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The Massey Building: Prairie Prosperity

The Massey Building at 294 William Avenue in the West Exchange District is part of a cadre of buildings in Winnipeg's early commercial sector. The Massey building was given municipal heritage designation on September 12, 1983, and is currently owned by Red River College. 

The Massey building, built for father-son duo Daniel and Hart Massey, was constructed in 1885 on a design by architect George Creeland Browne. Daniel Massey was a farmer who had gotten into farm equipment sales in the 1830s, and his son Hart, an inspired salesman who saw the company grow into the largest exporter and producer of agricultural equipment in Canada. Although another plan had been drawn up a few years earlier by Barber and Barber, the boom of 1881/82 gave way to a depression in spring 1882, and plans were put off. By 1885, economic recovery was well underway. Browne created a stately building in the Market district in Italianate style. The resulting block was done primarily in brick, with the ever-present Tyndall stone from Garson serving as the foundation and as elegantly contrasting keystones in the arched windows. Browne's use of local material set something of a trend for later buildings.

The original Massey building as it would have looked from 1885 to 1904. Source: Archives of Manitoba
The agricultural technology sector was a good business to be in during the late 19th century - increased technological innovation meant that people were getting more out of each grain than ever before. Early advertisements for the Massey Manufacturing Company in the Winnipeg Free Press featured mechanical harvesters, mowers, and binders for easier and faster processing of wheat. On the prairies, a new hardy form of wheat was being grown - Red Fife, which was the main strain of wheat grown until the 20th century, when it was replaced by a Red Fife/Hard Red Calcutta hybrid wheat called Marquis.

1884 ad for Massey Manufacturing Co.
Source: Library and Archives Canada
In the 1890s, Massey Manufacturing merged with A. Harris Sons & Company to become Massey-Harris Company. Soon after an expansion was added to the existing building and in 1901, Massey-Harris Company paid for interior alterations to the 1885 building ("Building A"), to the tune to $15,000 dollars. In 1904, the architect S. Frank Peters designed the expansion of the Massey building. The addition, which was a more minimal take on the original plan, more than doubled the space available to Massey-Harris Company. At the turn of the 20th century, the Wheat Boom was in full swing, and the last ten years had seen many new things in Winnipeg: electricity, streetcars, and permanent bridges instead of ferries, to name a few. Massey-Harris also brought new technology to Winnipeg: the first self-propelled combine harvester was built in 1937 and commemorated by this 1942 stamp:

The No. 21 combine made by Massey-Harris
In many ways, the history of the Massey building parallels the history of Winnipeg. When Massey-Harris was expanding, the arrival of the railroad twenty years prior had brought in waves of immigrants hoping to start a new life farming on the prairies and Winnipeg had expanded exponentially. In the early 20th century, Winnipeg was the "Gateway to the West" and the "Chicago of the North" - and with good cause. The Wheat Boom, lasting from 1896 to the start of the Great War (1914), saw Winnipeg change from a small frontier town to the commercial and financial metropolis of Western Canada. Although called the "Wheat" Boom, the real reason for the economic explosion occurring in Western Canada was the investment and building in anticipation of a wheat boom - almost like it was willed into existence by the sheer force of expectation.  The increase in population is a proxy measure for the increase in other areas, as it expanded from approximately 32,000 in 1896 to over 200,000 in 1914.  Winnipeg was such a metropolitan centre, it was reputedly the place where Groucho Marx first saw Charlie Chaplin perform - in 1913:

Advertisement for Charlie Chaplin's show in 1913
Source: Newspaper Archives
I think it was in Winnipeg, in Canada, when I went for a walk down the Main Street where I came upon a nickelodeon. Chaplin was doing an act there called "A Night at the Club". I never heard an audience laugh like that. I went back to tell the boys about him. I told them, I just saw the greatest comedian in the world... 
(From The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, as quoted in Gateway to the West)

The Wheat Boom ended when the world was thrown collectively into the most horrific war it had ever seen, and the transport subsidies that made the Wheat Boom possible were removed. After the boom years in the early 20th century and by the 1940s the city and the Massey building were slowing down. The Massey-Harris Company was looking to sell the building so they could move to follow the Winnipeg Grain Exchange and many other businesses that had vacated Market Square. 

In 1944, the building was sold to Dominion Soudak Fur Company, and was occupied from 1947-58 by the Manitoba Diary and Poultry Coop Ltd., and then from 1963-73 by the Home Welfare Agency. The Massey building fell into disrepair, but was rehabilitated in the 1980s before it was given Grade II heritage building designation. 

An open house was held on June 9th, 1986 to commemorate the opening of the newly-rehabilitated Massey building. Current Ministers of National Health & Welfare, Urban Affairs, Education, Community Services and Employment Services attended, including the Mayor. Heritage Winnipeg was also present to celebrate this conservation of another historic building in the Exchange District. In fact, the City of Winnipeg report described the Massey building as the "most intact pre-1900s structure on Market Square". Today, the Massey building houses teaching space for Red River College, most recently their English Language Program.

The Massey building, along with other historic buildings in the Exchange District, represent a significant period in Winnipeg's history. The agriculture industry is deeply integral to our city's success, both historically and in present times. The Massey building represents one of Canada's most important agriculture companies, one that still operates today. As well, the use of this stately heritage building by Red River College allows the building to remain as a significant part of a largely-intact late 19th - early 20th century streetscape that characterizes the historic Exchange District, a national historic site.

Written by Natassja Brien for Heritage Winnipeg

Manitoba 125: A History. Vol II: Gateway to the West. Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications, 1994. 
Gray, Mavis E. The Great Wheat/Investment Boom: The Winnipeg Construction Industry, 1896 - 1914. Master's Thesis. 


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