Construction Corner: A piece of Prairie history for the holidays

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by Warren Frey

It's the holiday season, which means it's time to set aside construction and all the things associated with it, and give readers a glimpse at some of the other work I do.
Construction Corner: A piece of Prairie history for the holidays

I was born and raised in the Prairie West and although I haven't lived there for many years, I still get homesick for it sometimes. So it may not be surprising that one of the things I write about — apart from construction — is Prairie history.

To find source material, I haunt the special collections in university libraries, newspaper archives, articles published by historical societies, anywhere I can find reliable information about Prairie history.

That's how I came across James McKay, fur trader, guide, linguist, freighter, legislator and one of the founders of the Winnipeg Board of Trade.

He was born at Edmonton House in 1828, son of a Hudson's Bay Company trader and a Metis mother. He was educated in Red River (now Winnipeg) and worked for a while for The Bay.

He wasn't a tall man, but immensely broad-chested and muscular. He weighed 18 stone, which converts to about 114 kilos. He was a handsome man with long dark brown hair, a beard and moustache.

He spoke several aboriginal languages fluently and knew the Prairies well. He worked as a guide for the British expedition headed by Captain John Palliser. He ran a profitable freighting company that hauled mail as well as freight. That enabled him to build a handsome home called Deer Lodge, located in what we know as St. James, in Winnipeg's west end.

The historical material dealing with McKay contains many references to his hospitality. He frequently entertained prominent local people at Deer Lodge, but he was best known for the New Year's Day parties, which he hosted for many years.

The life of early settlers was hard. They worked six days a week and often on the seventh as well.

If it seemed like a matter of survival, that's because it was. For most, it was all work and no play. But on the rare occasions when there was time for a night out, those folk really knew how to party.

Christmas was big, of course, but tended to be devoted to family and a few close friends. In some communities — Red River among them — New Year's Day was bigger.

And McKay, always hospitable, opened his doors,

With plenty of food, music and dancing, those were quite the parties. There were no invitations; everyone was welcome.

Guests — some from as far away as Portage la Prairie in the west and St. Andrew's to the northeast — began arriving around 6 p.m. in cutters and homemade sleighs.

There was much visiting because although almost everyone knew everyone else, they often hadn't seen their more distant neighbours for months.

Some of the older folk found comfortable chairs in the parlour, or around the edges of the large dining room which had otherwise been cleared for dancing

Four fiddlers were on hand, two playing while the other two rested. There were square dances, jigs, reels, breakdowns.

By about 10 p.m. supper was served upstairs and lasted for the rest of the night. There would be hot roasts of beef and pork, roasted ducks and geese, smoked deer and buffalo tongues, buffalo hump and beaver tail. There was bannock, syrup, apple sauce (from dried apples), maple sugar, gingerbread and little cakes flecked with raisins.

People ate their fill. Then, instead of going home, they simply went downstairs and began dancing again. And for the rest of the night people moved up and downstairs between the food and the dance floor.

But as the population grew, it wasn't possible even for relatively wealthy folk like McKay to maintain the tradition and while New Year's remained a party occasion, the everyone-welcome affairs faded away.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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