Friday, August 16, 2013

Notre Dame Avenue at Victor Street - Jacob Penner Park

© 2013, 2022, Christian Cassidy
Jacob Penner Park

Place: Notre Dame Park / Jacob Penner Park
Address: Notre Dame Avenue at Victor Street (Map)
Established: 1894

Jacob Penner Park, formerly Notre Dame Park, is not one of city's best-known green spaces but it played an important role in the development of Winnipeg's parks system.

October 7, 1893, Winnipeg Tribune

The City of Winnipeg was established on January 1, 1874, and due to the massive population growth in its first couple of decades had trouble keeping up with basic infrastructure such as constructing roads and providing fire protection. "Soft ” municipal services like libraries and parks had to wait in line.

In 1892, a petition with 300 names was presented to city council that demanded the formation of a parks board that would create green spaces and gardens in the rapidly urbanizing city. Grudgingly, city council included the question in a public referendum at that year's civic election and it passed 1,129 to 185.

Thanks to Alderman George Carruthers who pushed council to act on the referendum and and even wrote the city's parks bylaw for them to vote on, the new parks board was established in February 1893.

Edward L. Drewry in 1893, (City of Winnipeg Archives)

The first chairman of the new parks board was brewer Edward Drewry. Edward and his brother Fred were strong advocates of "fresh air spaces" and recreational activities that could be accessed by all citizens.

Edward envisioned numerous smaller public green spaces dotting the city, including near working-class neighbourhoods. For his part, Fred established a system of cycling paths in the 1890s that only in recent years has Winnipeg tried to emulate.

In 1893 – 94, Drewry and his parks board purchased eight pieces of land that would be converted into parks. One of them was this
four-acre site on Notre Dame Avenue between Victor and McGee Streets that cost $4,500. The other sites were what eventually became Fort Rouge Park, Central Park, Victoria Park, St. John's Park, Selkirk Park, Dufferin Park, and St. James Park.

The Notre Dame site was still available for purchase because it was low-lying, swampy and hard to sell to property developers. (Central Park and Fort Rouge Park on River Avenue came about for the same reason.)

David D. England in 1894, (City of Winnipeg Archives)

Also in 1894, the parks board hired its first parks superintendent, David D. England.

Not a lot is known about England's background except that he was originally from Scotland and a gardener by trade. In fact, he publicly corrected politicians and reporters who referred to him as 'parks superintendent' preferring instead the title 'city gardener'.

England set up shop in the south-east corner of the park, which was the least swampy section, and established a greenhouse and experimental garden as he was responsible for growing all of the plants that filled the city's parks and other high profile spaces like city hall square.

Though he foresaw a day when the city's green spaces would be filled with indigenous species of plants, flowers, and grasses, most of his work was dedicated to determining what European species could be grown here.

April 14, 1905, Winnipeg Free Press

A lasting legacy of England's can still be seen on many streets in the city's core.

In the late 1890s, the pressure was on to choose a standard tree to place on the boulevards of the rapidly developing city. England was sent to several cities in the eastern United States and Canada to do his research and by 1900 chose the American Elm for its relatively quick rate of growth and its full canopy.

The city then began issuing tenders for hundreds, then thousands, of elm saplings annually to be delivered to Notre Dame Park from where they would be dispatched and planted around the city by England's crews.

According to England,
when he started with the city there were five miles of trees along its streets and by the end of 1906 there were 20,000 trees along fifty miles of street.

Notre Dame Park, undated postcard

City surveyors were sent in to formally lay out streets, boulevards, water mains and sewers in the area around the park around 1900 and residential development of those lots began around 1904. That was the same year that the park underwent some major improvements.

The swampier parts were drained and 2,000 cartloads of earth were brought to fill them in. This allowed for the addition of public paths, experimental gardens open to the public, and an expansion fo the greenhouse.

Addressing the Parks Board in March 1905, England said,
“...there are thousands of plants and perennials being tested, which make the park very interesting and instructive and hundreds of people go there for no other purpose than to see the trials and the varieties.” 

December 22, 1906, Winnipeg Free Press

England appears to have been respected by the media and groups like the Horticultural Society but there was growing tension between him and the parks board.

One of the most contentious issues was that there was no employee classification for "gardener" at the city.
England constantly chided the board that Winnipeg was one of the only cities in Canada not to recognize the profession and as a result, he had to rely on "general labourers" to make up his crews, some of whom were less than satisfactory workers.

England may have excelled as a gardener, but he was a poor manager. As time went by, the parks board raised issues about employee performance and questionable spending.

At one point, employees leaked to the board that England was doing private consulting on city time. His defence was that he believed part of his duties as city gardener was to provide advice to landowners and groups like the Horticultural Society. He said he didn't take any money for this extra work.

The final straw came in 1906 when a couple of fired employees accused him of making improvements to his personal property using city plants and staff. He denied the charges.

Despite the anger of most board members, as a favour for his years of service he was given an opportunity to resign moments before they voted to dismiss him in December 1906. This allowed him to collect a two-month severance package.

England soon found himself in Victoria for a brief stint as their parks superintendent before moving on to Los Angeles where he did landscaping for private estates. He died in L.A. on June 18, 1929. (For more about England's time in Winnipeg and beyond.)

Notre Dame Park gardens ca. 1922

The greenhouses were moved from Notre Dame Park to Assiniboine Park in the mid-1920s. That corner of the park, though, was still usedd by the city as a works yard and a vehicle garage was added in 1929.

Notre Dame Park nearly disappeared in 1930 after it was chosen as the runner-up site for the city's proposed Public Baths No. 2. The facility would replace the recently closed Cornish Baths and was slated for Sherbrook Street but one of the property owners refused to sell his lot to the city for a reasonable price.

As the city already owned Notre Dame Park, there was no worry about land ownership and construction on the now-delayed project could get started right away.

Some groups, including the Board of Trade, urged the city to go back to the Sherbrook Street property owner and make a final "take it or leave it" offer. They did, and a price was negotiated that both could live with.

Notre Dame Park would live on.

Circa 1947 (source)

With the Sherbrook Pool's construction underway, the city focused on making further improvements to Notre Dame Park. The small playground was expanded and a wading pool was added. One newspaper report said that a thousand children came out for the pool's grand opening on July 2, 1931.

In the 1930s the warehouse became headquarters for the city's mosquito fighting campaign. At the time, mosquito control consisted of a fleet of trucks pouring oil into standing ponds and ditches around the city to kill larvae.

In the decades since, the park has had numerous upgrades but the footprint has remained essentially the same.  

Source: MHS

Notre Dame Park was renamed in honour of Jacob Penner in 2000.

Jacob and Rose Penner came to Canada in 1904 from their native Russia and settled in Winnipeg where they became increasingly concerned with the plight of the city’s poor and working class. Jacob, an accountant by trade, felt that political activism was the best way to achieve improvements. He was a labour organizer during the Winnipeg General Strike and a founder of the Socialist and Communist parties of Canada. 

In 1934, Penner was elected to Winnipeg city council representing Ward 3 (the North End) as a Communist. Even though the position of alderman was part-time, he gave up his job to serve full-time on his $25 per month city salary. He fought for quality, affordable housing, and better treatment of working men and families.

June 12, 1940, Winnipeg Tribune

Penner served until 1940 when he was arrested under Ottawa’s wartime Defense of Canada Regulations for being a “known and dangerous communist” and was interred in a Quebec concentration camp for 22 months.

Upon his release, Penner was re-elected to his old seat and remained on council until he retired in 1961. Another Communist, Joe Zuken, was elected to the seat in the October 1961 election.

Jacob Penner died on August 28, 1965.

May 9, 2000, Winnipeg Free Press

The decision to rename the park wasn't without controversy.

Councillor Garth Steek voted against the renaming and stated that: "If more people like him had been elected we wouldn't be sitting here right now". (Winnipeg Free Press, May 9, 2000)

Winnipeg Free Press editorial writer Tom Oleson connected Penner with atrocities that happened in the former USSR. He wrote: "That he was a communist is without doubt and it is a fact of life that we cannot get around and still maintain any sort of moral integrity". (Winnipeg Free Press, May 13, 2000)

Most realized that it was Penner's community service, not the politics of the former USSR, that was to be honoured and the decision to rename the park passed.

On August 25, 2000, with son Roland Penner in attendance, the park was renamed in a small ceremony. The plaque inside the park reads:
"Jacob Penner, city alderman 1934 - 1962. He dedicated himself to the people of the city he loved so well."

 Jacob Penner Park

In recent years, the park had become run down and it was announced in 20221 that it would receive a $225,000 makeover from the Building Communities Initiative.

The city worked with community groups like the Daniel McIntyre St. Matthews Community Association and Spence Neighbourhood Association to find out what residents wasnted to see in the revamped park.

Jacob Penner Park Renos

Renovations took place in the summer of 2013.

The sod was replaced and new paths and furniture were added. The old tennis court area was turned into a community garden and a basketball half-court. The largest feature to be added was a skateboard park.


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