by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
George Babington Elliott wrote in his promotional pamphlet, Winnipeg as It is in 1874: And as It was in 1860, that it was amusing to see farms and gardens within the city limits. While it may have “amused” his Eastern Canadian sensibilities, a city on the frontier had a great need for both farms and market gardens to supply the local population with produce, meat and dairy products. Steamboats and barges did bring in pork and beef from Minnesota, among more exotic items such as oysters and oranges, but this was limited to the short navigation season when the Red River was free from ice. As a result, Winnipeg’s downtown market area was filled with the bounty produced from the land within or just beyond the city’s borders.
The most renowned of the market gardeners was Thomas Longbottom, who cultivated nearly 10 acres of land on the east side of the Red River, opposite the Redwood Brewery (Hermchemer and Batkin brewery, established in 1874, and bought by E.L. Drewry in 1877) at the corner of Main and Redwood.
According to the July 29, 1876, Manitoba Free Press, Longbottom grew “some magnificent specimens of nearly every variety of vegetables ... The gardens are visited by a large number of persons ... and we don’t know of a place where they can see better specimens of what the country can produce than at Mr. L’s.”
On the Road to Market, a photograph of market gardener Longbottom bringing a cartload of vegetables to the city market was prominently displayed in Winnipeg’s major buildings and was sent “for immigration purposes” outside the province, “as the profuse display of potatoes, turnips, beets, radishes, parsnips, onions, celery, cabbages, parsley, etc., etc., surmounted by a number of mammoth cauliflowers, is only such as could be produced in Manitoba.”
Elliott also commented on the distinct lack of trees in the city, which would surprise visitors to today’s Winnipeg. But photographs from the era primarily show stark, bald prairie stretching from horizon to horizon. A city dominated by a living canopy of tens of thousands of trees was the result of later plantings by individuals and the local government.
Whatever others may have felt about the frontier city, its residents were full of optimism.
According to the January 17, 1874, Free Press, the only thing lacking was “capital to assist in building up our city.” The newspaper called for an influx of “ending money for building purposes” — that is, mortgages — from outside sources.
“There are many here who own lots, but are unable to erect houses on them for want of means and we have no doubt that a ‘Building Society,’ or branch office of such an institution would do a good and satisfactory business in Winnipeg.”
A building society is a financial institution owned by its members as a mutual organization. Building societies of the era offered financial services, especially mortgage lending. Since these institutions were found in the United Kingdom and the city contained numerous immigrants from Britain, many Winnipeggers were quite familiar with the operations of building societies. But the newspaper was deluded into believing building societies could be transplanted to Canada. Although common in Britain, Australia and Ireland, they never caught on in Canada. Credit unions (first founded in Québec on January 23, 1901, by Alphonse Desjardins with a 10-cent deposit) eventually became the preferred co-operative financial institution in Canada.
In 1872, Alexander McMicken established a private bank, which Elliott said was “a two-storey wooden building” on Fort Street. Until the arrival of charter banks, private banks (as well as private individuals with money to loan) played a stop-gap role, and were only limited in their ability to provide loans by the amount of capital entrusted to them by depositors. Since a private bank didn’t operate under a charter, its owner could pick and choose whatever security he thought was required for a loan.
In a May 13, 1894, presentation to the Manitoba Historical Society, George Bryce, a local historian and founding member of the society, said the McMicken Bank provided a valuable service: “But the business of the country needed greater facilities, and on Dec. 14, 1872, the Merchants Bank of Canada was in a building on the west side of Main Street, near the corner of Bannatyne Avenue.” In 1875, the bank founded in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which later merged with the Royal Bank, moved into new $15,000 premises at Main Street and Post Office (now Lombard) Avenue.
In 1878, Thomas Dowse, a “travel writer for hire” from St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote in his pamphlet, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories: The Real Northwest: “Perhaps the greatest necessity for successful business enterprise, mercantile particularly, is proper banking facilities. For so young a city, Winnipeg is remarkably fortunate in this respect, having three solid and substantial (charter) banks.” The Bank of Montréal and the Ontario Bank had joined the Merchants Bank in Winnipeg by 1877.
“Real estate, although appearing high to the resident of an eastern city, is still very low when the prospects of the city are taken into consideration ...,” Elliott commented. “Speculation may be said not (to) have been inaugurated yet, though one operator, Mr. Burrows, has sold over 400 city lots during the past year.”
Alfred W. Burrows resigned as the chief clerk of the Dominion Lands Office in Winnipeg in August 1874 in order to concentrate on his private business as a land agent. The Manitoba Free Press reported on December 22, 1874, that he sold 250 Winnipeg lots while in Montréal.
Within Elliott’s pamphlet, Burrows advertised 1,600 city lots for sale in “the subdivisions of the tracts known as the Mulligan, Land, Ness, Tristan, Sarjent, and Magnus Brown properties” in the western and northern portions of Winnipeg.
“Several thousand dollars have already been expended by the proprietor upon these properties, in Sidewalks, Tree Planting, Free Lots for building and residence, and Parks (of which there are two,” according to the advertisement.
Elliott said Burrows “has done very much towards making the city known by his extensive advertising; and he has displayed unusual enterprise in attracting investment.”
According to Elliott, Burrows was in the process of developing the Magnus Brown property, a large tract of about 200 acres. The land development included a park in its centre and a two-mile long drain and a mile-long sidewalk. Burrows gave away about 50 lots “to attract residents, which wise and liberal course has repaid him a hundredfold, and a number of residences now dot the prairie, where a year ago, the long grass waved; and the growth of the city is now permanently fixed in that direction (north along Burrows Avenue).”
Elliott’s pamphlet contained an entry from the September 2 Free Press that mentioned an auction sale of the Magnus Brown homestead — “the Burrows property” at Davis House (hotel), which resulted in 75 lots being sold at an average of $95 each.
Although speculation has not entered the marketplace, Elliott recorded that HBC land along Main Street has doubled in value from $1,000 a lot in 1871 to $2,000 per lot in 1874. He recorded individual sales of HBC reserve lots along streets west of Main auctioned off by Lyster Hayward on October 16, 1874, that netted the Company a total of $25,695. Another sale of 50 lots in 1874 realized in excess of $22,500 for the HBC.
At the time, the HBC owned about 500 acres of land centred around Upper Fort Garry. The HBC possessed the most privately-held property in the city, which was assessed at a value of $273,000.
Single lots in the McDermot estate had increased from $75 to $800 from 1871 to 1874, while each lot in the Schultz estate was selling for $300 in 1874, compared to just $50 in 1871.
John Christian Schultz, who came to Winnipeg from Eastern Canada in 1861, advertised an office on Main Street “next door to (Alexander) McMicken’s Bank. A self-proclaimed doctor — there is no evidence that he actually completed a medical degree — Schultz organized the opposition to Riel. He was briefly imprisoned by Riel, but escaped to Eastern Canada where he drummed up anti-Riel support. In September 1870, he returned to Manitoba and was elected the MP for Lisgar, and eventually was appointed Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor.
In an advertisement in Elliott’s pamphlet, Schultz called himself a “dealer in furs and and real estate,” offering farm and city lots for sale.
In another instance, according to Elliott, an unnamed man arrived in Winnipeg in 1873 with $50 in his pocket, while “today he owns over $800 worth of real estate. Another, a clerk in a store, saved a couple of hundred dollars which he finally decided to invest in a city lot. This sold in a few days at one hundred per cent, advance; then he bought others, and is now the owner of four residences, worth an average $1,000 each, and some other property; and instances are numerous of parties who purchased lots four years ago for $75 now refusing $500 for them.”
Despite Elliott’s denial, it was obvious through his own assertions in his pamphlet that speculation was then a fact of life in Winnipeg.
Elliott wrote that mid-city properties had reached their highest limit in value, but the suburbs were promising areas for investment. Lots within a mile radius of the Court House on Main Street could be obtained between for $20 and $100.
Farm property just outside the city was selling for between $80 and $200 an acre.
The Dominion Land Office in Winnipeg entries for July 1874 reported “a large increase over any month in the year.” July entries included “63,741 acres, sales 2,710 acres, warrants (guarantees for the security of title to property) 3,040.
“For the month of August the locations were 46,200 acres, besides purchases for cash and warrants of 5,246 acres.”
Elliott said rents were high in Winnipeg, especially for houses located in the centre of the city.
“In the suburbs small dwelling houses rent for $10 to $20 per month. Medium sized ones from $30 to $45. Large ones from $45 to $60.”
Board was obtainable for between $4 to $10 per week with $6 the average “for tolerably good board.”
At the time, a labourer’s average wage was just $2.50 to $3 per day.
The Free Press on January 17, 1874, also commented on the high rents within Winnipeg. A house valued at $2,500 could be rented for “about $60 per month or $720 per annum.”
The newspaper claimed that rents were not likely to decrease due to the continued influx of immigrants (primarily from Ontario).
“At present we have not sufficient house accommodation for the number of people in the city, and as the country develops, this being the chief city and the centre of travel, there will be a corresponding demand for houses.”
The strong demand for new housing was why the newspaper promoted, although unsuccessfully, the establishment of a “building society” funded by outside capital to “erect a number of houses for the purpose of renting them, and take advantage of getting a higher rate of interest for the money extended, but at the same time we think that if they confined themselves altogether to lending money for building purposes, they would do more good to the city.”
The 1874 real estate market showed that Winnipeg was taking tentative steps towards the establishment of a true city on the Canadian prairie, although there was still a long way to go before it could hope to earn the title “Chicago of the North.”
What its new and old residents saw were opportunities ready to be exploited, which they pursued with gusto.
“Much of our destiny is in our own hands,” commented a September 23, 1874, Free Press editorial. “Let us not wait a moment. A good country in the hands of an active, enterprising people always overtakes prosperity ... Much may be done by individual effort, and the rest will follow.”