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Manitoba History: Prairie Endurance: The Robert Kerr Residence, Franklin, Manitoba

by Ken Heshka, Lorne Heshka & Lindy Clubb

Manitoba History, Number 8, Autumn 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

This item has been contributed by three Winnipeg members of the Manitoba Historical Society. All of them have prairie homesteads and rural life in their backgrounds. All of them also have skills and training that make them sensitive to, and interested in, particular aspects of Western history.

Ken and Lorne Heshka’s family homesteaded north of Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Ken is a partner in the design firm of Calnitsky-Heshka Associates, and the President of Contemporary Homes Limited, a custom building company. He did the architectural research for this article. Lorne Heshka is a Food and Drug Inspector for the Government of Canada, and a published photographer. He deserves the credit for the recent photographs included here. Credit for the period photos goes to the Beautiful Plains Museum in Neepawa.

Lindy Clubb’s family homesteaded south of Morris, Manitoba. She is a gerontologist, conducting research at the Age and Opportunity Centre. She wrote this article, did most of the research and carried out the oral interviews. She and the Heshkas discovered the Kerr residence, and other homes in the Neepawa area, while driving to and from Winnipeg and the Clanwilliam district, where Ms. Clubb lived for three years.

An aspect of Manitoba’s history has been all but overlooked, and it’s time to give attention to our rural architectural heritage. At present, not one example of a rural farmhouse has been declared a Heritage Building by our provincial Department of Historic Resources. The opportunity to purchase or restore an architecturally significant farmhouse does exist. There are several imposing, richly detailed, aesthetically pleasing older homes near Neepawa. Robert Kerr’s brick house, on SE 13-15-17 W1, is one of them.

The Robert Kerr residence, shown here shortly after completion and, on the journal cover, in a recent photo [1984]. The imposing size combines several different “styles” of architecture, including Queen Anne. Dormer windows contribute to the irregular roof line, adding emphasis to the massing below. Note the unique decorative brick band used to relieve the monotony of flat exterior wall surfaces. Window labels are Tudor in style, stepped brick below and wood above. The brick is indigenous to the Neepawa area. Victorian details include unusual wooden, roof cresting, “stick style” bracketing and a broad veranda and balcony. Stone “ha ha” is located in foreground.
Source: Beautiful Plains Museum, Neepawa

Currently this house is abandoned and slowly being dismantled. As a result we are losing an outstanding example of rural Victorian architecture. As similar grand old structures are modernized, demolished or neglected, we slowly lose links with our past.

Towering evergreens were planted over eighty years ago. The house overlooks the Stoney Creek.
Source: Lorne Heshka

In Neepawa ... Land of Plenty [1], Mrs. Ella Nicholson (nee Kerr) wrote about the members of the family that built the Robert Kerr homeand other important structures in the area:

My uncle, Robert Kerr, was the fourth child in the family of Robert Kerr and Eliza Begley. There was one girl and five boys. The two eldest were born in the north of Ireland, but all the rest were born at Goderich, Ontario.

Eventually, all of the Kerrs emigrated to Manitoba. According to The Franklin Story by Kathleen White, [2] George Kerr, Robert’s oldest brother, was the first white resident of that area. He persuaded his brothers to follow:

“In 1873 he came from Teeswater, Ontario and took up a homestead north of Franklin. George’s brothers John, Robert and James were early settlers too. They had a sawmill and lumber business, built large homes on their land, and also the store and hall in Franklin.”

George Kerr initially shared his log home with young Robert, and then Robert acquired his own quarter section of land close by. He homesteaded, built a log shelter, and implemented a mixed farming operation. He was still in his early twenties. By the time Robert married Bertha Orr, the daughter of a prominent local family, he was well established, and knowledgeable enough to design and build a sophisticated brick house for a permanent dwelling.

Construction of this house began in the early 1890s and became a family enterprise. George Kerr was the bricklayer and masoner, John Kerr was the finishing carpenter and Robert, the owner, was the contractor, site manager and wood carver. The brothers made a good team. They incorporated the talent and industry of a generation of Irish immigrants, who had developed unique building techniques in Ontario.

Landscaping was an important element in site planning at the time and Robert painstakingly chose a location that took advantage of a breathtaking setting. It was a pristine rise of land overlooking the Stoney Creek, sheltered on the northwest by a natural windbreak of oak and poplar bush. Robert planted evergreens in a double row to the north, to act as a shelter for the carriage road leading to the house, and as a separation from the working part of the farm. The cultivated lawn southeast of the house ended with a low stone fence, creating both a terrace and a barrier to livestock without obstructing the view. The gentle downward slope of lawn provided drainage, access to the creek, and a magnificent view to the southwest.

The Dining Room ceiling is comprised of diagonal and linial wood inlay panels trimmed by a backeted wood cornice.
Source: Lorne Heshka

Finial and pendant decorate the gable end in a Swiss Chalet detailing. Wooden labels appear above windows on a second and third storeys.
Source: Lorne Heshka

Massive handcarved newel post was once a feature of the staircase. As in most Victorian homes, the Master Bedroom was located close to the stairs on main floor.
Source: Lorne Heshka

The arch separating the Dining Room and Parlor was originally draped with fabric. A plaster cove trims the ceiling above original wallpaper. A cast iron grate covered the floor opening in foreground, allowing heat to rise from the wood furnace below.
Source: Lorne Heshka

Romanesque arch frames the fanlite that once held ruby glass from France.
Source: Lorne Heshka

The basic materials for the exterior of the house, the lime, lumber, stone and brick, came from the local area. The builders were resourceful men. Dr. Neufeld, in his history of Minnedosa, [3] records that “the Kerr Bros. slacked [sic] their own lime, whipsawed their own lumber and made their own nails.” They also created a tool to split their own spruce shingles for roofing. The nearby Stoney Creek provided stones to be cut for the foundation and a good supply of lime. As a Mrs. Baker wrote in the Neepawa Press, “indentations can still be seen where lime kilns were located along Stoney Creek. Pioneers gathered flat lime flagstones [from the Creek] and burned them in kilns for use in building houses, brick chimneys and stone mason work.” [4]

Buff and natural tones of brick were highly prized by Ontario craftsmen at the time, and this no doubt influenced Robert Kerr’s choice of facade. The bricks he used are not marked by stamps or logos, but presumably they were made locally since they possess an attractive sienna tint common to the brick buildings in the Neepawa area. Clay was baked into shape and then sold for $8.00 per thousand bricks at the turn of the century. The same bricks, reclaimed, now sell for $300 to $400 per thousand. A. J. Downing, an influential period expert on architecture, whose ideas Kerr evidently used in site planning and building, recommended brick as a durable substance and one that was “everyday coming into more use. The walls formed of it, if well constructed, have a solidity and permanence appropriate for a country house, and requiring little cost to keep it in repair.” [5]

The Franklin Rifle Range, located on Robert Kerr's property. Robert Kerr is seated.
Source: Beautiful Plains Museum, Neepawa

One of three 1908 Russell cars brought to Franklin by George Kerr, Dr. Coad, the Kerr family doctor, at the wheel.
Source: Beautiful Plains Museum, Neepawa

Kerr family members and friends relax by the Stoney Creek, c1906. John Lindsay Kerr, second owner of Robert Kerr's house, is seated to the right.
Source: Beautiful Plains Museum, Neepawa

The interior of the house was constructed of local building material and imported finishing material. Framing lumber came from the sawmill the brothers owned, hauled out during the winter from the source over fifteen miles away on Kerr Lake. Some of the glass used in the larger windows came from France. The millwork was ordered from catalogues and the hardwood for finishing details was sent by train from Ontario. Robert used the finer wood for elaborate ceilings and trim, and created a remarkable flat curved staircase. He also sent for patterned mossy green china tiles to line the parlor fireplace, under a mantel carved from solid oak. He carved the mantel himself. The wallpaper was ordered from Winnipeg. It was gold and green with an embossed floral style. There was an arched entrance strung with tiny curved brass hooks for hanging curtains between the dining room and the parlor. Visitors admired the beautiful colored glass and carved wood, remarking on how well cared for it was. Robert imported ruby glass from France to install in an unusual half circle fanlight over the front door; ruby shards of glass remain in the hallway behind the door.

The picture windows in the house were large, and uncommonly thick and strong. They were 3/8 of an inch thick, imported from France and mad from cast rather than rolled glass Their strength was illustrated by an incident that surviving members of the Kerr family still talk about. When Robert was working in the interior he became accustomed to pitching the ends of lumber out of the hole where the windows were to be installed. On day, after the glass was in place, he hit the front windows with a 2 x 4 by accident. The board simply bounced off. However, a shot from a high powered rifle, fired directly into the window some time during 1982, destroyed the glass. It had lasted over eight years, and could have done so indefinitely.

According to Ella Nicholson, Robert Kerr was a quiet man. [6] “He was a nice, friendly person and a good citizen, but he didn’t take the part in the district the other brothers did ... They had lots of visitors and entertained and they attended evening services at the church like everyone else in those days.” However, although something of a “loner, Robert Kerr did have a rifle rang set up just over Stoney Creek from his house, “and men used to gather there every Friday for shooting. They came from mile around to compete and at year end a silver salver was presented to the man who did the best. Often the brothers travelled to Sturgeon Creek in Winnipeg for the annual Manitoba Rifle Association tournament. “The only other time the Kerr brothers used their shooting ability was in the fall when they hunted deer together.

There were other events to make life interesting:

One year, my father George Kerr went to Chicago and purchased three Russell cars. One he kept for himself one went to our doctor, and one was for Robert. Also, some of the brother painted. Robert painted with oils an( he was very good. He painted the curtain on the stage in the old Franklin hall. It’s still there, on the wall by the platform. I told them, when they were fixing it up, not to destroy that. [7]

Robert and Bertha had only one son but they had three daughters and all of them learned to play the piano in the parlor. The children attended Coldstream School, conveniently located across the road at the end of their land, until Grade IX. They did not go on to Franklin or Neepawa for high school. All of them married and one-by-one they moved from the district.

In 1915 Robert separated from Bertha, sold his home to a favourite nephew, John Lindsay Kerr, and moved to Amaranth, Manitoba. He lived alone in a tiny cottage, situated on land he owned just outside of the town, until his death.

The brick house he built has been vacant since 1956, with the land rented out and the last occupant, John Armstrong Kerr (John Lindsay Kerr’s son), living in absentee ownership in Toronto. “It’s a wonder the place hasn’t burned down, it’s been vandalized so often,” the owner comments. Fires have been started on the bare wooden floors. “It had everything you could want in it,” Ella Nicholson remembers. “It was beautifully furnished. Of course people got into it and took from it.” An antique dealer once came around the area, approaching owners of the more prestigious brick homes, asking if anyone would sell their sideboards and hanging lamps, their old family pieces. No one took his offers, but when he left many of the furnishings from the Robert Kerr place were missing. Now the home is slowly being stripped and dismantled by a local farmer. He’s moving some of the material to his own 100 year old farmhouse. He received the entire contents of the Robert Kerr house for the price of asking.

The abandoned Kerr House as seen from the carriage road. The house was built on a modified L Plan.
Source: Lorne Heshka

The rural district north of Neepawa holds a concentration of magnificent houses constructed between 1890 and 1920. Like Robert Kerr’s residence, each is immense, located close to Stoney Creek, and surrounded by towering fir trees. Structures like this are not as rare in Manitoba as most people believe them to be. Their builders were concerned as much with beauty as with shelter. The Neepawa area homes remain as examples of a relatively overlooked part of the prairie architectural heritage. That they have stood for many decades is a tribute to the skill and care of the men who built them. If they are to endure they require the respect and attention of those who care about them.

Some of the marvelous homes in the Neepawa area are occupied by descendants of the original builders. The action we hope they would take is a period restoration, which admittedly requires time, skill and often too much money. For them, and for all who are concerned about restoration of heritage properties, there are now a number of places to turn to for assistance and advice.

Sites of massive turn of the century brick homes located by the Stoney Creek. Numbers 3, 7 and 8 were, respectively, the John Kerr, Robert Kerr, and John Orr Sr. residences.

Notes

1. A. F. McKenzie, Neepawa ... Land Plenty: A Brief Storm of Neepawa District. (Neepawa: 75th Anniversary Coordinating Committee, 1958).

2. Kathleen White, The Franklin Star:’ paperbound collection at Beautiful Plains Museum, Neepawa.

3. Dr. Peter L. Neufeld, Prairie Vistas (Minnedosa: Glendosa Research Centre, 1973).

4. Clipping from Neepawa Press, undated, Beautiful Plains Museum, Neepawa.

5. A. J. Downing, Cottage Residences - Rural Architecture and Landscape Gardening (New York: Watkins Glen, 1967).

6. Much of what follows comes from several conversations with Mrs. Nicholson, January, 1983 - March 1984.

7. Ibid.

Page revised: 21 July 2010

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