Sunday, February 21, 2016

793 - 795 Main Street - Craig Block

© 2016, Christian Cassidy
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. This was followed by a second store in Brandon the following year. By 1888, he closed both of them in order to set up shop in Winnipeg.

The George Craig Co., located at Main Street and James Avenue, was one of the first and largest department stores in early Winnipeg.

Construction of this building at 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."

Craig was also a city councillor for a time and dealt in real estate.
Top: Harrison Bros. 1895. Source U of W Archives, WCPI 21323
Bottom: December 17, 1895, Winnipeg Free Press

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

Starting in 1912 the retail space was home to a restaurant. From 1912 to 1916 it was the Casivilla Restaurant and by 1916 was The Rex, a Chinese food joint.

The upstairs of the Craig Block contained a small assembly hall / warehouse and a space that alternated between offices and a residential suite.

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

The Provincial Produce Company, a fruit retailer and wholesaler, moved in by 1917.

The company was founded by Maier Calof who came to Manitoba in 1879 and soon opened a grocery store in Winkler. By 1907, he was in Winnipeg and the proprietor of a grocery store on Machray Avenue, then a livestock feed store on Selkirk Avenue which he later expanded to Aikins Street at Stella.

After a brief foray into the hotel business in Alberta, Calof returned to Winnipeg founded and Provincial Produce in April 1917. (For more about Calof.)

In the 1920s the main floor hosted both retail section of the produce business and a lunch counter under the address of 723 Main. The upstairs served as the

It is unclear who owned the building during this time. When the produce business first opened it was just being leased by Calof, likely from Craig.

The Craig Block began its long association with Winnipeg's Black community in the 1920s.

In 1922, with Provincial Produce still on the main floor, the upstairs became home to the offices and meeting hall of the Order of Sleeping Car Porters. Locally organized, some believe it to be North America's first Black union. (It was incorporated in 1917, whereas the better remembered Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was created in New York City in 1925.)

The union voted to walk off the job during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. The CNR responded by advertising for new porters in early June.

As for the CPR,
A. T. H. Ransom, the union's general secretary, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Western Labour News on June 6, 1919, it was "...bringing into Canada Colored men from the United States with the understanding that they are to be used on dining cars as waiters and as sleeping car porters for extra summer service.". He reminded readers that "... all porters other than those running through Winnipeg from outside points, such as Montreal and Toronto, are strike breakers."

The union is not mentioned in street directories before setting up shop in the Craig Block, so it likely did not have a home outside of the shop floor. (Though a
n August 1920 Winnipeg Tribune article notes that a number of Black men were arrested at an illegal "gambling house" at this address, so there may have been some informal association.)

At the time the 
Order of Sleeping Car Porters opened their office in the Craig Block its president was Charles E. Johnson of 2-256 Jarvis Street and Ella M. Burns of 3-213 1/2 Jarvis Street was the secretary.

Outside 795 Main in 1940. (Photo source)

The union was soon joined by the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a U.S. based organization. Also, the short-lived Railway Porters' Band of Winnipeg, said to be the largest "coloured band" in Western Canada, also called the building home with its upstairs hall acting as its practice space.

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. Soon after the move, Maier sold the business and relocated to California.

It is likely the building was sold to the union or an affiliated organization as starting in 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 sometimes went under a different name, (Betty's, Carl's, Union Lunch Bar.). There was also the Sanitary Barber Shop.

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

The upstairs hall in a ca. 2020 photograph

The Porters' Social and Charitable Association was created in 1932 and it took over the management of the upstairs hall and likely the pool hall downstairs as for its first dozen years of operation there is no proprietor listed for the hall listed in street directories.

That changed in 1949 when the owner of the Unity Pool Room was John Nealy who resided at  220 Selkirk Avenue. In 1952, the name of the business changed to changed to the Liberty Pool Room which was 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.

Another organization that used the hall certainly in the 1930s and likely beyond was Regent Lodge No. 5. It was a branch of Minnesota's Prince Hall Lodge, the Black division of the Masons.

Craig Block, ca. 2012

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

The union 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 in 1972.

Since then, the retail space has been home to Farmers' Supply Ltd. and Dimensional Plastics. The building was renovated in 2014 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

For more of my blog posts celebrating the history of Manitoba's Black community.


  1. this was a cool find! Lawrence Lewsey was my grandfather and Im happy to learn more about him. Thank You

  2. Wow, what a wonderful addition to my family history. John Nealy was my grandfather!