The great fire of 1938

Indian Summers was too soon on the wane with the departure of the leaves as October gradually turned more sombre.
Then, I remembered this is the month of the great 1938 fire that took ten lives in this district and led to the book titled “Flaming Dance.”
We had been enjoying a fine fall like this one. But after the fires started, a number of high schoolers like myself were lining up at the river front where Paddy Ryan kept the forestry hoses.
We wanted work, but little expected the tragedy that would soon engulf the Burriss and Dance areas north of LaVallee and create such shock as the loss of most of the LaBelle families.
Fires had been striking everywhere around us as it seemed in that dry time and many homes were keeping barrels of water beside the doors in case the explosive air sometimes carrying sparks might threaten this town.
We had half the east end around the present rinks full of lumber piles with chips and sawdust for roads between them. This was indeed a frightening for our whole town!
The word went out that fire fighters were needed and Ryan had the big hoses ready for emergencies.
We kept one ear on the radio news and the fires seemed to be starting all around this area, but mostly in the west.
The Burriss sawmill was located a score of miles or more to the northwest of town and car travel even in those times was not yet so popular that most townspeople had never been out there.
When I met Nell LaBelle many years later, I invited her and my wife to view the tragic scene. One of my wife’s aunts had perished while Nell was away at high school in Rainy River. There were few family survivors.
Another was Bill LaBelle who had taken his pulpwood truck into town earlier that fatal day. Apparently he had offered rides to others who declined, not fearing the fire would arrive!
When it came, the LaBelles were huddled together in a ditch at the sawmill while flames shot right over them.
The late Norman Croome, the Fort Frances crown attorney, had been out partridge hunting along there and stopped to ask whether he should take any children with him back to town, but the desperate need was not yet realized. A large creek that ran close by contained water but it was also full of high, dry grass and seemed an unlikely refuge.
Nell showed us how her parents home nearby had been spared. Apparently they had fled with the others in the belief the fire was coming their way. Later it was seen they had just set their table for dinner.
The district church bells tolled and newspapers far and wide carried their largest headlines. Most of the LaBelles were victims of probably the worst loss of life this region ever knew in peacetime.
• • •
Now that the town has met the challenge of the bad roadway alongside the condominiums, thereby demonstrating a construction feat that may have seemed impossible, there may be time yet this fall to patch and smooth holes in other streets that may you go bumpity-bump on several main thoroughfares.
• • •
Of course the town has to keep making a hole and repairing it almost weekly alongside Robert Moore school. This may be to impress the new Wal-Mart manager who lives there by showing off the town’s big machinery.
The Works boys put on such a regular demonstration that the new town council will also be impressed. Whoever heard of cost control? And wouldn’t old George Henry who did everything on the streets and sewers for many years be surprised by this ongoing project.
• • •
The Ralph Huntspergers just north of Emo put their half-section farm up for sale and deserve credit for making it go. Best of luck folks in your life ahead.
• • •
Some remarkable hardy flowers still flaunt their summer finery in defiance of the weatherman, but you know this gesture is hollow. What means much more at this time of year is freshening old friendships to knock that emerging feeling of hopelessness!
So, when Art Legaree told me this week that Frank Thorn had been in town wwas looking for me, well! This made the fall clouds seem less menacing and helped re-charge the old batteries because my former side-kick and boxcar riding partner was still around, and my 60-year old memories suddenly flooded in.
These thoughts included when we could go anywhere we wanted at any time, with no jobs, or dependents to tie us down—and also no money for travel.
Frank and I, both freshly graduated from a Winnipeg welding course right after I left high school never mentioned that we rarely owned five dollars between us.
Opportunities were awaiting us down the tracks where Steep Rock Iron Mines and its diamond drillers needed our help. We got sent there by one of the first acts of the new local dependable Employment agency in the post office. But this proved not to be entirely dependable.
So we tried Steep Rock food and bunks anyway and hung there at Atikokan as labourers while they dynamited the bottom of a lake that sent dirty water westward to Rainy Lake and made everybody mad.
And when we realized Steep Rock with its drillers departed had little interest for us, Frank and I left to see Port Arthur Shipyards where our welding skills were soon strong in demand.
We landed night shifts through more train travel again courtesy of CNR and found dice games at 5 a.m. there daily while the foreman pounded around the decks in his big boots looking for us.
His name, I’ll never forget was Milt Hancy but Milt was never told that we rushed through his assignment and finished in less than ordinary time to win money by gambling with the dice . . . which we never did, but had fun trying.
In a U.S. shipyard about that time, welding inspections were starting and we learned that five ships named for the famous Dionne quintuplets were doomed because greedy pieceworkers used long fillers in their welds. This was a habit we never experimented with, but felt sorry for the Quint’s ships which sank while going to war.
We were proud of our boats known as Algerines and glad there was no illegal profits mixed into our shipyard, on a fair amount of good natured dice throwing.
I’ll find out if Frank returns whether he remembers the Sunday beer picnics in Boulevard Park, Port Arthur. I was invited to join one as we strolled one Sunday because there were Italians who learned that I had an Italian name. There was someone of my name living near me and our letters sometimes were mixed up.
So, I’m sorry I missed Frank’s visit. I thing he came in from Calgary. I went to school with his older brother, Leonard, who died from a logging accident.
Frank and I parted when I joined the RCAF, but he was not old enough.
We forged quite a friendship and I hope he reads this after 60 years of separation and also that it helps him forget about the long winter coming on.
You see, we never worried about the weather, only whether we could find a job somewhere and after a boxcar ride.
We were born to be hobos, Frank?

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