Pioneer days landmark — Emmerling felled by blow to head

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

“Dutch George” Emmerling was at the head of a “numerous retinue of citizens in carrioles (horse-drawn sleighs) and on foot, a respectable minority of whom were obviously already labouring under the stimulating influences of spiritous liquors, a considerable supply of which Mr. Emmerling had brought along with him for purposes of gratuitous distribution among the supporters of the policy it was his intention to advocate” (Red River, by Joseph James Hargrave, 1879).

Dutch George’s policy was annexation of the Red River Settlement and Rupert’s Land by the U.S.

Emmerling’s party was enraged by Thomas Spence’s ruse to hold the December 8, 1866, meeting an hour ahead of the announced time and thus pass resolutions favouring annexation by Canada, although the resolutions really had no real authority as they were introduced before the residents of Red River had arrived to participate in and vote at the meeting. 

Spence and company left the Fort Garry Courthouse, just outside the walls of Upper Fort Garry, and encountered Emmerling and his entourage. A second meeting was called by the sheriff and new discussions ensued at the courthouse, which was by this time filled to capacity. 

“Mr. Emmerling talked with much animation to a small group of people immediately about him, some of whom he shook and jostled so roughly as to propagate a rumour that for some deep purpose he had arranged to submit with such usage in return for the copious supply of liquor with which he regaled them” (Hargrave).

When Spence attempted to speak, he was interrupted by Emmerling, who demanded payment for a small debt for “refreshments.” This brought about a blow to the saloon keeper’s head from the handle of a whip wielded by an individual agitated by the personal nature of Emmerling’s outburst. The blow bloodied Emmerling and sent him crashing to the ground. 

“A scene of wild confusion reigned in the small court room. Parties and party feelings were drowned in a host of personalities, as individuals, themselves hurried to and fro by the turbulence of the mass, hit rudely against others who, eager for the fray, retorted on their involuntary and crowd-cramped assailants with violence.” 

Robert B. Hill, a resident of Portage la Prairie in the 1870s, and author of Manitoba: History of its Early Settlement, Development and Resources, related that “after some time, the entire crowd sought a hasty and uproarious exit from the doors, some imagined with a view to continuing hostilities on a more extended scale outside, but the cooling influences of the December wind led them to seek shelter in Mr. Emmerling’s (hotel), where an orgy was instituted which ended about midnight in the demolition of his bar and general destruction of his bottles and earthenware, not to speak of the damage done to his fluids.”

Another incident occurred involving Emmerling, which showed him to possess a good sense of humour and that he was not always prone to outbursts of violence. During the summer of 1866, a group of local actors had formed an amateur drama company and established a theatre they called Red River Hall in the upper story of a building owned by Andrew McDermot that contained several shops on the lower level. The actors brought in benches for seats, set up a miniature stage with a curtain and oil lamps for footlights. Red River Hall was located in “McDermot’s Row”on the east side of Main Street. It’s entrance faced what is now known as McDermot Avenue. The simple unadorned frame building, 40 by 20 feet with an eight-foot ceiling, had a precipitous outside staircase at one end of the building that served as the only entrance and exit to the theatre area. Performers used a downstairs shop as a dressing room.

Audiences were warned to refrain from applauding — which then commonly involved foot stomping — during performances for fear that the rickety structure would collapse underneath them. To reduce the odds of this happening, the upper-level floor had been braced with weight-bearing wooden supports that were placed between the first and second floors.  

In the fall, the troupe’s first performance was a pantomime and then a farce which was locally written and set in Dutch Emmerling’s hotel. To mark the occasion, candles were placed in every hotel window. But while everyone in the community was at the theatre to witness the landmark event, including Emmerling, one of the candles in a window caught the drapes on fire. If not for the quick action of a passer-by, who extinguished the fire, the whole village, then solely built of wooden structures, may have burned to the ground.

Hargrave explained that the farce involved a traveller from the “distant north” arriving and seeking accommodations in the “George Hotel.” When he asked for a bedroom he was shown a “damp subterranean vault.” 

“He shouted for the acting landlord with terms of vituperation and personalities in the shape of ‘bull’s whisper asides,’ which it was momentarily dreaded by the audience, might bring that formidable functionary himself (Emmerling) upon the stage in other than mimic humor.”

When the actor tried to light a candle, it exploded “with the action of fireworks.” Then his boots disappeared, “moved by some diabolical agency” across the floor. When he attempted to “repose on his bed, the rickety structure fell to the ground under its shouting occupant, and the curtain dropped amid applause of so violent a nature as severely tried the frail supports with which the flooring was upheld and was in consequence ‘speedily suppressed.’”

Hargrave wrote that the performance was judged “a success.” But it was “dampened by a painful accident which befell the principal actor ..., who, having occasion to return, after the lights had been extinguished, for something he had left on the stage, stumbled and fell in the dark, cutting his leg so severely with the tin reflector of one of the footlights that surgical assistance was rendered necessary ...”

The drama company ended in the autumn of 1869 when the resistance to Canada’s anticipated purchase of Rupert’s Land, which included the Red River Settlement, from the Hudson’s Bay Company, without consulting the residents began. The Red River Hall returned to being a shop and was the St. James Restaurant when it burned to the ground on January 11, 1875.

(Next week: part 3)