Emil Persson: family man, hard worker, quiet contributor to the community

Joe McWilliams

Lakeside Leader

Emil and Clifford Persson of Slave  Lake, Alberta, probably in the 1940s.

“I can’t say enough about him,” says Diana Spilak of her late father Emil Persson. “He was the best guy. Honest as the day is long. Hard-working.”

That was part of Spilak’s response to the question, ‘What kind of a guy was Emil?’

The question arose because Persson, who passed away in early 2020 at the age of 83, has been proposed as a person after whom something in Slave Lake should be named. His impact on the community he was born in and lived his entire life in was considerable, but he apparently didn’t like to talk about himself or his contributions that much.

This was touched on by his friend Hugh McEvoy, former manager of the Sawridge Hotel. In a write-up submitted by Emil’s family recently, McEvoy had this to say:

Gunnar Persson shortly after he arrived in Slave Lake area from Sweden.

“Since Emil Persson’s passing, I can’t help but reflect on the generosity I got to see first-hand for so many years in Slave Lake, by Emil, insisting I tell no one. From giving me the money to purchase turkeys at Christmas and feed many of the needy at the Sawridge Hotel, to supporting any youth that couldn’t afford to play hockey or ball, supplying countless man hours and equipment to raise mega money for the Widewater Complex and demolition derby entertainment, support for many of my boxing cards and hockey tournaments, teams in ball and hockey, again raising countless dollars and allowing many of the local youth, to participate. I could go on but I always promised Emil I wouldn’t tell anyone. Sorry I broke my promise, but if there’s one person who deserves the accolades it’s you, my friend.”

It may or may not have been Emil’s wish that not much fuss be made over him at his funeral. Whatever the reason, the obituary that was submitted to the Lakeside Leader was quite short and didn’t give much of a sense of his life and accomplishments. So maybe it’s time to do something longer.

Swedish immigrant brothers Emil (Sr. left) and Gunnar Persson (Emil’s father), probably in Slave Lake not long after Gunnar arrived in 1929.

Emil Persson was born on May 28, 1936 to Gunnar and Wilma Persson. Gunnar was an immigrant from Sweden, who had found work on the railway running through northern Alberta. Wilma was a Slave Lake girl, one of the Kreutzer family, homesteaders from Idaho. (Both the Persson and Kreutzer family histories are missing from the local history book, ‘Pioneers of the Lakeland.’)

According to the family, Gunnar and his brother Emil came from Sweden to Canada in the 1920s. Emil – after whom the younger Emil was named – came first and Gunnar followed in 1929 on the ship ‘Gripsholm.’ The passenger manifest survives in the family archive and one of its more interesting aspects is that of the 29 listed passengers, five of them were coming to the Lesser Slave Lake area – four to Smith and one to High Prairie. Except it ended up being Slave Lake.

Emil’s parents Wilma and Gunnar Persson.

Emil (Sr.) went on to a supervisory position on the railway in the Rycroft area and served as that community’s mayor in the 1960s. Gunnar might have moved on too, but when he met Wilma, he changed his mind.

“The plan was to work a couple of years, make some money and go back to Sweden,” says Diana. “But things happened.”

Depending on who you ask, Emil was born in one of Nash’s cabins in Old Town Slave Lake, or in a log cabin in the Mitsue area just east of town.

“Times were hard,” says Brian Persson, referring to conditions generally in the area. This was long before oil was discovered and transformed the economy and opportunities for young fellows like Emil Persson. Like many others in the area, he got into commercial fishing and raising mink. The two things went together, as fish were used to feed the mink.

Emil (Sr. middle) and Gunnar (right) at the beach.

Emil fished for 20 years, and not just on Lesser Slave. One story Brian tells (which he heard from Charlie Jackson) is of commercial fishing up north in winter. They were supposed to be there for three months, fishing in the vicinity of Fort Fitzgerald. But the conditions were so miserable, as Jackson tells it, after six weeks he told Emil: ‘I’ve had enough of this. Let’s go home.’

But Emil was having none of it.

A very young Emil Persson with his dad Gunnar, at the family mink barns in Slave Lake.

‘We said we were going to do it for three months, and that’s what we’re going to do!’ And they did.

“He was very determined,” says Brian, quoting Jackson.

Determined and apparently fearless. Brian also tells a story about his dad’s somewhat antagonistic relationship with the person whose job it was to make sure commercial fishermen observed the rules. Apparently skirting around the edges of those rules and sometimes going over them was not uncommon. One dark and foggy night Emil and Ray Fiddler were out on the lake pulling nets and suddenly, silently, the ‘fish cop’ was there in his boat.

“I finally caught you, Emil!” he said, triumphantly, one leg in each boat.

Emil (front row left) and his class likely in the 1940s.

Meanwhile, Emil, at the far end of his boat, cut free his nets and while he was at it, reached over and cut the officer’s gas line to his boat motor. The story is there for all to read on Brian’s Facebook page.

“He wasn’t a poacher by any means,” says Brian. “But he did what he had to do to make a living. I’m proud of him. He was going to get out of poverty one way or another.”

No story of a person growing up in the 1940s and 50s would be complete without mentioning baseball. Like most young people, Emil loved the game and played it as much as he could. He was teammates with local stars Dougie Jackson and Ken Olson and squeezed in as much ball as he could. Harry Bartlett of Slave Lake reminisced about Emil as a ball player in an article that appeared in The Leader back in 1999:

Emil Perrson and Bob Kreutzer on Emil’s 21 birthday.

“When I was a kid growing up, Emil was a baseball player, a left-handed batter. He would swing so hard he’d fall down, jump up and laugh. He was a teaser, a tormentor, and made a real name for himself in baseball. He was a good entertainer and loved the game. He was really a neat character.”

The Persson mink barns were just west of downtown Slave Lake – an area that is now all built-up residential. Their log house was just west of the Catholic Church.

Emil Persson and Maxine Fiddler were married in 1958. They had six children – four boys and two girls. Besides Brian and Diana they are Brenda, Jamie and Kelly. Brian says Maxine had come with her family to Slave Lake by horse and wagon, from The Pas, Manitoba. The family is distantly related to the famous Hudson’s Bay Company explorer and surveyor Peter Fidler.

In 1967, Emil, along with his uncle Herman Kreutzer, decided to give slashing a try. They bought chain saws and started a company they called Evergreen Erosion Control.

Emil and Maxine on their wedding day in 1958, left with his parents Wilma and Gunnar.

“He got a lot of work with Alberta Power,” says Brian, clearing right of ways. He must have made a good impression with the company, because they came back to him again and again, sending him all over northern Alberta to do brushing work. This went on into the early 1980s, Brian says. The first bulldozers he bought were also employed on Alberta Power jobs.

“They really liked the old man,” he says.

When Emil got his pilot’s license and his own plane, Alberta Power hired him to fly them all over the north, looking for downed power lines and such. Emil loved flying, Brian says. He logged over 13,500 hours in the air. That’s how he earned the name ‘Tin Crow,’ which was what his friends liked to call him.

At some point in the 1980s, Emil’s main work morphed from slashing to construction. His company name suggested right of way clearing, but his main business became road and lease construction. It thrived for a number of years, with his boys coming on board as they got old enough.

An Emil’s Right of Way Clearing camp, somewhere out in the bush.

“We had 80 full-time employees year-round,” says Brian, “and 150 in the winter.”

Not to mention a lot of equipment. In the warmer months, when work was slower, Emil got into the habit of offering the equipment to help with community projects. The list is long and impressive. The family figures $100,000-worth of equipment time was donated to the building of both Gilwood Golf Course and the Grizzly Ridge Ski Hill. The family estimates $50,000-worth of Emil’s equipment time went into building the gun range and ball diamonds/walking trails in Slave Lake. The list of community contributions is long and continues from there, both in the form of equipment time and cash donations.

Brian calls Emil “the last of the really good old boys,” who “supported everything around Slave Lake.”

Emil Persson with his first airplane, in 1975.

Here’s some more on that, provided by the family:

“As a member of the community, he was always willing to help whenever he could and by whatever means he had to offer.

“Communities like our Slave Lake are built up on a base of people like our dad. He also sold thousands of raffle tickets, sponsored hockey and baseball teams and provided items for silent auctions hosted by many local organizations for charity. He was also involved in local politics, becoming a loud voice when it came to campaign the government to pave Highway 88.”

Emil retired in about 2004. He and Maxine sold their house in Marten Beach and moved to Fort Saskatchewan in 2008. He “took a turn for the worse,” Brian says, and they moved back to live in the lodge in Slave Lake in 2016. Emil succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease in early 2020.

Brian says Maxine deserves plenty of credit in the success story of Emil’s life. How she managed back in the early years, with five kids in a two-room log house, with Emil away working for months at a time “I still don’t know,” he says. “She was a tough woman.”

Maxine and Emil Persson at their 60th wedding anniversary in 2018.