Tales of Asessippi: The Tent Store at Asessippi 1919
by A. R. Devlin
Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1973, Volume 19, Number 1
The boy stepped out of the old army-type bell tent and walked towards the large horse tents being erected along the northwest bank of the Shell River, behind McKay’s storenow empty and being used as a cook house and dining hall for the road construction gang. The boy was very thin, in fact scrawny, and tall for his age, which was eleven years. He was out of school and living in a tent or out in the open, at Dr. Bates’ orders.
The year was 1919, the summer after the flu epidemic of 1918-19, and the boy had spent that winter in the town of Russell, delivering for the butcher shop, Amos’ Confectionery, Ledingham’s Drug Store, Asbury’s and Hill’s general stores. The town had been under quarantine all winter, with guards stationed at the four road entrances to the town. No one was allowed in unless by special permissionnot many wanted in.
Having been advised to stay out of school that winter, the boy made deliveries from the stores to the guard areas outside town, using a jumper sleigh and one horse. Most of the orders had been telephoned in. This went on all winter, in all kinds of weather. Several of the large, older-type homes had been converted into hospitals and these were all full of people in various stages of the flu. Dozens had died. One threshing crew had started in the fall with 24 men and stopped when only three were left. The others either died or were too weak to work.
The boy had survived the winter without contracting flu. One of the cure-alls or preventatives of the time was to keep Lysol simmering on the back of the stove, and this had been done at his home for months.
When spring came, the boy was so rundown that Doctors Bates and Swallow ordered complete rest away from school for one year, or the diagnosis of inflammation of the lungs could become tuberculosis.
So on this June day he had arrived at Asessippi by tote team ... that is the freight and supply wagon that hauled supplies from the railroad town of Russell. The job on hand was to rest, but after a busy fall and winter, plus two months in bed, resting was not easy. During the next few days, he made friends with the stable boss and the gang foreman, so when a water boy was needed, he got the job. The stable boss provided a horse and stoneboat with a barrel. The job was to fill the barrel with water from the well and haul it by stoneboat up the grade twice daily, to where the construction crew was working. The crew consisted of about fifty to sixty teams and drivers, using slush scrapers pulled by teams, or fresno scrapers with four horses. There were also a few wheel scrapers and two plow teams for loosening the ground, so that the scrapers could pick it up for transport to the grade area of the new highway. There would be a total of 75 to 80 men working on the job and they drank a lot of water. Sometimes they were not satisfied with water, and they were always out of smoking or chewing tobacco or snuff, so after the second week, the boy got the idea that he should have a store in the Bell tent and sell these items, along with soft drinks, matches and chocolate bars. He made a deal with the freight haul driver to bring a few of these items from Russell on trial, using ten dollars borrowed from the cook.
Within a few weeks, the store was going strong, along with sales made on the water runs each day. All sales were cash, and the daily volume was now 15 to 20 dollars per day, half of which was profit. This was more money than the boy had ever thought of at that time.
Operating the water run and store, hunting bush partridge and fishing kept the boy busy until late October, and at the monthly medical checkup he was told he could go back to school the following year. The profits from the store were used to buy much-needed clothes and a saddle pony. So the tent store closed after a run of four months.
Page revised: 19 November 2017