Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Oldest House in Winnipeg

Written by Laura Wiens, Marketing & Communications Coordinator for Heritage Winnipeg

Take a guess, what do you think the oldest house in Winnipeg is?

Maybe Ralph Connor House? No, too recent. Louis Riel House? Getting closer, but not quite.

The oldest home in Winnipeg, is Seven Oaks House at 50 Mac Street.

Seven Oaks House Museum. Source: Seven Oaks House Museum Facebook page.
The house was home to prominent Winnipeg family, the Inksters. John Inkster laid the foundations for the house in 1851. He chose a location in the Parish of Kildonan, near seven large oak trees. These were not just any oak trees, 35 year earlier in that spot, the Battle of Seven Oaks occurred.
John Inkster was born in the Orkney Islands off the northeastern coast of Scotland in 1799. He came to Canada in 1821 at the age of 22 to work for The Hudson's Bay Company as a Stonemason. 

However, once he arrived, he paid the company a sum of money in return for letting him go from his employment without ever actually doing any stonemasonry work for them. His son Colin said that he believes the foundation John Inkster laid for Seven Oaks House was the only stonemasonry work his father ever did in Canada. 

John Inkster. Source: The Manitoba Archives
After parting ways with the Hudson's Bay Company, Inkster became a farmer. He went on to become a businessman, and imported goods from the United States and Europe. The European goods made it to the Red River Settlement (the Winnipeg area) by York boat, and the American goods came via Red River Cart.

He went on to become the President of the Steam Mill Company in 1856, 35 years after first coming to Canada. He also entered public service, and served as a judge and councillor in Assiniboia. He and his wife Mary Sinclair had 9 children, many of whom went on to become involved with prominent Winnipeggers, and also became prominent Winnipeggers themselves.

Their eldest son, Colin Inkster, became a Manitoba politician in the Legislative Council of Manitoba, the upper level of the provincial government, like the Senate of the federal government. If you’ve never heard of the Legislative Council of Manitoba, you’re probably not alone. Many Canadians were sceptical of the need for an upper level of provincial governments. Manitoba joined confederation in 1870, and the Legislative Council of Manitoba dissolved in 1876. Colin Inkster was the speaker of the council in its final year, and after it voted itself out of existence, he was appointed Sheriff of Manitoba, and later founded The Manitoba Historical Society. 

Seven Oaks House Museum in summer with the garden in full bloom. Source: Seven Oaks House Facebook Page

When Seven Oaks House itself was built, there was already an existing structure on the lot – John Inkster's general store. Out of this store he sold the goods he imported. It also served as the post office for the Kildonan area. This small building is built in the Red River frame style, and is very simple with no decoration. The exact date of the store building's construction is unknown, but it may be the oldest building of any kind in Winnipeg.

The Inkster family bought the land in 1835 where they would build their store and later Seven Oaks House. The Seven Oaks House Museum estimates that the store was likely built between 1835 and 1840, which would make that small, two room log cabin the oldest building in Winnipeg. With Seven Oaks House being the oldest home, it is remarkable that we have two buildings here in Winnipeg that have endured for so long.

John Inkster laid the foundation for Seven Oaks House in 1851, and in 1852, while the house was still under construction; a disastrous flood hit the Red River Settlement. Water from the Red River submerged the Inkster property to a depth of four feet underwater. The flood swept across the prairies for miles. Inkster laid a temporary floor over the second storey, and covered the unfinished house with a hastily made canvas shelter to protect Inkster and his wife from the flood. That's right, as people everywhere fled to high ground, John Inkster and Mary Sinclair chose to stay at their unfinished house, living on a temporary floor under a canvas shelter. They did send their children to Lilyfield, a high ground area between Winnipeg and Stonewall. 

Seven Oaks House museum in winter. The store building is visible from this angle. Source: Seven Oaks House Facebook Page
After the flood passed, construction resumed. The home was finally completed in 1853. The house is two stories, and has nine rooms. The walls are made from oak logs rafted down the Red River. They are hewn about seven inches square, then shaped using a hand-planer. Logs were pinned to each other with wooden pegs as they were laid one on top of the other. The shingles for the roof were made from cedar logs, split by hand, and cut with a drawing knife. Buffalo hair was used to bind the plaster on the interior of the walls. The interior woodworking used primarily spruce logs and some basswood.
The Inkster family owned Seven Oaks House until 1952, when it was given to the City of Winnipeg to be used as a museum.

Today, the Seven Oaks House Museum seeks to depict daily life of the Red River Settlement era, roughly 1812-1912. The museum is open annually from the May long-weekend through to September. The museum has just closed for another season – and it was an important one. 

An interior shot of one room in the museum. Source: Seven Oaks House Facebook Page
2016 marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Seven Oaks. The museum commemorated the battle with a stage re-enactment featuring members of the Manitoba Living History Society and the Forces of Lord Selkirk. The monument of the battle is located near Seven Oaks House, on what used to be a part of the Inkster family property.

Seven Oaks House Museum was also the location of a sold-out paranormal investigation event. The Winnipeg Paranormal Group took visitors along on an investigation through the house, looking for evidence that the house is haunted. If any house in Winnipeg is haunted, the oldest one seems to be a likely candidate.

The museum is full of amazing artifacts from the Red River settlement, furniture, all kinds of household items, photographs, and even one of the earliest models of cameras. 

One of the earliest cameras, on display at the museum. Source: Seven Oaks House Facebook Page
Congratulations to Seven Oaks House Museum on an immensely successful 2016 season, and we hope even more people will get out to see the oldest home in Winnipeg and learn about its history while celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Oseredok Ukrainian Cultural and Education Centre

Long before 184 Alexander Avenue was home to the Oseredok Ukrainian Cultural and Education Centre, the building was home to the British and Foreign Bible Society. The Bible Society was formed in England in 1804, with the intent to bring the word of the Bible to "heathen" people across the world. This Bible society came to Canada in 1808, and they quickly began translating the Bible into numerous languages and distributing copies of it.

The Bible Society hoped they would be able to use the word of God to help the new immigrants and the other poor and disenfranchised people in the North End to better their lives.

The Bible Society purchased the property 184 Alexander Avenue in 1911 at a cost of $14,000 and construction of their building began in the summer of 1912. They chose their location because the North End of Winnipeg was home to a large population of recent immigrants, and many of them were very poor, with few opportunities to make a strong start for their new lives. There was a concerted effort by government and different stakeholders to keep the poor immigrant population grouped in the North End, away from the rest of the city. The Bible Society hoped they would be able to use the word of God to help the new immigrants and the other poor and disenfranchised people in the North End make better lives.
Source: Winnipeg Downtown Places 
The building itself was five storeys tall, and had 45 rooms. It was 66 feet across and 48 feet in depth. It was more expensive to build than the society anticipated. The final cost was $75,000, in addition to the $14,000 they spent to buy the property. Construction of the building was quite rushed, and it was occupied by 1913.

The Architect was a man named William Bruce, who was born in Scotland and came to Winnipeg in 1906. By all accounts, he was a rather eccentric fellow. He laid out plans for a city of half a million people to be located where the town of Churchill is now, and he worked extensively to find "the ultimate fire-proof material."

184 Alexander Avenue in 1969
Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee

The building soon proved to be an overly ambitious project. Not only was it over budget, but also the need for it soon diminished. When The First World War broke out, the large flow of immigrants into the North End was greatly reduced. The building was originally going to be occupied by three branches of the Bible Society from Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Although the Alberta and Saskatchewan branches soon become more independent, and they no longer wanted or needed to share the office with the Manitoba branch. Soon the Manitoba branch of the Bible Society was left with a very expensive, very large building with far more space than they could afford, or even needed.

They began to search for tenants from other Societies to rent out space in the building to with similar missions to promote charity and social well-being. The Church of England Missionary Society, The Dorcas Society, The Children's Bureau, and the Rupert's Land Women's Auxiliary were early tenants, and the major tenant was the Children's Aid Society. The Children's Aid Society stayed in the building until 1957, by which time they had grown too large and needed to seek larger office space elsewhere.

The Children's Aid Society actually stayed in the building longer than the Bible Society itself that had moved out almost a decade earlier in 1949. Alexander Street wasn't as bustling as it once was, and they wanted to move to a busier street hoping to be noticed by more people. When they left in 1949, they sold the building to the Ukrainian National Publishing Company. They printed the paper the New Pathway in the building and this publication still exists today.

184 Alexander in present day.
Courtesy of the Oseredok Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre

During the 1950s groups like the Ukrainian National Youth Federation, the Ukrainian War Veterans' Association and the Ukrainian Women's Organization occupied the building, and the Children's Aid Society stayed there until 1957. A year later in 1958, all of the Ukrainian groups that were in the building moved out, and the building was mostly vacant.

In the 1970s, the Ukrainian Cultural Centre rented the fourth floor of the building and converted it into a library. When New Pathway moved out in 1977, the building was transformed into a heritage site for Ukrainian culture. Half a million dollars were spent in renovations to include a library, museum, art gallery, and office.

184 Alexander today.
Courtesy of the Oseredok Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre.
Today, the building is known as Oseredok Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre. It is a multi-faceted heritage institution connecting Canadians with Ukrainian culture. It is recognized for the breadth and scope of its ethnology, art, archives and library collections that lie at the heart of its public programs, which include exhibitions, workshops, and public lectures. It provides information and research services pertaining to Ukrainian Canadian heritage.

They hold many events throughout the year, and participate in Doors Open Winnipeg each year. They are open to the public daily on Monday to Saturday from 10 am – 4 pm, and 1 pm to 4 pm on Sundays. It is a place worth visiting, and showcases how our built and cultural heritage can compliment each other and live in perfect harmony.