Memorable Manitobans: Matthew W. Thompson (c1830-?)
Born near Hamilton, Ontario in the 1830s, he came to Manitoba about 1881 and squatted on the southwest quarter of a section that overlooked a lake fed by a small creek. The lake was Shoal Lake and was the site of the future community of Shoal Lake. That early in the village’s formation there was much confusion about surveying and exact property lines. As a result, some land could be claimed by squatter’s rights, which is what Matt Thompson did. However, John Baer was already squatting on the same quarter and had been for several months.
Being a wily Scotsman, Thompson decided to stake his claim with a bit of theatrics. Capitalizing on the fact that Baer did not know him well, Thompson came up with a plan to scare away the competing squatter. One starless night, Thompson put a horse collar around his neck and, feigning insanity, visited Baer’s shack. It worked. Thompson got his quarter and the opportunity to buy up most of the rest of the section cheap. Quarter sections were $10 with certain improvements expected. Thompson then sold off the building lots in the village as demand required.
Matt Thompson’s own homestead was on the west end of the section, along what is now Hwy #42. When the railway came through, he gave up a large portion of this land for its construction.
He spent over twenty years in Shoal Lake, making significant contributions to its evolution from a few shacks on a hillside into a thriving village of over 600. He wore many hats in this frontier town. He saw opportunities where ordinary men saw nothing and he took risks, making himself and his family prosperous by any prairie standard of the time. He was a postmaster, real estate baron, builder, contractor, raconteur and cunning adversary. He was widely admired, respected and missed when, in 1904, he left the community, moving to the United States for health reasons. That occasion prompted the editor of the Shoal Lake Star, W. A. Myers, to dub Thompson the “Father of Shoal Lake.”
You can determine the exact location of Thompson’s homestead by the street names in that part of town. Thompson Street feeds Jane, Elizabeth and Helena Streets and runs parallel to Mary Street. They are named after Matt’s daughters Elizabeth, Jane and Mary. It is not sure where or if Helena fits in the family tree although there is a “Hannah (Thompson) Richards and Baby” listed as being interred in the family burial ground. The Thompson family cemetery is on Matt’s homestead and is Shoal Lake’s only Municipal Heritage Site, a designation acquired in 1988.
This peaceful little corner of the town, 101 Elizabeth Street, between Helena and Elizabeth, coddles the remains of a dozen members of the Thompson family. Among the trees are the graves of all the women who have streets named for them. Joseph Thompson, Matt’s brother is buried there, as is his wife, Elizabeth. Matt and his wife Carrie are not as they passed away in the United States.
Matt Thompson was the first postmaster in Shoal Lake after the village moved from the south end of the lake, where it had its genesis, to the north end when the railway went through in 1885. It was a frantic winter sliding the village’s buildings—mostly log structures—north across the frozen lake toward the new town site.
Thompson assumed postmaster duties for Shoal Lake Post Office on 1 April 1886, a position he held until the end of 1902. The post office was housed in Thompson Hall, an early hub of the community.
Thompson Hall, built circa 1885, was located on South Railway about where the Ukrainian Hall is now. Matt named it after his family and offered it to the community as a place to meet, confer, pray, laugh, sing and dance.
Rather than pursuing one of the revival designs popular at the time, Matt Thompson built a welcoming and interesting structure that suggested its many uses. It was a two storey wood frame building with a steeply pitched roof and three gables cutting the façade roof, the centre gable larger than the others. It had tall multi-paned windows all along the front. There were shops on the main floor. The large open second floor was used for gatherings.
Thompson Hall served diverse community needs. During the week, public meetings and local concerts were held in the Hall. On Fair Day, it served as the display hall for handicrafts, baked goods and preserves. Methodists and Baptists, before their church was built, held services and Sunday school in the Hall.
In the late 1880s, as the settlement grew, the one-room school quickly filled. Thompson Hall was used for classrooms while a second, then third room was added to the school.
Numerous lodges used the facility for meetings. The Sons of Scotland, Braes O’ Mar #151 met the first Thursday of every month. The Maple Leaf Tent of KOTM gathered every third Monday. KOTM stands for Knights of the Maccabees, an insurance/fellowship/networking arrangement where members paid a monthly fee and received insurance benefits when stuff happened. The Maccabees converted into an actual life insurance company in 1962, changing its name to The Maccabees Mutual Life Insurance Company.
After Matt Thompson moved away, Thompson Hall became the Farmer’s Trading Company. It continued as a major retailer and meeting place until the building and its contents were destroyed by fire in March 1910, just months after being purchased by W. A. Findlay, J. S. Charleson, Smellie Bros. Ltd. and Findlay & Short.
Thompson Hall was just one of many buildings Matt Thompson constructed in Shoal Lake’s earliest days. Sensing the potential of the little settlement, he built several blocks for businesses and residences. He also built houses.
Matt wasn’t the only Thompson making pioneer history. His brother Joseph brought his wife and four small children from Ontario to a homestead northwest of Kelloe in early 1882. After they arrived on the claim, the arduous task of hewing a home from the unforgiving prairie meant it would be over a year before Joseph’s wife, Elizabeth, saw another woman.
Persistence, hard work and good humour paid off and, by the end of the 1880s, Joseph and his family had built a practical yet rather elegant two-storey house with steep cross-gabled roof. It even sported a pointed Gothic window under the gable eave. Its design had many of the same elements as Thompson Hall. The house was passed on to future generations of Thompsons.
In May 1889, Joseph Thompson became one of the first trustees of the newly created Kelloe Union School District. He was a keen horticulturalist and planted numerous trees and shrubs on his homestead and, in his later years, in Shoal Lake where he lived with his children.
When new homesteader Matt Thompson sat outside his little shack overlooking the rippled lake, he saw the possibilities, he envisioned a town sprouting up around him and he recognized how to profit from it. Perhaps he dreamed the town into existence. For that reason, Matt Thompson is the Father of Shoal Lake.
This page was prepared by Reid Dickie.
Page revised: 22 February 2016
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