Building a Family Legacy
Updated: Jan 27, 2020
Phyllis Benson spent summers at Ma-Me-O Beach from the age of about 8 until her family,
(father John Wilfred McAllister, mother Alice and brother Russell), sold their cabins around
1962. One of the most iconic cabins being Beaver Lodge which is still a fixture in the area.
Phyllis recalls each summer the family would pack up and leave Edmonton the day after
school finished to go to Mameo Beach, and leave Ma-Me-O Beach the day before school
started. A good long summer vacation at the lake!
Riding in Style
The family first went to Ma-Me-O in the summer of 1932 which was the first year Phyllis' father, J. Wilfred, a teacher at Westmount School in Edmonton, owned a car.
He purchased the car – a Rockne Studebaker – the day school finished in June, 1932, and had the salesman drive him in the car to Kingsway Avenue; a wide and relatively untraveled road in Edmonton. The salesman then gave J. Wilfred a driving lesson and the next day the family packed up the car for a camping trip to the mountains with the plan to camp all summer in the Rockies. The challenges came when J. Wilfred needed to start shifting gears to get up and down the hills as they drove into the mountains; not having had much practice at shifting gears on the flat prairie drive to Calgary, the drive to the mountains was much slower with Alice McAllister, J. Wilfred’s wife, sometimes assisting in shifting the gear stick. After practicing the whole trip, J. Wilfred was good to go and ready to take his family on a new adventure; one that would take them to Pigeon Lake.
With the freedom of their own car, the family visited friends one weekend who had a property at Ma-Me-O Beach, and Mr. McAllister loved the lake and area. He walked the beach, which at that time was much longer as the lake was lower, and ran for perhaps three to five miles, choosing an area of the beach where the lake was clearest and without weeds with the intent to purchase a property close by. For four years, the family lived in what they called the ‘lake camp’, a low wooden walled building with a prospector’s tent above.
Many cabin owners drew water from a public well built near the centre of the town, and
gradually additional wells were added to each street corner. Up until this was done, some
people hauled lake water to their cabins for cooking and drinking. Most cabins had an ice box,
and ice could be purchased from the ice truck that usually drove through the village two days a
Beaver Lodge Begins
With money saved for a cabin, Mr McAllister hired a Swedish carpenter skilled at log felling and building, and willing to build the log cabin over the winter. This was their first cabin called Beaver Lodge.
With the outer structure complete by spring, the family took responsibility to build the interiors and roof during the summer. Phyllis recalls being responsible for laying out the shingles on the roof; her father followed her, nailing the shingles into place. After laying out a row, Phyllis would perch on the edge of the roof and pull up her knitting basket, a kitchen pot her father had hung off the side of the roof. Phyllis would knit until her father finished nailing the row, then put her knitting back inside the pot and lower it off the edge of the roof and proceed to lay the next row of shingles for her father. She remembers being paid about five cents an hour for her labour, plus the cost of wool for her knitting project. By the end of the summer she had a new sweater and skirt set to wear to school.
Beaver Lodge had several unique features. A well had been dug below Beaver Lodge before it was built, so the family had a large kitchen counter built and a hand pump sat on this. This made getting water for washing and drinking easy and laundry day convenient. To keep food cool the cabin had a dumb waiter located in the kitchen. Milk, butter, fresh baked pies and other foods needing to keep cool were placed onto the dumbwaiter. Using a rope, the food was lowered below the floor of the cabin to stay cool on warm summer days.
No Stone Left Unearthed
The stone fireplaces built under the McAllister's ownership truly shaped the style and feel for each cabin constructed...
Wanting a fireplace for the living room of Beaver Lodge, Mr. McAllister worked with another Swedish contractor, this one a stone mason. Mr. McAllister would canoe along the shore of the lake, sometimes as far as Crystal Springs, choosing large attractive rocks for his fireplace and loading these in to his canoe. Phyllis recalls sometimes the load of rocks made the canoe sit barely two or three inches out of the water. A late day storm would have easily swamped such a heavily loaded canoe!
Each load of rocks was piled out of the canoe and everyone – kids, cousins, friends and neighbours – hauled the rocks up to the cottage lot on the beach road where the stone mason would sort the rocks for colour, shape, size and sparkle, choosing and placing stones with care. Work progressed slowly, as the mason was challenged by partially paralyzed eyelids. None-the-less, Phyllis recalls he would choose a rock, and after careful examination be able to tap it once
with his hammer - the rock would split perfectly giving him two perfect halves to place. His name is apparently written in to a part of the chimney masonry.
A Family Affair
Soon after Beaver Lodge was built, the William P. Wagner family built their own cabin across the road. Mr. Wagner was a mathematics teacher in various Edmonton high schools and later a school principal; W.P. Wagner School is named in his honour. Always the entertaining teacher, Mr. Wagner would quiz the kids with math puzzles such as 'If you had to walk back to Edmonton how many steps would it take?' The two families would often have wiener roasts and bon fires together on the little island of shrub and bush that sat in the middle of the road. These were called Mac-Wag gatherings. A special treat was homemade ice cream. Phyllis often sat on the lid of the ice cream drum while it was being cranked as an easy way to keep the lid tight so the ice cream would form faster.
Phyllis and the two Wagner daughters, Dorcus and Elaine, spent many hours together and later became lifelong friends. Despite the McAllister family being early risers while the Wagner family tended to sleep late. Phyllis remembers she was often returning to Beaver Lodge for lunch after a swim or canoe ride, while Dorcus and Elaine were just coming down to the beach having finished their breakfast and chores. Among their lake activities were horseback riding, swimming, boating in canoes and row boats and attending Saturday evening dances.
Expansion & Enterprise
Starting about 1938, other lots near Beaver Lodge were purchased and developed for the family to rent. This was a way for J. Wilfred to have an income over the summer as teachers were not being paid during the summer months.
The family also purchased Pioneer Inn, a cabin built by the Milne family, and likely one of the first cabins built on Ma-Me-O Beach. Hiring the Swedish carpenter again, Sioux Lookout was built on the lakefront side of Pioneer Inn and beside it a second log cabin called Mac’s Shanty. Helping her father complete these cottages over the following summers earned Phyllis more wool for future knitting projects.
A sign was posted advertising the cabins for rent, and many families would book the same cabin for the same week or month each summer. Clients who left their cabins tidy and didn’t damage them, were always welcomed back and would arrive to find the stove and fireplace in their cabin set with paper and kindling and a full bucket of water ready for them. Clients who left a mess were not given a reservation again. Mr McAllister’s diary from 1955 shows that he cleared his desk on March 23, as he anticipated “lake business will soon begin.”
Fresh is Best
The highlight of Phyllis' summer were the days when bread was baked and the kids were tasked with picking berries for jam. The swamp across the road from Ma-Me-O had low bush blueberries, black currents and gooseberries. Phyllis recalls there was an abandoned saw mill around Crystal Springs that had a great patch of raspberries as well. Family berry picking expeditions were often announced the day before, when J Wilfred would tell his family they would be going on a ‘Mystery Tour’. Now pay attention parents! The trick to having berries left at the end of picking was to give each child a piece of beeswax to chew while they picked. All the berries made it into the bucket and everyone enjoyed fresh jam with their bread. Bread was sold at Wood's store on the beach road, but many families made their own as a way of saving money. Phyllis remembers sitting down to a fresh slice of bread with her three cousins, Joan, Jim and Geoff McAllister. To keep the young ones from fighting over their sweet reward the parents would ration them to a teaspoon each and spread it on for them as well. The jam was just THAT delicious!
The Original One-Stop Shop
The Wood family owned the only store in Ma-Me-O, located on the beach road. The Wood’s owned a parrot that flew around the store, chattering at customers. The post office was located inside the store and cabin owners would ask at the desk for their mail. The greyhound bus from Edmonton stopped outside the store around 7:00pm most nights, and cabin residents often drifted down to see who had arrived. The Edmonton Journal also arrived on the bus, and on Saturday’s, the Saturday Evening Post magazine. Phyllis tried to deliver all the Saturday Evening Posts on Saturday night, but sometimes had to finish up on Sunday afternoon. Charlie Hillis had the paper route.
Some folks would rent horses from the local stables as well. They would ride them up and down the Beach Road to the corner store or just to take a ride for the day.
Most Saturdays, a local farmer would drive down the beach road with a wagon of fresh farm goods and people would rush out to purchase what they needed.
Whittling Away Warm Summer Days
When he wasn’t busy with repairs and rentals, Mr. McAllister would sit in his back garden and whittle. A favoured wood was diamond willow, often obtained from ‘the swamp’, across highway 13, (now 13A), from Ma-Me-O. His diamond willow walking stick is now in Langley, BC with his daughter Phyllis. On one trip to cut diamond willow for whittling, Phyllis was with her brother Russell. Heading over to ‘the swamp’ while their mom Alice was away in Edmonton, and J. Wilfred was on a rock collecting trip in his canoe, Phyllis recalls Russ suddenly yelling, ‘Put your hand on your head and run!”. She did so, and discovered that her scalp was bleeding - the axe blade had come away from the handle as her brother was cutting a willow sapling and the sharp blade grazed the back of her head. He rushed her back to their cottage and asked for the help of his girlfriend, Maxime Milne and her family. Maxine’s grandmother shaved away Phyllis’s hair from around the wound and cleaned and bandaged it. Phyllis was placed in a hammock in the backyard and told not to move. Maxime and Russell bought ice cream at Wood’s store as a treat to encourage Phyllis to stay put until her father came home.
A talented musical family, the McAllisters often spent evenings in their canoe, J. Wilfred playing his flute and Phyllis and Alice singing for families sitting on the beach. Famous for his sense of fun and practical jokes, J. Wilfred loved to laugh and have fun with the people around him. When he found weeds growing in the lake he would pull them from the roots; to keep them from floating away, he tucked the end in to his swim shorts. The photo below shows the resulting ‘costume’ made from the weeds.
Image 1: J. Wilfred’s diamond willow walking stick, which he whittled himself.
Image 2: Left to right: Elaine Wagner, Phyllis McAllister with Billy Wagner in front holding a boat, J. Wilfred in his ‘weeds’, possibly Maxime Milne, and Dorcus Wagner, c. 1938.
Image 3: Bill Wagner pumping water at the corner public pump, c 1940.
Find Me At The Beach!
After retiring from teaching in 1954, at the age of 67, J. Wilfred spent 10 weeks on freighter,
seeing the sites from Vancouver to the Panama Canal. He returned to Edmonton and had a
busy summer managing his cabin rental business. Looking forward to travel with his wife Alice,
in retirement. Sadly, he died suddenly of a heart attack in October of 1955. The family tried to run the rentals in subsequent summers, but found maintaining J. Wilfred’s high standards which proved hard to do. Phyllis was married with three children and living in Montreal, and her husband was an airline pilot. Russell and his wife Betty now had four children and had a hard time making it out to the area consistently. Eventually the properties were sold around 1962.
For reference, the approximate address for each property detailed in this story are listed below:
Beaverlodge: 800-1st ave
Wagner's Cabin: 720-1st ave - if searching this address on Google street view you will see the little island where the families held their Mac-Wag hot dog roasts which is still there!
Macs Shanty and Pioneer Lodge: approximately 803, 805 or 807 on the lake side of 1st avenue. Hard to tell really as they were mostly rebuilt by their new owners. Some say the fireplace still stands in Macs Shanty.
The rental properties: 716-1st avenue, Although one of those has been taken down and all that remains is the fireplace. One that looks like it was built by the Swedish stonemason as it is a tall rock fireplace still standing on the property.
That's all for now folks! Stay tuned for our next post as more stories are collected and submitted. We also plan on chatting with the new owners of each property with regards to this story and will create separate posts for each as we go along.
~History Book Team~