Monday, November 16, 2015

342 Nairn Avenue - Chalmers Blacksmiths

Written January 1915,-97.11066,3a,75y,184.25h,80.97t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sh7y1Z6PaC4eo6ftNy7fB_g!2e0

Place: Chalmers Blacksmiths / Chalmers Auto, Truck and Body Works
Address: 342 Nairn Avenue (Map)
Constructed: 1917*, 1946
Architect: unknown

Top: February 10, 1922, Winnipeg Tribune
Bottom: October 31, 1912, Winnipeg Free Press

This building, near the northern foot of the Louise Bridge, was the long-time home to the shop and residence of James Chalmers. A blacksmith by trade, he came to Winnipeg from the Orkney Islands in 1909 with wife Mary (Mainland) and children Barbara, Isabella and Jim. He opened a small blacksmiths yard, expanding it in 1910 to 342 Nairn Avenue.

The asterisk next to the 1917 date of construction that appears on the city tax rolls is because, as you will see below, I found three instances where the building should have been destroyed by fire: 1918, 1933 and 1946. This structure may have been an outbuilding on the larger Chalmers site that managed to survive, or perhaps a 1917 building moved to the site after the fire(s).

Riverside Hotel Fire, Elmwood, Feb 5, 1918
Nairn Avenue ca 1918

At the time of the Chalmers' arrival in 1909, Elmwood was booming. It had voted to join the city of Winnipeg in 1908 because it wanted "big city services" such as full-time fire and police services, as well as a streetcar line. Nairn Avenue at the foot of the Louise Bridge became a hub of the community with numerous retail buildings, banks, two hotels, residences and a commercial boat dock.

A January 1910 Tribune column about Elmwood notes that "James Chalmers, blacksmith, is another Elmwood business man who finds it necessary to enlarge his premises in order to keep up with the growing trade of the district." 

The Chalmers family lived next to the shop at 338 Nairn (now demolished.)

November 2, 1913, Winnipeg Tribune

Both James and the shop had a number of close calls over the years.

The first came in October 1913 when James was shot in the leg by a fellow business owner and spent weeks recovering in hospital. F. J. Wellwood, a firewood and coal merchant with depots around the city including one in Elmwood, was showing Chalmers a gun that he had bought for protection against the growing number of robberies at his business. The gun discharged.

The Tribune reported on the story a few days after the incident due to rumours swirling around the tight-knit community about what "really" happened that day.

December 13, 1946, Winnipeg Free Press

Fires were a fact of life for a blacksmith shop.

The first fire to impact the business was the deadly Riverview Hotel blaze, located just a couple of doors away. In February 1918 a fire started in the hotel's kitchen. Fuelled by strong winds and with firemen hampered by the cold weather, there were soon eight separate fires along that stretch of Nairn that damaged or destroyed a number of buildings. Chalmers' shop likely would have been among them given its proximity to the hotel.

A December 1946 fire that started in the shop destroyed it and a neighbouring two-storey block. The exact cause was never determined. Hurt in the blaze was daughter Barbara who suffered first degree burns to her arm and face. 

The following month Beaver Construction began construction on a new shop.(Again, this may have been a garage or other outbuilding on the site that survived.)

Top: May 13, 1929, Winnipeg Tribune
Bottom: March 36, 1938, Winnipeg Tribune

Chalmers was a long-time member of the Manitoba Association of Blacksmiths, serving as its president in the early 1920s. It was a time of great transition for the industry as their traditional work of shoeing horses, making fences and repairing carriages was disappearing. Chalmers reported, though, that most of its members were doing well as many shops had introduced welding to their operations and got into the business of repairing automobiles and bodywork. 

Chalmers was one of those innovators. In the 1920s the company relocated to a defunct appliance manufacturing shop at 382 Nairn, on the east side of the LaSalle hotel, and formally changed its name to Chalmers Auto, Truck and Body Work. 

A January 10, 1933 Tribune story notes that property that Chalmers originally occupied was part of the Banfiled Estate that still had to be settled, so all of the buildings were sitting empty. That day, a fire destroyed "structure formerly occupied by the Chalmers Body Works."

The estate must have been settled later that year and a new building built, as later in 1933 Chalmers was advertizing his location as 342 Nairn and making a name for themselves as the makers of delivery vehicle bodies for the likes of Eatons and a number of dairies, breweries and ice cream companies.

Barbara Shepherd

Chalmers' daughter Barbara was a fixture at the business. She began working at the shop as a young woman, eventually managing the business side of things, while her father worked the shop floor. (Chalmers had anywhere from six to ten employees in a given year.) Barbara married Harry Shepherd and for a time they lived at the Chalmers residence at 338 Nairn.

Chalmers' in-laws were also involved with the shop. The Mainlands came from the Orkney Islands around the same time as Mary Anne but settled in Saskatchewan to farm. Archie Mainland worked there starting in 1942 and William in 1947. Both of these men, I believe, were cousins to Mary and worked there until the shop closed in 1978.

September 20, 1961, Winnipeg Free Press

James Chalmers retired in the 1950s and died in September 1961. The business continued under Barbara until 1978. She died in 1993.

Since the 1980s the building has been home to a number of auto-related businesses, including Andrushko Auto Body and Complete Auto and Radiators. Since 2007 it has been home to Pro-Fab Sunrooms. The mural on the west wall of the building was painted in 2008.

June 24, 1939, Winnipeg Free Press (best quality image I could get)


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