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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 14

The B.C. Mills Prefabricated System: The Emergence of Ready-made Buildings in Western Canada

by G. E. Mills and D. W. Holdsworth



1 The role of prefabricated buildings in American and British expansion has been extensively documented. See, for example, Gilbert Herbert, "The Portable Colonial Cottage," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (hereafter cited as JSAH), Vol. 31, No. 4 (December 1972), pp. 261-75; Margaretta Jean Darnall, "Innovations in American Prefabricated Housing, 1860-1890," JSAH, Vol. 31, No. 1 (March 1972), pp. 51-5; Charles E. Peterson. "Prefabs on the Prairies," JSAH, Vol. 11, No. 4 (December 1952), pp. 28-30; Charles E. Peterson, "Prefabs in the California Gold Rush, 1849," JSAH, Vol. 24, No. 4 (December 1965), pp. 318-24.

2 The first prefabricated house in North America was brought across the Atlantic by Frobisher in 1578 for a gold-mining project on Baffin Island; see Charles E. Peterson, "Early American Prefabrication," Gazette des Beaux Arts, Vol. 33 (1948), pp. 37-46. For St. Paul's, Halifax, see Alan Gowans, Building Canada: An Architectural History of Canadian Life (Toronto; Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), Pl. 53 and legend; for St. John's, Victoria, see Edgar Fawcett, Some Reminiscences of Old Victoria (Toronto: William Briggs, 1912), pp. 115-8. An interesting example of Canadian-built exported prefabrication includes the one-storey 20 ft. by 27 ft. ready-made houses by Rhodes and Curry of Truro, N.S. for the Jamaican government ("Manufacture of Ready-Made Houses in Canada." Canadian Architect and Builder, Vol. 6 [August 1893], pp. 33, 84).

3 An early example of prefabrication on the prairies is the old Royal Hotel in Calgary, built in sections in 1884; see article in Calgary Herald 1913 by J. W. Costello, quoted in M. B. Venini Byrne, From the Buffalo to the Cross. A History of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary (Calgary: Calgary Archives and Historical Publishers, 1973), p. 517. In the American West, the prefabricated building industries reached major proportions. J. B. Jackson, in his book, American Space: The Centennial Years, 1876-86 (New York; Norton, 1972), notes, "Even before the completion of the Union Pacific, much of its westbound freight consisted of portable houses." He adds, "To try to understand the distribution of house types throughout the United States without recognizing the role played by the factories in Chicago and other Mid-western cities would be a hopeless undertaking" (pp. 83, 85).

4 See, for example, Percy A. Maxwell, Letters of Percy Augustus Maxwell (Toronto: Elizabeth A. Maxwell, 1967), pp. 86-7; M. Hennicker, Canadian Life as I Found It: Four Years of Homesteading in the North West Territories (London: Elliott Stock, 1908), pp. 14, 20, 26, etc.; and James M. Minifie, Homesteader: A Prairie Boyhood Recalled (Toronto: Macmillan, 1972), pp. 59-64.

5 The Canadian Pacific Railway's Department of Natural Resources initiated a program of ready-made farms around 1908. A series of 16 "colonies," 14 in southern Alberta and 2 in Saskatchewan, had been established by 1912. Five ready-made fruit farm colonies were later established in British Columbia; Henry J. Boam, The Prairie Provinces of Canada: Their History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources (London: Sells, 1914), pp. 346-8. The company produced a pamphlet illustrating the selection of available buildings in 1912 [Buildings Erected on Ready-Made Farms, Calgary, Canadian Pacific Railway, Department of Natural Resources, 1912].

6 The pre-cut churches and parsonages are described in L. N. Tucker, Western Canada (Toronto: Musson Book Co., 1907), pp. 124-6.

7 B. C. Mills, Timber and Trading Company, Ready-Made Houses, A New System of House Construction (Vancouver, [1906]), p. 1.

8 Thomas Ritchie, Canada Builds, 1867-1967 (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1967), p. 126; "One Hundred Years of B. C. Housing," Western Homes and Living (January 1958), pp. 16-17.

Invention, House Designs and Initial Marketing

1 R. H. Alexander, "The British Columbia Lumber Industry, From the Point of View of a Pioneer in the Trade," The British Columbia Review 1906), p. 19. Alexander, an executive with B. C. Mills, noted, "The Northwest and Manitoba market is looked upon to take most of the rougher grades and some of the higher, such as siding, flooring and ceiling. The rougher grades come into competition with duty-free lumber from the United States and the railway haul averages about 1200 miles before the product reaches this market."

2 John Hendry, a native of Gloucester County, New Brunswick, had been active in the British Columbia lumber industry since 1872. Spending some time in lumber operations in California and Washington's Puget Sound, he was responsible for the founding of a succession of mills and wood-working factories in New Westminster, Nanaimo and Vancouver. After the formation of B. C. Mills, Hendry's interests rapidly expanded to encompass electrical power companies, railways and land speculation. A full sketch is contained in British Columbia: Pictorial and Biographical (Vancouver: J. S. Clarke, 1914), Vol. 2, pp. 38-43.

3 B. C. Mills, Timber and Trading Company, op. cit., p. 1.

4 Winnipeg Tribune, 1 August 1904; "Heretofore the idea of the so-called 'portable houses' has been somewhat sneered at, and but little faith has been fixed on such ready-made buildings."

5 Margaretta Jean Darnall, op. cit., p. 64.

6 Canada. Department of Agriculture, Patent Office Record, 1904, No. 85, 101 (1 January 1904), pp. 1-2.

7 See, for example, W. L. Morton, Manitoba, A History (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1957), pp. 273-328, passim.

8 Winnipeg Town Topics, 6 August 1904, cited in B. C. Mills, Timber and Trading Company, Catalogue of Patented Ready-Made Houses (Vancouver, 1905).

9 Ibid. Seven basic series were available, identified by alphabetical letter in ascending order of size from "H" to "R," excluding the letters I and N. Each series contained from one to three models with identical first floors (i.e., same number of panels), but differing in the number of storeys and roof design.

10 E. Odlum, Vancouver Daily World, 3 October 1904.

11 Vancouver Daily News Advertiser, 2 October 1904.

12 Chilliwack Progress, 4 April 1906.

13 R. E. Gosnell, A History of British Columbia (Victoria: Lewis, 1906), p. 703.

Commercial Applications and Distribution

1 Rural school examples were erected at Bradwardine, Manitoba, and Port Essington, B.C

2 The Ocean Falls post office is illustrated in Bruce Ramsey, Rain People, the story of Ocean Falls (Ocean Falls: Ocean Falls Centennial Committee, 1971), p. 52. An illustration of the prefab in use at the Consumption Hospital, Kamloops, B.C., is obtained in "T.B. — Fighting the White Plague," by "Traveller," British Columbia Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 6 (June 1912), pp. 457-60 (illustration, p. 459).

3 Vancouver Daily News Advertiser, 8 January 1905.

4 British Columbia Telephone Company, Historical Photo File, Main Office, Vancouver, B.C.

5 The number of CPR purchases from B.C. Mills is unknown. Documented examples were erected at Spences Bridge (brakeman's residence), Mission City, Savona and Merritt (maintenance sheds), all in British Columbia.

6 Bank of Montreal prefab branches were located in Nicola and Chilliwack; a Northern Bank branch was erected in Steveston, B.C.

7 Victor Ross, The History of the Canadian Bank of Commerce (Toronto, 1922), Vol. 2, pp. 280-81. This building survives, although it is now sheathed with aluminum siding. It has served for many years as the office for the township of Coleman.

8 Ibid., p. 490.

9 Ibid., p. 280; also original building plan, Douglas and Bay Street branch, Victoria. B.C. Darling and Pearson are best known for major works such as Trinity College, Toronto General Hospital in Toronto and the Sun Life Assurance Building, Montreal. Pearsons worked on the reconstruction of the Ottawa Parliament Buildings in 1916, as well as a series of regional head offices for major banks, including the Bank of Commerce branches in Vancouver and Winnipeg.

10 Ibid., pp. 294-5.

11 Ibid., pp. 561-4. Ross provides a chronological list of branches constructed by the bank. The majority built between 1906 and 1910 (79 out of 118) were located in the prairie provinces and British Columbia. Full records for the B.C. Mills, Timber and Trading Company were destroyed at the time of its liquidation in 1932.

12 At least six prefabricated Commerce banks were opened during 1906 in towns along the newly built Canadian Northern railroad line through Saskatchewan. These include Radisson (22 February), Humboldt (2 March), Vonda (5 April), Canora (5 April), Watson (24 November) and Wadena (30 November); Victor Ross, op. cit., Appendix 12, pp. 556-72. The meagre populations of these towns in 1911 — e.g., Canora 435, Watson 211, Vonda 268 (Atlas of Canada, 1915) —suggests the wisdom of this wait-and-see investment policy by the bank.

13 Canadian Northern Railway, Opportunities and Business Openings in Towns in Western Canada (Winnipeg, 1913), p. 16.

14 Victor Ross, op. cit., pp. 492-3.

The Demise of the System

1 One such competitor was the Colonial Portable House Company, 746 Beach Avenue, Vancouver, which claimed a distribution in Alaska, the prairies, the fruit districts of British Columbia, South Africa and the tropical islands of the Pacific; see Greater Vancouver — Illustrated (Vancouver: Dominion Illustrating Co., 1908), pp. 183-4. According to one advertisement, their intent was to build "Canada Cottages to meet the requirements of Settlers, Ranchers, Townsite Owners, Etc." British Columbia Review (1906), p. 34.

2 Vancouver City Archives, William McNeil MSS, Vol. 2, John Hendry, "General Manager's Report, The British Columbia Mills, Timber and Trading Company, Dec. 31, 1908."

3 Ibid., "Statement of Profit and Loss, Royal City Planing Mills Branch, Vancouver, B.C." The Calgary exhibit expenses totalled $2,222. Gross sales for prefabs totalled $86,393 in 1908.

4 Ibid., personal correspondence, John Hendry to William McNeil, 28 June 1910; 12 August 1910; also John Hendry to R. H. Alexander, 15 April 1921.

5 The Prudential Investment Company, Prospectus (Vancouver, 1910), "Plan of Preparation," p. 6.

6 This linkage of the house building and home financing operation under one company was modelled on the vastly successful Los Angeles Investment Company, which had realized the advantages of integration for scale economies in the increasingly competitive Los Angeles real estate industry during the previous decade. Other Vancouver building companies were to model themselves overtly on the Los Angeles model. Two such examples included the Bungalow Finance and Construction Company and Vancouver Free Homes Ltd.; these and many other companies emerging just prior to the 1912 real estate boom in Vancouver had a profound effect on the suburban landscape of the city. They enjoyed advantages, in design costs, material purchase, landholdings and home financing over smaller scale building contractors.

7 Miss Edna M. Mahony, personal communication, 25 July 1973; "They had taken up acreage on the outskirts of the city, then divided it up into lots. Consequently, these houses, being on less expensive property, could be sold for less and returns would come in sooner. This was my father's thought, but instead of carrying out this idea, the partners preferred buying city lots and, of course . . . the houses, which in some cases were larger than the original sectional houses, were more expensive and did not sell too fast."

8 Vancouver City Archives, Interview, J. C. McPherson, president, Canada Permanent Loan Company, with J. S. Mathews, 17 October 1939.

9 One example of this emerging local ability to provide mass housing needs is the firm of Robertson and Carlile of Calgary; see H. J. Boam, The Prairie Provinces of Canada: Their History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources (London: Sells, 1914), pp. 363-6; also the Tuxedo Park development, Calgary, by Canadian Estates Co. Ltd., whose operation was similar to that of Prudential Builders in Vancouver; ibid., p. 339.

10 See, for example, the Tudor-style homes and California bungalow designs suggested by the B.C. Forest Service in bulletins promoting the use of B.C. timber for prairie needs. These bulletins contained a detailed breakdown of the amount of lumber of specific size and length, all necessary screws, nails, etc., as well as plans. See British Columbia, Department of Lands, Forest Service, British Columbia Timber for Prairie Farms, Farm Building Series, Bulletins 1-10 (Victoria: King's Printer, 1915), particularly No. 10, "Farm Houses."

11 Mahony moved to England where he attempted to remarket his sectional houses during the 1920s. Apparently his base was Bushey Heath, near Watford; research has yet to provide information on this phase of his career. Prefabricated bungalows did enjoy a successful English market in the 1920s and 1930s as the increasing leisure and mobility of the middle class found an outlet in second homes at the seaside or in the countryside; see Anthony D. King, "The Bungalow, Part Two," Architectural Association Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 4 (October-December 1973), pp. 14-17.

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