
A wee brown paper bag was given to me to select my candy. Loose candy was laid out in the very boxes it came in from the wholesaler. Three for a penny. Five cents would yield 15 mint leaves! Bright green leaf-shaped gummies, the size of my thumb, covered with crystalline sugar. Liquorice ‘cigars’, blackballs, pixie stix, and the famous Koko bars. Old Dutch Potato Chips, Hawkins Cheezies and sunflower seed bags were neatly displayed in rows on a metal stand with little clips.
And soda pop. I don’t remember my mother ever buying pop at home in the city. Maybe we would be allowed one if we went to A & W. But in the summer I was allowed to go to Evans Store to buy pop.
Depositing my coins in the slot and extracting my pop meant sticking my hand into the ice cold water of the red Coca-Cola dispenser and grabbing the protruding bottle neck. There was a rag hanging on the side of the cooler to wipe the water off the bottle. Cream Soda, Orange Crush or Seven-Up. A summertime treat.
Evans Store was owned by Anne and Mike Evans. The store was only 12 x 17 feet, really a glorified fruit stand. Judging by its construction it was no doubt built around the same time as Camp Sparling, the fresh air camp on the lake directly at the end of Hansson Ave. Farmers donated food to the fresh air camp but Evans Store serviced the camp staff for their treats. And cottagers for their staples. (In the early days cottagers were called campers.)
Mike and Anne, were of Ukrainian descent. Their name was undoubtedly changed from Ewanchuk. Mike was a fisher and added to his income doing carpentry and odd jobs taking care of people’s cottages in the off-season. The store was in direct competition with Mike Shewega, his wife’s brother who had an identical camper’s convenience store only two blocks away on Colonization Road. However the Evans were reputed to have the best ice cream in the area.*
It had one of those screen doors with a metal band across as a push bar, the type which sported advertising. Evans Store was Coca Cola all the way. Ice cold coke in glass bottles. We would scour the ditches for empty pop bottles which could be redeemed for 2 cents a piece. Which meant more candy!
Opening the screen door would activate a lively bell which alerted Mr. or Mrs. Evans of a customers arrival. Hung inside among the sticky fly-catching strips coiling down from the ceiling was bologna and other quality deli meats from Manitoba Sausage. And great wieners for roasting over a bonfire. Mr. Evans would cut bacon slices individually off a big slab with a very sharp and well-worn knife. Shallow shelves nearly to the ceiling were lined with canned goods; coffee, jam, Red Rose tea, Klik, Spam, soup, Del Monte vegetables and fruits, pickles, cat and dog food. And fresh bread, milk and butter. Most of the basics needed by cottagers. When South Beach girls got old enough to need feminine hygiene products we could count on Evans Store to get us out of a jam. They were wrapped in brown kraft paper for discretion! And of course Evans carried the ubiquitous cigarettes, chewing tobacco and cigars, no doubt the real profit makers.
In the 1940’s the Evans girls Eileen and Eleanor’s friend Marie Isfeld took a path all the way from the south end of Colonization Road through the wooded field to the store. Or Marie would meet them at the end of Hansson Ave and walk to school with them, either following the Arnason Dairy truck to break trail in the snow or riding on it. And much later her son Lawrence would be sent by his Afi (grandfather in Icelandic) to get cigarettes at the store, on credit. Credit was extended, graciously to most people in the area. When the South Beach mink ranchers sold off their pelts in November they would pay off their debt to the Evans.
All the overstock cigarettes and paper goods were stored in a shed behind the store, secured with a simple padlock. Evan’s granddaughter Lois remembers occasions when she would sleep over at her grandparents in the 1960’s waking up in the night to the sound of someone breaking in to the shed, mostly to steal cigarettes. In the winter the Evans would move the store into the porch area of their house directly behind the wee store. In later years burglars came in the early morning hours, terrified the elderly couple by tying them up and threatening them with a comb (though they thought it has a knife or gun) and robbed them. It made the Winnipeg radio news and that’s how their daughter Eileen found out about it.
One day in May 1967 Anne Evans happened to look west down Hansson Ave. She saw a man lying on his front lawn. That man was my grandpa, Percy Wallace Carter. He was dead from a massive heart attack. The rake beside him. He’d been raking leaves in the early spring. Dead beside a cotoneaster bush. My grandmother napping only a few feet away in their cottage. Anne Evans called the R.C.M.P. who contacted my mother in the city. Anne Evans, the woman who stayed and comforted my grandmother.
Up until 1980, when my own father had heart problems, we never had a phone at our cottage. No one did. We always walked uptown to the harbour where there was a pay phone booth near the pier. But in an emergency everyone in South Beach knew they could use the Evans phone. It was in their house, right behind the store.
Anne Evans a stern, well-dressed woman. Mother of Eileen and Eleanor. Awarded a life membership in the Gimli Women’s Institute and noted best canvasser for the Cancer Society.** She herself died of cancer June 12, 1972 at the age of 69. The store had been closed before that when Anne had to go live in Winnipeg with her daughter Eileen due to ill health. Mike passed away in the early 1980’s.
The fact that my grandpa died raking leaves on the front lawn of what is now my cottage is actually a beautiful, comforting memory to me. Of course it was a traumatic event for my family, what death isn’t, causing all sorts of repercussions. But I will always remember Anne Evans and her compassion. And I will never forget Evans Store where I received my first education in financial literacy.
* “The Stores of Gimli”, by David Arnason, Interlake Pulse, 2013, pp. 44-45.
** Gimli Saga: The History of Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli: Gimli Women’s Institute, 1975, pp. 275 and 336.
Many thanks for the black and white photos, memories and fact checking of Evan’s grand-daughter Lois Bergman Marotta. Also memories of Lorraine Hicks, Marie Isfeld, Lawrence Frantz, Susan Woodruff, Julie Ewanchuk, Sheryl Stephen, Wendy Rothwell Dunlop, Dan McKelvey, Barbera Buffie, Ken Kristjanson, Val Sobkowich Verity and Joanne Couture Burns.
I only had to look up.
They were there all along.
The ripe and ripening fruit.
I go out and harvest my breakfast
from my own bushes, nay trees now.
When did the fruit grow out of reach?
How can I harvest?
The tree, if carefully handled,
Gracefully bowing its branches
and offering, like a courtesy
its posey to the queen.
Of course looking up at the right time is good.
Each picking gets more intense.
Berries now ripen one by one
spread over many branches
making the harvest slower and more thoughtful.
For what might be hiding under a leaf?
A juicy surprise
I don’t remember losing touch.
When did I stop noticing the fruit
in my own backyard?
When did I become nonchalant?
When did I forget to look up?
Someone walked the path with me.
Someone who knows the forest.
Recites the names,
studies the bark.
Notices the leaves.
Someone who can tell a spruce from a fir.
Someone who made me aware.
Who gave me a new perspective.
I only had to look up.
They were there all along.
The ripe and ripening fruit.
The yummy morsels.
The dark purple.
When all the ripening is done
the last few berries
How can I possibly leave even
a single berry behind?
Then I remember the birds.
The birds who serenade me each morning.
They need to eat as well.
And in their relief
will broadcast the wee seeds
to more places in my forest
to keep the harvest ever present.
Can I trust this fullness?
The deep ripening which satiates
and fills my soul?
Like a sage writing holy scripture
I notate in my calendar
a year from now.