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  • Writer's pictureErin Dentzien

623-1 AVE - Pioneers from Far & Wide

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

The Larson and Kelley cabin has changed ownership between two families that hold very dear memories of their time at Ma-Me-O Beach. This cabin story has been passed on by Helmer and Sylvia Larson, their family members and the Kelley's with their own adventures at Ma-Me-O.

A Little Bit of Early History

Gustav (Gus) Larson was born in Worthington, Minnesota, the third child of Albert and

Ellen Larson, who had emigrated from Sweden in 1902. The family soon purchased

farmland in Alberta and moved to the Offerdale district north of Gwynne in 1903. They

built a house and settled in to raise their family of eight children.

Gus & Daisy(Woods) Larson with children Richard, Donald & Alan

Gus soon realized that the small farm could not support their large family so he began

to look for another way of making a living. Because of his propensity for the outdoors

and fishing, he settled at Pigeon Lake near the Ermineskin Cree Reserve. Gus was among a handful of people who settled in the area before the official sale of land in 1923.

Gus met brothers Alex and Lewis Ingram Wood, originally from England, who had both

purchased nearby farmland. Lewis Ingram had married Betsy Fraser, the daughter of

Colin Fraser and Sophia Brazeau (Likely of Métis Heritage), of Fort Edmonton and Pigeon Lake.

Lewis and Betsy had a large family, one of whom was Gus’ wife, Daisy.

Gus Larson

Gus decided to go into business and in 1936, he built the first grocery store to stay open through the winter, selling it just two years later to Joe and Vic Fontaine. Gus also built and operated the first garage in 1936, at Ma-Me-O Beach selling Imperial Esso products. He later sold the garage to Ralph Thorpe and Alex Shewin when he and his family left Alberta.

In 1938, the Alberta winters must have got the best of the Wood brothers and their

families, including Gus and Daisy Larson, for they pulled up stakes and moved to Vancouver Island. Eventually, Gus and Daisy separated. Their sons, Richard, Donald and Allen moved with their mother to the Campbell River area and settled near Alex and Lewis Ingram.

Gus moved to Victoria, where he and his second wife, Evelyn, operated Hairdressing

Schools in Nanaimo and Victoria. Gus passed away in May of 1986, while Daisy passed away in 2006, at 96 years of age.

The Next Family Era

Lee Kelley, was born in Lake Jefferson, Minnesota, on December 20, 1881, he and his family moved to Vandervoort, South Dakota, in 1888. In 1899, a year and a half after the death of their father, Lee and younger brother Percy accompanied their older brother Freeman to Wetaskiwin, AB where Freeman had homesteaded in 1892.

Lee worked on Freeman’s homestead and then started breaking horses that he bought in Montana, selling them to central Alberta settlers. That led him into a dray business delivering goods, coal and wood around 1918.

Lee & Verna Kelley with the great granddaughter Catherine Stevely in front of Blarney Castle in December - 1957

As early as 1911, Lee and Freeman Kelley were frequent tenters on the shores of Pigeon Lake. In 1923, Lee became one of the early purchasers of a lakeshore lot when it was released by the Department of Indian Affairs. Lee Kelley built a three bedroom cottage in the late 20's and into the early 30's for completion. The cabin so dubbed Blarney Castle still exists to this day.

Lee on the street after the snow had been plowed -1950's

In 1911, Lee married Jennie Craig and they had four children together, Kay, Fran, Jack and Donna. Jennie died on Christmas Day, 1925. In 1930, Lee married Verna Newville and together they raised a family, built a business and had several rental properties in Wetaskiwin.

Lee’s dog April & Curt Smith on the snowy beach - 1955

In 1949, son Jack Kelley took over the business and Lee and Verna Kelley retired to the lake. A bit of distance from town did not hinder their joy of friends and family. Their annual mailing of over 100 Christmas cards was a testament to that. Everyone was welcome at Blarney Castle for a cup of coffee and good conversation or better yet, a game of crib. Lee loved to play crib, he didn’t seem to win that often but a good game always made his day. They were especially happy when family came for an extended visit. The families came for visits not only in the summer but any time of the year often combining a business trip with a long weekend at the cottage. Whoever stayed was always greeted with a yummy breakfast of bacon and eggs paired with the best coffee ever made in a little tin coffee maker. Lee always noted in his diary how quiet it was when their company had gone home.

Freeman Kelley & niece visit Blarney Castle - 1933

Lee’s grandson Dale Kelley was the grandchild who visited most often. He was a young teenager in the early 50’s and independent enough to ride his horse Jiggs out to the cottage from town. Lee thought Jiggs was a pretty nice horse and helped Dale find a good spot to board when he rode out. Both grandfather and grandson loved playing crib and played for the title of crib champion for “Pigeon Lake from the Meridian to the Mountains.”

One special occasion at the cabin was Lee’s 70th birthday and an iced sheet cake that had the correct number of candles inserted. Lighting that many candles needed many hands and coordination to avoid mishap! No one received any burns but the cabinet above the pass-through from kitchen to dining room table got badly scorched and nearly started on fire when all the candles got going. On another occasion Verna had a new recipe for Baked Alaska and took on the task without a trial run. Things were going fine but Verna got anxious when it was time to brown the meringue. Her nervousness and the need for proper timing in the oven, no blow torch for this event, had everyone on edge and all hands on deck. The Alaska came out of the oven and was served in seconds and eaten in a rush before it all melted. Everyone was breathless and no one took the time to enjoy the flavour, look or consistency of this new, never to be repeated treat. Everyone had a good laugh and agreed the attempt was a success.

Kelley's & Freeman's at Ma-Me-O - brother Freeman in front, niece Violet next to Lee - 1932

Lee and Verna kept busy with family and friends right up to their sudden death in a traffic accident on the road into Wetaskiwin on November 30, 1959. Through Lee’s will, the cottage ownership transferred to the four children in 1959. Donna having recently sold a cottage at Mulhurst relinquished her share. Over time the cottage went from Jack Kelley to his son Dale and was then sold to Helmer and Sylvia Larson in the mid-seventies. Helmer is Gus' nephew and their story continues below.

A Tale of Two Families

After years of vacations spent in a holiday trailer parked in campgrounds, the Larson family decided the time had come to buy a cottage at Ma-Me-O Beach. The year was 1974, and Jack

Kelley was selling the family cottage complete with a bunkhouse and an outdoor privy. The location, across from the playground, near the store and public beach, perfectly suited the family perfectly; especially the five daughters aged four to fourteen. Helmer appreciated the sturdiness of the original structure including the split rock fireplace. Sylvia admired the Saskatoon and pin cherry bushes but had some reservations about using the old-style kitchen range. A deal was made and the family moved out to the beach on June 30th.

Though the cabin started out as Blarney Castle, a new name was struck when Helmer and Sylvia came to own this iconic residence. The cabin was renamed the Swede Inn in paying tribute to the Larson family Swedish heritage.

Helmer, a carpenter, would commute from Wetaskiwin during the workweek. Sylvia, a school and music teacher, would be at the cabin with the children all of July and August. It wasn’t long before Helmer added to the size of the living room and bedrooms creating more space to welcome friends and family. Their daughters, Sherri, Charlotte, Laurelle, Lyn and Barb connected with a plethora of friends from Wetaskiwin and some from new ones from Edmonton and Calgary.

During the 1970’s and ’80s when the children were not at the beach, they were kept entertained by paying 25 cents to jump on the ground level trampolines that were placed over pits or heading to the store to play arcade games and buy penny candy with the money earned from collecting cans and bottles.

The bunkhouse became a great place for slumber parties and was popular with the older girls as the curfew could easily be circumvented by climbing out the low windows to gather around the campfire. (Mom and Dad pretended not to notice.)

Helmer was a popular dad on weekends as he drove his motorboat up and down the lake teaching a group of youngsters how to waterski and later, how to wakeboard. In the winter, if the lake froze over smoothly, there was the chance of an outing to the cabin on the weekend for some ice skating or a ride around the lake on Helmer’s snowmobile.

By 1994, the cabin grew to two stories on the street side with family members pitching in to help Helmer. The addition of five bedrooms and a family room made life at the cabin noisy but

comfortable for the new spouses and the 10 grandchildren that followed. On the long weekends, the cabin was full with as many as 22 people!

Helmer and Sylvia celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary with family and friends at the cottage on July 15th, 1995. That same year the bunkhouse had been sold and gave up a surprise for the new owners: in the attic was a box of thank you letters from WWII soldiers who wrote from overseas to thank Lee and Verna Kelley for the care packages they sent. The letters are now safely stored in the Wetaskiwin and District Museum and can be viewed upon request.

The cabin continued to be a favourite meeting place for family and friends. While relaxing on their front lawn the Larson's watched the beach traffic and renewed many lake friendships every summer. On Sundays, they were delighted to watch the picturesque view of the sailboat races. The really hot weather required a more creative idea for cooling off so Sylvia and her daughters often took their lawn chairs straight into the water to sit on one of the many sandbars.

Waterskiing and evening campfires were regular occurrences, as was setting off firecrackers for

Canada Day, Wednesday night bingos, the playground program, Sunday Flea Markets, and the

Ma-Me-O Days parade and Family Dance. The addition of a sandcastle competition caught the

girls’ attention. Each year they came up with a new creation and they could count on their Dad to do the heavy shovelling and add any final additions that were required.

The Larson family took their turn at organizing the Family Dance and silent auction that was

added to the annual dance to fundraise for the new playground equipment and the summer

recreation programs.

By 2005, 10 grandchildren had been added to the family circle along with many new ‘lake

friends’. Summer activities remained status quo with the new generation enjoying fishing off the pier, biking from one campground to the other as well as new favourites such as skateboarding and wild tube rides behind the boat. The extended Larson family remain imprinted with a love of lake life and still yearn for the carefree bliss of those hot summer days spent at Ma-Me-O Beach.

That's all for now folks! Stay tuned for our next post as more stories are collected and submitted.

~History Book Team~

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