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April 24, 2009

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JAMES ASHDOWN: Winnipeg’s Merchant Prince

April 12, 2009

JAMES ASHDOWN

Winnipeg’s Merchant Prince

by George Siamandas

Hardware merchant. Mayor of Winnipeg. Philanthropist. James Ashdown remains one of Winnipeg’s most distinguished citizens. Ashdown was born in London England in 1844 and came to Canada as a young boy of eight. His family settled in Weston Ontario and he later apprenticed at Hespeller, Ontario in the trade of tin smithing. For a while he lived in Kansas but came to Winnipeg in 1868. He spent 44 or 69 days (depending on the source) in a 12×16 foot jail with 21 other men during the Riel rebellion because he had served as one of Schultz’s citizen guards. Ashdown had described Louis Riel as a “strutting peacock who fancies himself a little Napoleon.”

Ashdown made his fortunes starting with Moser’s Hardware a little shop he had purchased for $1,000 in 1869. He renamed it the Winnipeg Tin Shop. It was located at the corner of Bannatyne and Main St. Ashdown’s hardware business would continue to function from the same location for the next 100 years. By 1881 Ashdown was doing business in Emerson and Portage La Prairie and was worth $150,000. He expanded to Calgary in 1889. His buildings and businesses grew and grew with the Ashdown warehouse located east of Main St. seeing four additions in 12 years. Ashdown Hardware served the entire west both wholesale and retail complete with a catalogue division.

In a novel 1900 publicity stunt, Ashdown sent a train of 40 freight cars across every town and village in the Canadian prairies selling straight to the public from the box cars. By 1910 he had become one of Winnipeg’s famous nineteen millionaires. His first house located in Point Douglas was the toast of the town in 1878. His famous house had an indoor bathroom, a furnace and one of the first two phones in Winnipeg. And when industry intruded Ashdown built a new palatial home on Wellington Crescent. Now the Shriners’ Temple.

A CIVIC BOOSTER & MAYOR OF WINNIPEG 1907-1908

In 1874 Ashdown was chair of the citizen’s committee that fought for the incorporation of Winnipeg. He also helped organize the Board of Trade, and served as President in 1887. Ashdown invested in many civic minded projects including the street railway system that was being developed by Albert Austin. Ashdown served as mayor in 1907-1908. He was elected in 1907 and won by acclamation in 1908. Ashdown was a practical businessman. He was always careful not to saddle the city with burdens it might not be able to support. He journeyed to England to negotiate good borrowing rates for the city during a difficult time. As mayor, Ashdown was behind many forward looking ventures such as the establishment of evening education classes for adults and compulsory school education.

Ashdown was a director of the Bank of Montreal, Northern Crown Bank, Northern Trust, Canadian Fire Insurance, Great West Life, the City Hospitals Board, the YMCA, Children’s Aid Society, and even the Winnipeg Water District during the time of the aqueduct. A Liberal and a Methodist, Ashdown was also a founder of Wesley College. In his 36 year long association with Wesley College he served as its head for 16 years and he gifted Wesley his favourite institution over $100,000.

JH was one of those that recognized the importance of volunteer community associations as a way of providing needed improvements. Ashdown was always concerned with fiscal matters did not want to rely on the government of the day to meet all civic and community needs. Ashdown was one of those men that was building a future for himself and for his family in Winnipeg. What was good for Ashdown was also good for the city. His personal ambitions and successes fuelled the city’s growth. Ashdown was the “Richardson” of his day. When he died in 1924 he had left $380,000 of his $1.7 million estate to charity. Some included the Winnipeg General Hospital, the Children’s Aid Society, the Salvation Army, the Winnipeg Boys Club and the Winnipeg Free Kindergarten.

GREAT WEST LIFE

April 12, 2009

GREAT WEST LIFE

“Winnipeg’s Insurance Company”

by George Siamandas

JH BROCK

Great West Life founder JH Brock, who dreamed the impossible dream of a Winnipeg-based insurance company. Jeffrey Hall Brock was a local insurance agent who promoted the idea of a Winnipeg based insurance company. His thought was that a local company would be more sensitive to the needs of westerners.

Hall was born in Guelph Ontario in 1850, the youngest of 11 children. He had worked in business in Ontario and New York and moved to Winnipeg in 1879, going into a partnership with Captain GF Carruthers who was active in insurance and finance. Brock was a great promoter of Winnipeg and a very astute businessman. He had come to Winnipeg to stay and to build a future.

He survived the 1883 real estate bust and the lean 1880s that followed seeing the effects of eastern policies on the west. High insurance rates and the difficulty of obtaining financing were growing problems in Winnipeg. Brock recognized the importance of having the accumulated capital from insurance premiums, stay here to develop the west, rather than going to foreign or eastern companies as was typical.

RAMPANT FOREIGN OWNERSHIP

GWL was founded in 1891 at which time half the $8.4 M premium money left the country. And of the 40 insurance companies in Canada, only 9 were Canadian, and none were based on the west. A strong insurance company in Winnipeg would tend to prime the financial pump.

HOW DID BROCK’S VENTURE GO?

Great West Life was incorporated August 28, 1891, and it had leading citizens like James Ashdown on its board. Brock’s goal was to take in $1,000,000 in premium money in the first year. Brock had been told that his dream of a Winnipeg-based insurance company would not fly, that he was dreaming the impossible dream.

“An absolute impossibility” other insurance men had said. But Brock was able to report at their first annual meeting that they had indeed sold $2.7 Million. GWL went all across Canada in 1896 and in 1906 it opened its first office in the US in Fargo North Dakota. By 1907 it was the top company in Canada and it had 100 employees in Winnipeg and 600 agents across the country.

The effort to create local institutions tended to stabilize Winnipeg’s status as an emerging commercial centre. Banks and other local financial companies flourished during Winnipeg’s fabulous decade between 1906 and 1916.

At first agents were cautioned to sell only to people of good character and in 1894 they refused a policy to man that had deserted his wife and family. GWL recognized the opportunity of selling to women by 1898 and by 1913 had established a department for womens’ sales. By 1920 a Mrs I A Jones of Toronto had become a top seller.

Agents worked an average of 13-14 hours a day and till the 1930s, most of their sales were in rural areas. One agent reported seeing 72 people in one strenuous week and selling 29 policies. Agent FC Kerr of North Battleford started to use a snowmobile in 1927 because he did not want to lose winter business. Another agent was Claude Dunfee who in the early 1920s had his car converted into an office. He would park in a prominent location on the town’s Main street and sell policies right from the car.

GWL’s first death claim was in 1893, from a bicycle accident. The policy paid out $1,000 which saved the policyholder from destitution. In the Titanic disaster GWL paid out to two policy holders of the 1,100 that were lost.

THE GREAT WEST LIFE BUILDING

It was now time to build a suitable office building expressing the Great West Life’s prominence and this was realized in the outstanding Great West Life building on Lombard Avenue built in 1911 and designed by John Atchison. GWL went on to build two other major buildings to accommodate its staff. Each was reflective of architectural styles of the time, but neither of its newer buildings come close to the elegance and grace of its Lombard Ave location.

JOHN HIRSCH

February 2, 2007

JOHN HIRSCH

Winnipeg’s Man of Theatre

By George Siamandas

JOHN HIRSCH
John Hirsch, legendary cofounder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre was born in Hungary on May 30, 1930 in a small village called Siofok. Hirsch had been born to an upper middle class cultured Jewish family. He pursued higher education in Budapest were he lived with his grandfather. During WW2 they were confined to a Jewish ghetto which his grandfather did not survive. After the Russians released Hirsch, he tried to find his parents but discovered they had perished at Auschwitz.

He decided to leave Hungary in 1946 and ended up in a United Nations relief camp in Germany were he passed the time by producing puppet shows. Later he lived in a Jewish orphan’s camp in France before being brought to Canada by the Canadian Jewish Congress.

HOW HE CAME TO WINNIPEG
He chose to come to Winnipeg because he felt its central geographic location would make it safe from potential invasions. He was one of 1000 children refugees brought to Canada.

THE SHACK FAMILY
The Shack family had indicated its wish to take a young child. In fact they took in two teen-age boys. It was only to be for two weeks. John and David lived with the Sasha, Polly and Sybil Shack family and saw Sybil as his sister. He went to work as an office boy with Aronovitch and Leipsic a real estate and insurance firm. At night he went to school to learn English. Tutored by Sybil Shack a schoolteacher, Hirsch obtained his high school matriculation and went to University to study English.

A GENIUS
Sybil Shack describes him as a genius. A man who knew what he wanted to do right from the beginning. A quick student. But somewhat emotional and hyper. He hurt many feelings. People either loved him or hated him. His explosive temper was not reserved only for actors. He once called Maitland Steinkopf the father of the Centennial Centre development “Moose-headed.”

EARLY THEATRE
Hirsch helped found the Winnipeg Little Theatre or Theatre 77 as it was known for its address at site where the Lombard Inn and parking lot is today.

Sybil had taught him to drive. And while he failed his first driver’s test, he continued to drive his old Hillman to his evening rehearsals at Rainbow Stage or wherever he needed to go. One morning two policemen came to the house and after enjoying coffee and cinnamon buns while he got dressed, arrested him for a large number of unpaid parking tickets. On another they came to the house about his illegal (at the time) relationships with men.

Hirsch lived with the Shacks the entire time he lived in Winnipeg. He was chided only on two occasions: once fore leaving out the dog all day and another time fore bringing unkosher sausage to the house. And he never once offered to do any snow shovelling.

WORK FOR CBC
Hirsch started to do television for CBC in 1954. His work would take him all over North America. But no matter where he was he would call home to his Mother Shack every Sunday. Hirsch died on August 13 1989 of aids at age 58.

JOHN W DAFOE

February 2, 2007

JOHN W DAFOE

The newspaper man with ink in his blood

by George Siamandas

DAFOE THE NEWSPAPERMAN
John Dafoe is the celebrated editor in chief of the Winnipeg Free Press between 1902 and his death in 1944. Dafoe was a well known Liberal supporter who did not hesitate to criticize the party when it strayed from its Liberal principles. John Dafoe the legendary newspaperman is reputed to have had ink in his blood.

John Wesley Dafoe grew up a farm boy who was brought up as a Tory and Orangeman. His parents were from United Empire stock that came up from the US. Dafoe was born on March 6, 1866 in Combermere Ontario where he gained only a high school education. He was considered awful at grammar and spelling, even later as the editor of the Free Press.

HIS FIRST ASSIGNMENT
Dafoe’s first assignment as a cub reporter with the Montreal Star was to help expose a crooked clothing store. The Star suspected the clothier was drawing in farm boys fresh into the city, showing them and charging them for a fine suit, but substituting a cheap one when it came time to pick it up. Young Dafoe, the farm boy from Ontario seemed the perfect bait. And indeed, his experience was as expected, the police were called, and the Montreal Star exposed the store’s wickedness in a four day special series.

Dafoe went on to bigger better things reporting on Parliament. Listening to John Blake’s eloquence, the young Tory was immediately converted to Liberalism. Dafoe rose quickly in journalism. At age 17 he was the Montreal Star’s parliamentary reporter during a time Parliament was still lit with gaslights.

At 19 he was editor of the Ottawa Evening Journal. Dafoe joined the Free Press at age 20 in 1886 and stayed for 6 years. During this time Winnipeg had a population of 20,000 but Dafoe marvelled that it had four newspapers and he was glad to be with the best. After another stint in the east Dafoe returned to take over the Manitoba free Press in 1901 and ran it for the next 43 years.

Reflecting on his 60 year career and referring to that fateful offer to be editor of the Free Press, Dafoe remarked that took him only a millionth of a second to decide to take what he considered as the best job in the world. His boss, publisher of the Free Press, Clifford Sifton was a strong willed and autocratic man with whom Dafoe often differed on politics. Yet a kind of common view emerged.

DAFOE THE PROPHET OF INTERNATIONAL ISSUES
While the Free press was a regional paper it had influence all over the west and was read in Ottawa. Dafoe had a great interest in international affairs and his paper gave them wide coverage. Before WW2 the Winnipeg Free Press was considered the most influential paper in Canada. He believed that a newspaper should be an advocate of things it believes are right even if they are unpopular views. He was the first voice to criticise the Munich agreement of 1938 and of British PM Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolph Hitler. He knew it would only lead to war.

Dafoe was staunch free-enterpriser and was very critical of unions especially during the 1919 strike but during the depression his views on economics became more moderate. He was a fierce advocate of free trade and of individual initiative.

Dafoe was well respected and well liked at the Free Press. But it was noted that he never uttered a word of praise. He was described as the quiet lonely man who worked tirelessly to get the story right. He received a doctor of laws degree but felt uncomfortable with the title.

Dafoe married Alice in 1890. Members of Dafoe’s family, including Dafoe’s daughter Elizabeth Dafoe, and grandson Christopher Dafoe, have gone on to become significant personalities in their own right. John Dafoe died on Jan 9, 1944.

Simon James Dawson

January 30, 2007
Simon James Dawson

Surveyor, Road Builder and Politician

By George Siamandas
© George Siamandas

SIMON JAMES DAWSON
Dawson is the man that carved a trail though the Northern Ontario and Manitoba wilderness to build the Dawson Road. Simon James Dawson was born June 13, 1818 near Portsoy Scotland. He was the last of ten children born to John Dawson and Anne McDonell. His family immigrated to the Nepean townships near Ottawa in the late 1830s. After experience with surveying and lumber operations in Peterborough, he joined the Dept of Public Works. In 1857 he was appointed to work on the western survey between Lake Superior and Red River.

The head of the survey was George Gladman and the scientific member of the team was Henry Youle Hind. Disputes with Gladman saw Dawson put in charge of the survey while Hind was allowed to run his own scientific expedition. But when Dawson’s proposed route was presented in 1859 it seemed too costly and was shelved by the govt of the day. It was not until after confederation that his proposals saw the light of day.

BUILDING THE DAWSON ROAD
In 1868 Dawson’s road was approved and he was put in charge of completing it. News of the Riel uprising in 1869 quickened the pace of construction, which had been slow during 1868. By early 1870 Dawson had over 1,000 men hard at work trying to complete the road so that troops could flow into red River to establish civil controls. Wolseley’s troops added 5,000 man-days to the completion of the road as they inched west during early 1870.

The 450-mile Dawson road consisted of three sections. There was a 95-mile strip between Lake of the Woods and Fort Garry. Then 310 miles of lakes, rivers and portages, and finally a 45-mile wagon road to Fort William, now called Thunder Bay. The way was cleared and a series of tree trunks were placed forming a corduroy surface of parallel logs at right angles to those below them. The corduroy surface of ridges would prove a pounding experience for those that would travel it. The Countess of Dufferin remarked that “when we had been knocked about as much as we could bear we got out and walked.” Fortunately the Dawson served for a little more than a decade till the railway arrived. It never became a popular route.

POLITICS
When the railway was put through it by passed Fort William much to Dawson’s disappointment and he decided to enter politics to fight it. Dawson would become a member of the Ontario legislature and after that the House of Commons. As the member for Algoma, Dawson became an outspoken supporter of Fort William and later of native fishing rights and of bilingualism. He became unpopular in the 1880s and was referred to as an old fossil. Defeated in the early 1890s, he sought but did not obtain a Senate seat.

Dawson, who had never married, died in relative obscurity in Ottawa on Oct 30, 1902.