Community Memories from Don and Louise Johnson

Don and Louise Johnson, long time residents of Thompson, arrived here in 1963.  After serious consideration, they decided that a jewelry store in the new Thompson Plaza offered a brighter future than their business on a side street in Winnipeg.  They considered the town to be new and exciting.  "It was like a garden growing in the spring with something new popping up every day.

Their store was the first to open in the Plaza. Don describes the construction of the Plaza as an amazing engineering feat.  The Plaza was built on top of permafrost, so, to accommodate changes in the level of the building, hydraulic jacks were installed which allowed for adjustments.  "Sometimes when we went in to work you couldn't open the door, and when you left, you couldn't close it."  Permafrost was a problem for builders and required special techniques.  In Don’ps words, permafrost is sporadic and can vary from one city lot to the next.  To deal with it, builders remove the top layer of overburden, let the land sit and let the sun shine on it.  When the layers of ice in the soil melt, building can start.  Poles are driven into the ground to assure stability of the planned construction.

"We didn't have anything new in fixtures, but we had a prime location in the Plaza.  At first there were only stores around the outer edges of the Plaza and the center area was intended to be a common space for car shows, children's choirs, etc., but the demand for space was great, and the center soon became rented."  The Johnson's believed in a good quality of merchandise and always had a stock of giftware and souvenirs.  INCO issued their pay-cheques every two weeks, so payday was often hectic.  Diamond rings were best sellers.

Their move to Thompson according to Don was "A trip from Hell" with their worldly possessions, along with their three children, in two vehicles.  About half-way to The Pas, Nancy got sick all over everything in the car. In The Pas, their vehicles were loaded onto the train, and the family traveled as rail passengers where another "misadventure" further contributed to their ordeal. Don tells the story: "The old trains used to have baggage racks up above, so we put all our stuff up in the rack. About 3 o'clock in the afternoon, I felt something dripping on me and I couldn't figure out what it was, so I said to Louise, 'What's in the bag?'

‘Well,' she says,'You're going to be mad.'

'Well, I'm mad already.'

'You see, my mom was worried about where we'd get food, so she put a frozen turkey in the bag.'

"When we got to our destination, the turkey was half thawed.  Some friends were there to pick us up on May 3, 1963.  We had a rented house, got settled in, and threw a party, and shared the turkey with our friends."

That was not the end of their trials.  Don thought his pick-up containing Lou's treasured houseplants would be shipped in a heated car and that their vehicle would arrive at the same time as the family, but such was not the case.  Six days later, the vehicles arrived with all the plants frozen solid.

The Johnsons were also partners in a furniture store and had a florist shop, but eventually sold these as the hours were very long, and qualified help wasn't always available for the watch-making and repair part of their business.

Don was a member of the Chamber of Commerce at the time the push was on for a Mid-North Highway, which proved not to be feasible.  The Chamber members also put pressure on the provincial government to build what is presently No. 6 Highway.  A carload of Chamber Members set off on an historical journey. Not having a proper road, they drove through muskeg and hills following the Hydro line to Grand Rapids.  They were met with enthusiasm at Grand Rapids and Ashern; the highway was finally completed in 1967.  Don was also a member of the Rotary Club and played an important role in the construction of the bridge at Pisew Falls.

Entertainment in the early days, as Louise put it, consisted of "making your own fun."  There were a lot of potluck meals, come-as-you-are parties, family outings, and fishing trips.  Their children became involved in the businesses, working in the florist shop and the jewelry store.  Their son Don wanted the jewelry store and was trained as a goldsmith. 

Don tells of meeting the Queen and Prince Philip. In 1984, he was invited to go to a conference in Calgary for young business people. The Duke stayed two doors down from him in the hotel where they met and spoke quite a bit. When the Queen came, a number of them were invited to a reception to have tea. Don was invited as well.

Don did a morning show on CHTM for seven years called "The Don Patrol," a program featuring local events.

They both feel that they did the right thing in moving to Thompson.  The longer they stayed, the more they liked Thompson.  They felt they use to be small fish in a big pond in Winnipeg. "In a small place, you can be a big fish in a small pond."  They also liked the area and felt Thompson was a great place to raise their kids.

Don and Lou enjoy their retirement years at their home at Paint Lake, which has become a small community. Many cottages are being used year-round. Don and Louise visit their children in Kamloops and Winnipeg, and spend part of the winter each year in Florida.