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JONATHON NAYLOR / winnipeg free press
Brothers Dale (left) and Wayne Streamer at Streamers Tru Hardware, a landmark in northern Manitoba.

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JONATHON NAYLOR / winnipeg free press Brothers Dale (left) and Wayne Streamer at Streamers Tru Hardware, a landmark in northern Manitoba.

CRANBERRY PORTAGE -- Devastating fires. Evolving consumer tastes. Fierce competition from wealthy retailers.

For nearly nine decades Streamers Tru Hardware has faced its share of hurdles, but each time this quaint landmark business has pulled through.

"We've tried to keep it probably more of an old-fashioned general store where we pick the merchandise we sell, what our customers want, rather than having some corporate chain tell us what we're going to sell," says Dale Streamer, managing partner along with brother, Wayne.

The story of Streamers Hardware began when an ambitious Englishman named Ernest Albert Streamer, a former Winnipeg fire captain, landed in tiny Cranberry Portage in 1927.

With a base camp being developed for the construction of a new railway, E.A., as he was known, saw a golden opportunity in this outdoorsy town 50 kilometres southeast of Flin Flon.

"There were no services or anything here at the time, and he thought it looked like people would want to stay here," says Wayne Streamer, who as a boy knew his grandfather well. "So he decided he would start up a retail hardware business."

Streamers Hardware opened in May 1928, catering largely to trappers, prospectors and miners. Situated along the eastern shoreline of Lake Athapapuskow, the new store was a hit as it joined a burgeoning commerce sector.

But tragedy would trail early success. The following year, 1929, a massive forest fire sent Streamers -- and nearly the entire town -- up in smoke.

Fortunately, the same frontier spirit that carved Cranberry Portage out of the callous northern wilderness prevailed. The town was rebuilt, this time further from the lake.

The relocated Streamers anchored the new gravel Main Street. Business was so good for so long that when E.A.'s son, Fergus, returned home from the Second World War, he became his father's business partner.

But adversity would rear its head again. One night in 1956, a would-be thief broke into the store. Without the benefit of a flashlight, he lit matches to find his way to the safe, which he hoped to somehow crack.

As tiny flames consumed each wooden stick, the culprit threw them away. The resultant blaze took down the entire building.

"I just remember waking up and the store was gone," says Wayne, "and a couple of days later being in the ruins of it and discovering all kinds of burnt and twisted-up objects and trying to guess what they were."

The despair of the loss was cushioned by the Streamer family's close relationship with a hardware company representative.

"He said, 'Start putting your orders together and we'll carry you until you can pay for it,' " recalls Wayne.

Reconstruction commenced and Cranberry Portage eagerly welcomed back its Main Street mainstay.

A walk through the well-stocked aisles of Streamers today offers a glimpse into the past and a nod to the present. Amid the glass washboards and coal-oil lamps you will find flat-screen TVs and satellite dishes.

A favourite destination of summer visitors, there is also plenty of fishing tackle and marine and RV gear. That's all in addition to the normal selection of hardware and housewares one would expect.

Even with the advent of malls and big-box retailers in neighbouring The Pas and Flin Flon, Streamers, through smart diversification, continues to draw customers from throughout the area.

Both E.A. and Fergus have passed on but Fergus' sons, Wayne and Dale, along with Wayne's son, Scott, carry on this proud northern tradition.

"For a family-owned business to get past the first generation into the second is, in the business world, known as rare," says Wayne. "My son is working here now and that's the fourth generation, and that's almost unheard of."

Interestingly, just as Streamers was built to serve trappers, prospectors and miners, 86 years later people in those pursuits are still among the store's clientele in this community of 572 people.

"That's part of what's kept our business going over the years," says Dale. "We've catered to (those customers) whereas some other businesses have totally changed their style of doing retail, and we've tried to keep ours simple."

 

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

jonathon_naylor@hotmail.com

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