Founding Winnipeg’s Grain Exchange

Founding Winnipeg’s Grain Exchange

By George Siamandas

December 7, 1887 marked the formal beginning of the grain industry in Winnipeg with the establishment of the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange. At its founding the Exchange had 12 members and operated from City Hall on Main St. Each had paid $15 for the opportunity to come and trade wheat, barley and oats. Here they published prices, settled disputes and were connected to the markets of the world.

Nicholas Bawlf was one of the men that got the Exchange going. Bawlf had come to Winnipeg in 1877 from Smith Falls Ontario. With his new bride Katherine, he set himself up in flour and feed sales on Princess St. His timing was perfect as the prairie grain economy was poised to take off.

Mr. Bawlf did very well. In 1910 Bawlf was identified as one of Winnipeg’s 19 millionaires. He owned one of the finest houses in the city at 11 Kennedy across from the Lt. Governor’s residence. The Bawlfs had 8 children: 6 boys and two girls. Three generations of his family worked in Winnipeg’s grain business. But their name is no longer listed in the city directory.

Many other prominent families like the Richardsons also made their fortunes in grain through companies like Pioneer Grain. Other prominent grain families include Parrish and Heimbecker.

In 1898 the Exchange moved to 160 Princess: a four storey Victorian jewel of a building in red brick and limestone. The Grain Exchange Building still stands as part of the oldest surviving cluster of buildings in Winnipeg all which were associated with agriculture. Bawlf had constructed several of these buildings and one, the Bawlf Block at 148 Princess still carries his name.

The early 1900s were real boom times for agriculture and in 1908 the Exchange moved to a new building east of Main at 167 Lombard. By 1920 Winnipeg’s Grain Exchange had become the most important grain market in the world.

In the early 1980s the Commodity Exchange moved to the Trizec building at Portage and Main which was renamed the Commodity Exchange Tower. The Commodity Exchange now boast about 330 members, some from all over the world.

The farmers have always been at war with grain dealers and the railways which they saw operating like monopolies. Then over the years, the federal government brought in regulation, farmers started their pools, and the Wheat Board was created.

There seems to have been a perennial battle between producers, government, the grain companies and the transportation industry. They are all involved in trying to get the highest possible price, while trying to manage constant risks and uncertainty of one kind or another. And now the biggest issue is that farmers are forced to sell their wheat to the Wheat Board.

The grain industry continues to be big business not only for the producer of grain but for the business that sells it, moves it, inspects it and regulates it. There is UGG, the Wheat Board, the Grain Commission, Patterson, Cargill, Pioneer Grain. Approximately 20% of the economy is in agriculture and 8 of Winnipeg’s top twenty private companies are in grain. They are big enough to have their own festival called Grain Fest held each summer in August.

But the four buildings on Princess St. where the grain industry got its start are empty and rapidly deteriorating. They are owned by the city and with today’s tight civic budget, their future is in doubt.

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