My Memories of the Lea Family
By Susan Rook Teece
The Palliser Expedition in 1860 referred to Southern Alberta as a bare wasteland with severe weather, little fresh water and brackish sloughs, possessing limited potential for agriculture.
By early 1900, Canada was intent on attracting immigrants to the prairies. Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior developed a scheme. Dig a trench and divert some of the Bow River water to a depression in the landscape, creating a lake. With a dam at each end, useful fresh water could be directed to southern parts of Alberta. Irrigation attracted many immigrants from England and Europe. This was the creation of Chestermere Lake.
An interesting aside, when Artemas Lea built his family home in Calgary along the Elbow River in 1910, it was on a street named Sifton Boulevard.
So who was Artemas (Art) Lea? He was born and raised in Prince Edward Island. In 1903 at the age of 30, he ventured west by train, pausing in Calgary for a 4 hour stopover. He got off, went for a walk around town on a beautiful sunny morning and decided to stay. He went back to the train to collect his bag and began his life there. He built houses for several years with his brother in-law forming a company which was known as Lea, Golding and Company. In 1912 he shifted careers and formed Simpson and Lea, a fur trade business located at 708 Centre Street S. My mother, Maida was born in that same year, Spencer arrived a year and a half later and Alf, four years later.
He must have given rave reviews to his brother Roy and two sisters as they followed him to Calgary shortly after. The story goes that when Roy was on a dock (in PEI) and spotted a boat rigged and ready to go, he would hop aboard and take it out for a little sail. Perhaps there was a reason for him to leave town! In Calgary, Roy formed The Diamond Motor Company and sold cars. In the early 1920’s Roy leased a small bit of shoreline on the east side of the irrigation reservoir. He could not have title to the land as it was owned by the Western Irrigation District but he could build a cottage and a boathouse to hold a sailboat, and build piers. He planted a row of poplar trees. The location of the cottage is 100 SE. The Bible Camp came along later, next door. His love of sailing flourished.
A couple of years later, 1925, he invited Art and his two sons, Spencer aged 11 and Alf aged 7 out to the lake. A nice breeze was on the water and Uncle Roy said “lets go”. Uncle Roy was at the helm and the boys had their first sailing experience. They had grown up along the shores of the Elbow River playing with all sorts of homemade boat-like things but now, after this experience, sailing became a true love.
Art and Roy took their families to Sylvan Lake for a month each summer, from 1926 to 1935. A few years later, at Christmas, Roy gifted Spencer and Alf his gaff rig sailboat called the “Marilyn". The three children Maida, Spencer and Alf played on this during their vacations at Sylvan lake. Roy built another similar sailboat, the “Albert D.” and of course they raced. They also enjoyed racing these boats on Chestermere Lake the rest of the year. With no cliffs or trees to hinder the wind, it was perfect. The racing was on Sundays as it was the only day available in the week. However, this healthy family activity was contentious with Art’s wife Clara. It is supposed to be the Lord’s Day. It was agreed that there could be no prizes or trophies for these races. Eventually, more boats began to appear and joined the racing fun.
In 1935-6, Roy sold the cottage to Clara Lea. That’s when the family traded in Sylvan lake trips to full summers at Chestermere. It was much closer to Calgary. The cottage was renovated and named Leaside. It was one of three cottages around the lake at the time, but soon others were built. In the boathouse there were two sailboats, a canoe, a row-boat and a surf board. Family and friends enjoyed visiting. The fun continued into the winter months with skating and ski-joring.
During the war years, Art built a boat out of plywood (a new product on the market). She was a sixteen-foot sloop rig named the “Silver Blue”. Following the war years, lake activity and boat building gained momentum. During the winter of 1945 a group, including Art, built six cedar planked, fourteen-foot dinghies. The design was by Roy Lea. Some had jibs and some did not. These were built in the basement of Dr. Fred Pilcher. All showed up on Chestermere, each with an owner who could sail. This was a great boon to the racing scene.
During the 1948 sailing season the annual Labour Day provincial regatta was reorganized. Syd Gosling was now sailing at Seba Beach on Lake Wabamum, where the Edmonton Yacht Club was located. In 1947, Maida married Bill Rook who would occasionally crew.
In 1951, Spencer built his family cottage at Chestermere. This cottage was sold to the Penley family in 1962. By 1952, Spencer was building International Fourteens, a Charlie Bourke design. This was updated in 1954 with a more powerful hull shape. The fabric for sails shifted from nylon, which became baggy if it rained, to Dacron. During the 50’s I remember the basements of my uncles always had a boat under construction over the winter months.
At some point, Alf and his family took over the ownership of Leaside. The rest of the family visited forever more. Alf built ‘The Peggy ’ in 1952, a beautiful mahogany launch which became an icon on the lake for close to 50 years. She was named for his wife, Peggy. Having a very powerful car engine she rescued many, many dumped sailboats over the years. For one of the Commodore ’s teas in the mid 60 ’s, it pulled 10 of us Juniors on water skis for a sail past. I believe there is a photo out there somewhere. It was quite a spectacular event.
Here are some of my earliest memories, beginning in the early 50’s. We would visit the cottage in winter. I remember Rolly (WR) Stillings (the photographer) doing summersaults in the snow.
In spring, the two large sloughs on the approach to our road (southeast of the clubhouse) would flood. We cousins would stand up in the seat of the car that Uncle Alf would drive through the deep water. Somehow this felt safe.
One day my Grandpa (Art) decided to teach me how to drive the car from the cottage to the yacht club. I was 5. I sat on his lap and was expected to steer. It didn’t go well. I waited until I was 16 before I tried driving again.
Grandpa was a well-known figure around the yacht club. He was known affectionately as “Pappy Lea”. He served on the race committee, started the races accurately with his starting pistol and watched the race start to finish. [1928 to 1958 JP] He could watch a sailboat race from the dock and call it like the finest sports commentator. He knew who was in every boat and what they were up to even if they were on the far side the lake.
One day, in the early 60’s, I was playing in our neighborhood and noticed a sailboat in a garage (quite a unique sighting in Calgary). I ran home to tell my mom and she and I immediately trotted over to chat to the owner. It turned out to be one of the original six “Pilcher boats” built in 1945. The owner seemed interested in the history and I certainly was as it was the first time I had heard the story. I am not sure what happened to that boat as I don’t remember ever seeing it again.
International Fourteens had been the boat of choice for racing. In the Fall of 1956. Spencer became acquainted with Arthur Thomson who had plans for an eighteen-foot scow. The class had been sailed for several years in Michigan. It was sloop rigged and could carry a three-man crew. Plans were ordered and it was constructed from marine plywood, with Aerolite glue, strong and water resistant. The boys in Edmonton build some too. In the spring of 1957 these “Y Flyers” were introduced to the lake and sailed with a crew of two. These boats were built to specific parameters so the racing was between the sailors, rather than boat design and modifications.
In 1958 my family came close to owning a cottage. Nana’s garage was up for grabs and my parents seriously considered shifting it to the lake, near Leaside and converting it into a cabin. Sadly, the idea was abandoned, and they did a house renovation instead. I have always been a bit sad about that. I loved the lake. By the time I was 11, I chose weekends at the lake over anything else, all summer long. I stayed with Kay and Ed Lowney along with some other girls. Saturday was sailing lessons with Ed and Sunday was Sunday School with Kay, until we were old enough and strong enough to crew with Ed - a dream come true. Hanging out on a trapeze is a favourite memory. We Juniors had various techniques for staying warm, we wore garden gloves to protect our hands and became very agile and always, always doing our darndest to help Ed win against Alf or Spencer. I mention the Saturday Sailing School run by Ed. This was during the 60’s. Some of the Juniors made their way successfully in the sailing world. Phil Linder with crew Billy Strain won the Canadian Junior Sailing Championship in Vancouver. The other crew participating in the event was Allan Strain and Bruce Kendall. Linda and Gord Penley were also part of our Junior class.
My uncles, Spencer and Alf, and also Ed Lowney were the most skilled sailors on the lake. I state this proudly being one of Lea clan. I remember some of the boat names - ‘Catch Me If You Can’ and the ‘Follow Me’. At the provincial regattas they always won. One time, one of the Edmonton wives complained and argued they must be up to some trickery with their boats and rigging. So they swapped boats. Guess what, my uncles still won the race.
In 1962 Spencer sold their family cottage to the Penleys.
At some point in the 1960’s, Flying Dutchmen became the boat of choice. The hull was fibre-glass and the sail area was larger. This was exciting and exhausting for a girl like myself to crew on, but what exhilaration. Gord Penley famously stated that the crew required “the grip of a gorilla, teeth like marlin spikes, and the agility of a cat”. I think he often wore layers of wet heavy clothing to get his weight up.
In 1970 the Bruce Kirby/Ian Bruce designed “Laser” hit the world racing scene. It cost $640.00 and everyone had one, or two.
The rest of the story:
Alf and his son Don sailed iceboats during the winter months on Ghost Lake.
Spencer split his time between his acreage west of Calgary and horses, golfing and sailing. He owned a yellow, twenty-one foot San Juan which he sailed on Glenmore Reservoir. He trailered it to Kelowna every year for a regatta and with Alf as his crew. They did a bare boat charter in the British Virgin Islands with their sons. Spencer also raced his Laser at Chestermere.
Alf sadly lost his eyesight in the early part of 2000. He had spent his life around the lake, boats and motors. He also was an ace flyer. He had radio-controlled airplanes and would entertain us summer and winter, flying with his fly buddies off the lake (solid or liquid). The cottage, Leaside, was bulldozed and replaced with a new home for his son Don. The “Peggy” is now owned by Mike Hooper.
From the years 1980 to 2000, our family traveled to Calgary for vacations each summer and Christmas to visit my parents. The lake was always a love and our children grew up enjoying activities around the water, in all sorts of boats, and watching airplanes fly.
Credits - Information has come from:
Etc,Etc,Etc, BACK WHEN, by C. Spencer Lea DDS,MBE April 2006
THE TIME OF MY LIFE, by Maida Rook (Lea)