I am very glad to have enjoyed a strong relationship with grandparents when I was growing up. My middle name is Wright. It was my mother’s maiden name. Her father, Weston Wilmot Wright, was the youngest of five sons born to David and Mary Ann Wright in Emerson Manitoba.
In recent months Emerson has attracted national and international attention as a place where refugees from distant lands like Somalia and Ghana, desperate to find a better life, walk many risky miles and cross in frosty darkness to seek asylum in Canada.
Grandpa Wright was a proud Liberal, with a capital ‘L’. I suspect he would probably approve of his hometown being a place of hope for people looking for a safer, more solid future for themselves and their families in a land that values freedom and justice.
The community was incorporated in 1873, named after American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was a prominent proponent of ‘transcendentalism’ whose core belief is in the inherent goodness of people and nature.
Emerson died in 1882, the year that my grandfather was born, and it was when the border community was on the verge of an economic boom that never really happened.
The population of the area in 1882 was almost 10,000 thanks to the international movement of goods on the Red River, and the emerging growth of railways. The CPR was building the rail line that made Canada into a nation ‘from sea to sea’.
Emerson, Selkirk and Winnipeg were their three possible choices for the Manitoba route, and Winnipeg emerged as the winner after the city fathers gave them huge concessions, including a major tract of land that would be tax free virtually forever. So Emerson’s moment in the sun was short-lived.
Today, the population is 670, and it continues to be one of Canada’s busiest border crossings, but most of the traffic that comes up from the U.S. goes straight on without stopping, to Winnipeg where the population has now grown to more than 750,000.
About a decade ago, after a weekend shopping expedition to Grand Forks, I finally stopped and paid a visit to the cemetery in Emerson. The largest headstone that greets you as you enter belongs to David and Mary Ann Wright, my great grandparents.
David was born in New York city in 1848. He emigrated with his family to Ontario in 1855, and later to Emerson where he served as mayor from 1908 – 1910.
By then, his youngest son Weston – my grandpa – had become a dentist, and that was quite an ‘adventure’.
There were no dental schools in Canada until after World War One, so Grandpa chose to study at Northwestern in Chicago.
One of the jobs he took to help pay for his education was checking bodies into the largest morgue in Chicago. That’s where he was working on December 30, 1903 when 602 people were killed in the Iroquois Theatre Fire.
Hundreds of victims were young children who were crushed to death because the theatre’s exit doors opened inward. It remains the worst theatre disaster in North American history, and it was definitely ‘Grandpa’s worst day’.
A close second for him would likely have been some of the grim days he spent in the trenches in France as an officer in Canada’s first Dental Corps.
After the war, Dr. Wright re-established himself as one of Winnipeg’s busiest and most accomplished dentists. With his family, that included my mother Thelma and her younger sister Shirley, Grandpa became the first Winnipegger to establish a summer cottage on Clearwater Bay at the western end of Lake of the Woods. The beautiful property where me and my family spent many wonderful summers, is still known as Wright’s Point.
Grandpa’s prime years as a practicing dentist included the dirty 30’s when few people had the necessary cash to properly care for their teeth. He became a master of ‘bartering’, pulling a troublesome tooth in exchange for a load of firewood on the way to the lake.
Most importantly, he never forgot his early years in Emerson.