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

The Big House, Lower Fort Garry

by George Ingram

A Retreat for Chief Commissioners

In 1879, Chief Commissioner James A. Grahame took over part of the house and moved his family there for the summer (giving substance to Robert Hamilton's charge that Grahame was planning this as early as 1875). His family came from Montreal in the spring and remained until September. In 1880, he did the same after ordering extensive renovations. In taking up quarters in the Big House for the summer months, Grahame set a trend which was followed by later commissioners. Their official home was situated in Winnipeg, but the house, constructed in the last years of Grahame's period as commissioner, was uncomfortable and a cause of constant complaint. The Big House provided a gracious retreat at least for part of the year.

Grahame's successor, Joseph Wrigley, took an equal interest in the lower fort and the Big House.1 Soon after he became trade commissioner in 1884, he inspected the fort in connection with an offer by the provincial government to buy the buildings and land. He recommended that the Company retain the fort and probably began to use the house soon afterward. There is record of his being there in the summers of 1888, 1889 and 1890. Wrigley and Grahame probably used much the same area (the main house) as C.C. Chipman and his family later occupied. The annex and possibly the adjacent room in the Big House were inhabited by the clerk or officer in charge of the fort.2

Clarence Campbell Chipman, who assumed the duties of trade commissioner after Wrigley, took an even greater interest in the fort and made the most extensive use of the house.3 His interest prolonged the life of the lower fort as a Hudson's Bay Company post, for as long as he maintained his summer residence there, Chipman argued against closing down the retail shop.

Each spring in preparation for the Chipmans' arrival, extensive work would be done to the house and grounds. The annual painting and plastering and the occasional extensive alteration indicate that the house was kept in good repair. During the Chipmans' summer occupancy, the house was a centre of social activity. The Chipman family itself must have given the house a carefree air and Chipman seems to have entertained there frequently.

C. C. Chipman's son, Hamilton Chipman, wrote an account of their life in the house at the lower fort.

The interior of the Residence was very different then from its present layout. The side facing south was occupied by the Stangers the year round and was partitioned off from our quarters. To the left of the main entrance was our drawing room — to the right the dining room, behind which was the kitchen, and adjoining the dining room the "schoolroom" where my sisters spent an hour or two daily with their governess. Upstairs were the sleeping quarters. I don't remember how many rooms there were but I do know that one was reserved as a guest room and there was accommodation for my mother and father, my sisters and their governess, the cook, a maid, my brother and me.

When extra guests arrived the school room was converted into a bedroom and my brother and I and our young friends slept in the hayloft, fully dressed except for our boots . . . .

Our family and friends were surprisingly comfortable in spite of a noticeable lack of modern conveniences. We had no hot and cold running water. Plumbing was primitive and there was no electric lighting. When darkness came, oil lamps were lit and guests, lamp in hand, mounted the stairs to the rooms assigned them by my mother. Each bedroom contained a bed, a chair, a mirror and a washstand on which was a basin and an iron pitcher filled with rain water. (The river water was far too muddy to use and besides was "hard as a rock.") The supply of rain water was replenished daily from barrels placed under the eavestroughs. The water had to be strained through netting for the barrels contained a multitude of "wrigglers" as we called the mosquito larvae. At times our stock of rain water ran short. Then the rumble of an approaching thunder storm was music to my mother's ear, and tubs, buckets and pots of all sizes were rushed out to catch the rain.

Guests were numerous during my father's twenty years tenure of office. I still have my mother's visitors' book and in it are the signatures of many of those who spent a day or more at the Lower Fort.

The name of Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper, one time Prime Minister of Canada, appears on one of its pages, and those of Sir William Van Horne and Sir Sandford Fleming of Canadian Pacific Railway fame. Lord Strathcona, the Earl of Lichfield, Sir Thomas Skinner and Sir Robert Kindersley have inscribed their names in the book. These four were Governors or Deputy Governors of the Hudson's Bay Company. Three Lieutenant-Governors of Manitoba, Sir Daniel McMillan, Sir Douglas Cameron and Sir James Aikins, were guests at the Lower Fort, as was Archbishop Matheson.

It was at Lower Fort Garry that I first met the Reverend Charles W. Gordon whose novels published under the pen name of "Ralph Connor" were best sellers for many years. Then there was W. H. Drummond, the "Habitant Poet," who read us a number of his poems in the French-Canadian vernacular of which he was a master. One visitor appealed particularly to the younger members of our family. He was a tall man, dramatic in speech and gesture, who could imitate the whistle of a gopher, the chatter of a squirrel and the notes of birds with amazing fidelity. I still treasure one of his books entitled ANIMAL HEROES. On the flypage is the inscription "C. C. Chipman with kind regards of Ernest Seton Thompson."

These guests might be described as occasional visitors. The regulars were the more intimate friends of my parents, all residents of Winnipeg, the J. B. Persses, the Walter T. Kirbys, the H. N. Ruttans, the A. J. Andrews and Colonel Evans of the Strathcona Horse — to name a few of many.

There was no set program of entertainment. Those invited seemed quite content to laze around in the sunshine, lolling in hammocks or sprawling in deck chairs. The men had their pipes or cigars; the ladies nibbled chocolates, with the latest novel of Marie Corelli or Hall Caine to entertain them. They didn't indulge in cigarettes for in those days women who smoked in public were regarded as being a trifle "fast." As the evening shadows lengthened, family and guests would seat themselves along the river bank and watch the Red River flowing silently and swiftly northward. At times the surface was smooth as glass, a moment later it would be broken into a score of circles as fish rose to strike at the mayflies fluttering aimlessly across the water. And on both sides of the river, whip-poorwills called to each other, their clear notes softened by the distance.4

6 In the early 1880s, this small group, possibly F. W. Holloway and his family, was photographed on the front veranda of the then somewhat dilapidated Big House. (Hudson's Bay Company, Winnipeg.)

Chipman goes on to tell of a visit of Lord and Lady Minto for a luncheon at the fort in 1904 and a later visit of Earl Grey who succeeded Lord Minto as Governor General. C. C. Chipman attracted guests not only as the commissioner of the Hudson's Bay Company but also through his earlier relationship with Tupper and other high government officials.

In 1911, Chipman retired and in the same year the accounts of the retail shop were wound up as the Hudson's Bay Company closed its operations at the lower fort. The closing must have been abrupt for Chipman had undertaken extensive alterations of the house in the previous year.

Two years after the retail shop closed, the fort buildings and grounds were leased for a nominal sum to the Winnipeg Motor Country Club which occupied the fort for the following 50 years. The Big House served as the clubhouse where the bar, dining rooms, ball room and staff rooms were located. It was the focal point of the club and one of the social centres of the Winnipeg area.

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