My Memories of a Ghost Town

Reid Dickie

Part 2 of 3

HAYFIELD, MANITOBA

This article about Hayfield along with a store picture was supplied to the Souris and Glenwood Municipality history book, published in 2006.

    I may be the last person alive who ever lived in Hayfield, Manitoba.

    My parents (Bruce and Helen Dickie) and I moved from Margaret, Manitoba in 1952 when they purchased the Red and White store in Hayfield. I was three years old. Dad bought grain in Margaret for Pool Elevators after he returned from the war and wanted a new experience.

   Hayfield provides my earliest firm memories. The country general store my parents bought was a huge two-story rectangular building with shed-roof wings, slat siding and Red and White Store emblazoned across the front. We bought the buildings, not the name, from Mrs. Canning after Mr. Canning passed away. Thereafter it became Dickie’s General Store though the white with red trim remained. As you came over the rise traveling west on Hayfield Road, the store, blazing white in the bright sun, stood against a rolling landscape of crop and fallow making it impossible to miss.

Front view of Dickie’s General Store in Hayfield. Note the handpump-style gas bowser. The child in the picture is me.

    The store, which faced east, had a flat roof and façade with a central entrance and sidelights bracketed by two large multi-paned display windows. The sidelights sported large Coca-Cola decals. On the façade a pair of narrow rectangular windows opened into the second floor. The wing on the south housed vehicles, the one on the north a storage area with its own entrance. A windbreak of trees to the north and west of the store helped protect it from inclement weather.

    Don’t mistake Hayfield for a town or even a village. It was mostly just a store. Besides my parents and me, just two others resided in Hayfield: the hired man, Lawrence Murphy who rented a room from us and an older man named Dave Rogers who lived in the only remaining house in Hayfield. More cats and dogs than people lived in Hayfield.

   On the main floor, our store sold groceries, dry goods, house wares and a few farm supplies. A soft drink cooler – the kind with a tank of cold moving water holding drinks like Kik Cola, Wynola, cream soda and a myriad of Stubby flavours – stood next to the front door. Customers came in from the summer heat, opened the large lid of the cooler and either poured over the vast variety of drinks or reached right for their brand, likely Cokes all clustered together. I accumulated a huge bottle cap collection from the sticky catch bin of the cooler.

    At the rear of the store, a post office offered the services of the Royal Mail. Mom was the postmistress and Dad delivered the mail to the local farms. In winter, he drove a horse and cutter, in summer he used a half-ton. The post office was the only place off limits to me, federal property and all – there and Lawrence Murphy’s room upstairs in the corner, personal property and all.

    Oiled wooden planks, likely original to the place, covered the floor of the store. I recall the slightly chemical smell of the crumbly green stuff we put on the floor before we swept it. In front of the store in the parking lot was an Esso gas bowser, the kind with the glass tank overhead into which you hand-pumped with a handle the required number of gallons then gravity pulled it into the tank.

   We lived at the back and above the store. Behind the store were our kitchen, family room and mudroom. A crude summer room led off the kitchen. Our bedrooms were upstairs, my parents in the front corner, Lawrence’s in the opposite back corner, mine along side Mom and Dad’s. These bedrooms all opened into a huge living room with linoleum floor and four wood frame windows across the south side We never had much in the way of furniture up there (our financial situation was modest at best) so I rode my tricycle around and around in the bright airy empty room.

    In one upstairs corner down a short hallway, a dusty storage room housed an enchanting assortment of things from the store’s past. A moveable type printing press, in pieces but with the type open and available to my little fingers sat next to store displays for products that hadn’t been made in decades and a few personal effects of families who lived there before us. I’m not sure why but my parents completely ignored this room and its contents. It became my secret place.

    The mysterious and intriguing thing that turned the storage room into a secret place was not left behind by a person. On the sill of a west window, I found the perfectly preserved skeleton of a mouse, bleached white by the sun. It provided my first exposure to death encountered suddenly in an unexpected place. I remember how the sheer brightness of the tiny bones reached out and grasped my attention, how I would stand and stare at the glowing white structure, arranged like jewelry on the grey wooden ledge, the sun pointing slanty fingers through the slowly moving dust.  My young imagination strained to picture those frail dry bones supporting a tiny body in a soft fur coat, tail sweeping back and forth, warm life pulsing inside. Over the years, I watched these fragile bones turn to a soft white powder.

This promotional item from Dickie’s General Store is a small first aid kit in a plastic box containing an antiseptic solution, cotton absorbent, a spool of tape and basic first aid instructions.

      By the time we arrived in Hayfield, only a short section of the raised grade across the prairie remained to remind you that railway tracks once ran through here. At some point Hayfield had at least one elevator but all that remained of it was a metal grain bin set deep into the ground, its shiny slanted metal sides gaping and open to the sky, a great danger to anything that fell into it. It usually held enough water in the bottom of the hopper to drown a child, a constant worry to my parents. I recall Mom’s frequent warnings not to go near the hopper. It was the most dangerous thing I ever encountered in Hayfield.

   North of the wooden store, two small sheds and a barn, all with gable ends, sat next to a corral. The last building in the row, a big wooden hall, provided me with endless hours of amusement. (This was formerly the Hayfield church.) The hall consisted of a large room with rectangular windows along both sides and an open raised stage at one end. Used for storing lumber, the place was full of planks in piles. I found some old drums left behind by a band that made music there at some previous time. The skins were broken but I can recall standing on the stage all alone banging on the drums with a stick singing at the top of my lungs to my captive audience of old planks.

   Being an only child in a rural setting without nearby children, I became a self-amusing kid, my performances to old lumber an example. I roamed the area with our black lab, Jet. Mom could always tell my whereabouts because she’d see Jet’s black tail above the tall grass or crop and know her son was safe. 

   left: Bruce and Reid at front door of Dickie’s General Store in Hayfield, 1955  below: Mom in front of store 1955

    Cats abounded in Hayfield. I recall one rainy day racing back and forth from barn to house excitedly reporting every new kitten our cat Freckles produced. A few barn cats tried to keep the mouse population under control.

     Southwest of the store, a dilapidated wooden fence encircled a space for an ice rink in winter, another hint of Hayfield’s past. Unused by the time we arrived, Dad would cover a small section of the rink with water, clean off a smooth patch with a rusty old ice scraper and let me skate. I learned to skate on this bumpy ice by pushing a small kitchen chair ahead of me.

     In summer, wild windstorms swept in from the northwest or, more scarily, from the east. Dust devils as big as funnel clouds came swirling across the black summer fallow, lifting cones of dry dust into the heat. The wind would pop out a pane of old glass in the upper floor of the store, sweep through the place looking for egress, punch out a window in the back room downstairs and continue its desperate journey across the prairie. I have jumbled, frightening recollections of the wind and thunder pounding outside while we frantically held pillows to the windows on the storm side of the house. On more than one occasion, the weather became our enemy, vulnerable as we were out there.

    Dickie’s General Store would be the last store in the old building. Newly mobile, people found Brandon nearby, alluring and centralized. Our country store was obsolete. In the fall of 1957, we held an auction sale liquidating the stock. Dad found a job running a Texaco consignee business delivering bulk gas and fuel oil to service stations, farms and homes in and around Shoal Lake, Manitoba out on Highway 16. He moved there first and we followed a month or two later. I don’t know the arrangement but Lawrence Murphy stayed on as caretaker of the Hayfield buildings. He may have run the post office for a few more years after we left. Later Lawrence lived in Souris.

The store and all the remaining buildings in Hayfield came to a sad but useful end in the 1990s when firefighters in training from Brandon and Souris used them for practice. They set the buildings on fire then put them out, set them on fire then put them out, and so on until they were gone. It brought a tear to Dad’s eye when I told him the details of Hayfield’s demise but we agreed the cause was worthy and a fitting finale.

Helen Dickie passed away in 1993, Bruce in 2001. They lie side-by-side in Shoal Lake Cemetery. I make a living as a freelance writer, working out of Winnipeg although since my wife Linda passed away, I am trying to retire. My areas of interest include urban and rural architecture, history, heritage issues, music and spirituality.

My years in Hayfield, ages three to eight, were formative in my life and in the world. Humanity emerged out of the darkness of a great war into a time of sunny optimism when hope invaded our hearts and souls. The future glowed with promise and prosperity. Somehow, that sense of optimism filtered through to our little family and gave us the strength we needed to move and survive in a new town.

Though I consider Shoal Lake my hometown, Hayfield, Hebron School and the Brandon Hills left indelible impressions. That was where the mysteries of life and death revealed themselves to me in obvious and subtle ways, where I learned lessons that are still useful and relevant to me every day. Hayfield is gone but I expect its lessons will last a lifetime.

A bluff of trees in a cow pasture and the grade of the lane suggest Hayfield but its only a suggestion against the big prairie sky.

2 Comments

Filed under 1950s, Family, Ghost Towns, Linda, Manitoba Heritage, Prairie People

2 responses to “My Memories of a Ghost Town

  1. Michelle

    I adore this. Thanks so much for taking the time to jot down your recollections in such fine detail.

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