- Winnipeg Beach: Leisure and Courtship in a Resort Town, 1900–1967 by Dale Barbour
Winnipeg Beach served as Manitoba’s Coney Island and, arguably, the principle resort on the prairies. This book highlights its halcyon days. In the early years of the twentieth century, when Winnipeg was the country’s third-largest city and some of its residents thought it had the potential to become a world-class city, Winnipeg Beach was to be its world-class resort. In its 1920s heyday, a train running on the [End Page 148] CPR’s purportedly most profitable stretch of line, permitted the Beach on busy weekends to host a reported 35,000 to 40,000 at a time when the province had less than a half-million residents.
This book’s genesis is in a master’s thesis and the author is a Ph.D. student in history. A most attractive feature is the inclusion of some 50 archival photographs. They convey a flavour of the times, dress, and activities. There are also a couple of maps and an advertisement. It refers to the boardwalk, has images of young couples dancing, a band playing, and the beach train, which featured a 70-minute return home on the “Midnight Special.”
The focus is on the changing rituals of courtship that, in the twentieth century’s early decades, shifted from the home or other controlled social settings to dating. The author relies heavily on oral accounts by seniors recalling their youth. It was, as one of them notes, a time when “Virginity was pretty highly thought of…” (45). Nevertheless, some unmarried couples rented rooms. The Beach also witnessed some gay cruising, evidenced by drag apparel, and it had a small gay clientele and a fair bit of homosocial bunking. In contrast, the sexes mixed in the leisure zone whose heterosexual space was not to be transgressed and where locals deemed it inappropriate that a woman date a man shorter than her. By the 1930s, men appeared without tops and women displayed more skin at the Beach. By the 1960’s, with the Beach in decline, a government minister feared it would “sink into a slum area.”
The chapters deal with transportation to the Beach, its tourist infrastructure and leisure offerings, and efforts to rebrand the Beach as a family resort after its decline as a locale for dating, the erosion of its shoreline, and the rise of venues such as Disneyland, which became accessible alternatives for the middle classes. There are some comparisons made and contrasts drawn with other seaside parks and resorts such as Toronto’s Hanlan’s Point, England’s Blackpool, and New Jersey’s Atlantic City, but these references are peripheral to the narrative.
Intertwined in the story of the boardwalk and the dance hall—Western Canada’s largest—are details of class and ethnic relations. Ethnicity trumped class and it is these particulars which are the most engrossing for students of ethnicity. Although in the Beach’s early years some establishments would only serve patrons of British ethnic origins—the self-anointed cultural leaders of the resort—some came to know it as the “Jewish beach” since unwritten covenants effectively prohibited Jews from renting or owning property at other beaches. Even here, however, Jews could only own cottages within a little pocket of land before the 1950s. The provincial government’s condemnation of some anti-Semitic incidents in the 1960s, including the painting of a swastika on a synagogue, revealed that societal norms had changed. The author refers to “Jewish people” almost as if the term in the book’s index, “Jews,” might be derogatory. [End Page 149]
Winnipeg Beach attracted a variety of non-British ethnic groups—Ukrainians, Poles, Icelanders, and Jews. Icelanders and Ukrainians who wintered in the area provided food and supplies for the cottagers. The mix of groups was dynamic; they mingled and sometimes, as youth do, fought and played football. Curiously, Germans, who constituted one of the province’s largest ethnic groups, are...