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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