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

The Big House, Lower Fort Garry

by George Ingram


At the major trading establishments of the Hudson's Bay Company, a large house was built to accommodate the Company officers. The residence at Lower Fort Garry was given an extra flourish, for Governor George Simpson himself ordered the fort constructed in 1830. Built of stone, the house was large and substantial in comparison with its equivalent at other posts, and during the early decades, it was fitted up in an elaborate manner.

Over the years the Big House served the Hudson's Bay Company in a number of capacities. It was intended primarily to house the commissioned gentlemen and clerks in charge of the lower fort; and as long as the Hudson's Bay Company continued to conduct business at the fort this remained its most important function. But because of its large size and location away from the mainstream of the settlement, many others found accommodation there. It served as an overflow from the upper fort if no place could be found for all the gentlemen at headquarters. And other important officials in the administration of the settlement were given temporary quarters there. George Simpson preferred its isolation on his frequent visits to the settlement, and his preference set a pattern, for throughout the 19th century the house served as a retreat for senior officers of the Company. In the last quarter of the century, it became a summer home for the chief commissioners (the equivalent of governor) and their families stationed in Winnipeg. A list of occasional visitors or overnighters would be endless. The room held vacant for guests at Hudson's Bay Company posts was the universal symbol of the Company's warm hospitality, and Lower Fort Garry, an important starting point for journeys to the interior or to York Factory and England, got more than its share. Retiring officers or those on leave would stay in the house to await passage, or guests of the Company would find accommodations there while passing through the settlement. The many visitors gave the Big House intimate associations with the early history of the Red River Settlement and of the Canadian West.

When the Hudson's Bay Company closed its sales shop at the lower fort in 1911, the old era ended; in 1913, a new one began. Leased by the Motor Country Club of Winnipeg, the Big House served as a centre of social activity for the next 50 years. The "brandy basket" served in the bar became the symbol of a new and more gracious way of life which drew members and guests to the clubhouse and dining room until the early 1960s when the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development undertook development of the fort and Big House. Now the Big House has been restored to the early 1850s, the high point of its evolution.

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