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.”
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:
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):
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:
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!