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First Footsteps

The new mutual's start-up costs were burdensome. At the end of the first year, the company's surplus was a meagre $5.96. For the next couple of years, despite an increase in the number of policyholders, losses remained high. The steam tractors, used to power the wooden threshers, continued to shower sparks out of their straw-fired boilers, burning up machines and crops at a rapid pace.

Recognizing the benefits of fitness, Alonzo Kempton let staff off work early on the condition that they take a brisk walk. This group of employees poses for a photo at the halfway point of their trek.

At the end of the century, the company diversified its coverage. This now extended to other farm equipment, farm buildings, schools, and churches. In a far-sighted decision, operations were also expanded into what would soon become the new provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Wawanesa gave female staffers time off in 1916 to stook sheaves. The First World War meant a manpower shortage and the rationing of materials that might be used in the war effort. Much of the backbreaking farm work was done by women without the benefit of farm machinery.

By 1900, Wawanesa was protecting more than $1 million worth of property. The largest claim paid that year was $1,000; the smallest was $3. A year later, the firm moved out of its tiny premises above the drugstore to a new building overlooking the beautiful Souris River valley. The Mutual, as locals referred to the company, soon had a staff of five, including a salesman who traveled the Prairies.

Meanwhile, the directors continued to take an active role in running the company. The directors' farm roots were manifested in displays of sympathy to policyholders. For example, in 1900, a local farmer claimed his old barn had been severely damaged in a windstorm. The directors rode out in their buggies to the site and examined the building. It was clear to them that the barn was in the same bad shape that it had been before the storm. Nonetheless, they awarded the farmer an iron rod to bolt through the walls and hold the structure up a little longer.

The company also set up an innovative system of honorary directors. Scattered around the countryside, they kept an eye out for new business, and for suspicious claims. They weren't paid, but as policyholders in a mutual it was in their interest that the company grow, and that it not be defrauded.

Westerners responded enthusiastically to the company's promise of lower costs and fair dealings. By 1907, the value of property insured by Wawanesa had jumped to $20 million. Three years later, Wawanesa boldly claimed to be "the largest Mutual Fire Insurance Company in Canada."

Growth was steady throughout the years of the First World War, and the company was well-positioned by the end of the conflict. Shortly after the war, Wawanesa underwent a change in leadership. Alonzo Kempton had been the venturesome entrepreneur that the new enterprise needed in its early years.

He had turned the Mutual into an industry leader, but it was now time for the reins of Wawanesa to be handed over to a different kind of person, to face a different set of challenges.

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