A Conversation with Bill Agnew: Part Three

The Highlands Historical Society is committed to preserving stories of the neighbourhood’s past. In this project’s latest chapter, longtime Highlands resident Bill Agnew shares memories of working and playing in the area. In part three of the interview, Bill talks about starting a block party tradition, moving on from the confectionary business, and the deep influence the Highlands has had on his life. The interview was conducted by Michelle Olsen, with transcription by Louella J. Janzen Pick, and has been edited for length and clarity.   

Highlands Block Parties

MO:  So how did the Highlands support Riddle’s specifically?  

BA:  The business not that much.  We always did stuff for the community league and stuff like that.  Hallowe’en was a special treat, because the kids would get a lot of stuff.  

But the community, they knew of us and that sort of thing, but we were just so busy working every day.  That’s when we fell away from the community, because the kids were all grown up, basically, now, so we weren’t involved in the affairs, and we lost track of the community and who we were in the community because we worked from 5:00 in the morning till 8:00 every day, every day.  So we weren’t involved in very much in the community anymore, other than the block parties and the stuff that we always got involved with here in the community that way.  

We started a block party here with this family next door, the Severias, back when the kids were, oh, 3, 4, 5, 6 years old, and all the people that lived across that lane were spinsters and single ladies, most of them, and that sort of thing; so we’d take the fence down between our two properties and have a corn roast every September.  

            Because that’s when I was working at Tappenden’s, and we had big Bunsen burners and welding stuff, so we could make a big pot, and we’d boil corn, and that’s how it all started.  And for probably 15 or 20 years we were the block party.  It got so big we had to quit.  When we quit, basically that’s when the park had started up by the top of the Highlands Golf Course there called Henry Martell Park.  And then they started — the City started blocking off the streets and putting a band in there and that.  

        So we blocked the lane at ’12th Avenue to here, and we’d include all the people on that — from 56th Street on that side of the street, 55th, and everybody would come here, and we’d put barbecues, fire pits out in the lane, and it got so big we had to stop.  Because we’d provide the desserts and all the stuff and everything to go, and everybody would start bringing their friends from all over the city.  And it just got so big that we just had to stop. Because we were too busy doing what we were doing besides.  

      It was good.  But that was an important part where the community — how that started.  And, yeah, it just — every year it just grew bigger, just like the business did, how Riddle’s did, the same principle.  It was fun.  

Life after the Chocolate Business 

MO:  So tell me about your life after.  Did you sell Riddle’s?

BA:  Yes, I did.  

MO:  Who took it over?  

BA:  Wendy was very ill and she backed out of working at the plant before I did.  When I sold it, I had made an arrangement we would both work for three years, and we did.  She opted out a little bit because of health before that, but I kept going, and I sold it to a young fellow that had a TEA manufacturing company and owned four restaurants.

        I bought sugar by the ton from Roger’s Sugar direct, which was another thing nobody was able to do.  I’d buy 6 tons at a time every two weeks, and glucose by the truckload out of Minneapolis. And things got too difficult because of rules and regulations and food inspections and labelling.  It just got too big, too much, too much to do, and you couldn’t make any money at it no matter what you did. And when I walked away from it, what did I do?  I actually had three other jobs after that. I was already 65, so I started working for a drycleaning company looking after the responsibility of delivering all their products in Alberta to all the drycleaners and all the supply shops.  

Then I worked for Alberta Food Equipment, which was another neighbour down the street here.  His partner got sick and got cancer and he was in trouble, and he needed somebody with some business experience, and he knew I was capable.  So I just went and worked for him for two years and drove truck, looked after their warehouse, and did all the trouble-shooting and customer relations.  And I could work at my speed and that fitted with what I was trying to do, because I still wanted to keep busy.  

And what else did I do?  Those were the two main things after I did that, and still today I look after a couple of acreages, and I still do some odd construction, because I owned a construction company in Edmonton with my brother and knew the contacts.  

And the house that you see here, I did it all.  I’ve renovated it five times since I bought it in 1966.  It was a little bungalow and a half, 900 square feet, and it’s 2500 square feet today.  

Playing Golf

MO:  Tell me about your golfing, because I hear you’re an avid golfer.  

BA:  Well, I had three buddies that lived on 62nd Street and 111th Avenue.  One was Rusty Barr, who was my best friend. I’ll start with Rusty, because his dad was the Auditor General of the Province of Alberta, and he had a membership down at Highlands, so when I turned 10 years old I got to go get a membership at the Highlands Golf Course with Rusty, and we would go every morning at four o’clock.  On the weekends and all summer we’d be out there at four o’clock and play 18 holes before anybody even got up.  

So Rusty was a good buddy of mine. And I started playing golf, and I played golf with Rusty, and I caddied for the Alberta Amateur and for guys in that, and played golf in the tournaments down there, just another place that people took me under their wing. 

I played golf there until I was 22, 23 years old and had the three kids, and I couldn’t keep that up with all the other work and family and that, so I gave up my share. But being who I was, Spence Jamieson who owned Jamieson’s Restaurant, he was then the General Manager of the golf course, and so for nine years I was a bartender there.  Every night after I worked at Swift’s, and after I pumped gas at the gas station at Texaco on ’12th Avenue, I would be a bartender, and I started bartending for private parties and that sort of thing. I was still at the golf course, but I didn’t play very much, a few games maybe.  I don’t remember even going and playing because I was too busy.  

And then in 19– I’m going to say ’80, around there, I had my kids, and I was in the transition of one of those companies and where I was, and I bought my share back in the golf course in 1981 or ’82 or ’83 — I can’t remember exactly — and I’ve been playing every weekend and every — one day a week every time — that’s one thing my wife allowed me to be away to do. I could -play Saturdays and Sunday mornings as long as it was between six and eight o’clock and I was back at the plant by noon. And then I could play one night during the week in men’s league, and I did that — I’ve done that every year since then, and sponsored a team.  And I was on the board of directors for three years, and then my wife got sick, and I was so busy in business that I couldn’t keep up.  I was in the financial department, financial director, and it was just too much, so I had to back out of that.  But I still played golf.  

I just had a heart surgery three weeks ago, and I’ve played ten games since.  

MO:  Oh, good for you.  That’s amazing.  

BA:  Yeah. So it’s been a great place for me.  I can remember — [the house where I grew up] was only two houses from the first green on 62nd Street by the Magrath home there.  That’s where I was born, so us kids lived down that river valley.  I can remember the golf course because we used to sneak down there and play golf.    

BA:  Yeah, as kids.  My grandfather had some old wooden golf clubs, and  Rusty Barr and I used to sneak down the hill and play, and there was — the hill right down at the end of here is the old third hole, and there was a valley that was 100-and-some feet deep with an old wooden trestle bridge that went across it.  There was hundreds of golf balls down there, and so that’s where we got our start, and that’s where I learned the game of golf.  And because I was always involved in sports and very athletic I just kept playing, and I enjoy it as much today as I did then. Again, I’m very blessed.  

Changes in Highlands

MO:  So how do you think the neighbourhood’s changed over the years?  

BA:  It’s changed drastically. This home was built in 1951. On ’11th Avenue some of those homes were built in the early 1900s. The Grierson home, which was across the street from mine, the Field house just down the street here, and there’s a few that have been torn down before this neighbourhood was built.  I mean, this was just a slough.  At the end of this road where Mount Royal School is was a slough with water.  We used to go there building rafts and that 

    when we were kids.  And so it’s changed a lot.  I mean, the Magrath home and the Holgate home were homes with carriage houses where the horses stayed.  And they converted those to apartments, and there were people that lived upstairs that I chummed with, that were part of the neighbourhood.  

And in the Magrath back yard there, that’s where we played football and baseball and hockey and everything in the yard.  And then playing hockey on the street — and, yeah, it’s changed a lot — at my house, because that’s on 62nd Street there on the corner was probably one of the only paved streets, because Ada Boulevard was paved and part of ’11th Avenue was paved.  That’s when the fire department used to come and do their training on the corner there, because it had places they could run the hoses and that.  And there weren’t all the homes on Ada Boulevard. Some of those were built in the ’50s and ’60s along in there.  And when the Holgate home was subdivided into seven lots, that was really a shame.  Fellow that was the editor of the Edmonton Sun when it came to Edmonton, Kunke was his name, and he bought the house and then he subdivided it and tore down the carport and buggy [drive], where the buggies used to go around, and tore down the carriage house and then subdivided it into seven lots and houses went up on them within one year.  And that was a shame, because that is really where Edmonton as a whole has not done its due diligence.  

Well, that’s how I feel about the Highlands, what’s happened.  I accept it for what it is now.  

Playing in the Valley: Growing Up in Highlands

MO:  If you could think of, like, what are three words for you that describe the Highlands?  

BA:  Three words is hard to put it in. It has an ambience and a character with the river valley, the trees, the homes, and the place that is great.  I’m sure everybody can say that about their home property, but it truly has a little bit of a lot of things that developed.  

To put it in perspective of my life, when I grew up and we used to run down, play down the river valley, there wasn’t one home from Strathcona to the end of Beverly on that south side of the river.  That was all farmland.  The airplanes used to spray it during the season of the crops.  [There] was not one home there when I used to go play down the ravine.  

We used to have a bobsled run that’s still there down the hill.  We started at 60th Street at the top here, and we built bobsleds on 1×12’s on — babies used to have the sleighs with the steel rungs on the wooden things.  

    We’d put one on the front, and we’d drill a hole, and we could steer with that one; and we’d put door hinges on the back, and the back sleigh would go like this over the humps.  And we built a bobsled run, and we could go all the way from 60th Street all the way across the river to Gold Bar Park on a run, and we used to haul water down there and build up the sides with ice.  That’s a memory.  It was so much fun.  

MO:  Yeah, that sounds wonderful.  So what distance is that, about, that you traveled on the bobsled?  

BA:  Well, from the top of the hill to the bottom through the golf course over the tee box on the old fifth hole, you could go across the river to where the park is on the other side.  I don’t know, in blocks that would be 10, 12 blocks, I guess.  That would be equivalent from 55th Street to 64th Street if you walk down Ada Boulevard.  It was at least that distance.  Yeah.  It was fun.  Yeah.  

MO:  What else did you do in the river valley for fun?  

BA:  Oh, we dug forts in the side of the hill.  We chopped trees down.  We found a buffalo skull down there, one time we did.  It was in the Edmonton Journal.  Somewhere in my house I got that.  It was just where all us kids went.  There was Bert Peetes, and the Wards, and the Barrs.  All of us kids, we would just go get lost down there in the river valley, and when it was time for supper someone would be at the top of the hill and they’d whistle, and you’d be home; or the sun was setting, it was time to be home.  And we’d go down there with shovels and dig forts and all kinds of things.  And, I mean, I’ve never smoked a day in my life, seriously, never even tried one in my life, so all the kids smoked; and so they’d steal smokes and go down there, but they’d smoke their brains out, and I’d go along for the ride, but I never smoked.  

“Highlands Made Me”

MO:  Yeah, I remember when we spoke earlier you said — it was a great thing you said: “Highlands made me.”  

BA:  Yeah, I didn’t understand that until I got to this stage of my life when my wife passed, and then I could reflect on all of the things that I’d done and all of the people around me and all of the people in the neighbourhood.  Yeah.  

Words could not explain the feeling.  It’s that genuine, and — because of the little bit I shared with you, those experiences and truly the neighbourhood contributed to my life and what the Highlands is, without a doubt.  And it’s a special place, and that’s why I still live here.  I tried to sell my house and couldn’t sell it four years ago, and I’m still here.  And I’m staying.  

MO:  Yeah, this is neat.  You embody a love of place.  

BA:  I do.  

MO:  Which is a wonderful thing.  

BA:  Well, it is.  When my wife passed away, I was very lucky, again.  Obviously after 50-plus years of being together with one person and raising your family and working together, people could not believe that not only did we live together, we played together, and worked together for that many years, and that doesn’t always work out.  But we somehow made it work, and it’s because of the people that crossed our paths in my wife’s life and mine.  

So when she passed away, my kids stepped in and said — I have a son that lives in Bermuda, and he has a home there, so I have a home there, and I did spend probably almost three years — not full-time, but back and forth, the first year I did.  So I had a place to go and travel and play golf there every day and live a good life.  

And all of that time, to find out who I was, I traveled all of North America.  I jumped in the car, and I’ve been to almost every state and every ocean and every border in the United States, and I just did it till I found out who I was and what I wanted to do.  

And then I came back home and continued to be in the normal community and golf course and people around me, and said that — happy to get up every morning and do something to make myself happy every day and find something in every day in my life to make somebody else happy, and that’s what I try to do.  Really.

  1 comment for “A Conversation with Bill Agnew: Part Three

  1. Don King
    December 19, 2022 at 11:00 pm

    Very interesting
    I recognize the names of most mentioned
    Don Kin


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