Dennis and Wendy Barton
Dennis Barton’s first impressions of Slave Lake were that it was muddy, cold, crowded and chaotic. That was on April 1, 1965 and it was no joke. He’d come up from Barrhead to relieve the BA bulk fuel agent for a couple of weeks; the guy hadn’t had any time off in two years.
“It was damn cold!” Dennis recalls.
Dennis’s job was delivering propane to customers around town. The way he (and others) describe it at that time, Slave Lake was pretty much a sea of mud, so the cold snap actually helped when it came to making deliveries.
“We worked all night putting out the bottles on the frost,” Dennis recalls. “The trailers were in mudholes, and big dogs came charging!”
A different sort of person than Dennis Barton might have looked the situation over and started making plans to get out and never come back. Instead, Barton – when he wasn’t delivering fuel around town – looked things over and noticed there wasn’t a drugstore. He was interested in that because his wife Wendy was working as a pharmacist back home in Barrhead.
Dennis says he staked out the doctor’s office (in the Wahlstrom Apartments) one day and counted the people showing up for prescriptions. He had an idea of how many per day it would take to provide a pharmacy with enough business to support a family. He liked what he saw, and after that, things moved fairly quickly.
“We opened the store on September 22, 1965,” Wendy says.
The store was Barton’s Drugs, on Main St. in downtown Slave Lake. The town was booming with oilfield activity and workers in the cold months; in the summer, the fledgling municipal corporation was trying to catch up with the infrastructure deficit. The entire Main St. was torn up through that first summer, Wendy recalls, and August (when she and 2 ½-year-old Shelley arrived) was a wet month.
“You can not imagine the roads!” she says.
The first store was more or less where The Business Factory is now. The Bartons lived in the back, where during the Christmas season, their living room would be half (or more) taken up with stock. Business was pretty brisk, with the oilpatch exploding all around. In the warmer, wetter months, you could measure how good business was by how deep the mud was on the floor of the drugstore by closing time. It was Dennis’s job to get rid of that buildup every evening.
There were a lot of long days, “but it was interesting,” Dennis says.
One of the more interesting stories from that period had to do with a crew installing a waterline from the lake near Kinuso up to House Mountain area in the Swan Hills. Dennis says somebody from the crew would come in every morning to buy snacks and tobacco before heading out. One morning he came in, all excited and bought every camera in the store, including the newfangled Polaroids.
What had happened, the fellow told him, was that the day before, out on the job site, every member of the crew saw some sort of flying object swoop down over the cutline, and nobody had a camera.
“It was a flying saucer or something, and they had to have cameras,” Dennis says.
“And they never saw it again,” adds Wendy.
Eventually Main St. got fixed and paved and downtown Slave Lake started looking a bit less like the Wild West with mud. Bartons lived behind that first store for five years and the young business thrived. Meanwhile, Dennis was taking on other roles.
Barton had not been in town very long before he got involved with the Chamber of Commerce. As part of a very active group of community-minded folks, he set about tackling some of the pressing needs of the young town. There was a shortage of just about everything.
“Housing was terrible, the roads were bad. There were no government services (based in the town),” Dennis recalls.
It wasn’t just a local issue; it was regional. In response, the Chamber (with Dennis as president) spearheaded the formation of an organization called the Lesser Slave Lake Development Corporation. It had members from along the south shore as far as Grouard, people from Wabasca and Red Earth and elsewhere. The group made an application to the federal Department of Regional Economic Expansion (DREE) and was approved for a $7.5 million grant. That resulted in a lot of development projects in the area, which the province kicked in half the costs of, and the DREE program the other half. The projects included the construction of a new school (Roland Michener) and the highway to Red Earth Creek.
While that was going on, Dennis also became president of the Mighty Peace Tourism Association and was appointed to the Northern Alberta Development Council.
“At the same time we started Slave Lake Developments,” he says, specifically to address the need for lower-cost housing. They recruited Preston Manning as a manager, secured a loan from the CMHC and the result was the Woodland Place housing complex at the north end of Main St. Slave Lake’s first hospital was built during that same period – the second half of the 1960s.
“It was a lot of work by a lot of people,” Dennis says. “You had to be active.”
You certainly did, and Dennis and Wendy both were – running a business, raising a family and participating in community development.
In 1971, Dennis was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta as the Social Credit member for Lesser Slave Lake.
“I really didn’t want to run,” he says.
On the other hand, he did run. Perhaps he didn’t expect to be chosen as his party’s nominee, but put his name in because somebody had to. As it turned out, there were three contestants for Lesser Slave Lake Social Crediters to choose from.
Dennis had been president of the riding association for incumbent SoCred member Roy Ells.
Ells wasn’t running again in ’71 and when nobody put their name forward initially, “the group in town,” Dennis says, encouraged him to put his name in the hat. No sooner had he done that, “I broke my leg playing floor hockey.”
Broke it in five places, no less, and spent much of the next several months in the hospital in Edmonton.
“Wendy and the group took over and won the nomination,” he says.
The SoCred nomination meeting was in the school in Kinuso. Wendy recalls it being so well-attended that one room wouldn’t hold everyone; nor was the PA system working, so she had to go room to room, repeating her speech on behalf of Dennis. It worked! She recalls one of the other candidates didn’t bother to do that.
That was for the party nomination; having secured it, Dennis then had to campaign for the general election.
“I went around on crutches,” he says. “Door to door.”
There were a lot of mean dogs on the campaign trail, he recalls, but when they saw the crutches, they all ran the other way. The people were impressed too, in a good way, because Dennis won the seat with 41.5 per cent of the vote, beating PC candidate Garth Roberts by 1,830 to 1,434 votes. However, the PCs under Peter Lougheed swept the province, knocking the SoCreds out of power for the first time in over three decades and starting a new era in Alberta politics. Dennis entered the Legislature as an Opposition member. He served one term, losing to Larry Shaben in the 1975 general election.
“It’s a difficult riding,” Dennis says of the experience. “There were 52 communities. It’s a full-time job.”
One thing Dennis says he learned from the experience: “You can’t operate a business and be an MLA” – at least not representing a large rural riding like Lesser Slave Lake. In fact, his inattention to his business resulted in an $80,000 drop in revenue at the drugstore that first year as an MLA.
“And I worked so hard!” Wendy says.
Bartons have two daughters; Shelley (mentioned above) and Lora, who came along a bit later. Shelley became a teacher and Lora a veterinary technician. Both grew up in Slave Lake, graduated from Roland Michener Senior Secondary School and went on to earn bachelor’s degrees from the University of Alberta. Shelley also got a master’s degree and Lora continued with her veterinary tech studies at Lakeland College in Vermilion
“Lora works at the U of A, looking after animals,” Dennis says.
Lora just had her second child in November of last year, Jordyn Joy. The first, Emma Jean, is four years old.
Shelley, meanwhile, is heading for yet another foreign teaching post – this time in Singapore. She’s had quite the career, teaching math to gifted students in schools all over the world. Most recently she taught in the Netherlands. She’s also taught in Lahore Pakistan, Switzerland, Paris, Macau and here at home at Upper Canada College and at NAIT for a year.
“Her goal was to change the curriculum of math,” Wendy says, “so that students would love it.”
Dennis’s great hobby over the past quarter century has been raising racehorses. He got into it in about 1990 as a part owner of a horse from Texas named Lora’s Prince; unlike a lot of other owners he knows, he was successful right off the bat.
“The first time out we won by 18 lengths,” he says.
That horse went on to race for 10 years, running 118 times, winning 39 races and finishing in the money around 90 per cent of the time. A tough act to follow, but other Barton thoroughbreds have been remarkably successful over the years, winning many races and several prestigious provincial awards. Perhaps the most notable of those is Northern Nechi, twice a winner of ‘Horses of the Year’ for Alberta and earning its owner close to $300,000. Long since retired, Northern Nechi is at Barton’s property in Assineau, enjoying the good life.
“She’s at the farm,” he says. “She gets fed first.”
“She’s top of the pecking order,” adds Wendy.
Dennis has seven horses at his farm at the moment, five of them being groomed for racing. He enjoys it and plans to keep doing it.
At the beginning, he says, “one of my goals was to own a horse and win a race. So I bought a horse – the first time out it won a race, so my goal is shot. What do I do now? So I built up my own little stable.”
Asked why he got into raising horses, Dennis cites the love of the lifestyle from growing up on a farm near Barrhead.
“It’s what I like to do. I don’t’ hunt anymore, I don’t fish, I don’t travel much, I don’t drink at the bar.”
He looks after his racing steeds at the farm from October through March; in the warm months they go into the hands of trainers and others at the racing facilities. There’s a whole process of training up a thoroughbred to racing form, which Dennis is happy to explain in detail to anyone willing to listen. Most of that is handled by professionals: at the farm, Dennis enjoys looking after his babies for several hours a day, most afternoons.
The Bartons’ 50-plus years in Slave Lake are full of amusing anecdotes that all say something about the times they lived in, the kind of people they were and that they encountered along the way. For example: Once in the fairly early days, an urgent order came to the drugstore from Dr. Myles: ‘Get me a brace and bit!’
“He had to drill a hole in a guy’s head,” Dennis says. It was to relieve pressure from a swelling brain, which can be fatal. “So I rushed down there (the local hardware store) to get it.”
Dennis thinks he didn’t even bother to fill out a charge form for the item, and as far as he remembers, never got around to paying for it. He did get the device to Dr. Myles who set about drilling holes in the patient’s skull.
“About a year later, the guy comes into the drugstore and thanks me,” Dennis says.
And how about this one? In the store was a box full of unsold magazines, into which somebody (an employee?) had emptied the contents of an ashtray. It started smouldering and could have come to a very bad end if a customer hadn’t noticed it.
“We started a bucket brigade,” Wendy says.
Just then, in walked Bob Lacey, who smothered the fire.
“He saved the day,” Wendy says.
Over the years, Bartons was home to a lot of employees, some of whom became like family and who are also too numerous to mention here. Some of them appear in photos with Dennis and Wendy and a winning horse at Northlands Park in Edmonton.
Barton’s Drugs was in business in Slave Lake for 37 years – from 1965 to 2002, when they sold out to Rexall. They still live in town.
“I came for two weeks and never left,” Dennis says.
Wendy in recent years has become an active member of the Rotary Club of Slave Lake, taking part in various projects to help the community or Rotary’s international causes.
“It’s a privilege,” she says. “Service above self. You find out there are a lot of very good people in this world.”