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This article was published 26/11/2009 (3705 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
NEAR WINKLER — Peter Heide never did find a use for a pair of streetcars his uncle purchased for $350 back in 1955.
"There were a lot of cats born under that thing," said Heide, of the lone streetcar left that's now rotted, fallen in, and surrounded by tall grass and weeds on his farm west of Winkler. Skunks like to take naps under it, too, he said.
But for Steven Stothers that old streetcar is gold.
Stothers is collecting old parts and design ideas to rebuild an original streetcar, Streetcar No. 356, as a Winnipeg Heritage project. His project has captured the public's fancy ever since he appealed to the public for information last summer.
People always loved streetcars, even though they were freezing cold in winter, frequently broke down, and rarely kept on schedule, wrote Jim Pask in On the East of the River, his book about northeast Winnipeg.
"Streetcars were romantic" in a way that buses have never been, Pask maintained. "Streetcars seem to represent the essence of a now-lost, more innocent life, that the city has left behind."
What happened to them? The first electrical streetcar operated in Winnipeg in 1891, and by 1910 streetcars ran as far as Linden Avenue in yet unnamed East Kildonan. But they were replaced by buses in 1955, and virtually all were salvaged for steel.
But 40 streetcars wound up in farm fields like Heide's in the Pembina Valley. Farmers obtained the streetcars from Winkler businessman P.D. Penner: butcher, cattle buyer, jack of all trades, wheeler-dealer. Penner convinced farmers the cars would make great granaries.
"He could sell anything," said Heide. "He could sell garbage and make you think it was treasure."
But the streetcars just turned out to be "a nuisance," he said.
They didn't really work as grain bins. Farmers poured the grain in through a roof vent but their elongated shape meant farmers kept having to climb inside and shovel the grain to the corners.
Another customer was Fred Janzen's late father Jacob, who farmed near Gretna and bought three streetcars off Penner for $150-$200 each. He later declared the purchase "a big mistake, one of my biggest mistakes," Fred said. "People also used them for hunting lodges, machine shops, chicken coops."
The Heide and Janzen streetcars are the first Stothers has found that have steel bodies. The Janzen streetcars still have the old fixtures from the motorman's cab, various switches, the box for the coal-fed stove that heated the cars, and windows, including rectangular ceiling windows.
Janzen cars also have the solid cherrywood panelling and oak framing. "These things were made to last back in 1909," said Stothers. Stothers also found an old sign that warned passengers not to distract the motorman: Information gladly given but no visiting please.
Heide's streetcar still has the door hinges—the streetcar doors would fold open like a broom closet—and the bell motormen clanged to get people to move off the track. The clanging sounds like a Salvation Army bell at Christmastime.
Stothers has found a number of old streetcars on the west side of Lake Winnipeg at Camp Arnes, Komarno, and one at Winnipeg Beach that is used as a tool shed. There are two at Beaconia, one that's in excellent shape and used as a cottage.
Stothers will be hauling away Heide's streetcar next spring and hopes to use parts from Janzen's cars.
The restoration project is still three to five years from completion, Stothers said.
He urges anyone with an old streetcar to contact him through Heritage Winnipeg at (204) 942-2663, or go online to http://www.winnipegstreetcar.com/.