Canada’s oldest gas station? We’re getting closer to the story

Canada's oldest gas station by cjaremk

Today as I sought out more information about “Canada’s oldest gas station” in the local hamlet of Eldorado, I found this nice photo on the photo-sharing site Flickr. The photographer is cjaremk, and you can check out his/her/their other great photos here.

Thank you so much to all of you who responded to my recent post seeking information on a building in our neck of the woods that proclaims itself “Canada’s oldest gas station.” I haven’t – yet, at least – got the proof I’m seeking that this claim is true, but I sure know a lot more about that gas station, and the history of Eldorado, the hamlet where it’s located, than I used to. I feel confident that the full story behind the oldest-in-Canada claim will come out before much longer.

From several readers I learned that the gas station – which I should say right here is no longer operational as a gas station – was built and opened by Charlie and Keitha Pigden. (My thanks to Charlie and Keitha’s granddaughter, Dianne Brick, for being the first to share that information.) Precisely what year the Pigden garage and gas station began operating I do not yet know, though it seems to have been in or about 1920. But thanks to another reader, Gurney Barker, I do know that for building materials, Charlie Pigden used reclaimed stuff from a former copper mine in the Eldorado area. Gurney helpfully sent me the appropriate section from the book Eldorado: Ontario’s First Gold Rush by my friend Gerry Boyce, Hastings County historian extraordinaire. (Raymond and I have a lot of Gerry’s books of local history, but unfortunately not that one. Yet.) Here’s the passage in question:

“The mines remained a fact of life for Eldorado’s people. When Charlie Pigden arrived soon after World War I, his family first lived in what had been the mine’s first boarding house; his children played in and around the shaft and pits. Pigden dismantled the old copper mine buildings and used the materials to build an Imperial Oil garage. He provided economical power packs (motors on car frames) for miners who continued to work the Richardson and other sites.” [Note from Katherine: The Richardson mine was the site of the gold rush for which Gerry’s book is named.]

Here’s more, this time from Gurney himself, who grew up in Eldorado:

“I remember the old boarding house. But also when I was in public school during the late 1940s, a local gent by the name of Bob Blakely owned a portable homemade sawing machine which was built on an old car frame and running gear. The engine was from a 1928 Chevrolet car (my dad said). Blakely towed it around with a team of horses from farm to farm each fall sawing firewood from the trees which the farmers had cut months before. I understood that this was one of the so-called “power packs” which Charlie Pigden built.”

And here’s more from Gurney, this time on Charlie and Keitha’s remarkable son Gordon Pigden (and I should note that Gurney was not my only correspondent who pointed out Gord Pigden’s accomplishments):

“Charlie’s son Gordon was an electronic legend around there when I was young, with his clandestine radio transmitter, etc. What really impressed my brother and myself was that he hand built the very first television set anywhere in that country at a time when the closest TV station was in Syracuse, N.Y. He displayed it in the window of his Madoc shop and it always seemed to attract a cluster of curious watchers on Saturday evenings. Gordon was in part the inspiration which led my brother and me to become electrical engineers.”

Wow!

I’ve made mention of Gord Pigden before, in the context of the cable television station he established in Madoc and that filmed footage of many, many important (and not-so-important) events in this area’s history – work that is carried on today by that Gord’s son, Terry, and daughter-in-law, Eileen. And I’ve mentioned my memories of Gord’s store in Madoc that Gurney refers to, selling and repairing TVs, stereos and records; I used to love looking through those racks of records (Quadrophenia! Planet Waves!) in my early teen years in Queensborough, and I am certain that the stereo we had at the Manse back then – one of those great big wooden ones with the turntable inside – came from Pigden’s. But I hadn’t realized quite what a trailblazer Gord was. Reader Mark Godfrey noted that Gord was “also a pioneer and innovator in the field of radar during the war.” Let me say it again: Wow! Who knew there’d be so many stories dug up just by asking about an old gas-station sign.

But speaking of that gas station, let’s get back to it.

Readers also shared the information that Jerry Morrison bought the gas station when the Pigdens sold it and moved their operation into Madoc. I remember the large Pigden garage and car dealership on Russell Street in Madoc from my childhood; a while back we got to see again, for the first time in many years, what the front of that operation looked like, when it was briefly uncovered during renovations by the building’s current owner, Bush Furniture. Here’s my photo:

Pigden Motor Sales sign at Bush Furniture

Two or three other owners followed Jerry Morrison, readers told me. At one point (not long before it closed down, according to one reader) it was operating under the name Eldorado Emporium and Gas Bar, and the owners were seeking to shore the business up by adding a Liquor Control Board of Ontario outlet and the post office for the hamlet. Here’s an article about that (helpfully sent by a reader!) by Diane Sherman in the Community Press weekly newspaper in October 2008 (click here to read the full story):

Community Press story on Eldorado gas bar

I wasn’t around this area back then, but I’m guessing that the owners’ efforts were rejected by the LCBO and /or Canada Post, which may have led to the business closing down not too long after the story appeared. And that’s really sad, because the closure ended almost 90 years of the building being a bustling hot spot in Eldorado. This recollection from the 1940s from Gurney Barker paints the picture really well:

“I recall Charlie Pigden’s garage and my dad filling his Model A Ford from those old fashioned ‘sight glass’ gas pumps out front. From an early age I understood that Charlie built the building using lumber from an old gold mine. I remember Wilfred Thomson who worked there as a mechanic. I recall getting our radio wet cell batteries charged at Charlie’s place. Charlie also sold Ferguson tractors from the premises. When I was in high school the Morrisons ran a small restaurant in the old Pigden building building adjacent to their body shop. It was called the Squat and Gobble, and an overhead sign proclaimed it as such. I also remember the weatherbeaten gold-rush-era boarding house which stood across the street, and I remember the old Conlin hotel which stood at the junction of Highway 62 and the Rimington Road. Both were torn down in the 1940s. My parents patronized the two general stores in the village: Strebe’s (later Anglin’s) store and grist mill, which both burned down in the 1940s, and Mrs. Arkell’s store, which still stands and is featured in at least two ‘ghost town’ books. And my dad ran the old Fox blacksmith shop for a while in the late late 1940s.”

That, Gurney, is seriously good stuff. (Wouldn’t it be terrific if Eldorado still had all that activity going on?) Thank you to you, to Dianne Brick, and to all the other readers who have been kind enough to share what they know about “Canada’s oldest gas station.”

But, my friends, the full story remains to be told. As my friends Gary and Lillian Pattison – who operate the marvellous Old Hastings Mercantile gift shop in tiny Ormsby, up Coe Hill way, and so pass (and wonder about) the sign proclaiming the Eldorado building’s history whenever they travel south on Highway 62 – said in an email of appreciation for all the information that has come out so far: “ I don’t think I’ve seen yet in the replies why this was considered the oldest gas station. We’ve wondered about that forever!

So, people, let’s carry on with this inquiry. We know that Charlie and Keitha Pigden opened the gas bar in the early 1920s – according to this photo captured from Google Street View in 2013 (though the photo is probably older than that) and kindly sent to me by the Pattisons, in 1920 precisely:

Eldorado 1

We know that Charlie Pigden repurposed materials from an old copper mine to build it. That’s all good stuff.

But what do we know about the claim to it being “Canada’s oldest gas station?” There the mystery remains. Diane Sherman’s 2008 news story says the owner at that time claimed that “the couple’s gas bar is the oldest gas station in Canada – ‘until otherwise proven.’ ”

Hmmm… What’s the story, people? Was Charlie Pigden’s gas bar really the first in Canada? If so – how come? Where were service-station entrepreneurs in, say, Toronto, or Montreal, or Halifax, or Winnipeg, when Charlie and Keitha were getting those gas pumps into operation?

But let me leave you with this final word from Gurney Barker, which pretty much sums up how I feel about the great response I’ve had to my query:

“Who knew that a mention of this little backwater hamlet would arouse so much interest?”

Gurney, I’m going to take mild exception to your characterization of Eldorado as a “backwater” (though, since you grew up there, you’re allowed to say it), but yes: who knew? Please keep that information coming, people!

Your ticket to learn the secrets of Queensborough pie perfection

Pie FlyerYou heard about it here first, people: early next month, you get your chance to learn how to make pies as great as the ones you enjoy whenever you come to Queensborough for church suppers and the like. As I reported back in January, the volunteers at the Queensborough Community Centre committee are organizing the first – and, we hope, far from the last – Master Pie-Making Course. And now, as I promised in that earlier report, I have all the details for you, plus – as you’ll see at the top of this post – your registration form for this fantastic event.

Potluck Supper poster 2018The first thing I have to tell you is this: act fast! Spaces in the class are limited and, judging by the enthusiastic response I received to that first post both here and on social media, they will fill up very quickly. If you want to learn from the best of the best, follow these instructions:

  1. Click on the photo at the top of this post showing the registration form.
  2. Go to the bottom right of the next screen you’ll see. Click on “View full size.”
  3. Drag the image to the desktop of your computer.
  4. Print it out, fill in your information, and mail it off as soon as you can – or better yet, come to the potluck supper this coming Sunday (Feb. 18, 2018) at the Queensborough Community Centre and drop it off ahead of time. (Hey, how about this: we’re having a Queensborough Trivia competition at the potluck supper – how much fun is that? People, we in Queensborough know how to have a good time.) Also: if you have trouble downloading the form, you can also find it, readily downloadable, at the Queensborough Community Centre’s Facebook page.

And hey – how about the amazingly low registration fee for this class? Only $10 to learn life-changing pie-making skills from the pros: Betty Sexsmith, Ann Brooks and Barb Ramsay. Plus the QCC supplies all your ingredients! (That would be flour, lard or shortening, pie filling, etc.) You’re not likely to find a better deal than that.

Now, you do have to supply some stuff yourself, as noted on the information sheet. Presumably you all know what a rolling pin is, but we decided to use a photo of a pastry blender because there are probably some potential pie-makers who have never used one. Wondering about the dry-measure measuring cups? As the lovely Mrs. Meraw taught me in home-economics class at Centre Hastings Secondary School in Madoc way back in the days when I was growing up in Queensborough, you must use dry-measure cups for ingredients like flour, sugar and so on – not the measuring cups you use for liquids like milk, oil, etc. Here’s a visual to help the measuring-cup-challenged, with Raymond, my husband and in-house chef extraordinaire, doing the modelling. Dry-measure cups look like this:

Raymond with dry-measure cups

And liquid-measure cups look like this:

Raymond with the liquid-measure cups

There! A baking-utensils lesson from me, of all people. All credit to Mrs. Meraw for this knowledge. She was an excellent (and very patient) home-ec teacher.

Now, a couple of other things to note:

  • The spaces for this session really will fill up quickly. We don’t want people to be disappointed, so if it turns out that the class is full by the time your registration arrives, don’t despair! We can and will do it again.
  • After lengthy deliberations, the planning committee decided that this first Master Class will be strictly about the magic of making good pastry. We thought that adding instructions for turning fresh or frozen fruit (or savoury ingedients, such as the makings of chicken pot pie) into pie filling would be too much for one session. As a result, the pies that students will take home to bake will contain canned filling. But! If there’s interest and demand, we’ll hold another class on making yummy fillings for your perfect pie crust.

Okay, there you go. Round up your materials – borrow them if you don’t have them, or stop by your friendly local Home Hardware store or equivalent to buy some of your own, because lord knows you’ll be making pies after this pie-making class. Send in your registration. And come to beautiful Queensborough on Saturday, March 3, for this extraordinary culinary experience.

The organizers think of this as a passing of the pastry-blender-shaped torch, from the veteran pie-makers of Queensborough to the next generation.

I want to be there to catch that torch. You do too.

Postscript: Thank you so much to all of you who responded to last week’s post, sending me some answers to my questions about “Canada’s Oldest Gas Station” in Eldorado. I promise I’ll get back to that topic, and share the information you sent, very soon. But right at the moment, pie-class registration is urgent!

This time it’s your turn to tell ME a story.

Lounge: Gas and Food

The vintage sign suggests comfort: a place to stop, get warm and get both your vehicle and yourself refuelled. Unfortunately, these days it’s an empty promise because the food, fuel, groceries and ice cream still proclaimed on signs at “Canada’s Oldest Gas Station” in the hamlet of Eldorado are no longer available, the operation having closed down an undetermined number of years ago.

My friends, I’ve told you a lot of stories over a thousand-odd posts since Meanwhile, at the Manse began in January 2012. This time, I want you to tell me a story.

Here’s what has prompted my request.

A couple of weekends ago, I was driving south down Highway 62 toward Madoc, having returned some borrowed books about old-home restoration to a friend in the hamlet of Bannockburn.

As I zipped through the next hamlet south of Bannockburn, which is Eldorado – a tiny but historic place, being the site of Ontario’s first gold mine and all, and as close as rural Madoc Township gets to having a township seat – something that I’d vaguely noticed many times before suddenly stopped me in my tire tracks. As I reversed up the highway so as to get a closer look and some photos, I said to myself, “Self, what on Earth is the deal with that ‘Canada’s Oldest Gas Station’ sign?” Here, take a look at what I mean:

Canada's Oldest Gas Station

Canada’s Oldest Gas Station? In Eldorado? Really? I need to know the story behind this.

People, why would tiny North-of-7 Eldorado be the home of Canada’s oldest gas station?

Or at least, what maybe once was Canada’s oldest gas station. Since this gas station is no longer a gas station, perhaps another one still in operation somewhere else across the length and breadth of our vast nation has usurped its claim.

“Canada’s Oldest Gas Station” still has gas pumps, but they’ve clearly not been used for some time:

Gas tanks at Canada's Oldest Gas Station

The gas pumps at the onetime gas station are definitely not the pay-with-your-card type that you see most of the time these days. It looks like Canada’s Oldest Gas Station was a full-serve operation.

And it still has signage proclaiming all the things that one could once have purchased there when stopping for gas, including “Great Food,” “Ice Cream,” “Takeout” and “Groceries”:

Groceries and ice cream at Canada's Oldest Gas Station

But clearly none of this is any longer on offer to the travelling public. This place that must once have been the hot spot of Eldorado looks long-shuttered, sadly.

So I’d like anyone who knows about this to tell me the story of what it once was. And mainly I’d like to know whether it’s true that this place in tiny Eldorado is (or was) Canada’s Oldest Gas Station, and how that came to be.

And here’s another thing I’d like to know, about myself and, perhaps, all of you: I’d like to know how many times in our days, our weeks and our lives we pass by interesting and/or odd things – such as a sign in Eldorado proclaiming “Canada’s Oldest Gas Station” – and pay them little or no mind. How many stories, how many pieces of our collective and community history, do we miss learning about and passing on to future generations because we – like me, every time I drove south through Eldorado except this one last time – don’t stop to wonder about, and maybe look into, what’s right before our eyes?

Lesson learned for me. Now, Eldorado, Bannockburn and Madoc Township people: please tell me the story of Canada’s Oldest Gas Station!