Monday, 6 November 2017

James Henry Ashdown – From Tinsmith to Titan

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

James Henry Ashdown was eight years old when his family emigrated from London, England to Upper Canada in 1852. Ashdown’s family lived in several places in Ontario before Ashdown left home at 18 to become a tinsmith’s apprentice. After his apprenticeship, Ashdown went to Kansas to work construction in Fort Zarah. After ten months of construction, Ashdown was ready for something new and headed north, destine for the Red River Settlement in Manitoba. Ashdown arrived in June of 1868 and quickly set about finding work. Cutting wood on the banks of the Assiniboine River, helping build the St. Charles Catholic Church and working on a survey crew were just some of the jobs he took up. Ashdown scrimped and save, amassing enough savings to buy George Moser’s tinsmith shop at the corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street in Winnipeg in 1869. After purchasing an additional lot at the same intersection, Ashdown erected a sign there officially announcing the business as “James H. Ashdown Hardware and Tinsmith”.

An undated water colour of Fort Zarah in Kansas.
Source: Dead Towns of Kansas and Kansas Historical Quarterly
Ashdown’s entrepreneurial efforts where soon interrupted by the political turmoil unfolding around him. The territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company, including the Red River Settlement, where soon to be sold to Canada. But Metis leader Louis Riel was leading a rebellion, believing that the Red River Settlement should be an autonomous region, not under the rule of Canada. While Ashdown supported the annexation of the settlement with Canada, he also believed the Metis had legitimate claims, imploring with cabinet minster Joseph Howe to work with the Metis, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Reluctantly, Ashdown went on to join 21 armed men that were seizing government pork supplies under the pretext of protecting them for Riel. On December 7, 1869, Ashdown and the group surrendered to Riel’s forces and were imprisoned at Upper Fort Gary. 69 days later, in February 1870, Ashdown was released. Riel and his government were successful in negotiating a treaty with Canada in 1870, allowing peace to return to the settlement again. Known as the Manitoba Act, the treaty allowed the settlement to become the self governing province of Manitoba, while still under the control of Canada.

The J.H. Ashdown Hardware Store in 1900.
Source: City of Winnipeg and M. Peterson Collection
Freed in the fledgling province, Ashdown was able to return to focusing on his hardware business. Demand for metal and hardware products was high as immigrants from around the world where settling in western Canada. Ashdown was soon expanding his Winnipeg operations as well as opening branches in Portage la Prairie, Emerson and Calgary by 1889. In 1895 Ashdown built a warehouse at 167 Bannatyne Avenue, which after many additions became a massive six story structure. Ashdown became a man of power and influence, a boy with humble beginnings and little formal education had become a millionaire by the age of 66 in 1910.

An undated photo of James Henry Ashdown
Source: Manitoba Historical Society and Archives of Manitoba
Throughout the years Ashdown became more than just a hardware mogul. He lobbied for the Incorporation of Winnipeg, served as Director of the Great-West Life Assurance Company, a Director of the Northern Crown Bank, was a founder of Wesley College (current University of Winnipeg), and even served as the Mayor of Winnipeg from 1907 to 1908. Yet throughout all this time, one thing remained consistent – the J.H. Ashdown Hardware Store at 476 Main Street in Winnipeg. The building changed many times but for 100 years, Ashdown Hardware stood proudly in Winnipeg's Exchange District. The original tinsmith’s shop that Ashdown bought in 1869 was replaced with a brick structure in 1975, with additions added in 1880 and 1885. It was the headquarters of an empire, housed in a crumbling three story building.

In 1904, Ashdown spent $7000 on replacing the crumbling foundation. Only months later in October, disaster struck and Ashdown’s business went down in flames. The fire started across Bannatyne Avenue in the Bulman Block with strong winds fanning the flames towards Ashdown’s. As the flames engulfed the hardware store, paint and kerosene tins exploded, making saving the building impossible.

Fortunately, the new foundation under the store was unfazed by the flames.  Making use of it, Ashdown teamed up with Winnipeg Architect J.H.G. Russell, who had worked on the new foundation, to begin rebuilding.  The structure when up fast and furious, taking full advantage of unseasonably mild weather, with two floors stocked and ready to serve the 1904 Christmas crowds. A temporary roof kept out the snow and cold, ready to be removed so the final four floors could be added later.
The J.H. Ashdown Hardware Store in 1904.
Source: Archives of Manitoba
When spring arrived in 1905, the Davidson Brothers of Winnipeg along with another contractor, Hudson, resumed construction on the hardware store. A steel skeleton was encased in red brick, 21 inches thick on the bottoms floors to support heavy loads, tapering to 13 inches on the upper floors. Limestone was use to trim the ground floor while the remaining five floors were trimmed with terra cotta. Large plate glass windows on the ground floor ran along Main Street and part of Bannatyne Avenue with an iron cornice above, inviting the public in. Overall the design of the building was rather simple, with most of the decorative elements appearing on the top story, where terra cotta panels and a large cornice with dentil detailing drew the eye upwards. Inside, cast iron columns supported robust timbers and steel girders, this time protected from fire by automatic sprinklers with flammables stored in an underground vault. The original 1905 building had two passenger elevators, with a freight elevator installed in 1917. When finished, the Ashdown’s new hardware store cost a total of $110,000 to build.

The J.H. Ashdown Hardware Store in 1929.
Source: City of Winnipeg and Archives of Manitoba
Ashdown died in 1924, leaving the company to the care of his son, Harry Ashdown. During Harry’s time as president, the hardware store underwent major changes, with a one story addition designed by architects Moody and Moore, added to the north side in 1959. At the same time, the brick façade of the building was covered in plaster, some windows on Bannatyne Avenue were covered and the windows on the Main Street façade replaced with horizontal windows made of glass block. The cornice detailing was also removed, replaced with monochromatic finishes popular at the time, almost completely erasing any character of the original building. The business continued at its flagship location until 1970, when Harry died.

The J.H. Ashdown Hardware Store in 1970.
Source: City of Winnipeg and Archives of Manitoba
Big 4 Sales purchased the building from the Ashdown’s in 1970. The retail store owned the property until 1995, when the city as part of its plan to revitalize the civic campus, purchased it. In poor condition and vacant, the building was slated for demolition. Concerned citizens, building owners and Heritage Winnipeg rallied against the city’s decision, fighting to have the building added to the City of Winnipeg's List of Historic Resources, which would protect it from demolition. After a long and heated exchange, the heritage supporters won out, and the building was sold to Shelter Canadian Properties who set about restoring and rehabilitating the heritage features. The building was eventually renamed the Crocus Building, after the investment fund that operated there. The address was also changed, from 476 Main Street to 211 Bannatyne Avenue. Even after the fund failed in 2004, the sign sadly remained on the building until 2017. 

After being rehabilitated, the building was renamed the Crocus Building, seen here in 2004.
The McKim Communications Group had been in the building for several years before it acquired the naming rights. The new McKim sign was unveiled in January of 2017, signalling a new chapter in the building’s history. McKim uses about 10,000 square feet of the building, sharing the remaining space with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, Winnipeg Folk Festival and the Across the Board Café, among others. Once again standing proudly at the corner of Main Street and Bannatyne with its bright red brick and new imposing cornicing. The former J.H. Ashdown Hardware Store is a testament to the enduring success of one of Winnipeg’s founding fathers and the timelessness of out built heritage.

Images of McKim Building in 2017.
Source: McKim Communications Group


CBC News Manitoba

City of Winnipeg

Dead Town of Kansas

Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Demolishing a Piece of Winnipeg’s History by Allan Levine in Heritage, Fall1998

Manitoba Historical Society

McKim Communications Group

PSB Empire of the Bay

Real Estate News

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Haunted Heritage

Guest post by Matthew Komus, tour guide and heritage consultant with many of Manitoba’s historical sites and museums.

As Halloween will soon be upon us it seems like a good time to talk about heritage and hauntings. A great number of heritage buildings are said to be haunted. This should not be unexpected as supernatural and heritage worlds both share a common connection to the past. This connection is especially true when talking about museums. Museums are places that showcase the past. They exhibit to the visitor the way we used to live but they can be much more than that. As Jay Winters says: “Museums are, in a way, the cathedrals of the modern world, places where sacred issues are expressed and where people come to reflect on them.”[i] The theme of reflection fits well with the spirit world. If museums function as the connection between the past and the present, and ghosts come from the past to visit the present, it should not be surprising the museums would often find themselves the home of supernatural activity.

In the early 1900s Winnipeg was growing rapidly and plans were drawn up to build several new fire halls in a short period of time. The typical hall consisted of “beige-coloured brick exteriors, two floors, three or four apparatus bays, and characteristic three-story tower for draining and drying fire hose.”[ii] The No. 3 hall was a special case. The hall was to be located on Maple Street just back from Higgins Avenue and the Canadian Pacific Station. The city leaders realized this meant thousands of tourists and new arrivals to Winnipeg would view the station only minutes after arriving in the city. This resulted in the No. 3 hall having far more ornamentation then the other buildings.

Fire Hall No. 3 with the Canadian Pacific Station in the background.
Source: Matthew Sinclair
Station No. 3 was the oldest operating fire hall in western Canada when it was closed in 1990. The building found a new role as the Fire Fighters Museum of Winnipeg. On exhibit are numerous wagons, vehicles and equipment from over a hundred years of fighting fires in Winnipeg.

The museum is home to more than just artifacts; it has a live-in apparition. The ghost apparently has a keen interest in what’s going on at the museum. One instance took place when a volunteer was performing maintenance work on one of the old fire engines. Busy with his work he was not paying much attention to his surroundings. The volunteer then felt someone tapping him on the shoulder. Annoyed to be interrupted he looked up to see what was so urgent, only to realize no one was standing next to him. The volunteer really started to feel a chill when he realized the museum was closed and no one else is in the building. There have been many incidents similar to this and the firefighters think they know who is haunting the station.

The No. 3 hall was equipped with four fire poles to ensure a speedy response. On June 9th, 1915 the station was responding to a house fire when twenty-five year-old firefighter Peter McRae somehow lost his grip while sliding down the pole and fell hard onto the floor below. The fall resulted in McRae’s death. It was a tragic accident for the fire hall, to lose the young Scottish fire fighter but an even great tragedy for his wife and two young sons. The firefighters believe it is McRae’s ghost that continues to keep an eye on things.

Fire Hall No. 3.
Source: Matthew Sinclair
Haunted buildings tend to be spread throughout Winnipeg but in the case of the Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia, two spooky buildings are located only feet apart. The St. James Museum uses exhibits and programs to tell the story of the communities of St. Francis-Xavier, Headingley, St. Charles and St. James. The museum consists of three buildings, the Brown House, a Red River Frame cabin built in 1856, the former Municipal Hall of St. James-Assiniboia, built in 1911, and a newer building used for displays and events.

The Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia.
Source: Mark Komus
The Brown House was not originally located on the museum site. Instead it was located in the parish of Headingley along the Assiniboine River. The Brown House has a kitchen, parlour and dining room on the first floor and four bedrooms on the second floor. The house remains largely unchanged from its original appearance. To help create the appearance of being back in time the museum has furnished the home with period appropriate pieces. The house was named for its builder and first owner William Brown. Born in 1809, Brown came to the Red River Settlement in 1830 in the employment of the Hudson’s Bay Company. After eleven years with the Company, Brown retired and begin a new life as a farmer. He would pass away in the home he built in 1891 at age 82.

The Brown House is now used by the museum to stage re-enactments of what early farm life would have been like in the settlement. Summer students are hired to play the various roles of the Brown family. Over the years the summer students have witnessed a number of unexplained events in the house. These events include doors slamming shut by themselves even when there is no breeze. Open windows have also slammed shut even though the windows are very tight to open and in some cases have even had sticks holding them in place. Two students once witnessed the lid of an antique trunk rise up and then slam shut without any touching it. Staff have locked the house up for the night only to come back the next morning and find chairs and other items have been moved around.

The Brown House at the Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia.
Source: Mark Komus
Many of the museum staff have heard children’s voices in the home and suspect the ghost may be that of a little girl. The house features an old checker board and it is not uncommon to find the checkers have been rearranged as if someone was playing a game over night. If the ghost is a child, she seems to enjoy the company of other kids. If no school tours have visited the house in some time the ghost is known to cause more trouble.

Located just west of the Brown House is the Municipal Hall. It is an attractive two-story brick building with a stone foundation and cupola above the front door. It was built in 1911 for the Rural Municipality of Assiniboia, which was later merged into the city of St. James-Assiniboia. The town hall held administrative offices on the main floor and the council chamber on the second floor. At one time there was even a police station and jail cell in the basement.

The Municipal Hall at the Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia.
Source: Mark Komus
Due to all of the supernatural events the museum has, on occasion, had psychics visit. One medium was going through the town hall when she had a vision of a tall man in a military uniform. This vision connects to one of the most unnerving incidents in the museum. A summer student was working in the town hall when a tall man dressed in a military uniform came in. He asked her for information about an old air field in the area. She told him she would look it up and turned her back to try and find the information. Her back was turned only for a few seconds but when she looked back the man was gone. The student was positive she did not hear the door open. She walked through the building to make sure the man had not just wandered off but he was nowhere to be found.

The following stories are recounted in great detail in 
Haunted Winnipeg: Ghost Stories from the Heart of the Continent
Haunted Winnipeg may be found HERE

Additional information on the Winnipeg Ghost Walk can be found at

[i] Winter, Jay. The Legacy of the Great War: Ninety Years On. Columbia: University of Missouri, 2009: 34.
[ii] City of Winnipeg. 56 Maple Street - Fire Hall No. 2. Winnipeg, 1990.

Monday, 16 October 2017

The Stories Our Buildings Tell: Tragedy and Mystery in North Point Douglas

Guest post by Greg Agnew, Heritage Winnipeg Board Member
Edited by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

Behind the buff brick walls of 187 Sutherland Avenue in Winnipeg hides a story of mystery and intrigue. An unassuming two story building in the North Point Douglas neighbourhood, the façade gives no hint as to what tragedy transpired there in 1928. Cheerful arches with decorative keystones grace the entrance and windows on the front façade, with a brick cornice detail running along the roofline, giving no suggestion of heartache. In a neighbourhood where immigrants came to start a new life, a little girl’s life was cut short leaving unanswered questions that haunted those involved for years to come.

In 1812, the Selkirk Settlers arrived at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. With Fort Gibraltar already established by the North West Company at this location, Governor Miles Macdonell choose to lead the settlers further north along the Red River, to an area on the west side which had been cleared by fire in recent years. The land was divided into long narrow river lots for settlers in the north, the colony’s buildings on the narrow point of land to the south and “King’s Highway” (which would become modern day Main Street) meandering through it all. It was in this area that the settlers would soon build Fort Douglas, named after Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk, the reigning Lord Selkirk in 1812. It was the site of conflict for many years, as the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company (aligned with the Selkirk Settlers) struggled for power. Destruction, reconstruction, struggle and strife all finally ended in 1821, when the two warring companies merged, with the fort still standing. It took a force of nature, a flood in 1826, to wash away Fort Douglas forever.

Fort Douglas on the banks of the Red River in 1817.
Source: Douglas Archives
Although the fort was lost, the name remained, with the narrow point of land carved out by the Red River becoming known as Point Douglas.  The neighbourhood was a growing settlement, with streets, houses, schools and churches being built and businesses being opened. Many of Winnipeg’s founding families, the Ashowns, Bannatynes, McDermonts, Logans and Schultzes called the area home. For most of the 19th century, Point Douglas was a prestigious place to call home, with many elegant houses filling the neighbourhood.

In 1881, the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived, with its tracks running right down the center of Point Douglas, cutting the neighborhood into two. North Point Douglas remained a residential area, while South Point Douglas was more commercial. The presences of the noisy trains and the unpleasant industry growing up around it drove many of the residence away, replaced with working class immigrants of non-British origin. North Point Douglas soon became an immigrant community, where people could shop, worship and speak as they did in the homeland. Yet through this change, the original buildings of the area stood unfazed, a reminded of a time of prosperity and promise. Many of the areas larger homes were divided into boarding houses while single family homes where tucked between the stately old homes.

Point Douglas in 1912, the narrow point of land surrounded by the Red River on three sides.
Source: CBC News Manitoba and Achieves of Manitoba
It was into this North Point Douglas, filled with old homes and new immigrants that Julian Johnson was born. By 1928 Julian was five and a half year old little girl that lived a happy life at 138 Austin St. Born and raised in Winnipeg, Julia was a pretty girl of about 40 pounds, with blue eyes, dark brown hair and a pale complexion. She lived with her mother, her father Anton, who was a construction worker, her sister Bernice, 11, her brother John, 16, and brother Joseph, 13. The family was of Polish decent and by no means wealthy.

On April 25th of 1928 Julia was playing outside while waiting for her sister and the next door neighbor, Elizabeth Kral, to come home from school so they could play together. Julia was a shy, quiet little girl. She was taught not to talk to strangers and to always stay close to home. Her mother was washing clothes in the kitchen around 1:30pm when Julia went outside to play.   Julia was wearing a red and black dress that her mother made for her and little black shoes that just had a new sole put on one. With fawn stockings, a sweater and brown toque, she was ready to go outside and play. It was a mild day, with the temperature around 0ºC and no rain in sight.

Julia’s mother would call out to her daughter periodically, with Julia coming in to tell her mother what she was doing. She would tell her mother she was just playing with her favorite tennis ball, or that she was watching the “gas man” as he made his rounds. Around 3:30pm, Julian’s mother got a strange feeling. She called out for Julia, but here was no answer. She went out the front door and called again, but still no answer. Mrs. Kral, the neighbour, came out and told her she had just seen Julia a few minutes ago playing with her ball, bouncing it against her house. They immediately searched the area, calling out, but could not find Julia. The Kral’s son Alfred came home from school just before 4pm, and when asked, he said he had not seen her along the way.

It was not like Julia to disappear and so after the search continued fruitlessly for a short time, the police were called. Constable Thomas McKim got the call on his callbox #4 as he made his rounds in the area, so he responded to the Johnson home and joined in the search. Nothing turned up to give them any clue as to where Julia was. When Julian’s father, Anton, arrived home he started searching the entire area with the help of her brothers and some school kids that knew Julia. They searched the neighborhood and along the riverbank looking for clues or footprints, but found nothing. Panic set in and the family was stricken with anxiety.

The case was turned over to the detective division as suspected foul play. Inspector R. Macdonald, in Division E, was put in charge of the case. Chief Detective George Smith, Sargent Fred Batho, Sargent Charles Maciver, and Detective Alex Kolomic were assigned to the case and the search for clues started in haste.

Nathan Taplinsky owned the blacksmith shop at 190 Sutherland, just a half block away from the Johnson’s home. He had seen Julia around 2:00pm with some other children playing in the yard that he used for storing his wagon and material. It was a dangerous area for kids to play in and he chased them out. Mrs. Newmark indicated that she and her son talked to Julia on Austin Street in front of her house at around 3:15-3:30pm. The neighbor, Mrs. Kral, said Julia was bouncing her ball against her house somewhere around 3:45pm.

A search started that took up the whole Point Douglas area and continued all the way to St. Johns Avenue past Redwood. Every home, building, back yard, river bank was checked by the police with the help of the local citizens, as well as a Boy Scouts troupe that offered to help.   Tons of metal in piles were searched in back yards, alleys and businesses. Anywhere where a small girl could hide was searched and then searched again but nothing.

Julia Johnson's family offered a reward of $50,
which was a large sun of money for a poor family n 1928.
Sadly, it was speculated that Julia had been abducted and as the search continued the family was starting to losing hope and Mrs. Johnson became bedridden with grief. The search went on for months but with no new leads, and the detectives were at a standstill. The case was not closed, but put aside, with the detectives continuing to monitor it for any breaks.

The family could not live in the home anymore because of the memories and moved to 1105 St. Mary’s Road. Detective George Smith became Chief Constable in 1934, and he never dropped the case, but like the others, he watched over it looking for a possible break. Every two weeks, Mrs. Johnson and her husband Anton would go to the police station and ask Chief Smith if there was any new leads as he always gave them time. He had become close to the Johnsons and wanted to relieve their pain by solving the case, which is why it was never closed even though it went cold.

 In 1937, 187 Sutherland Avenue was sold to Muzeen & Blythe, a machine shop company. They were preparing the building for their business, clearing out a lot of scrap and equipment in the building from its soda bottling days. One item was the old boiler that sat in the basement. Wilfred Adams had the task of dismantling the boiler so it could be removed. To his horror, when he took off the back cover, there was a gruesome discovery - small skeleton was inside. The police were called and when word reached the station George Smith and Alex Kolomic rushed to the scene.

187 Sutherland Avenue in North Point Douglas, seen at the center of the photo.
There in the boiler were the remains of a small girl bent over so her head had almost touched her feet. A brown toque and a ball with a tear in it were found by the body. The Johnson’s son John came down and identified the body by the ball, toque, and what was left of the dress Julia was wearing the day she disappeared. It was devastating news for the family, as they always had hope that she was alive somewhere.

The case was then reopened and the search for new clues began. It had been nine years since Julia’s disappearance. People had passed and memories had grown foggy, but the detectives continued on. During the course of their investigation, they discovered Mr. Hamilton, who owned 187 Sutherland Avenue, closed the business down on April 7, 1928. The building was boarded up and the doors locked. He went to the blacksmith shop of Nathan Taplinsky and left a key there for the meter man, which was hung on a post by the door. Nathan and his assistant denied having the key, but a former worker testified that there was a key on the post, although he not knowing what it was for. A meterman also said he got the key from Nathan to read the meter and he hung it back up at the blacksmith shop afterwards.

Florian Kovacs, a neighbour, said he saw Julia talking with a bearded man, walking and holding hands. No one saw or knew of this man and Julia, known for her shyness, would never talk to strangers. The premises of 187 Sutherland Avenue, including the boiler, had been searched more than once, but because the body had been pushed right to the back into a cavity, it was never found. A metal tube was found by the boiler, which could have been used to push Julia’s body back and cause her hip to dislocate, as noted by the corner.

A coroners hearing was held after police were given time to reopen the case and look for new clues. When they presented what they had found, the jury at the inquest hearing was not satisfied. There were too many discrepancies in the witnesses’ testimonies in 1928 and in 1937.

Who would do such a thing? Why was the ball found with the body? If foul play was suspected and she was lured into the building, why were no screams heard? Surly she would have screamed if she did not know the person. She did just that two weeks before she disappeared! She ran home and told her mother the “boogey man” was after her. It took her mother almost two hours to calm her down. The building at 187 Sutherland Avenue is only 60 feet from the back of her home so her mother would have heard her screams for sure.

187 Sutherland Avenue still stands in North Point Douglas today,
steadfast in its silence, the only witness to what really happened to Julia Johnson.
Unfortunately, too many unanswered questions never got answered. Little Julia was buried March 30, 1937 and laid to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery.  The case was closed as unsolved in June of 1937 and remains a mystery to this day. Only the walls know what really transpired at 187 Sutherland Avenue that heartbreaking day in 1928.


CBC News Maniotba

Douglas Archives

Manitoba Historical Society

Neighborhoods of Winnipeg