Sunday, February 21, 2016

793 - 795 Main Street - Craig Block

Place: Craig Block
Address: 795 Main Street (Map)
Built: 1894
Contractor: Unknown
Architect: Unknown

Top: George Craig ca. 1904
Below: March 6, 1896, Manitoba Free Press

The Craig Block at 795 Main Street was constructed in 1894 for merchant George Craig. Born and raised in Ontario, he came to Portage la Prairie in 1881 and established his first store. The following year a second store opened in Brandon. By 1888 he closed both of them to set up shop in Winnipeg.

The George Craig Co. was one of the first and largest department stores in early Winnipeg, located at Main Street and James Avenue. Craig was also a city councillor for a time and dealt in real estate.

Construction of 795 Main was underway in the fall of 1894. An October 27, 1894 Tribune story noted: “The new building being put up by Mr. Craig begins to show as substantial appearance and will assuredly give an improved appearance to the portion of the city in which it is located."

Top: Harrison Bros. 1895. Source U of W Archives, WCPI 21323
Bottom: December 17, 1895, Winnipeg Free Press

Craig did not move his store here, but rather kept it as a rental property. The first retailer to call it home was Rayner and Co. Grocers. By 1898 it was the North End Furniture House. The Harrison Brothers Drug Store occupied it from 1899 to 1902, followed by S. Elliot and Co. Grocers.

The upstairs of the building contained an assembly hall, as can be seen in the 1899 photo above,  and a space that alternated between office space and residences.

In 1911 it began a new life as a restaurant. From 1912 to 1916 it was home to Casivilla Restaurant. In 1916 it was The Rex, a Chinese Food restaurant.

Top: Maier Calof ca. 1940s (source)
Bottom: December 20, 1925, Winnipeg Tribune

In 1917 it became home to the Provincial Produce Company, a fruit retailer and wholesaler.

The company was founded by Maier Calof who came to Manitoba in 1879, eventually opening a grocery store in Winkler. By 1907 he was in Winnipeg and the proprietor of a grocery store on Machray, then a livestock feed store on Selkirk Avenue which he expanded to Aikins at Stella. After a brief foray into the hotel business in Alberta he returned to his family in Winnipeg founded Provincial Produce in April 1917. (For more about his life, check out his autobiography.)

In the 1920s the main floor hosted both the fruit store as well as a lunch counter under the address of 723 Main.

It is unclear who owned the building at this time. When the store first opened, at least, Calof was just leasing it.

In 1922 - 23 the upstairs became home to the offices and meeting hall of the Order of Sleeping Car Porters. Locally organized, it may be the first black union in North America. (This independent union was incorporated in 1917, whereas the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was was created in New York City in 1925.)  

It was joined by the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a U.S. based organization and the manager of the short-lived Railway Porters' Band of Winnipeg, said to be the largest "colored band" in Western Canada. A hall upstairs alternated as a meeting space and practice area for the band.

In 1932 the Porters' Social and Charitable Association was created and it ran the hall.

Circa 2012

The building became a hub for the city's porters, who at the time made up the vast majority of the city's black population. (Porters may have been using the upstairs earlier than 1922, though not listed in the Henderson Directory.  An August 1920 Tribune article notes that a number of black men were arrested at an illegal "gambling house" at this address.)

As the 1920s wore on, Maier's health began to suffer and at least two of his sons, Rockmil and Abram, took larger roles at the store. In 1928, Provincial Produce moved to a newly built warehouse on "Fruit Row", a nickname for Ross Avenue. After the move Maier sold the business and relocated to California.

Outside 795 Main in 1940. (Photo source)

by 1929 the main floor space became home to a number of businesses catering to the black community. One was the Unity Pool Hall, which had a lunch counter that was sometimes went under a different name, (Betty's, Carl's, Union Lunch Bar.). There was also the Sanitary Barber Shop. 

The building was truly now a one-stop shop for porters living in, or stopping over in, the city.

For the first few years of operation, the The Henderson Directory doesn't list  proprietor for the pool hall. Perhaps it was an investment by the Order of Sleeping Car Porters, which was actually a private company.

In 1949 the owner of the Unity Pool Room is John Nealy who resided at  220 Selkirk Avenue. In 1952 the name changed to the Liberty Pool Room, owned jointly by Lawrence Lewsey, Lionel West and Edward Bailey. (Lewsey was also a local musician and porter.) In 1960 the Liberty Pool Room and Lunch was owned by Emma Bowen.

There was a big change to the building's tenants in 1961.

The union left offices relocated, leaving only the Porters Charitable and Social Association upstairs. In years to come, the name of the organization was changed to the Colored Peoples' Social and Charitable Association and remained in that space until at least 1987.

In 1962 the pool room became Fern's Lunch, run by Mrs. R Maksymyk. By 1965 John and Ann Barbolak were the proprietors.
Fern's closed down in 1972.

Since the, the retail space has been home to Farmers' Supply Ltd. and Dimensional Plastics. In 2014 the building was renovated and is now home to Ma's Fishing and Sporting Goods.

More Canadian Railway Porter History
- George Beckford article Winnipeg Free Press
- North of the Colour Line: Sleeping Car Porters and the Battle Against Jim Crow on Canadian Rails, 1880-1920
- The Road Taken - NFB Film

West End Dumplings posts for Black History MonthPercy Haynes
Jesse Owens at Osborne Stadium 
Duke Ellington, Omar Williams and their 1946 Banning Street jam session
Behind the Photo: Railway Porters' Band of Winnipeg
Recipe for Success (more on Percy Haynes in the Winnipeg Free Press)

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