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‘.