Highlands Vignettes from the 1960s
The Highlands Historical Society’s project to share stories from the neighbourhood’s past has a new installment, via an interview with former Highlands resident Jim Moran. Jim, his mother and his older brother moved from Beverley to a house on 6403 Ada Boulevard in July 1967, when he was 12. The house was demolished some time ago, but Jim remembers it in fine detail, and recently shared his memories with HHS. This segment of the interview focuses on Jim’s stories of everyday life in the area, making the neighbourhood as it was in the 1960s come alive once again. The interview was conducted by Robyn Fowler, with transcription by Louella J. Janzen Pick, and has been edited for length and clarity.
We begin with something Edmontonians know well: the monotony of long winter cold snaps. Jim had the arctic stillness broken after he came across an unexpected find near the house…
Intriguing Discovery or, The Mysterious Briefcase
Jim: That was the winter where we had 30-some days below zero on the Fahrenheit scale, a really cold winter. But there was one day right in front of our house in the massive intersection where that empty lot was, there was a brand new leather briefcase, never been used and no packaging on it, nothing, and of course as a child you see it and you think, oh, this was used in a bank robbery or there’s something really exciting about this piece.
This is incredible.
So we got it in the house, and I wasn’t — I didn’t want it keep it. I wanted to give it to the police, because I figured this is [from] a crime scene.
So we actually did that.
I gave it to the — turned it over to the Edmonton police, and they held it for a couple of months, and then they phoned up and said nobody ever claimed it.
But — and then they gave it back to us, actually.
So I — I think I may today still have that briefcase. A real expensive leather briefcase that somebody along Ada Boulevard probably bought, never used, left on the hood of the car, and lost it.
So that’s just kind of a humorous story from my childhood in Highlands.
We moved there in 1967. My brother would have been about 15 then, I would have been 12, just about turning 13. We moved from a very small house in Beverly. My mom had separated with my dad, so it was relocating probably through social assistance. It was a rental property that was subsidized in some fashion, I would think.3
The City probably never would have allowed any sort of work on that property. It was destined to be demolished, and that’s probably why it was rented out to somebody on social assistance, because you’re pretty restricted. We were likely the last people to occupy the house.
So we moved in July, because I remember us 2 boys were sent away during the move. We were with some relative or neighbour or something at the Klondike Days parade, I think, and that kept us distracted and when we came home we came back to Highlands.
The reason we have no photographs of the house is we were not really in a position to make it public where we were.
6403 Ada Boulevard circa 1930’s (house on left). ⓒCity of Edmonton Archives RA160-1076
For us it didn’t feel small because it wasn’t any smaller than the house we lived in, in Beverly. So had somebody else who lived in a normal house, so to speak, gone into that place, they probably would have thought, well, this is old and small and not practical, but as kids we were adjustable.
The house was at 6403 Ada Boulevard; that, I’m quite sure, was the house number. [South side of Ada at the intersection of 64 Street, the same site as the current Gullion bench].
It wasn’t particularly attractive. It was almost like a summer cottage appearance. But it was quaint. It was nice.
Comparing to other local architecture, I really think that house was more of the 1912 era rather than just pre-war (WWII). Like, this was an old house. It was one storey, no attic that I know of, and the basement was only partly developed. I’d put it at roughly about 24 feet on a side. The basement flooded often.
When you looked at it from the roadside, what you would see is the front — the entire front balcony of the house was enclosed with glass windows. There was a garage on the West side. If you looked at the house itself coming from either direction, either east or west on Ada Boulevard, all you’d see is the shrubbery on the sides, so lilac bushes and that type of thing on both sides.
The Main Floor
As you walked in the house, there was a very nice living room on the east side. Obviously not that big, because the house wasn’t that big.
I remember around the border of the roof of the walls it had the curved top to it, so, in other words, instead of a square on a corner it was a curved corner, which is common in the older homes. [coved ceiling, was more common after the 1930s than in 1910s]
Even though it was such a tiny house it had two gas fireplaces, one in the living room so it had a very small mantel and a gas fireplace.
When you walked straight through the main room into what would be a little nook — I wouldn’t call it a dining area, it wasn’t big enough, but a little nook and the kitchen, and then of course the back entrance to the back yard. And that was where one of the other fireplaces was. It was just tucked in the corner. So I can just imagine how cold that house was in its day before the better furnace system was in it. There wasn’t a whole lot to heat it.
The fireplaces we never used then, because the concept of having gas in a fireplace was pretty scary, and especially with kids. We weren’t really allowed to use that fireplace and we were a bit afraid of it.
Other than one occasion I can think of. But one time we had one of the floods in the house, and one of the things that came out of the basement that I didn’t even know we had, I had an uncle, distant uncle who died before I was born, [who] had a massive stamp collection.
I remember bringing it up, laying it out all over the floors–we’re talking hundreds of stamps–laying them all over the wood floor in front of this gas fireplace to dry them out.
That’s why I remember so clearly the fireplace. It was novel.
The other fireplace was not used, because the radiants, some of them were missing so it wouldn’t have functioned, wouldn’t have worked correctly. The radiants are porcelain bars that go in, if you know the old fireplaces.
Gas Stove, circa early 20th century. Porcelain ‘radiants’ are light coloured. The flame heats them from behind until they glow, radiating heat to the room.
To the [west] side would have been the two bedrooms, and the bathroom was in the back southwest corner.
The Kitchen and the Old Fridge
The kitchen was so tiny; I couldn’t believe how small it was.
Probably it was no wider than maybe 4 feet wide. It was almost like an afterthought that was put onto the house. It was rather odd. But that’s old houses.
[Once] our fridge broke in that house. And it was a crisis, because all the food’s going to get ruined, so what do you do?
My brother and I were sent on our bicycles to a gas station that would have been probably on 118th Avenue, so a fair ways away, to buy a block of ice as quick as we could, go get it, bring it home. Well, those are heavy, especially for young kids and we’re on bicycles, and it’s hot, summertime.
So I remember going there, and we used straps and things to tie them to the pack of bicycle on the little rack and by the time we got home, probably a third of the ice had melted. But that old fridge you could actually take that big chunk of ice, that big block, and put it inside and still have it functional to a degree.
There’s no way you could do that on a new fridge, so it had to have been a pretty big [one].
In the [cellar] I remember a dirt floor.
So the washing machine (no dryer) would have been in the basement.
And it — it wasn’t a really usable basement. It used to flood quite often.
But the basement was very damp. And just — it is not a place that you would down to play in or anything. It wasn’t developed enough for that.
The Immediate Environs
And when we moved in there, the existing road, as you know it now, with that little S-turn that happens just past the golf course if you’re heading east, that didn’t exist yet.
In front of the house, there was a kind of big open space. And the house across the street out the front door to the right, [Baker Residence, 6274 Ada Blvd].
Out the front door to the right, there was an incredibly large weeping willow tree but everybody that knew Ada Boulevard back in that time period knew the big weeping willow tree. Just an amazing tree that took up the whole corner, very pretty, so it was a nice view from our place to look out across in the fall and the spring, its leaves coming out and that, as things were changing, just a beautiful spot. That tree has been cut out of there now, but just recently. The last of the stumps were probably taken out in the last years.
And of course the Magrath Mansion at that point was owned by a religious group [the Ukrainian Catholic Archdiocese].
The lot was very, very small. It would have actually been rectangular in shape, it would have been wider than it is deep, because it was such a short distance from the curb to the house.
In the wintertime when the graders plowed the big drift [the windrow] would be 2 feet deep in front of our house, and with the sidewalk and the driveway — well, we never used the driveway, but the sidewalk you couldn’t get over this darn thing, so then you’d have to phone the city and get a grader to come all the way back out again to do a two-foot wide strip in front of our sidewalk, and then he would carry on, do whatever other job he had to do.
And the yard sloped slightly up toward the house. But there must have been a considerable dropoff on both sides.
The distance from the curb of Ada Boulevard to the actual front step into the porch wasn’t probably more than maybe 14 feet, so it’s a really small front yard.
I remember that going up the two little wooden steps and into the house, the actual sidewalk was not brick or stone or anything like that. It was actually planks, wooden planks. So you stepped off of the curb onto the wood. From the road, the walk went maybe 2 feet and then you stepped down one or two steps, so you’re lower than Ada Boulevard.
You walked down a plank about 12 feet and then up the steps into the house, and that whole thing was all wood. I’ve never seen any around anywhere that had this, other than a cabin out at a lake, so it was rather a unique house.
And there was a garage. It was on the Highlands golf course [West] side – nearest the draw. The garage was set back quite a bit, so when we moved in, realizing it’s just — my mom, the two boys; we had bicycles. We didn’t have a car but in order to get out of the garage with the car, you had to go up to Ada Blvd. The driveway is dirt, not really gravel; it was easy to get stuck so if anybody ever did come over, you had to be careful on getting out, backing onto Ada Boulevard up a muddy slope. It was kind of a little bit dangerous, if you like, but that was all part of the charm of the house, I think.
My Brother and I would often play in a field that doesn’t exist anymore that was beside the house. Football or just throwing balls around.
I say it doesn’t exist anymore, because when that road that they built from the Highlands golf club parking lot that circles around and goes through the trees, they took away a huge chunk of ground there that used to be a workable play area for kids, and it was gone.
They just wiped it out when they put the road in.
There was enough of a slope behind the garage that we could actually ski. Mom had bought a pair of old wooden skis from a garage sale or yard sale or something — I don’t know where she got them from — but we didn’t have proper boots for them or anything, but we could actually go about 10 feet on these skis, and that was pretty exciting. That was the winter [Jan 1968?] where we had 30-some days below zero on the Fahrenheit scale, a really cold winter.
The frame of the roof was sloped from the front of house to the back of the house, so high in the center, sloping forward and back like a V, so if you looked at it from Ada Boulevard you see if great big green roof coming down to all the other windows along the front of the house would actually look probably smaller even than it did inside.
Just the way the size of the roof was. It was a very tiny place.
This house was well painted, well taken care of. It was a gray-painted floor,* and if you’ve ever walked on wood that’s painted with snow on your boots, it’s not easy.
The front steps would be really, really slippery.
I remember getting woke up many mornings to the sound of a woodpecker on a tin chimney, and it was extremely noisy, and there’s no way you could sleep through it. I’d get up and go outside and throw a rock or something on the roof and scare this bird away. 15 minutes later it would be back.
Coming up in part two: Jim shares memories of the Highlands School, bomb shelters, Edmonton’s trolley buses, and more!
Notes and Further Reading
1 How was the Highlands neighbourhood named, and what does $50 in gold have to do with it? Find out in the HHS Newsletter Archive, 2010: Volume 22, no 2 (Fall).
2 For more information about Beverley, see the HHS Newsletter Archive, 2001: Volume 12, no 1 (Spring).
3 The National Housing Act (NHA), enacted in 1938, was more focused on new development for middle class families in the post WWII years (Anderson-Baron and Kjenner, 2022), and the Act provided loans and grants for affordable housing. New structures for social housing were not built in Edmonton until the 1960s (Lowe, 2018). In 1967, the City of Edmonton released its first Master Plan, which indicated that rent scales for subsidized housing at the time were determined by a provincially appointed housing commission (City of Edmonton General Plan, 1967, p. 114).
*The porch floor was painted grey, and the interior floors were hardwood.
Cities and Affordable Housing: Planning, Design and Policy Nexus. Sasha Tsenkova, ed. Chapter 5: “Affordable Housing Challenges: The Experience of the City of Edmonton,” by Jalene Anderson-Baron and Christel Kjenner