The Widewater Athletic Association is no more, but leaves many people with fond memories. It organized sports days and other events in Widewater from the late 1950s until 2019. The association closed in 2023, but the decision to close started earlier.
At the end, Widewater Athletic Association had six members: Harry and Heather Bartlett, Orville and Bonnie Mercer, Gail Robertson, and Barry Hannah.
“This is what our area was known for mink ranching and our sports day,” says Harry, who grew up in Widewater and was the final association president.
Although it’s been four years since a Widewater Sports Day, Harry still has people ask when the next one will be.
Orville, the last Widewater Athletic Association vice-president, grew up in Kinuso.
“I never did play ball down there,” says Orville. However, he knew the community, adding “it (Widewater) was a pretty busy place out there with the mink ranches and the fishing.”
Another legacy of the group is the Widewater Community Complex, which has a community hall, daycare, and ball diamonds.
Harry remembers his childhood baseball coach Jimmy Heathman as the driving force behind the association buying land and building Widewater’s ball diamonds in 1960.
One of the association’s archive items is a minute book from October 1959 to April 7, 1974.
It starts in October 1959 with an entry about a meeting to “make arrangements to clean off and level the Wagner skating rink.” Repairs on the hall were also discussed.
The skating rink was between the road and tracks south of the Leo Munkholm’s home, where the Widewater Complex is now. This was then converted into a curling rink, which was run by the Widewater Curling Club, which worked closely with the association and had many of the same members.
On March 2, 1960, the association held an annual general meeting. They decided to register as an association and to make some upgrades to the hall. The upgrades were to buy a fire extinguisher for the hall and add a light over the outside of the front door and exit lights over both doors inside.
On May 6, 1960, the association met at the home of Don McVean to figure out how it was going to purchase 13 acres of land from Leo and Norma Munkholm for a community centre.
The land cost $6,000, say the minutes. The people on the neighbouring mink ranches donated $3,400. To make up the difference, five community members agreed to loan $500. These were: Bud and Helen Rippin, Jim and Betty Heathman, Don and Janet Reid, Cliff and Ruth Engebretson, and Leslie (Slim) and Ann Bartlett (Harry’s parents).
The minutes list 14 community members who gave $200 (including all five who loaned the association money), six who gave $100, one who gave $55, and one who gave $50.
These same community members were involved with the association for many years to come.
The land included the Munkholms’ house. The association renovated it to become the concession. The umpires changed upstairs, but had to keep an eye out for bats, which roosted up there.
The stairs were “steep and creaky,” says Harry. At one point, the Opportunity Corps painted the whole building a very dark green, including this stairwell and the pencil used at the concession to write down people’s orders. The dark colour made the stairs even more dangerous.
Mr. Harps was an old hermit who lived in a shack on the edge of the property for free. He had a garden by his shack and shot grouse and rabbits.
“He kind of spooked people,” says Harry, which had the advantage of protecting the property from trespassers and vandalism.
Back when the association had more members, it also organized events and fundraisers throughout the year. These included (indoor and outdoor) bingo, floor curling, crib tournaments, raffles, and more.
The current Widewater Community Complex building was built in 1988. Until 2003, the association continued to run the building, because of confusion with the municipal government, which at the time was an Improvement District.
For many years, the fundraisers kept the community complex running.
One big expense Harry remembers was pumping out the septic tank after every event. It turned out the issue was a kink in the hose which meant the tank wasn’t draining into the septic field.
In 2003, the M.D. of Lesser Slave River took over running the building.
Widewater Sports Day
The Widewater community sports days predate the purchase of the Widewater complex and the creation of baseball diamonds. In the early and mid-1950s, Harry remembers playing baseball in the field behind the Widewater weather station houses and a big mink ranch.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, there were “a lot of young families out there,” says Orville. At that time, all of the communities had more teams than they do now, he adds.
Widewater is part of the south shore, which is four communities on the south shore the eastern basin of Lesser Slave Lake between Slave Lake and Kinuso. From east to west, the communities are Wagner, Widewater, Canyon Creek, and Assineau.
The sports days had men’s, women’s and minor baseball teams. They came from Lac La Biche, Barrhead, Swan Hills, High Prairie, Faust, Kinuso, Slave Lake, Athabasca, Wabasca, the back lakes, Peace River, Nampa, etc.
“We had no trouble filling our ball tournaments,” says Harry. “We could pack that place with fans and teams.”
“They knew it was good ball,” says Orville. “The teams were select.”
Baseball was the main draw at the sports days, but it wasn’t the only sport available.
“Bocce (pronounced botchy) was a big time thing,” says Harry. “Bill (Niawchuk) ran it for years and years.”
Bocce is a type of lawn bowling.
There were also cribbage tournaments inside the hall. Other events included open-air bingo and a dance.
“You could do many, many things,” says Harry.
Food was also a highlight of the event.
“Corn on the cob was a hot, hot item,” says Harry.
All of the area communities had sports days on different weekends, but Widewater was the only one with corn.
The Widewater Sports Days were the second weekend in June, which when it was started was called Farmer’s Day. It was a Friday to Sunday event.
Kinuso had its sports day on July 1 weekend. Slave Lake’s was May long weekend.
The communities were all connected.
Orville grew up in Kinuso. Southshore kids went to Kinuso for Grade 12, so he went to school with some mink ranchers kids from Widewater.
“We would drive down,” he says, “when I was just out of school,” for the Widewater sports days.
Paving the highway improved everybody’s lives along the lake, says Orville. When the road was gravel, driving from Kinuso to Widewater, people would often have to fix a tire one direction or the other.
Orville moved to Assineau about 10 years ago and became involved with the association.
Harry has been involved longer.
“My mom and dad were heavily involved in Widewater,” says Harry.
His mom, Ann, was association secretary, treasurer, and then president for many years. His sister, Leslie, was part of the Widewater cheerleaders.
The ball park at Widewater Complex is named after Ann. It has three diamonds.
Harry followed in his mom’s footsteps.
In 1959, Harry was 11 years old and baseball was the biggest thing in the hamlet. He was part of the peewee Widewater Tigercats.
At that time, Harry’s teammates mostly lived in Widewater with a few from Wagner.
“I was just a kid,” he says. “Playing ball, cutting the grass, and whatever needed to be done.”
Starting in 1969, Harry taught in Slave Lake and coached baseball in Widewater.
“We kept the team together for eight years,” he says. Through peewee, bantam, midget, pony, and junior.
“When I used to coach,” says Harry, “a lot of my players were from Canyon Creek. They’d bike down all the time.”
In the years that followed, Harry worked at the sports days as an umpire.
In 1997, Harry’s mom died.
For the last 10 years or so, Widewater hasn’t had much for minor baseball, says Harry. Players join the Slave Lake teams. The ball diamonds were used for slow pitch, a little fast ball, and for the annual sports days.
For the last 50 or so years, ending in 2019, Harry helped to organize the sports days.
“It was really a solid team effort,” he says.
The 14 families mentioned in the 1960 association minute book were involved for many years. Some key people were Jimmy Heathman (already mentioned), Kenny Olson, and minor ball coaches Wayne Francis and Max Schmidt.
Olson lived beside the Canyon Creek Hotel.
He was “the best player I’ve ever seen in this area,” says Harry. At about 16, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but decided not to leave the area.
Over the years membership dwindled, so it was down to only a handful of people to organize the event. However, the Widewater sports day remained popular.
People would often camp at the Widewater Complex, but the rules on behaviour were more strict.
“You can’t let people do the things they used to,” says Orville, drunk driving etc.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic was the last nail in the coffin, spelling the end for the Widewater Athletic Association.
The 1959 peewee Widewater Tigercats
Back row left to right, Allen Sigurdson, Harry Bartlett, Charlie Dupuis, Gary Sigurdson, Francis Donald, Dale Culpepper, and Walter Fuelkell. Front row left to right, Gary Kirkpatrick, Kerry Heathman, Lenny Fedorus, Bruce Barfoot, and Richard Schmidt.
Photo courtesy of Harry Bartlett.
Harry Bartlett umps at a Widewater baseball tournament. Photo is from The Leader archives.
Investing in the community
Since 2011, the Widewater Athletic Association has kept track of the cash and in-kind donations it has made to the community.
This starts with $30,000 in 2011 to Lesser Slave Lake Regional Housing to furnish 19 sites in Vanderwell Lodge for essential workers (doctors, RCMP, utility workers, etc), who had lost their homes in the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire.
A large in-kind donation was three acres where the Widewater School used to be, to the M.D. of Lesser Slave River to build a new fire hall and community park. This was valued at $250,000.
In 2012, the association transferred $200,000 worth of chairs, tables, kitchen appliances, stage and equipment at the Widewater Complex to the M.D. It also transferred the old Canyon Creek Hall lot to the Canyon Creek Recreation Association, which was valued at $80,000.
In 2014, the association donated $75,000 toward building the Slave Lake Legacy Centre. It also donated $30,000 toward the Canyon Creek Wildfire Legacy Playground and Park, by the Canyon Creek Arena.
In 2016, the association donated $2,500 toward the Fort McMurray wildfire relief. It also donated $45,000 to the Widewater Fire Hall Park and Playground.
In 2020, the association donated $85,000 toward the Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service’s search and rescue boat.
In 2021 and 2022, it donated twice to the Slave Lake Hospital Auxiliary.
Other donations include many donations to the South Shore Children Association, floor curling rocks to schools and the Smith Legion, school nutrition program, etc.
The final donation was in 2023, to empty the account. The Widewater Athletic Association donated $5,664 to the Canyon Creek Recreation Association.
The CCRA is growing and very active in the community. Events include organizing the Debbie Seppola Canada Day parade, a crib tournament, a dance last Halloween at the Widewater Complex, and other events.
by Pearl Lorentzen