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

The Big House, Lower Fort Garry

by George Ingram

The Years at Mid-Century

In the late 1850s, the lower fort reached a high point in its development. In 1858, the Hudson's Bay Company commenced farming operations under the direction of A. R. Lillie and at the same time extensive stables were added to house the oxen used in the cart transportation of the Company. Later the steamboats of the Hudson's Bay Company used the lower fort as a base of operations. A number of activities associated with the supply and trade of the fur trade sprang up in the area around the fort. In short, Lower Fort Garry began to show the promise indicated by Simpson when he had established it in the 1830s.

With the increased activity at the fort, the Big House was used more as a residence for the fort staff and less as a guest home for favoured itinerants. Of course room was found for the occasional visitor but large blocks were not set aside for those not directly involved in the day-to-day activity at the fort. The house itself was beginning to suffer from the passage of time. In 1862, when the new governor of the Company, A. G. Dallas, arrived in the settlement, Chief Factor Mactavish suggested that he would be better accommodated at the upper rather than the lower fort.

I think that more comfortable accommodation for Governor Dallas & his family can be provided here than at the Lower Fort, and I will therefore provide for him here but should he think other ways after his arrival he can easily make the change.1

Life at the lower fort, like that at other Hudson's Bay Company establishments, was lively and boisterous. The employees of the Company worked long and hard hours and played equally long and hard. The Big House served as the centre for social activity. Roderick Campbell, who arrived at the fort in 1859, a highly impressionable boy of seventeen, left this account of the active social life:

The residents in the fort formed a very lively community by themselves. They had regular hours for the dispatch of business, and afterwards, to beguile the tedium of the long sub-Arctic nights, they met together for a few hours' jollification, when old Scottish songs were sung in voices cracked and sharpened by the cold northern blasts. Materially assisted by French Cognac, Scotch whisky and Old Jamaica, the fun was kept up merrily till some slipped down and retired into a long and peaceful slumber. At these carousals a pint of liquor per head was the allowance; and I, a boy of seventeen, was included among the "heads." Many a prayer I uttered, fighting against a temptation almost beyond human power to resist, so far from home, so young, and so alone.2

In a few years, with the sale of the Company to the International Financial Society, the years of the hard-bitten, rollicking fur trader were over. Scenes such as those described by Campbell at the lower fort became the exception.

Although beginning to show its age, the Big House retained the gracious air which it had assumed during the stay of the Colviles in the early 1850s. Samuel Scudder, who stayed in the house in 1860 on his way to observe the eclipse, was very much taken with the house and grounds:

The buildings at the lower fort are somewhat older [than those of the upper fort]; the one we occupied during our stay there, the residence of the officials, being a stately old mansion with wide verandas, lofty ceilings, heavy, old fashioned furniture, with plenty of brass, even to swinging knobs on the doors, plastered walls painted green, floors bare of every 'thing but skins, and open fireplaces in every room. The stone wall of the fort itself is about twenty years old, three or four feet thick, pierced for small arms, and enclosing four or more acres.3

H.M. Robinson, more familiar with the building, could speak of its almost incongruous beauty in a fur trading post.

Entering through the huge gateway pierced in the centre of the east wall, facing the river, the first view is of the residence of the chief trader in command, and also of the clerks and upper class of employes under his charge. It is a long two-story stone building, with a broad piazza encircling it on three sides. A square plot of green sward surrounding it is fenced in with neat railing, and kept in extremely good order. A broad gravel walk leads from the gateway to the piazza. Huge shade trees border it, and beds of waving and fragrant flowers load the business air with their perfume. In this building the mess of the chief and his subordinates is held. Its hospitalities are extended in good old English style. A room is set apart for the use of the transient guest who is free to come and go as he lists.4

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