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Monday 1 April 2024

Manitoba's WWI Fallen: Joseph Andrew Bright McClure of Winnipeg

© 2024, Christian Cassidy

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, I am working on a series of blog posts and radio shows that will look at some of the Manitobans who died in action. For more about this project and links to other posts, follow this link.

March 22, 1918, Winnipeg Free Press

Joseph Andrew Bright McClure lived at 900 Aikins Street with his wife Gertrude and their three young children. The family relocated to suite 20 Acadia Apartments at 590 Victor Street just before he enlisted.

McClure, 40, went missing in action during the Battle of Vimy Ridge on August 21, 1917. His remains were never found and he was declared dead the following March.

McClure is commemorated at the Canadian Vimy Memorial in Pas de Calais, France. As he worked at the executive offices of the Bank of Commerce in Winnipeg, his name appears on the roll of honour in the entrance of the former Bank of Commerce headquarters (now Millennium Centre) in downtown Winnipeg.


Attestation papers

The Purcer Brothers of Wardlaw Avenue in World War I

 © 2024, Christian Cassidy

May 16, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune

I've written many stories about those who died in the First World War. Here is the story of the Purcer family whose three sons all served and survived.

Charles and Fannie Purcer and their three grown sons, William, John "Jack", and Garson, lived together at 388 Wardlaw Street at the start of the war. Charles and his brother Watson co-owned a local building company where William and John worked as bricklayers. Garson was a steamfitter.

The three Purcer boys were involved in the war effort. William, (born 1883), was the first to enlist in September 1915, followed by Jack, (born 1885), who enlisted in February 1916. Garson, (born 1888), was drafted into service near the end of the war in May 1918.

Garson Purcer recruitment papers

The family left the Wardlaw Avenue home after William and Jack enlisted. It appears that the parents moved back to the Ottawa area where they were originally from.

Garson moved in with his married sister, Mrs. Margaret Buttler of 5 Acadia Court, and it was from there that he was drafted. The brothers already in the service changed their home addresses with the war office to Acadia Apartments. 590 Victor Street.

Jack was wounded on two occasions with shrapnel to the eye and a gunshot wound to his left side. Both times he was treated and returned to action. Garson was drafted so late in the war that he only made it as far as England and suffered no injuries or illness.

The brother who paid the heaviest price was William Purcer.

According to a brief Winnipeg Tribune story a few days after he enlisted, William was on his way to his job as a maintenance man at a department store one morning when he read about the mass rape and murder of Armenian women by the Turks in what is referred to today as the Armenian Genocide. He was so moved that by the time he arrived at work he informed his boss that he was enlisting, picked up his tools, and went to a recruitment office.

Purcer did his basic training at Camp Hughes near Brandon, Manitoba. He arrived in England in October 1915 and was in France by April 1916. He was wounded three times during his service.

In September 1916 Purcer received a gunshot wound to the head at the Battle of the Somme, Belgium, and spent months recovering in a British hospital before being discharged back to service in November with "small metallic fragments" in his scalp.  In May 1917 he was back in hospital with a gunshot wound to the chest and again recovered and was sent back to the front.

Purcel spent five days in hospital in September 1917 with a case of scabies. The following month, he "reported sick in France with severe pains in his knees, ankles, hips and shin bones" that was later determined to be rheumatism. While in England receiving treatment for that condition he came down with a case of the bacterial infection trench fever.

Purcell spent the next eight months or so in various hospitals and convalescent homes in England. In May 1918, he was transferred to No. 5 Canadian Hospital in Liverpool and the decision was made on June 26, 1918 to invalid him back to Canada.

The only high points in Purcer's military file is that he was awarded two gold bars for his injuries and three weeks before the decision to discharge him he went AWOL for a day and got drunk. (He was penalized two days of pay but was later admonished.)

Purcer's discharge forms listed suite 5 of Acadia Court as the address he would settle at, but he first made a stop at Ottawa to visit his recently widowed mother and to hopefully see Garson who was in basic training at Brockville, Ontario.

By September, Purcell was back in Winnipeg as he received his medical board exam on September 18th. It found no lingering effects with the head or chest injuries, just the rheumatism and a case of flat feet, the latter was something he had before the war but were made worse during is time in service.

The report concluded that though he could only return to his previous occupation "to a limited extent", Purcer was fit enough for light military duty back in Canada should the need arise. As the end of the war was just weeks away, he was never called on.

May 25, 1939 Winnipeg Tribune and Find a Grave

The Purcer family split up after the war.

Neither Jack nor Garson appear in Winnipeg street directories after the war. Jack died at Toronto in 1935 at the age of 49. Garson lived for a time in Detroit and died at Ottawa in 1949 at the age of 60.

William Purcer only appears in one edition of a Winnipeg street directory after the war; in 1930 as a bricklayer living in a rooming house at 370 Langside Street. He died at Deer Lodge Hospital, Winnipeg's military convalescent hospital, on May 23, 1939 at the age of 55 and is buried in the Field of Honour at Brookside Cemetery.

Saturday 9 March 2024

Another week - more historic buildings lost to fire

© 2024, Christian Cassidy

Google Street View

Another week has passed and a couple more substantial buildings have been destroyed by fire.

On Tuesday, Glenora Apartments on Toronto Street and last night the Guest Block on Main Street, (the middle building in the above photo). These weren't the only fires this week, just the largest buildings destroyed.

I'm gonna be an uppity inner-city person here and ask the question 'when do these fires raise a flag with politicians, police, etc?'

We are well past the point of it being the odd vacant house going up in flames. Over the past couple of years, substantial and inhabited buildings have gone up in flames every couple of weeks and that span seems to be getting shorter.

I can't imagine that if this was happening in St. James or East Kildonan or St. Boniface it would be greeted with what seems like just a shrug.

I'm not sure what can be done but could there be a meeting of officials to discuss ideas or if resources could be redeployed. Do we know if there are dozens of random people lighting fires annually or are we talking about a couple of firebugs responsible?

This is not normal and I don't get a sense that people in charge share that feeling or a sense that something must be done.

This isn't helped by the fact that when a big fire happens, the media will cover it because it is a great news story and the city will issue a release to warn about the traffic implications. Rarely will you ever get a follow-up story about the cause of the fire.

Are some of these fires down to wiring issues, as most tend to be century-old buildings, or is it arson? It is hard to tell.

For more about the history of the Guest Block.

Sunday 3 March 2024

Opening Soon: Portage and Main

Portage and Main, 1979, by Hugh Allan (City of Winnipeg Archives)

It looks as if Portage and Main will reopen after all.

I've done several skywalk tours of Winnipeg that end at Portage and Main with a discussion about its history and future. Whenever I am asked about it still being closed to pedestrians, I always say that when the cost to repair the concourse becomes known, it will reopen.

The issue of the pending redevelopment came up several times during the plebiscite debate but it got so emotional and divisive that it was largely ignored in favour of what's going to happen right now.

I haven't read the details of what the $73 million estimate entails but it seems much of it has to do with the cost of tearing up the road to replace the membrane above the concourse. Then there will be the often out-of-service escalators and wheelchair elevators that will need to be replaced. The lighting, electrical and tiles are also more than 40 years old.

Above ground are the street access points, most of which are crumbling and none of which are wheelchair accessible. (The city got around this by issuing the building permits for the concourse months before introducing sweeping accessibility regulations for new buildings.)

Deciding against replacing the membrane will mean abandoning(?) or filling in(?) the concourse which is a surprise. Even the most ardent supporters of opening the intersection, I think, assumed that above and below grade would both be options.

As for me, I support opening the intersection to pedestrian traffic. Like it or not, the downtown is transforming into a much more residential neighbourhood with thousands of new units being added over the past couple of decades.

One-time office buildings like the Avenue, Lindsay, Somerset, Dreman, Medical Arts, are now all residential. Many of the warehouses in the Exchange have at least some residential component to them. The recently-opened tallest building in the city is mostly residential as is one of the True North towers. A new residential development at the Forks slated for later this decade will continue on the work already done on Waterfront Drive and if/when Portage Place gets redeveloped, a residential tower will likely be part of it.

The future of downtown, and not just Winnipeg's, is not in new retail or office space, it is residential. As this becomes a bigger part of the picture, the city has to think about things like walkability, trees, parks, etc. and not just how to get traffic to and from the suburbs as quickly as possible.

Here's a look at vehicles and people sharing the intersection from back in 1958!
Seven stories about Portage and Main West End Dumplings

Friday 1 March 2024

Farewell to 244 Jarvis Street

 © 2024, Christian Cassidy

The burning down of the North End continues, this time with 244 Jarvis Street.

The building was home to Chaim and Mordecai Weidman’s Weidman Bros. wholesale grocery business from the time of its construction in ca. 1910 to 1967.

It appears the family may have owned that land prior to this as there is a Weidman residence and a Weidman Scrap Metal at 230 and 232 Jarvis Street (or sometimes just listed as Jarvis and King) dating back to at least 1900. By 1908, it became "Weidman and Co. Grocers and Scrap Metal" which is an interesting combination of businesses.

In Alan Levine's 2012 feature in the Winnipeg Free Press titled "The Jews of Manitoba, the centre of its own diaspora", he describes the brothers as being among the first wave of Russian Jews to come to Manitoba in the early 1880s and, "They went from working as labourers to becoming, within a few decades, successful entrepreneurs and leaders of the Jewish community."

October 6, 1923, Winnipeg Tribune

Over the decades, the Weidmans distributed everything from Van Dyck cigars to Canada Dry in Winnipeg. They also packaged specialty products like spices under their own name.

In 1966, the company built a new, 50,000 square foot warehouse in the Inkster Industrial Park at 60 Bunting Street and left the north end. By 1971, it recorded $13 million in sales.

The company remained family-run. In the 1960s, John P. Weidman, a son of Mordecai, was president of the company. When he died in 1971, Donald Weidman took over. Bert Weidman, the company's board chairman, died in 1972.

Source: eBay

National food conglomerate J. M. Schneider Ltd. bought a 51% stake in Weidman Brothers in 1971.

The following year it purchased the remaining 49%. Weidman was then merged with another Schneider acquisition, A and A Frozen Foods of Winnipeg, and the company became Schneiders' regional distribution wing for its products.

Imperial Soap and Supplies, a janitorial supply company, moved into the building circa 1968.

According to the company's website, the firm has been around since 1963 when Ernest Tessler and Leonard Paul purchased the existing Imperial Soap on Logan Avenue and moved it to Provencher Boulevard.

Imperial Soap moved to a larger facility on Inskter Boulevard in 2003.

Most recently, a carpenter had been renting the building to house her cabinetry building. the fire began in a neighbouring building and spread to 244 Jarvis and both buildings and her business have been destroyed.

The building has had fires before the one that destroyed it in February 2024. There were smaller ones in 1923 and 1933, then a massive two-alarm blaze in May 1947.

The 1947 blaze started on the main floor and moved up the staircase to gut the second and third floor and cause the roof to collapse.

Tuesday 27 February 2024

Farewell to 149 Spence Street

149 Spence in 2015 (Google Street View)

It is sad to see that 149 Spence Street burned down, even though it was vacant and set for demolition to make way for an apartment block.

It must have been quite the house in its day as it was advertised for sale at $8,000 soon after its construction in 1906. That's more than three times what a decent-sized West End house would have sold for at the time. This ad from October 1906 notes "suitable for doctor".

A "restricted zone" means "residential zone".

Back then, it was not uncommon to have a residential street with a factory or warehouse plonked in the middle of the block belching coal smoke and with smelly stables for its horses. Residential-only streets and districts were often advertised as "restricted".

The house spent many decades as a boarding house with a family on the main floor, (the Forbes' from the late 1930s to 1960s), and rooms for rent with optional light housekeeping and a meal included with rent.

Sunday 25 February 2024

The back story of Winnipeg's Rae and Jerry's Steak House

© 2024, Christian Cassidy

Winnipeg has lost several iconic local restaurants in recent times after the owners could not sell them to a new generation of restaurateurs. There is good news that Rae and Jerry's will be around for years to come as it was recently purchased by new owners.

The Rae and Jerry's we think of today at its iconic Portage Avenue building near Polo Park dates back to 1957 but the partnership of John Rae and Gerald "Jerry" Hemsworth goes back much further than that.

John Rae (left) and Jerry Hemsworth

Gerald "Jerry" Hemsworth was born and raised in Winnipeg and began working on CN dining cars as a young teen during the Depression. He then landed a job at the first Salisbury House restaurant on Fort Street where he met lifelong friend and business partner John Rae.

John Porteous Rae was a businessman by trade who was born in Alberta in 1914 and came to Winnipeg as a child. He was a clerk at Federal Grain when he met Hemsworth.

The duo moved to Fort William (now Thunder Bay) in 1935 with other partners Gordon Hill and Casey Byron to run a small restaurant together. It was then on to a brief stint operating a restaurant in Toronto before Winnipeg called them home.

October 27, 1937, Winnipeg Free Press

Rae and Hemsworth returned to Winnipeg in 1939 and took over the tea room located inside Brathwaite's Pharmacy at Portage Avenue and Vaughan Street across from The Bay. Art Chipman was a financial partner in the venture.

Brathwaite's was established in 1902 and billed itself as Winnipeg's oldest operating drug store and is still in business today. Its eatery was a popular place for lunch, afternoon tea, or to get your tea leaves read, and underwent extensive renovations in 1937.

After a successful decade at Braithwaite's, Rae and Hemsworth relocated to their own space at 251 Kennedy Street just south of Portage Avenue in 1947.

The new restaurant became popular and prompted the duo to open a second location in 1951 at 571 Portage Avenue at Langside.

The Kennedy Street location was referred to in street directories as Rae and Jerry's Restaurant and the Portage Avenue location was called Rae and Jerry's Steak House. It was the only eatery in the directory at the time to bill itself as a 'steak house'.

Business was good at the steak house under head chef Joe Matenchuk. It became an "in" place to be and had no need to advertise in local papers. Its back room hosted countless anniversary dinners, business luncheons, and other special events.

Due to the success of the new venture, the Kennedy Street restaurant was closed in late 1953 and it wasn't long before Rae and Hemsworth were looking for a new, larger location with plenty of on-site parking.

In 1956, they purchased a lot that may have been as large as four and a half acres at 1405 Portage Avenue near the newly opened Winnipeg Arena. The site was unusual in that it bordered a residential neighbourhood that was established by the 1920s but this land was mostly vacant.

This had to do with its former use.

March 19, 1932, Winnipeg Tribune

The David Swail Company was a heating fuel retailer established in 1919 with its main yard for the wood, coal, and coke it sold located on Logan Avenue. David Swail had previously run the Duncan Fuel Company and either branched off on his own or renamed the company.

By the late 1920s, Swail had moved the main fuel yard from Logan Avenue to 1405 Portage Avenue and branched out into the ice business. The company also had smaller depots in Elmwood and Weston.

The space required for storing the various heating fuel products, a fleet of delivery vehicles, a storage shed, and presumably a small ice house, meant that the company required a lot of open land on which to operate.

January 8, 1954, Winnipeg Tribune

The move to 1405 Portage was not a coincidence as David and Bessie Swail bought the house and land in 1922 just a year after they married. It was originally built in the 1850s by John Omand for whom neighbouring Omand's Creek is named.

The Swails carried out major renovations to the interior and added a kitchen, bathroom, and basement before moving in. An office was added behind the house to administer the fuel yard when it arrived.

Winnipeg Tribune reporter Lillian Gibbons featured the house in one of her "Stories Houses Tell" columns in 1954. Mrs. Swail noted in the interview that her husband sold his fuel and ice business, including the house, to Arctic Ice in 1946.

Street directories show that the company then split. Swail Coal and Cartage managed by M. Roy Swail popped up on Wall Street at Wellington Avenue and the ice business, now owned by Arctic Ice, carried on at 1405 Portage under the David Swail name until around 1951.

The house was then put up for rent and Watson Swail, a son of  David and Bessie who grew up in the house, decided to rent it. He lived there and ran W. E. Swail Real Estate from the office.

Advertising for the real estate office ended in December 1956 after Rae and Hemsworth bought the property for their new restaurant.

Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, David Carter fonds

Rae and Hemsworth closed the old Portage Avenue steak house in early 1957 so that they could concentrate on their new and much larger venture.

They hired up-and-coming local architects Smith Carter Katelnikoff to design the new building. (The firm would go on to design the Pan-Am Pool and Centennial Concert Hall the following decade.)

The design took advantage of the space by setting the restaurant toward the back of the lot which provided parking for 200 cars and required customers to take along driveway that ended at a covered entrance on the east of the building.

The above drawing by Dennis Carter and the black and white photo by Kalen do not show the 24-foot by 60-foot extension that was added to the front (south side) of the building in 1958 to expand the cocktail lounge. The building initially displayed its original brick colour though it has been painted white for several decades.

The building was constructed by Semmler Construction Co. at a cost of around $130,000. The Winnipeg Architecture Foundation was told by Dennis Carter that Rae and Jerry's was one of his favourite projects.

Interior in 2018 (C. Cassidy)

Rae and Jerry's is known for its timeless interior. Its original interior designer, New York-trained Leslie Girling, created what was the epitome of an upscale 1950s steak house with soft lighting, plush carpets, dark woods, and red upholstery.
The restaurant was redecorated in 1967, likely again by Girling who had a freelance firm at the time. His aesthetic has stayed largely intact to this day.

There are some online mentions of Rae and Jerry's being "Canada's first steak house" and it is unclear where that accolade originates. It is not mentioned on the restaurant's website and going back through nearly 70 years of newspaper archives, including the time of its construction, there is no mention of this. It does not appear to have ever received a national award from a restaurant association or similar organisation recognizing this achievement.

It is hard to imagine that a city like Toronto, Vancouver or Calgary, with its visiting American oil executives, would not have picked up first on this American restaurant trend. In fact, Hy's says its first restaurant opened in Calgary in 1955 followed by a Winnipeg location in 1958, though both restaurants have moved locations since they first opened.

If the statement implies that Rae and Jerry's is "Canada's oldest operating steak house", that is much more plausible. For any restaurant outside of a hotel, operating continuously from the same location for 67 years is quite an achievement. A national survey could look into multiple cities and their oldest continuously operating restaurants and could verify if any other steak houses are still around from that era. The online claim, however, does not seem to be the result of such a study.

November 6, 1957, Winnipeg Free Press

The new Rae and Jerry's was advertising for staff by June 1957 and a text only "now open" ad appeared in local newspapers on July 31, 1957. More detailed ads featuring the Rae and Jerry's logo did not run until early November.

Aside from its first year in operation at the new address, Rae and Jerry's rarely advertised in local papers. It didn't need to as its customer base knew where to find it. It is also difficult to find a photo of either man, much less the two of them together, in newspaper archives. They seemed to have let the restaurant speak for itself.

Jimmy King, in his Free Press Night Beat column of March 29, 1975, noted that Rae was the PR person and Hemsworth handled the business side. He also wrote that: "Both John and Jerry could be considered among the best dressed men in the city. They are always suave and impeccable. They even talk alike."

Rarely included in the story of the restaurant was the role of the spouses, Judy Rae and Marjorie Hemsworth.

Though their names were not on the marquee they shared the load by working regularly at the restaurant. In a 1967 Free Press column, Bill Trebicole noted that since the restaurant opened: "...when diners walked into Rae and Gerry's they were greeted by either Johnny Rae, Jerry Hemsworth, or their wives Judy and Marge."

Marjorie Hemsworth's obituary noted that Rae and Jerry's meant working 364 day a year with only Christmas Day off.

Though it catered to Winnipeg's well-to-do, most restaurant reviews noted that what made Rae and Jerry's a popular place to dine for decades was the simplicity of its menu. 

Andrew Allentuck wrote in a 1979 review for the Winnipeg Tribune: "Rae and Jerry's cuisine is prairie steakhouse - lots of beef, ribs, chicken and fresh fish. There's no French on the menu and no pretense at doing anything more than serving simple things prepared as well as possible."

A 1980 review by Winnipeg Free Press food critic Marion Warhaft called the restaurant's fare "straightforward" and added: "...the menu at Rae and Jerry's is sensibly limited to what the restaurant does best."

Steve Hrousalas (Linkedin)

When Rae and Hemsworth entered their early sixties, they sold the restaurant to Steve Hrousalas and John Petrakos, as Steer Holdings Ltd., in 1975. In this Free Press article, Hrousalas, who was 30 at the time, said he approached the owners to ask if they wanted to sell and to call him with a price when they were ready.

The two men, both Greek, grew up in restaurant-owning families.

Petrakos' father owned the Original Food Bar on Main Street and the family were co-founders of the Junior's Drive-Inn chain. Hrousalas grew up working in his father's Paris Restaurant on Portage Avenue and at the original Juniors on Main Street before going to the University of North Dakota to study business. He was later the food services manager for The Bay.

Gene Telpner wrote in his entertainment beat column at the time of the sale that the rumoured purchase price, which included the restaurant and 4.5 acres of land, was around $1 million. He added that the men had no plans to change anything about the restaurant. The name, Leon and Harry (see below), and the 85 staff would carry on as usual, though they speculated that the restaurant might branch out into catering in the future, (it did.)

Hrousalas bought out Petrakos in 1978 and by 2014 he had owned Rae and Gerry's for longer than Rae and Gerry did!

It was announced in January 2024 that Hrousalas, now 79, sold the restaurant. He told the CBC that he gave the new owners similar advice to what he received from the original owners 49 years earlier: "Keep it the same. People want to know what they're going to get. They want consistency. They want the same food. They want the same service."

There was another long-time partnership associated with this restaurant.

Leon and Henry was the house band in the Scarlet Lounge from 1963 to 1983. They even recorded a live album there in 1980 that you can listen to here.

Leon Isenberg was from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and settled in Winnipeg after the Second World War. He soon formed the Leon Quintet and became a fixture on the local night club scene. Ellsworth moved to Winnipeg from his native Montreal in 1958.

The two met at an evening of performances at Rae and Jerry's Scarlet Lounge in 1962 and hit it off. It was not long before they created their own jazz / easy listening duo and were signed on as Rae and Jerry's house entertainment. At times, they brought in additional musicians and singers to accompany them.

The pair retired in December 1983 at which time one entertainment reporter speculated that their 20 years together likely broke the longevity record for any act in Winnipeg's night club scene.

Further reading:
Rae and Jerry's website
Outgoing owner of Rae and Jerry's advises new owner CBC. Jan. 18, 2024
Iconic Winnipeg steak house is now under new ownership CTV Winnipeg, Jan 18, 2024
Nothing to Change at Rae and Jerry's - except the ownership Global, Jan 18, 2024
Longtim fan buys Rae and Jerry's Winnipeg Free Press, Jan. 18, 2024
Well done and rare Winnipeg Free Press July 7, 2022
1405 Portage Avenue Winnipeg Architecture Foundation