Wednesday, 24 June 2015

OBJECT STORIES: VOICES FROM THE FORT LA REINE MUSEUM PART III

COLLECTIONS CORNER

BY: JENNIFER MAXWELL

Nowhere was the wind more on people’s minds than in and around Portage la Prairie, Man. during the summer of 1922. In the early morning hours of June 23, a cyclone struck the city and the surrounding countryside. The cyclone cut a swath about 290 km long and 65 km wide. Tremendous winds, huge hail, thunder, lightning, and rain added to the destruction.

Billed by the local newspaper as the worst storm in history, Portage la Prairie was a gruesome sight, many homes and businesses damaged or destroyed. A preliminary survey of damaged farms did not bode well for the resources of The Portage Mutual Insurance Company. Based on the pay-outs, prospects were the company may be blown away, much like the barns. But out of this devastation came “the Windstorm Gang” – a small group of trucks and workmen dedicated to reviving a wounded city. This is the object story about how a truck and a gang of workmen saved both the Portage Mutual and the city itself.

The Daily Graphic 1922 newspaper clipping
The headlines of The Daily Graphic the day of the cyclone. Photo courtesy of the Portage Mutual.
The Monday following the cyclone, a special meeting of the Portage Mutual Directors was called to determine the extent of the damage and claims. It was found that north and east of the town, farms had taken the brunt of the wind. The Portage Mutual recruited a gang of skilled local workmen, and with the purchase of a couple 1922 REO Speedwagons, the reconstruction jobs began.

“The tornado hit Portage la Prairie very hard, but in all the outlying areas it destroyed buildings including a lot of the big cattle and horse barns. The Portage Mutual had to do something because these people had wind coverage [through their insurance], so they decided to get ‘the Windstorm Gang’,” says Tom McCartney, retired President and CEO of the Portage Mutual Insurance Company.

A building under destruction.
One of the many buildings in Portage la Prairie destroyed by the cyclone. Photo courtesy of the Portage Mutual.
The trucks were filled with jacks and braces, ropes and pulleys, lumber and ladders, toolkits and clothes – leaving little space for the workmen to actually sit. The Gang would travel around rural Manitoba and spend as much time as required in different communities to fix and straighten the buildings that had been damaged by windstorm and hail. The Gang spent most of the summer travelling and working.

“This group of men would go and fix farm buildings. They would sleep in the lofts – they did not stay in motels – and would move from one farm to another. As I understand, they would take-off and be away for months at a time,” explains Tom.

A farm building being repaired.
The Windstorm Gang out on the job. Photo courtesy of the Portage Mutual.
While the barns of rural Manitoba stood proud once more against the sunset, the cyclone had brought its own form of risk to the Portage Mutual. Many predicted the company would soon be paid out in claims. One of the reasons the company was able to weather the storm of 1922 (and a subsequent cyclone one year to the day) was the Windstorm Gang. Instead of paying for new barns, the Windstorm Gang made the damaged ones as good as new. It was estimated that the Gang saved the company several thousand dollars in 1923, in addition to repairing and completing almost 186 farm buildings.

For many years, up until the start of the Second World War, the Windstorm Gang continued to travel the province, repair buildings, and service its policyholders. In the early 1980s, the Portage Mutual purchased and refurbished the current Windstorm Gang truck – a 1938 Ford V-8 – to mark the centennial of Portage la Prairie (1982) and to celebrate the centennial of the Portage Mutual Company (1984).

Red and green truck in a parade
The current Windstorm Gang truck made a colourful addition to any parade. Photo courtesy of Tom McCartney.
For many years, every local parade and historic occasion in Portage la Prairie seemed to bring out the Windstorm Gang truck. The truck now lives at the Fort la Reine Museum in Portage la Prairie. Its annual maintenance is overseen by Tom, whose dedication to the truck goes beyond historical interest; his great-uncle Jim McCartney once owned the 1938 Ford.

“It’s a little bit of history, rather quaint but very practical. There are not many of those barns left in rural Manitoba anymore, but it is still possible to go into those barns and see the turnbuckles inside, where the Gang twisted the buildings to straighten them again. And that was what the Windstorm Gang was all about,” says Tom.

Metal shed with red truck inside
The Windstorm Gang truck as it appears on display at the Fort la Reine Museum. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Maxwell.

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