Friday, February 12, 2021

284 William Avenue - Former Winnipeg Saddlery

 © 2021, Christian Cassidy

Place: Former Winnipeg Saddlery
Address: 284 William Avenue
Constructed: 1903 - 04
Architect: James Cadham

Note: This building is currently boarded up and expected to be demolished soon due to foundation issues.

Wright in 1874 (City of Winnipeg Archives)

The roots of Winnipeg Saddlery date back to the late 1860s.

Archibald Wright was born in Scotland and came to Manitoba in 1869. He invested in a saddle and harness making business that one historic newspaper article claims was the second commercial manufacturing enterprise in the Red River settlement after James Ashdown's tin shop. He was on the city's inaugural city councils in 1874 and 1875.

Like most businessmen of his era, Wright purchased land when he could, particularly around his shop at Main and William. As the area transformed into the city's heart boasting its city hall and public market, some of it was on land he once owned.

Wright was also an original investor in the the Leland Hotel, which was built on his land and in 1885 sold a 2,000 acre farm hoe owned on the Assiniboine River, likely near present-day Maryland Street, for $130 per acre.

Wright & Van Vliet, second building from left, ca. 1900 (City of Winnipeg Archives)

Thomas Van Vliet was born in Lacolle, Quebec in 1856. He came to Winnipeg in 1879 and soon began work at the Wright and Arbuckle harness and tackle shop on Main Street next to city hall. By 1890, he had gone into partnership with Archibald Wright and the firm was renamed Wright and Van Vliet at the new address of 284 William Avenue.

When the Leland Hotel Co. was reorganized in 1894, Van Vliet became one of its 12 investors along with Wright.

Van Vliet was then ready to settle down. He married Catherine Smith of Chatham, Ontario in 1895 and initially the couple moved into the Leland. By 1900, they had started a family and lived at 328 Edmonton Street off Central Park. In 1912, they moved again to 86 Balmoral Place. The Van Vliets had three children: Lyman, (who became a track star), William, and Dorothy.

September 12, 1903, Winnipeg Free Press

Business must have been good in this prominent location just off the city's market square as the company hired architect James Cadham in 1903 to design a new, five-storey, $35,000 building on the site. The entire structure would be dedicated to the saddlery with floors for retail, manufacturing, and warehousing.

While under construction in January 1904, a worker named William Beckett of 307 Alexander Avenue was taken serious ill. He was working on the fourth floor unloading goods from a hoist when he was stricken with "severe case of cramps". Newspapers didn't go into detail about what exactly happened, but Beckett, who appears to have been a saddlery employee helping out with construction work, died not long after being rushed to hospital.

The remainder of the construction appears to have taken place without incident.

July 19, 1904, Winnipeg Free Press

The building was completed in July 1904 and reopened under a new name: Winnipeg Saddlery. The partners were Archibald Wright, Thomas Van Vliet, James H Billington, and Thomas Billington.

Business was good at Winnipeg Saddlery as it helped supply those opening up the Western provinces for settlement. A government figure published in the Free Press shows that the value of harness and saddlery production in Manitoba in 1901 was $94,398 and had nearly quadrupled to $371,500 in 1906.

The company did business with the city and provided saddles and other prizes for Winnipeg's big horse shows and various horse racing events.

That thriving business came to a sudden halt on December 13, 1906 when the building suffered a major fire.

December 14, 1906, Winnipeg Free Press

At around 11 o clock in the morning a boy on the fourth floor of the building walked on a match that had fallen on the floor. He ended up striking it, which set fire to fibres on the floor and a stack of sweat pads next to it.

James Billington, the manager for that area, noticed the fire and called for the staff to run for their lives. It spread so quickly through the floor and beyond via the two open elevator shafts that the 19 men and two boys on the fourth and fifth floors of the building could only go up and escape to the roof through a skylight. They then climbed to a neighbouring building's roof to safety.

Billington was held up when he stopped to help a one-legged employee. By the time he made it to the top floor, flames had blocked his path to the skylight. He had to break a window and hang from the ledge until fire fighters rescued him.

The ledge was just nine inches wide and frozen with snow and ice. At times, Billington couldn't be seen from the sidewalk through the thick smoke billowing from the window above him. It was considered a miracle that he held on long enough to be rescued.

December 15, 1906, Winnipeg Free Press

The fire shone a spotlight on an issue the city spent much of 1906 trying to tackle.

Earlier that year, it toughened up its fire escape bylaw which stated that buildings taller than three floors needed an external fire escape attached to it. Building inspectors stepped up their enforcement but many building owners fought it, as they did most fire regulations the city has ever introduced. In this case, commercial building owners argued that nobody slept overnight in their buildings which meant fire escapes, only needed of ten or so hours a day, were an unfair cost.

It was reported that by September 1906 there were still 61 properties that still weren't in compliance - including Winnipeg Saddlery. In October, the company was given a third warning to comply within 30 days with a toothless "or else".

More owners fell in line after this Winnipeg Saddlery fire as it proved that even during daytime hours a deadly fire could happen. In 1907, even the school division revisited its plans to add fire escapes to its school building and by the end of the year had put out a call for tenders.

Damage estimates for the fire vary between $35,000 and $50,000, most of which was to stock and covered by insurance.

Ca. 1912, winterbos on Flickr

Though the building is currently only two storeys tall, it was not the fire of 1906 that brought the upper floors down. The photo above from around 1912, (note the Confederation Life Building under construction in the background), shows that it was rebuilt. According to the City of Winnipeg's historic building report on 284 William, the top three floors were removed in 1962 after structural issues.

The main floor frontage seen today with the large display windows was constructed in the early 1930s.

Winnipeg Saddlery carried on for decades to come. In 1912, Archibald Wright died. In 1931, Van Vliet died at his Balmoral Place home and the business was run by A. M. Bannerman who expanded it to include luggage repairs and small farm supplies.

Around 1945, Bannerman, an agronomist, split the business into two divisions: Farm Equipment and Seed Ltd. and Winnipeg Saddlery Ltd. In 1949, J. Jones and Son took over the harness and luggage side of the business.

Farm Machinery closed around 1955 and the building appears to have sat empty until 1958 when Samuel and Abraham Dreman took it over as a wholesale clearing store until at least 1964 when digitized street directories run out.

The Dreman's may have been there much longer as small classified ads for an unnamed business at this address regularly advertised discount, unclaimed, and factory return clothing such as pants, men's suits, children's wear, jeans for sale until the early 1990s.

Since that time, the building has sat largely vacant. The odd short term tenant like Outlaw Books or art show installations have taken place there. According to the city's historic buildings report, the foundation issues that led to the removal of the top floors was never repaired and the second floor of the building could not be used.

In 2012, the building was partially boarded up and the owner received a notice that the building needed to be properly secured and have a boarded building permit to be in compliance with the Vacant Building Bylaw.

284 William City of Winnipeg Historic Buildings Committee

Here's a story written by Lillian Gibbons for the Tribune in 1934 about Mrs. Archibald Wright that gives a sense of what pioneer life was like. To see the full view, you'll have to right click and "view image":

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