(Editor’s note: Due to space restrictions, the full story will appear online at historius.ca.)
“I had an uncle who had a store in Kinuso. He sold it to Leo and my dad.”
That’s the opening response in an interview with longtime Kinuso businessman Art Boisvert, who is now 86 years old and living in Points West in Slave Lake. He follows it up with: “I was born in a pool hall.”
Boisvert has said that a lot of times, and it happens to be true. His dad, Benny Boisvert, and Uncle Gene had a pool hall in Kinuso going way back, maybe even before there was a railway through this country. It was the freighting business that brought them here in the first place.
“They used to freight from Athabasca to Grouard in winter, pulling a sleigh,” Art says. “They’d pick up freight in Athabasca, take it to Grouard and bring back fish. We have a picture of them with a load of fish.”
The Boisvert brothers came from the Legal area. That was where they, their parents and seven siblings had settled after moving from St. Paul Minnesota in 1905. The family had originated in the Trois Riviéres area of Quebec, Art says, relocating to Minnesota because there was a lot of work there at the time.
The brothers must have liked something about the Lesser Slave area, because when Gene came back from serving in the First World War, “He and dad came to Slave Lake and opened a pool hall and barbershop.”
One of the first things they noticed, however, was how much busier than Slave Lake Kinuso was becoming. There was a boom in homesteaders and that seemed to be a better place for doing business. So after year, they built in Kinuso and set up a pool hall/barbershop there. Barbers also pulled teeth in those days, Art says, there being no dentist in the country.
“The original barber chair is in the museum at Kinuso,” he says. “And the pliers (for extracting teeth).”
It was in Kinuso that Benny met and married Vera Bale. From that union came Leo, Ray, Gene, Art and Josephine. The first four were born in the pool hall (probably in the attached living quarters) and ‘Jo’ had the privilege of being delivered in the hospital in High Prairie.
How Vera came to be in Kinuso is another story. Art provides a few details.
In 1908 a Norwegian fellow named Nels Bale (or something close to that) homesteaded in the Swan Valley. When the First World War came along, he joined up and was wounded in France. In the hospital in England, he met a nurse named Doris. They got married and came to Kinuso – him first and her later. Kinuso was Swan River then, that caused some confusion; ‘She ended up in Swan River Manitoba!” Art says. But she got to the homestead eventually.
A few years later, Doris’s parents and three sisters were emigrating to Australia and decided to come through Kinuso to visit Doris and her new family.
“Big mistake!” says Art, with a chuckle.
Australia’s loss was northern Alberta’s gain, because all of them stayed. One thing that happened was Benny Boisvert, the Kinuso pool hall operator and tooth puller, met Vera – one of the sisters. “Sparks started flying,” says Art, and they married. Her parents stayed in Kinuso as well, and the other two sisters got jobs in Edmonton.
Leo, the oldest of Benny and Vera’s children, came out of the army after the Second World War and went into business with his dad in Kinuso, buying the store from Gene Boisvert in 1947. Art, besides being a bit of a pool shark, also played the accordion. In the late 1940s, he was part of a local band that played for dances from Joussard to Slave Lake, “for beer money.” Gerald Potter of Faust played piano, Mary Karpa played guitar and Ethel Ruecker of Faust was the drummer. That ended (for Art, at least) in 1950 at the age of 17 or 18 when he went to Prince Rupert looking for work. He stayed three years.
Rupert was booming at the time, he says. “Three jobs for one person,” is how he describes it. He worked first at a fish-packing plant, then with a company called Celanese that was just setting up a plant. It produced a product from tree cellulose that went into making nylons and such, Art recalls. It was a good job and he planned to continue with it, but fate intervened in form of a request to attend his brother Ray’s wedding in Edmonton. He decided he wanted to stay in Alberta and got a job at the Hotel MacDonald. A certain young woman named Doris Seifridt might have influenced his decision.
“Doris was living at her dad’s house in Edmonton and going to Victoria Composite (high school),” Art says. “My brother and his wife and family were renting part of the house. That started it all.”
Art had the nerve to ask this pretty girl if she’d like to “go to a show” with him. She accepted. He doesn’t remember what the movie was, but is sure it was at the Capitol Theatre on Jasper Avenue.
“I called my mom and said, ‘Doris and I are getting married.’ She said, ‘You can’t get married without your parents’ consent; you’re too young!’ So I said, ‘Okay, we’ll practice marriage til we’re 21!’”
Doris’s family were German immigrants from Poland. Art says they were poor folks to whom the offer of a quarter section of land for five dollars was an irresistible lure. They’d worked hard on their land and done well, allowing them to build a home in the city for retirement purposes. That’s where Doris was living while she finished off her high school. She later went to McTavish Business College for secretarial training. At about the same time they got married, things were changing back home in Kinuso. Leo and his wife Stella bought a store in Slave Lake (again from Uncle Gene) and moved there. About that time, Art got a call, asking him if he’d like to come home and operate the store. So he did, bringing Doris along with him.
Back then it was called B.E. Boisvert & Son. Kinuso was a bustling place in the mid-1950s, Art recalls. It had three general stores, an electrical shop, a bakery, a hotel a planer mill “and several small sawmills.” In the farms of the area, “everybody had cattle,” he says, and were doing pretty well at it. Times were good. Not only that, oil was being struck in the Swan Hills south of the lake.
All that activity was serviced out of Kinuso, there being no roads into the hills from the south. The first big well, Art says, was producing a thousand barrels a day.
“They were hauling that into Kinuso to the siding,” he says.
The original store was too small to handle the trade, so they built a bigger one.
“I borrowed lots and lots of money and built where the Home Hardware is now,” he says. “We opened in 1961.”
That’s the store now called Kinuso Mercantile, which is run these days by son Barry.
Notable achievements along the way were being a founding member of the wholesale company ‘The Grocery People,’ and also a founding member of Slave Lake Developments. It provided much-needed housing in Slave Lake in the early oil-boom years.
“Imperial Oil couldn’t find any place for people to stay. They lent us $100,000. We started a company and sold shares at a dollar apiece.” That, plus a hefty loan from ATB and the management expertise of Preston Manning resulted in Woodland Place at the north end of Main St. Art recalls it took five years to raise the money to pay back the 100 grand to Esso. The response was quite surprising.
“They said, ‘Oh, we wrote that off,’ and gave it back!” The money was then turned over to a group that was building a seniors’ residence, which became the Legion Manor.
Art and Doris had four children – Lorraine, Cindy, Barry and Joseph. They’ve got 12 grandchildren and lots of great and even great-great grandchildren.
“It’s certainly been exciting,” Art says.
Doris passed away in May of 2019.
“We would have been married 65 years in August.”
Art has had some health problems but seems to be stable now and is enjoying life well enough in Points West. He makes a point of praising the staff.
“These people are fantastic. They make us feel like family. A lot of times they’re on the dead run – one person to the next. They are heroes very few people have heard about.”