Written by Ken Kristjanson
On a recent weekend I was indulging in my favourite hobby of post card collecting. I visited Irene and Judy at the Gimli Farmers’ Market at the harbour. Coincidentally their booth is almost on the spot where the CPR had its Terminus to pick up fish from Armstrong Gimli Fisheries plant in the 1940’s.
Going thru their well stocked wares I spotted a photo of Camp Sparling. The camp was so named for a prominent Winnipeg cleric who became President of Wesley College and later United College, now the University of Winnipeg. This camp was part 33 Fresh Air Camps operating in Manitoba.
Camp Sparling was located in the South Beach area of Gimli. Camp Robertson was located in Loni Beach on Gimli’s northern border. Camp Morton and Lakeside Camp were located further north. The B’na Brith and Salvation Army Camps were located in Sandy Hook.
The Fresh Air Camps were all part of a movement to give disadvantaged kids a chance for some much needed fresh air and nourishment. The movement started in England and quickly spread to the U.S . For whatever reason, it did not come to Canada until 1900. That year Major Mrs. Jennie Southall of the Salvation Army set up a tent city for inner city kids and their mothers in Norwood Grove in St Boniface across the river from Winnipeg. The cost of assembling tents, cots, food, water, clothing and medicines was to prove a challenge. Undaunted from this humble beginning other congregations took up the challenge and Camps spread throughout Manitoba. (I am very grateful to Dr. Jim Burns, Southall’s grandson and Dr. Gordon Goldsborough for their extensive research into the movement.)
The CPR pushed its successful rail system to the Lake Winnipeg beaches eventually reaching Gimli in 1906. This opened up the pristine beaches and affordable land for the Fresh Air Camps.
As near as I can determine, Camp Sparling was built and began operating around 1911. The property, going from memory, would have been the size of a city block.
As the photo indicates, the main building was quite large. The building was set back from the Lake with a large lawn in front. The property sloped to a magnificent sand beach to the east.
It would have held over 80 mothers and children in a dorm-like setting. The original formula was to bring the children to the camps with their mothers. This not only helped with the care of the children but also gave the mothers a break. The stay was two weeks. Every summer over 1000 children and mothers would make the trek from the CPR station located on Centre Street and Highway 9 (in front of where Sobey’s is now located) to the Camp at the foot of Hansson Ave in South Beach. A distance of about three quarters of a mile.
I well remember seeing these weary travellers passing by our home at 127 Fifth Avenue many times. On one hot and rainy day a group came along the muddy road. They had been all morning in the CPR Station in Winnipeg waiting for the train. They asked directions. I instinctively pointed to a nearby artesian well with its community drinking cup. Many were to drink the pure, cold Gimli water that day. The leader was carrying a heavy suitcase, wearing long clothing and a large ladies hat. I offered her my new wagon which she accepted. I was to be reprimanded for this act, but the wagon came back.
As my brother Robert and I delivered the Tribune newspaper to cottages in South Beach, we often stopped in at the Camp to deliver a free paper. There was always noise, laughter with children running, swimming or just having a good time. Many local farmers and businesses donated milk, eggs, and other groceries.
Trouble was unfortunately looming for Camp Sparling. The buildings were built when the water levels were low. In the 1940’s the lake would begin to rise. Long time South Beach residents Bob Strachan and Paul Couture remember well trying to fight the lake. Their cottages were located three lots in front of our property on Benedict, now under water. Many, like the Carters, Strachans, Coutures and others had no choice but to hook up a tractor and move their structures. Camp Sparling was too big to move. The United Church spent a great deal of money erecting a break water, but to no avail. The Lake was beating against the main building. The Church gave up in 1949 and sold the little remaining property to the McKelvies, Strachans, Coutures* and others. These residents along with us and others were able, with little Government assistance, to erect a formidable sea wall and stabilize the shoreline. As economic conditions in the 50’s and 60’s improved, the Camps were deemed redundant. Rising costs contributed, as well as the general condition of the Camps, to their demise. The last Camp closed in 1975. Their existance a footnote in the minds of those who for two glorious weeks enjoyed some carefree recreation and healthy food.
Unfortunately the need today is as great as it was at the beginning of the Camp movement.
*Until fairly recently, one of the last remaining smaller Camp Sparling buildings was on the Couture’s property on Third Ave.