Oldest gas station? Probably not. Great family history? Yes!

Pigden Motor Sales era ends

An excellent, though poignant, writeup about the Pigden family’s long tradition of car sales that appeared in the Belleville-based Community Press when the tradition ended in 1999 with the closure of the family’s large dealership in the north end of the village of Madoc. It was a tradition that began with Charlie Pigden’s Imperial gas station – the larger photo in the news story – in the hamlet of Eldorado – the very same gas station that piqued my interest, and that of many readers, a little while ago.

Who knew that a blog post about a no-longer-operational gas station would attract so much interest? I sure didn’t.

But my post early last month asking you readers to share what you know about a building in the hamlet of Eldorado – about 7½ miles west of the Manse here in Queensborough – that bears the prominent sign “Canada’s Oldest Gas Station” certainly brought in the responses. Some came in the form of comments on my post, some in emails, and some in face-to-face conversations. This defunct gas station struck a nerve!

Canada's Oldest Gas Station

The sign on the building on the east side of Highway 62 in the hamlet of Eldorado is large, and intriguing. “Canada’s Oldest Gas Station”? Really?

Now, I think one reason for this is the prominent location of the building and its sign. If you’re heading south toward Madoc and then Belleville and Highway 401 from “points north” (as we used to say) – that is, the cottage country of northern Hastings County/Algonquin Park/Haliburton County – you’ll doubtless be travelling on busy Highway 62. And that building and sign are right beside the highway, so everyone who’s passed by for the past many years has seen the sign – and probably wondered about its claim.

But it’s become clear to me that another reason for the huge response I got is the importance of one family to the history – social history, economic history and every other kind of history – of our local area. The family who started this gas station is, as many of you knew, the Pigdens.

In my first post about the mysterious sign, I asked readers to turn the tables and tell me a story about that garage, rather than me telling them a story. Well, I got stories. And more stories. So many stories, in fact, that I think it’s going to take two blog posts (at least) to share with you what I’ve learned – and that’s not even counting the followup post I did a couple of weeks after the initial one.

Wow!

As I told you in that second post on the gas station and its intriguing sign, it was Charlie Pigden and his wife Keitha who opened the business back in (or about) 1920. Now, thanks to Charlie and Keitha’s granddaughter, Dianne (Pigden) Brick, I am able to show you a nice photo of them, along with the text of the obituary for Charlie that appeared (probably in the North Hastings Review) when he died in late 1967:

Charlie and Keitha Pigden

Charlie Pigden death notice

Dianne generously lent me a bulging file folder on Pigden family history, which I have gone through with great interest and from which I have learned a lot.

The folder included sections on the Pigdens and the garage from several books: Gerry Boyce’s Eldorado: Ontario’s First Gold Rush (I’m happy to say that my own copy of this book by Hastings County’s pre-eminent historian will be arriving in the mail any day now); ‘Way Back When…, a history of Madoc and Madoc Township by my 1970s Centre Hastings Secondary School contemporaries Ardith McKinnon (now Ardith Racey, and she’s still a great writer – check out this piece from the Globe and Mail) and Garnet Pigden, published in 1975 (I am a proud owner of a copy, a treasure found at a bargain price at a Madoc yard sale a few years back); Roses in December, a memoir by the late Reta (Woods) Pitts (the mother of Gayle Ketcheson, my Grade 1 teacher at Madoc Township Public School, and of course I own that book too); and even a book on the history of Watrous, Sask.– and I’ll get to its amazing contents in a minute.

Yes, the tiny hamlet of Eldorado was the site of Ontario’s first gold mine, as a plaque there attests. The 19th-century gold rush briefly turned the Madoc-Eldorado area into a boom town. (Photo from ontarioplaques.com)

As I mentioned in my second post on the “oldest gas station,” Gerry Boyce’s book tells us that for building materials when he erected the garage, Charlie Pigden used material from buildings that had been at a copper mine in Eldorado. Now, in case you didn’t know, in the 19th century Eldorado and this entire area of central Hastings County, including Queensborough, were awash, so to speak, in small mining operations. In fact, Eldorado was the site of Ontario’s first gold mine, something that is documented in a book called Quest for Gold by the late Isabella Shaw, a Queensborough native who lived in the Eldorado area all her adult life. Interestingly, Isabella’s book (I call her by her first name because, I am very proud to say, she was my friend) has a slightly different version of the story; this was pointed out to me by reader Tamara, a new resident of the hamlet of Cooper who is avidly studying the history of our area. Tamara emailed me:

In regards to the gas station, [Isabella’s] book reads, “On March 21st, 1920, Charles Pigden started a garage business in Eldorado … He first rented the Fitzgerald blacksmith shop and commenced doing garage work in the back of the shop. The following year he built the large Pigden Garage on the east side of the Hastings Road using materials from an old abandoned hotel in Eldorado.” … Note it says ‘hotel’ versus ‘mine.’ At any rate, if this was the case he wouldn’t have been able to start selling gas until 1921 or ’22. It goes on to say that he started selling cars in 1925, and that was “in addition to selling Imperial Oil products, such as gas and oil.” He also apparently sold tractors, and farm machinery, which included milking machines and radios.

Here is the information on the Pigden operation in Eldorado from ‘Way Back When…:

Mr. Pigden sold Willies Overland cars and in 1928 he sold the impressive total of 100 of these vehicles. He also sold Imperial Gas and Oil, which is still being sold at Pigden’s in 1975. [Note from Katherine: by 1975, when the book was published, Pigden’s Garage and car dealership had been located at its new home on Russell (or is that Russel?) Street in Madoc for 25 years.] In 1934, he started selling Dodge, Desoto and Dodge Trucks. That year he sold two air-flow Desoto cars  and the Chrysler Corp. at that time was offering a free trip to the World’s Fair in the United States [this seems to have been the “World of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago, of which you can see some great film footage here] to any dealer who sold one Desoto car. Mr. Pigden and a friend obtained free trips as a result of good salesmanship. One of these cars sold in 1934 is still in operation in Madoc Village. [Alas, probably no more.] It is owned by a mechanic at Pigden’s garage, Wilfred Thompson,  and is renowned for its prize-wining antique car status.

To complement that, let me show you a real treasure that Dianne Brick loaned me: Charlie Pigden’s certificate from the Ontario Department of Labour in 1951 to ply the car-repair trade:

Garage certificate

It’s fragile and yellowed, but what a treasure! A certificate from the Ontario government attesting that Charlie Pigden’s garage was authorized to carry our motor-vehicle repairs. My thanks to Dianne (Pigden) Brick for trusting me with this wonderful artifact.

And speaking of treasures, let me share with you some recollections of Charlie Pigden’s garage that Gurney Barker, who grew up near Eldorado in the early-middle part of the 20th century, includes in his Memories of Country Life 1939-1957. Gurney very generously sent me a copy of his memoirs a while back, and they are an amazing glimpse into rural life in this area during that period. I promise this excerpt will take you straight back to a simpler time :

Memories of Country Life by Gurney Barker

Gurney Barker’s memoir is full of tales about growing up “north of 7,” and it’s a wonderful read. I am so thrilled that he sent me a copy.

When I was in public school, Charlie Pigden sold Chrysler cars and Ferguson tractors from [his garage]. In the 1940s his gasoline was dispensed from  one of those old double glass pumps right out in front of the garage and next to the road. When you drove up, the attendant used a hand lever to pump the glass full. The gasoline was then fed by gravity into your car’s fuel tank. Graduations on the glass indicated how much fuel (in gallons) you had received. Pigden’s was also the place where we had our radio “A” batteries recharged. Those were lead-acid wet cells, sometimes special two-volt assembles, but more often just car batteries. When the radio faded out and if the tube filaments were no longer glowing, you took the battery down to the garage and left it there. After a couple of days you could pick it up fully charged. I think the price for the service was around 75 cents.

Honee Orange

Honee Orange, sold at Pigden’s Garage back in the day, was made by the Pure Spring company of Ottawa.

Like so many of those places, there was always a soft drink dispenser out in front of Pigden’s garage. It was a horizontal chilled-water tank about the size and shape of a small modern chest freezer. You put your nickel into a slot, opened the lid and slid your selection along some metal rails and through a one-way gate. Bottled Orange Crush, Honee Orange and Cream Soda were popular choices. I almost never selected Coca-Cola because it was available only in those famous little 10-ounce green-tinted bottles. All other brands including Pepsi came in 12-ounce bottles and at the same price

Wow. As someone who remembers those same freezer-chest-type soft-drink dispensers (in the general stores of my Queensborough childhood), all I can say is: Take me back there. Right now.

Reader Lisa, who herself writes a blog on genealogy and history, found and sent this – census information from 1921 that lists Charles Pigden as a “garage man.” Yes, I (and Lisa) know it’s kind of hard to read. Click on the photo to get an enlarged version, and then click again (on the lower right of your screen) on “View full size,” and then you still may have to zoom in a bit; but the info about Charlie, Keitha and family is in the third section down:

Here are a couple of artifacts from the Pigden garage that were also included in the package that Dianne lent me. Remember when businesses gave our rulers?

Pigden ruler
Pigden pencil

The information about the Pigden garage and car dealership that is contained in Reta Pitts’s Roses in December: Memories of a Life of Change focuses on the later years when the business had moved to Madoc. And it’s led to a question I have for you. Mrs. Pitts writes:

In 1949, the more than 10,000 square foot Russell Street building was erected with the full Chrysler line (Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth, Valiant). Business was booming and by this time Charlie had a large staff, including salesmen. Madoc boasted five car dealers by the time and, although competitors, they were first and foremost good friends.”

That, people, is seriously good small-town stuff. Now here’s my problem (and question): I can name four of those five car dealers – or at least I think I can. Pigden’s was the Chrysler dealership; Derry’s was General Motors; Brett’s was Ford; Armstrong’s was – help! And who was the fifth?

Now: one last stop on this journey through the past before we move on to the question of whether that Eldorado building really is (or was) “Canada’s oldest gas station.” And that stop is the small town of Watrous, Sask., which you can learn more about on the town’s website here.

In the package of family history that Dianne Brick loaned to me, there are pages photocopied from a book on that prairie town’s history. Charlie Pigden gets a mention in a section devoted to the memories of Watrous resident Cora Fargey, aged 92 at the time of the book’s publication. Cora and her husband, Peter, left their native Ontario in about 1910 to homestead in Saskatchewan. They may well have been from this area; Cora recalls that she and her small son (Peter had gone on ahead) boarded the train for the West in Ivanhoe, a hamlet a bit south of Madoc. “Little did I know what lay ahead of me,” she says, with some understatement.

Cora and Peter Fargey

Cora and Peter Fargey, Saskatchewan homesteaders.

Charlie Pigden is mentioned very briefly; Cora recalls him being in Watrous to help her husband dig the well for the family home. (Those were the days when, I gather, it was quite common for folks from this part of the world to travel west for short or longer periods, seeking jobs and opportunities. My own paternal grandfather, J.B. Sedgwick, did the same thing in the early 20th century before returning to his native Haliburton County.) But I was knocked sideways by other parts of Cora’s story, namely the hardships she and her family endured. The endless, lonely prairie with no roads, only tracks filled with gopher and badger holes. Mosquitoes so thick that you had to have a “smudge” (smoke, not the best for one’s pulmonary health) going indoors at all times to try to keep them away. Frequent prairie fires. And this:

The first winter, we lived in just one room, which was heated with a cookstove. We slept three in a bed to keep warm. The bedclothes would often freeze to the wall. We had no storm doors or windows the first year. It was cold!

People, from now on, whenever I am tempted to think that I have some hardship in my life, I’m going to call to mind Cora, Peter, their young son, and the bedclothes frozen to the wall. And I will realize that I have nothing to complain about.

Okay, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Or at least, the moment that you may possibly have been waiting for. Could the building that once housed Pigden’s Garage in tiny Eldorado really have been “Canada’s oldest gas station”?

The answer seems to be: almost certainly not.

I am obligated to some readers who did this research for me. Here’s this from Tamara:

“My hunch told me that the sign must be hyperbole, so that led me to check the Imperial Oil company website and I’m afraid to say, it doesn’t seem like Eldorado makes the cut: http://www.imperialoil.ca/en-ca/company/about/history/our-history.

And this from my friend Gary, who I think discovered the same website as Tamara did. He found and sent this photo showing supposedly the world’s first gas station, considerably earlier than 1920 and a long way west of Eldorado:

First Esso gas station

However, Gary also hopefully suggests that maybe the Eldorado operation was the oldest surviving gas station – that is, when it was still surviving, which it no longer is: “Perhaps all the others from the 1920s or earlier might be gone, or replaced. Who knows?!”

Who knows, indeed? People, I am still open to new information and any light you can shed on this question.

But in the meantime, I’m gearing up to share with you a next-generation chapter of Pigden history. You see, the garage operation in Eldorado and Madoc was quite a thing, and is still fondly remembered by many; but Charlie and Keitha’s son Gordon went in a whole different direction in his own Eldorado-and-then-Madoc business – and that’s a whole other story, (Remember how I told you it would take at least two posts for me to tell you the whole thing?)

I’m going to whet your appetite with this great story from Grant Ketcheson – husband of my first-grade teacher Gayle, and son-in-law of Reta Pitts – which links the Charlie Pigden story to the generation that followed Charlie, and especially the interesting pursuits of Gordon:

In early November 1946, my parents decided to go to the Royal Winter Fair [in Toronto] and take [Grant’s sister] Betty and me. [Youngest sister] Bev was just a baby, so she stayed with Grandma and Grandpa Ketcheson. As it was a looong way to Toronto in a 1935 Dodge, we were leaving early, long before daylight. A problem arose when the windshield wipers did not work. Dad phoned Harold Pigden and we drove to Pigden’s Garage in Eldorado. Harold, the middle son, could fix anything that looked even slightly mechanical. He bragged that he could weld anything except the crack of dawn or a broken heart! But I digress. Harold promptly fixed the windshield wiper and one of my lasting memories is of my dad telling us when he got back into the car, “Harold says that Gordon got his TV working last night and he got a signal from the States.” Also, my parents told me about hearing Gordon’s clandestine radio broadcast, from the “shores of beautiful Mud Lake.” Mike Quinn, who worked at Blue’s Hotel, told me he used to call Gord whenever the government communications guys checked in for the night, planning the next day to check on this illegal radio station that they had heard about. Mike said he would call Pigden’s Garage and by the time they went there the next day, there was no radio station to be found!

Is that good or what? “He could weld anything except the crack of dawn or a broken heart!” A local rogue radio station dodging the G-men! (Okay, the Canadian version of G-men.) Again: wow!

Obviously there is more of this story to be told. In the immediate future I need to use this space to fill you in on fantastic events that are coming soon to Queensborough: a real, honest-to-God old-fashioned square dance at the Orange Hall; the Ham Supper and a second annual Music Night at St. Andrew’s United Church; the kayakers coming for their annual plunge over the Black River dam; and a social evening to talk about new directions for our community.

But you can be sure I will share the story of Gordon Pigden and his amazing life and work before too much longer. And for that, of course, I again owe my thanks to all the readers who have shared stories about Gord, and especially to the Pigden family.

On the front of that folder full of family history that Dianne (Pigden) Brick lent to me, she had affixed a clipped-out quote:

Pericles quote

Thanks to the memories and research that Dianne and so many others have shared with me, I think – at least I hope – that I’ve been able to show how true that is: how the legacy of one family – and by extension, of all families – is woven into our lives, and has become part of who and what we are. Including selling Desotos, drinking Honee Orange, surviving bedclothes frozen to the wall, and broadcasting “from the shores of beautiful Mud Lake.”