CRYSTAL CITY -- In 1959, the Cudmore Hardware Store showed its first instinct for survival in a small town when it added TV sets to its line of merchandise.
"Fifty-nine was a big year for TVs," explained Morley Cudmore, who ran the store with his brother, Floyd. "Up to then, we only had one channel, CBC, and it was like watching a snowstorm. Then CKX out of Brandon came on, and then the Pembina station out of North Dakota on Channel 12."
They sold 100 TVs a year. That's how they survived, jumping on new trends from Royal Albert China to Cabbage Patch Dolls. The items got squeezed onto shelves next to the Vise-Grip pliers, linseed oil and tapping screws. The brothers ran Cudmore Hardware and Farm Supply (short-line farm machinery such as grain bins and augers) from 1958 to 2002. It's still going today under different owners.
But when Floyd Cudmore died suddenly last year after suffering a massive stroke, his widow, Ethel, huddled with Morley in discussions about leaving a legacy and thanking the town and region for its patronage. Floyd had always been one of Crystal City's biggest supporters.
Last month, the town confirmed what its local paper described as "one of the worst-kept secrets": Floyd and Ethel Cudmore had donated $1 million for the construction of a new Crystal City town hall.
Jack Lewis, who was a bank manager for 30 years in rural Manitoba, said there have been private donations to communities before but he can't remember one as large. "It would be pretty hard to find any other town or village where someone made a donation like that."
Crystal City, exactly halfway between Morden and Killarney along Highway 3, is named after nearby Crystal Creek, and the "city" part was an expression of the early settlers' great optimism they were founding a metropolis. It didn't quite turn out that way. The "city" has a population of about 400 today.
Crystal City was actually founded in 1879 by Thomas Greenway, who went on to become Manitoba's seventh premier in 1888 and is buried in the town. Aaron Cudmore, the great-grandfather of the Cudmore brothers, was one of the settlers who accompanied Greenway on the move out from Ontario. The Cudmore family is originally from Wales.
Floyd and Morley grew up on a farm near Crystal City and ran what was actually one of two hardware stores in town when they started it. Morley said the town's trading area is greater than you'd expect, as far west as Waskada, and east to Carman.
What it also has going for it is its proximity to the United States border 15 kilometres away. When the Canadian dollar was way below par, in the 60- to 70-cent range, Americans were driving up to the Cudmore store every day. One of the big movers was the Royal Albert China.
American traffic got so heavy, the brothers received a death threat from one U.S. merchant. "One guy phoned me and said he was going to shoot me. A fellow from Bismarck (N.D.) called me and swore and called me every name in the book."
In hard times, the brothers would take grain in trade from farmers instead of money. The brothers stored the grain in their bins and eventually sold it to feedlots. "There were no credit cards in those days," said Morley.
The hardware store typically entailed long hours. "You tried to close at 6 p.m. in those days but people knew where you lived and they would hunt you down," said Morley. They had up to 10 staff in the 1980s when they also owned a furniture store.
Floyd and Ethel never had children, and Crystal City, said the soft-spoken Ethel, was like "his baby." When he died too soon at age 74, and so suddenly, she unselfishly decided the donation was what he would have wanted. It covers the entire cost of construction.
The existing town hall gets little use today because it's so rundown, said Morley. "You drag a girl out from Winnipeg and it was like taking her to an old barn," he said. Ex-banker Lewis, a community leader, said Crystal City wouldn't be able to afford a new town hall on its own.
Lewis said Floyd "went above and beyond" in assisting the town while alive. For example, he gave $25,000 to put in new seats at the local arena a few years ago. "He was a go-getter but he did it very quietly," Lewis said.
Construction of the hall has begun and it will open in the new year.