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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 4

A Brief History of Lower Fort Garry

by Dale Miquelon

Traders, Shippers, Builders and Farmers

Retail trading was the earliest economic function of Lower Fort Garry. It probably began with the completion of the fur loft and retail store building in 1832 and increased with the growth of the settlement. Here business is described as it was conducted shortly before the opening of the new wooden sales shop in 1874.

Immediately at the left of the gateway is the trading-store, devoted solely to the sale of goods. A large stone structure of three stories, it has within its walls nearly every article used in that climate. The sales-room is a square apartment, with no attempt at ornament, no plaster, the ceiling merely the joists and flooring of the second flat, thickly studded with nails and hooks, from which are suspended various articles of trade. Along the side walls are box shelves, nearly two feet deep. On the floor within the counter are piled bales of goods, bundles of prints, hardware, etc., and this space within the counter comprises almost the entire room. A small area is railed off near the door, sufficiently large to hold twenty standing customers. When this is filled, the remaining patrons must await their turn in the courtyard, and it is not at all an unusual sight to see from fifty to one hundred people standing quietly about outside until their time comes to be served. The best goods of all manufactures alone are sold here. No shoddy or inferior goods are ever imported or sold by the company.... The principal articles of trade are tea, sugar, calico, blankets, ammunition, fishing gear, and a kind of cloth, very thick and resembling blanketing called duffle.

In the store there is no such thing known as exhibiting goods with a view of increasing the purchases of a probable customer. Whatever is asked for is produced, and, being paid for, the customer is ignored at once.1

Red River provided the fur trade with both trip men and cargo (agricultural products before the transportation revolution and thereafter trade goods in addition), and was thus the starting point of boat brigades. Had it been well wooded, it would also have been the natural place to build the means of transport. Boats for the Company's service seem to have been built originally at Norway House; nevertheless an important shipyard developed at Lower Fort Garry. Since a ready source of building materials could not have attracted the industry, by implication these must have been transported to a source of skilled labour. If the Company's shipwrights were independent farmer-craftsmen from the lower settlement (such as Samuel Taylor, the first one known to us),2 boat building could have begun as early as the 1830s. But in the present state of our knowledge, any date given for the beginning of the industry would be conjecture.

York boats, decked sloops and schooners were all built at Lower Fort Garry in the industrial area between the fort and the nearby creek, but we have detailed information only from the year 1865 when Samuel Taylor recorded in his journal that he had begun working on the schooner Polly under the direction of a Mr. John M. Brown. In September, Brown and a crew went out on an expedition in search of wooden crooks for the bows and sterns of boats, and the actual building began in the winter. On 22 November, Taylor "began to build a kettle inn for to steam boards for the boats."3 He records the building of a new sawmill in May, 1866, which suggests that there had been one for some time past. References to boat building continue in the extant Lower Fort Garry journals (1868-74).4 On Tuesday, 7 April 1872, a new steamboat, the Chief Commissioner, was launched from the shipyard, the first steamer built in the western Canadian interior, if not in all western Canada. In the following May, workmen began sawing lumber for the Saskatchewan river steamer, Northcote, which was assembled above Grand Rapids in 1874 and became the first steamer on the muddy river of the north. The steamboats displaced the smaller craft on the Red and Saskatchewan rivers and on Lake Winnipeg and in their turn, for a time, remained supreme.

3 A plan adapted from A.H. Vaughan's survey of 1874 shows the Hudson's Bay Company reserve in heavy outline. Areas marked by diagonal lines represent cultivated lands; the dotted area around the Stone Fort is meadowland, and unmarked areas are woodland or waste areas.

The occupation which was perhaps the most characteristic of Lower Fort Garry was farming. As early as 1838, George Simpson envisaged the fort as an ideal site for the Company's principal farming establishment.5 The plan did not immediately come to fruition, perhaps because of the dismal failure of the Company's second experimental farm which George Cary was at that time establishing on the Assiniboine. The lower fort must wait some 20 years. In 1857, Simpson's attention was drawn to a young clerk who was known to have had considerable farming experience in Fifeshire, his Scottish homeland. Simpson placed the young man, Alexander R. Lillie, in charge of the lower fort with instructions to make a farm of it. Thus was begun the Company's third farm and its first successful one.6 Roderick Campbell describes it as it was two years after its foundation:

A very large farm had been brought under cultivation in the immediate vicinity. . . . The experiment in agriculture proved most encouraging, and the harvest was everything that could be desired. . . . The fort stood in the middle of a two-mile reservation on the river bank. Outside of this limit many of the Company's retired servants had settled.7

In 1875, the date of our earliest map, the farm consisted of about 100 acres,8 and may well have been that large at a much earlier date. About 80 acres of this farm were contained in a long tract of land northwest of the fort across the road. There was a smaller plot directly north of the fort, also across the road, and another small area southwest of the fort across the creek. In later years a garden existed immediately northeast of the fort, but this is probably a late development since that was the area earlier set aside for stables and barns.9

Barley and wheat were grown, and the latter was exported to Norway House and points northwest as flour or barrelled biscuit.10 Pickled meat, too, was barrelled and shipped out for the sustenance of the fur traders.11 Large quantities of turnips, potatoes, and other vegetables were also raised, probably for the use of the fort's own staff.12

The farming and shipbuilding operations necessitated the founding of several secondary industries. At first, wheat from the farm was sent to the upper settlement to be milled; then possibly to a steam mill built at the St. Andrew's rapids in 1863.13 On 1 November 1865, a steam mill for the grinding of wheat began operation at the lower fort.14 It will be recalled that a distillery and malting house were erected at the fort in 1845, and that there is reason to believe the Company used these buildings for business purposes during the military occupation of 1846-48.15 Failing to receive the authorization of the Council, the distillery was never used for its intended purpose. The buildings evidently remained neglected storage sheds at best until 1870, for which year there is an entry in the post journal stating, "Got men to commence repairing the distillery and another party to repair the side of the Engine Room that was pretty nearly falling."16 In 1871, a new brewery began operation, and on 18 April, the first lot of beer was put away in locally made casks in the cellars under the sales shop.17 Robinson sums up the essence of the entire fort complex as it was in the 1870s, perhaps its period of greatest activity:

Outside the walls of the fort, but belonging to it, is situated a miniature village of many and varied industries. In neat dwellings reside the heads of the different departments of what may be termed the outdoor business of the company. Here dwells the chief engineer of all the steam power in use upon its ships, boats, mills, etc. Here also lives the farmer who directs the cultivation of the immense agricultural farm connected with the fort; the herdsman, who superintends the rearing and care of the droves of cattle, horses and other stock of the corporation, the miller in charge of the milling interests; the shipwright, who directs the building, launching and refitting of the company's fleet. In the rear of these dwellings are mess-rooms for the accommodation of the workmen and the residences of the different overseers. Separate a little stand the flouring-mills, brewery, ship-yards, machine shops, etc., all supplied with the latest labor-saving machinery. Scattered along the bank of the river lie moored or drawn up on the beach the miniature navy of the company, here a lake steamer, there river steamboats, then schooners, yachts and a whole school of whale boats, with one mast, unstepped at will, and of three and a half tons burden, used in the freighting service, and requiring nine men as crew. Drawn upon the beach lie birch-bark canoes of all sizes and conditions, from the little one of a single passenger capacity to the long dispatch boat requiring thirteen navigators. . . . The remaining surroundings of the fort are made up of a well kept vegetable garden, extensive stock corrals and a large farm under perfect cultivation.18

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