Baseballs and banjos: growing up in Slave Lake in the 1940s

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Times were hard in the Dirty Thirties, and a lot of people and families were on the move. One of the latter was the Lisk family of the Regina area. They set out in a covered wagon pulled by a couple of horses in the year of 1933, heading north and west.

The destination? Calling Lake Alberta.

One of the party – though not yet born – was Frances. She’s now Frances Kreutzer-Winkler and has been living in Slave Lake for about 72 years.

“We stopped a lot,” she says, “so my dad could work, because he didn’t have any money. And so my mom could have me.”

That was in Meadow Lake Saskatchewan, where Frances first saw the light of day. After a suitable pause – which might have lasted a few years – Mr. Lisk harnessed up the horses and away they creaked towards the final destination.

Why Calling Lake?

“My dad was going to go fishing there with a Native man,” says Frances.

Ontario-born William Lisk ended up in Saskatchewan after running away from home, hopping a freight train and riding it that far. He found work and met Cora – she was working as a barber after leaving a bad marriage, Frances says.

“My mom was from Quebec,” says Frances. She had come west at the age of nine – speaking not a word of English – to live with her older sister.

Once in Calling Lake Bill and Cora and their children found a place to live and he commenced fishing. Frances remembers joining her mother on expeditions to Athabasca in the covered wagon to deliver fish. She got to go, because she was too young for school.

“We’d start in the dark and arrive in the dark,” she says. She remembers it being a 50-mile journey. Inside the wagon was an airtight wood stove, warming things up.

One time a tree had fallen across the roadway, but at a considerable height. Cora thought the wagon could pass under it and she was right – except she didn’t calculate for the chimney.

“It pulled the cover right off the wagon, and the chimney!” Frances says.

The fish would be offloaded at the railway station, the horses lodged at the livery stable and mother and daughter would spend the night and head back to Calling Lake the next day.

The fishing must not have paid that well because after two or three years at it, the Lisks moved to Payne’s Coulee, nearer to Athabasca.

“That’s where I started school,” says Frances.

Three years later, the family was living in Athabasca, and Bill had steady work with the telephone company. Besides providing for his family, Frances remembers her dad for his musical talent.

“He could play any instrument you can name,” she says. “He used to play at country dances.”

These would usually be at the schoolhouse, starting at about 8:00 p.m. and running well into the wee hours. Frances remembers her mom heating a large rock in the oven beforehand, then wrapping it in a blanket and putting it in the cutter (sleigh). This would keep the feet warm on the ride to the dance.

After a couple of years in Athabasca, Frances’s dad got a job with forestry and the family was on the move again – this time to the Swan Valley, south of Kinuso. Frances remembers the school being six miles from the forestry residence – a distance the kids would cover on horseback in the warmer months and in a sleigh in winter. After a period there and another fairly short one in Kinuso, came the final move (for Frances, at least) to Slave Lake. School there was very different.

“I hated it!” she says.

At least at first she did, because of incidents that happened on her first two days in class. There was a single teacher for nine grades, a Miss Fawcett. On the first day, “Ralph Jackson smashed the science cabinet with a baseball bat.” On the second day, the teacher got into a fistfight with another student Frances doesn’t want to name.

However, after that initial shock, “I got used to it,” Frances says.

However, after that initial shock, “I got used to it,” Frances says.

Growing up in Slave Lake had its good points. One of them was baseball. It was a bigger part of the culture in those days, and Frances was right in the middle of it. She played on a female softball team that she remembers as being pretty competitive. She was the catcher, and May Sinclair a red hot hurler.

“She threw so hard my hand would be red by the end of the game,” Frances says.

She holds up one hand, displaying a crooked little finger. A baseball injury? Yes it is.

“I would steal the ball before the bat hit it. I was a little slow….”

Speaking of sports, Frances also took part in curling and golf over the years, winning plenty of trophies. She recalls a funny story from the days when the golf course was on the southern edge of town, on either side of Sawridge Creek. Leo Brost put three successive balls into the water and got so mad his golf clubs followed the balls into the drink.

“He had to pay a kid to get it out.”

But we’re getting ahead of the story here. Frances had to leave school at age 15 (her teacher was unhappy about that and told her so), to help her mom run the Dew Drop Inn.

“She was unwell,” Frances says. “I had to do it.”

Besides that and baseball, music was an important part of her life. She played for a few years in an all-girls’ band. Edna Sinclair was the violinist, Justina Wortz played banjo, Frances Sinclair played guitar “and I did guitar or banjo.” Evelyn Sinclair joined in sometimes on guitar too.

How about a singer?

“I think it was Evelyn too.”

Their biggest gig was to be a barn dance type of thing at Island Lake, but, “It burned down before the show!”

Frances married Herman Kreutzer and they raised three children, Audrey and Connie are retired and living in town; Brian mines for gold in the Yukon.

“We had a mink ranch,” Frances says.

Herman passed away a few years ago, and Frances has since remarried – to long-time resident Joe Winkler. How he ended up in Slave Lake is another interesting story (See pages 10 and 11 of this paper).

Getting back to her dad, Frances says he was transferred around the mid-1960s to Fort Smith NWT and after that to Cambridge Bay. He later retired in Milk River down in southern Alberta.

Frances Kreutzer-Winkler.
Female ball players in Slave Lake in the 1950s.
A photo of Slave Lake in the 1940s.
Stock photo of a covered wagon.

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