Citizen reporter Shirley Kowalchuk wondered why Jim Smith said the Park at Edison Avenue and Henderson Highway in North Kildonan was the spot where, if given the chance, he would bring an international visitor to learn of this neighbourhood’s history.
Jim Smith is an archivist and historian and is currently the President of the North East Winnipeg Historical Society.
The two agreed to meet one sunny morning at the park’s millstone display. From there, they embarked on a journey to experience the history of the days of the millstones, and in this way come to understand their significance. The display contains two of the four original stones from the long-gone Matheson Mill once nearby.
They first searched for any evidence of Old Mill Creek whose waters once drove the water wheel of the Matheson Mill.
After journeying on to visit Grant’s Old Mill – the last remaining water mill in Winnipeg (a reproduction of a mill built by Cuthbert Grant at Sturgeon Creek) they stopped for lunch at the nearby A&W before driving further down Portage Avenue.
Their last stop was the Historical Museum of St. James – Assiniboia and Brown House. The following is this last part of that journey:
Renewed by our lunch at A&W, we are on again with our search. I think I am hoping to discover a sense of home-life from these times, now that we have traced some geography and experienced a facet of the working world of the mills from long ago.
We head to Brown House – the 1856 home of Hudson Bay Company employee William Brown and his metis wife Charlotte Oman and their six children. Beside it sits the Municipal Museum of St. James Assiniboia. (There is also an 1890’s Interpretive Centre where visitors can learn about butter making, blacksmithing, early modes of pioneer transportation and more, but we run out of time to visit).
We first enter the 1911 St. James – Assiniboia Municipal Hall that is now a museum operated by the City of Winnipeg. Many artifacts from the old community are curated into various groupings, each representing a slice of life of the times.
In one corner is the 1890’s morning suit of the honourable John Taylor, an accomplished English – Metis community leader who spoke French, English, and Cree.
Next to it rests a fabulously diamond tucked pleated leather chair presented to Goerge Thomas Chapman, a local reeve and councillor from 1890 to 1910. The suit looks as if it were about to sit down in the chair.
Turning a corner, we spy a ferocious looking contraption – a “Permanent Wave Machine”. It’s a nest of electrified hot rollers, each with a snaking electrical cord hanging from a central halo above a hair dressing chair.
Our friendly guide explains that ladies could get their hair permanently curled with the use of applied chemicals and heat from the rollers. (The machine was replaced in time by a process known as a “cold wave” that used only chemicals to produce the “perm”).
The implement is within a collection of information concerning Rudolph’s Beauty Parlour, opening at Ferry Road and Ness in 1924. Including a location change, the daughter of the owners operated the salon in the area until 1966.
The quaint tone and concrete physicality of local media of the times is fascinating.
“The Creek News” was printed and published at 251 Silver Street by J. H. Pickering.
It was sophisticated in its coverage of local and international news, and could be delivered “to any address” at 5 cents per copy.
A story covering the Ward 3 Ratepayers Association Meeting details that “…a letter was read regarding the straying of animals in the ward, …one instance a cow was taken from the charge of the herd boy, and the owners had to pay. The executive will inquire into the provision of the herd bylaw and acquaint Council with the alleged laxity in its observance…”
Many, many fascinating articfacts are presented within themes throughout the hall.
Brown House Municipal Historic Site
As we end our stroll through the museum, we are greeted by another interpreter who leads us to to the fully furnished 1856 Red River frame house next door called Brown House. It was moved from Headingly as a centennial project for the St. James – Assiniboia community.
Brown House feels cozy. Receiving care and attention, it’s been restored to its original state of simplicity without electricity or other modern refurbishments. It is left unheated in winter, which safeguards the home from unnatural thermal expansions caused by home heating in the surrounding cold of winter.
Our guide says it was rather luxurious for the time. A railing around the top of the staircase at the second story is surrounded by a relatively large and dramatic open space. Four bedrooms are further located at the circumference of the second floor.
There is no bathroom – an outhouse would have serviced the home.
Jim notes North Kildonan’s early settler home – the 1854 Henderson House – is quite similar to Brown House. Both were built within a couple of years of each other and each have the same layout, as well as the same Red River frame architectural construction. The method uses no nails, and instead logs and beams are slotted into each other through notched areas cut into the wood.
Henderson House was a functioning home up until 1976 when it was stripped down and moved in 1979, after plans to relocate it within the area and refurbish it as a local area museum were rejected. It was then moved to the St. Norbert Heritage Park where today it remains on display.
Since 1979, it has received no upkeep aside from placing a tarpaulin upon a leaky area of the roof. It is in a state of deterioration.
The earliest artifact in Brown House predates the home by 10 years. It is a “sampler” of cross stitching used as a pattern for young girls to copy as they learned how to stitch. In a comforting slogan among the soothing themes that were typically displayed in homes of this challenging era, it reads:
“I know no fear when dangers’s near
I’m safe on sea or land
For in heaven a father dear
and he will hold my hand”.
The day turns late, and we have to leave before rush hour traffic (amid construction areas) commences. We bid our knowledgable guide goodbye.
On the drive back, Jim and I have a lively discussion about the lack of bathroom and washing space in the early homes. We consider the labour of heating water on a log stove for a wash-tub bath, and the considerations of outdoor privies in winter.
We also notice how Brown House, like all pioneer homes of the time, is built with no closets. People inhabiting early settlement homes simply owned fewer clothes than today, kept them in pieces of furniture called wardrobes, hung them from hooks on the wall or folded them onto shelves. All clothes had to be hand washed.
Jim said North Kildonan’s Henderson House eventually had a washroom put in under the stairs, in the place that in Brown house was originally used for storage.
As we travel along the wide, old ox cart trail of Portage Avenue back from St. James into East Kildonan, Jim pauses.
“Even the Palace of Versailles had no washrooms originally,” he adds thoughtfully.
This is the third in a three-part series on Winnipeg’s early history. Check out Grist from the mills of history and Solving the missing millstones mystery by Shirley Kowalchuk on Community News Commons.