Manitoba History: Remembering John J. Conklin
In its early years Winnipeg was blessed with many outstanding newspapermen and journalists including John W. Dafoe of the Free Press, Robert L. Richardson and John Moncrieff of the Winnipeg Tribune, Mark E. Nichols of the Winnipeg Telegram, Fred Livesay of Canadian Press (CP), and colourful Winnipeg Telegram editor and later freelance journalist, Colonel Garnet C. Porter. However, another name should be added to this impressive list. Quietly, modestly and professionally, Free Press newspaperman John James Conklin contributed significantly to the fine tradition of Western journalism as well as the social, cultural and recreational life of Manitoba for over 70 years.
From 1886 until his retirement in 1937 Conklin spent 51 years with the Manitoba (later the Winnipeg) Free Press holding more positions than any other employee. The list of his Free Press duties included carrier boy, reporter, drama, music and movie critic, specialist on real estate and Winnipeg’s pioneers, telegraph, automobile and city editor, as well as editorial writer. In addition, for many years Conklin was employed as a stringer  for several Canadian, American and British daily papers and for over 25 years was Western correspondent for the Canadian Moving Picture Digest. As well, from 1920 until his death in 1952, Conklin was one of the major promoters of Victoria Beach on Lake Winnipeg and the editor of the Victoria Beach Herald for 22 years.
Early Years in Winnipeg
John James Conklin was born 23 June 1868 in Forest, Ontario and came to Winnipeg from Hamilton with his family in the Fall of 1881. When he arrived as a boy of thirteen, the Manitoba capital was celebrating the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway as well as a hectic land boom. Some of Conklin’s first memories of Winnipeg were seeing the rails for horse cars laid down along Main Street, shopping in the one-storey Hudson Bay Company’s store within the walls of old Fort Garry, watching stern-wheelers with livestock and baggage on the upper decks and settlers housed below-deck ply the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, and witnessing the collapse of Winnipeg’s original City Hall. Also, when John Conklin arrived in 1881, his uncle, Elias George Conklin, co-founder of the pioneer real estate firm of Conklin and Fortune, was mayor of Winnipeg.  It was Elias Conklin who helped solidify the city’s bid for the CPR’s main line over Selkirk by casting the deciding vote for municipal property leases when Winnipeg’s City Council met William Cornelius Van Horne and Canadian Pacific Railway officials in St. Paul, Minnesota.
John Conklin entered the University of Manitoba in 1885 and soon became editor of the school’s newspaper. He made his first connection to the Manitoba Free Press through his column, “College Notes,” in which he reported on intercollegiate sports and other events. However, Conklin did not graduate because in 1886 he left as editor of the school’s paper for full time employment at the Manitoba Free Press. When he joined the Free Press, the owner was Clifford Sifton, Walter Payne was the paper’s executive editor and John W. Dafoe was city editor.
Conklin’s first job at the Free Press was drama critic, and it was through this assignment that he brought many celebrities to Winnipeg, and for the next twenty years became one of the city’s most versatile impresarios and boosters. Among the famous personalities Conklin brought to Winnipeg in the 1880s were Henry Morton Stanley, Welsh-born American journalist and the first explorer to cross Africa; Frederick Villers, the world renowned British war artist, journalist and correspondent for the Graphic; William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the US army scout, Indian fighter, buffalo hunter and wild west entertainer; and boxing legend and first heavy-weight world champion, John L. Sullivan, who gave a boxing demonstration in the Princess Theatre.
In the 1890s Conklin widened his activities as a celebrity agent and continued to attract important individuals to Winnipeg including American humorist, novelist, writer and lecturer, Mark Twain (Samuel Longhorne Clements) who remained in Winnipeg for ten days. “Mr. Clements,” Conklin observed, “had a carbuncle on his back, which was giving him much trouble, but did not interfere with the lectures of the funniest man alive.”  English author of The Light of Asia and Oriental Traveller, Sir Edward Arnold, arrived to the delight of Winnipeggers with Japanese girls to wait on him, and India-born British author, poet and Nobel Literature Prize winner, Rudyard Kipling, visited Winnipeg as part of his wedding tour. Conklin said of Kipling, “He was bright and restless and aggressive, and he kept walking up and down as we interviewed him for the Free Press.” 
From the Turn of the Century to the Winnipeg General Strike
In mid-October 1901 the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, who later became King George V and Queen Mary as well as the grandparents of Queen Elizabeth, visited Winnipeg and Western Canada. One of the highlights of the royal visit in Winnipeg was a duck hunting trip by the future King of England, who was an expert marksman. At the time John Conklin wrote in the Free Press about the events of the hunt, which occurred at Poplar Point along the shore of Lake Manitoba near a portion of the Delta Marsh. The following is part of Conklin’s story:
In 1904, at the age of thirty-six, John Conklin married Bertha Wilson, also a Free Press employee. Bertha, who was born in Birmingham, England, was a skilled typist and stenographer as well as a good friend of Cora Hind, who was hired by Editor John Dafoe as the paper’s first female reporter in 1901. John and Bertha met at the Free Press in 1903 and were married 15 December 1904. In 1905 they purchased a neat, two-storey, frame North end house on Burrows Avenue near the Red River (see picture below) where they raised four children: Aidan, Verona, Elmer and Jack. According to John Conklin’s grandson, Robert Conklin, Bertha Conklin was a fastidious housekeeper and her main interest in life was her family on whom she doted. The only serious conflict she faced with her husband was his drinking. 
John Conklin had a well-developed sense of humour and could also be quite witty. On 23 June 1907, he celebrated his own birthday with a satirical article penned about his life. He titled the piece “This Is My 39th Birthday.” The following are extracts from this autobiographical passage:
Another example of the funny side of John Conklin was revealed by his son, Aidan Conklin.
In May and June 1919 the capital of Manitoba experienced a major labour disturbance, the Winnipeg General Strike, which captured the attention of Canadian newspaper readers. According to the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council, the Central Strike Committee, strike leaders, supporters and most workers, the real causes of the six week dispute were the legitimate demands of collective bargaining, working conditions and higher wages. Those opposed to the strike, including the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, federal, provincial and municipal representatives, Winnipeg’s three daily newspapers and many citizens, instead insisted that the strike was a Bolshevik and One Big Union conspiracy to topple constituted authority and replace it with a radical, Soviet style, red government. 
As a stringer John Conklin played a prominent role in the national coverage of the big strike, writing first for the Toronto Daily Star and then for several other Canadian dailies including the Vancouver Sun, Montreal Star, Halifax Herald and Halifax Morning Chronicle. From 20 May to 13 June he wrote over fifty dispatches for these Canadian dailies, by-lined “J. J. Conklin,” with most of his reports appearing as front page stories. John Conklin’s role as a stringer was described in detail in a letter to the author by his son, Aidan Conklin.
When the crowd of strikers and their supporters began to riot, on Main Street, by the City Hall, my father was an eye-witness and I remember him telling us that when the soldiers fired a warning volley, he ducked into the basement stairs of the City Hall, for safety. 
In those days, pre-radio and TV, news bulletins placed on the outside of newspaper buildings were a means of the public gathering information before the newspapers were on the street, and my father helped to prepare these bulletins – since he had quite a background as Telegraph Editor and City Editor.  When important [strike] events were occurring, locally and otherwise, large crowds gathered in front of newspaper offices. 
In reading John Conklin’s news reports of the Winnipeg walkout, one is struck by the objectivity, professionalism, absence of sensationalism, and lack of anti-immigrant and anti-strike bias in his dispatches.  For example, dispelling the rumours of revolution, on 21 May he stated,
On 29 May the lead paragraph to his front page story in the Montreal Star observed,
On 2 June he commented in the Halifax Herald, “One must admire the loyalty of 35,000 strikers in Winnipeg who have through temptation and trial remained steadfast to what they deem principle.” 
In explaining why John Conklin did not appear to have an anti-union slant to his reports, Aidan Conklin suggested, “My father had leanings towards the Liberal Party, but he had great sympathy for labour unions, and I recall he voted for A. A. Heaps, one of the 1919 General Strike Leaders who represented our constituency of North Winnipeg in the House of Commons.”  This “sympathy” might explain Conklin’s lack of anti-strike rhetoric in his news reports. Also, the fact that he lived and raised his family in Winnipeg’s multiracial North end could explain the lack of anti-immigrant bias in his reports, which often characterized the dispatches of other Canadian and American reporters, who at times blamed Winnipeg’s “foreign element” and “aliens” for the strike and much of its eventual violence.
A more remarkable aspect of his reporting is that while his own his own newspaper, the Free Press, through its spokesman and his boss, John Dafoe, was bitterly opposed to the actions of the strike leaders, Conklin’s dispatches were free from anti-labour sentiment. For example, in a prominent, front-page editorial on 20 May, Dafoe claimed that the Free Press had been the “victim of a revolutionary plot and had been suppressed by orders from the dictatorship of the proletariat.”  As well he dubbed several Central Strike Committee members the “red five,” and accused them of “climbing to power in the trade union movement through the influence of Germans, Austrians, ’Huns’ and Russians.” 
John Dafoe likely knew of Conklin’s stringer activity during the work stoppage and that his reports did not condemn the strike. Dafoe certainly was aware that Conklin was contributing reports to the Toronto Star, a paper editorializing the dispute in a pro-labour stance as well as reporting the strike in an impartial fashion. Why then did Dafoe allow Conklin to do freelance work during the strike? First, with the Free Press temporarily closed and operating short staffed for the first two weeks of the strike, Dafoe would have known of Conklin’s need to maintain an income to support his family. Second, given Dafoe’s strong belief in freedom of the press and Conklin’s established reputation as an able freelance journalist, Dafoe may have not opposed Conklin’s decision to report news of the strike, especially during the initial closure of the Free Press. Added to this was Dafoe’s knowledge that Conklin’s reports were primarily factual and not directly supportive of the strike itself and its leaders. As to Dafoe’s reaction to Conklin’s stringer work specifically for the generally pro-strike Toronto Star, Dafoe had considerable respect and admiration for the Toronto Star’s owner and publisher, Joseph Atkinson, and this probably influenced Dafoe’s attitude about permitting Conklin to write for the Toronto Star.
From Victoria Beach to Retirement
In 1920 John Conklin was approached by Charles Kennedy to write in the Free Press about a development on Lake Winnipeg known as Victoria Beach. Victoria Beach was about eighty kilometres from Winnipeg and located on the eastern side of Lake Winnipeg’s Southern basin. Kennedy and a group of prominent Winnipeg businessmen had originally developed Victoria Beach in 1890, but it wasn’t until the Canadian North West Railway line to the beach was completed in 1916 that it expanded rapidly and became a popular lake resort. John Conklin’s grandson, Robert, has written in the family history about the event.
On 15 December 1929, John and Bertha Conklin happily celebrated their silver wedding anniversary. At a luncheon in their honour held in the new dining hall of Frank’s Café, Lieutenant-Colonel Ambrose Smith read an address signed by a number of Winnipeg’s prominent citizens.  The address was as follows:
Though John Conklin retired from the Free Press in 1937, he continued to contribute to his former paper. In 1950, at age 82, he wrote an article for the Winnipeg Free Press titled “York Boat Trips Recalled.” In recollecting from memory the departure of the York boats from Winnipeg in the early 1880s, he wrote,
John Conklin died on 7 February 1952. Until his death, however, he was still writing despite diabetic retinopathy, probably cataracts, and gangrene of his toes. In the final months he dictated his stories to Bertha, who typed his work. His blindness was so bad that she even had to stuff the envelopes. In a moving letter to Ray Lewis, the publisher of the Canadian Moving Picture Digest, Bertha described John’s last moments with her,
John Conklin contributed to the Canadian Moving Picture Digest for 25 years and at the time of his death was still sending occasional news from Winnipeg. The publication eulagized him on 22 March 1952:
In reviewing John James Conklin’s seventy years in Manitoba it is clear that his major achievements were as a newspaperman and free lance journalist in Winnipeg and as a promoter of the community of Victoria Beach at Lake Winnipeg. In one of the obituaries following John Conklin’s death, the following was written about him.
He is best remembered for the enthusiasm he brought to his fifty years in the newspaper business. Those who knew him in the old days say he was largely responsible for development of Winnipeg’s civic improvements, industries, schools and clubs. 
John Conklin was indeed the consummate newspaperman and journalist. He worked in the years before syndicated news, when each newspaper depended on its correspondents for news and each paper operated independently. As a result he outlived his generation in journalism and reporting. My favourite image of John Conklin has been captured in photographer L. B Foote’s book, The Best Possible Face. This photograph was taken in Conklin’s office in the Manitoba Free Press building in 1914. At the time Foote took the picture, Conklin was forty-six and had been at the Free Press for twenty-eight years. Appropriately, he is sitting at his very large editor’s desk and is the focus of approximately twenty Free Press employees including several younger reporters who are keenly copying down his instructions. 
As the Free Press expert on entertainment, over the years he reported on a panorama of changing activities in Winnipeg, including stock companies, road shows, vaudeville, penny arcades, peep-shows, movie halls and movie picture palaces. As well, as one of the city’s most dedicated boosters and skilled impresarios, he determinedly brought many celebrities and personalities in the fields of literature, music, journalism, sports and entertainment to Winnipeg. Thus he contributed significantly to the city’s intellectual growth, especially in the 1880s and 1890s.
As founder and for twenty-two years editor of the Victoria Beach Herald, Conklin tirelessly promoted Victoria Beach as a popular lake resort and indelibly left his mark on this picturesque area for contemporary and future visitors. The Conklin cottage at 127 Sunset provided wonderful and memorable experiences for Bertha and their four children and in later years lasting memories for the Conklin grandchildren of summer fun and listening to their “Pop Pop” tell stories on the veranda. Even in his eighties, Conklin’s connection to Victoria Beach was strong and he was preparing to write the history of the community church that he founded there. A modest man, it was said of John Conklin that he was never around when the credits were being given. However his accomplishments deserve otherwise and stand as a testimony to a life of loyalty to his family, contribution to his community, and commitment to his profession.
I first learned of John J. Conklin in late 1971 while researching at the Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa for my Masters thesis on the response of Canada’s daily newspapers to the Winnipeg General Strike. I discovered that Conklin initially covered the walkout as a freelance journalist, or stringer, for the Toronto Daily Star and subsequently for other Canadian dailies. In early 1972 I contacted John Conklin’s oldest son, Aidan, and learned much more, not only about his father’s role in reporting the Winnipeg strike, but also about the man behind the professionally written and impartial dispatches in the Toronto Star and other Canadian dailies. Most importantly, Aidan Conklin confirmed that John Conklin was not only a stringer, but also a full-time Manitoba Free Press reporter for many years before and after the general strike.
In 2005 I published an article in Manitoba History about the Toronto Star’s coverage of the Winnipeg General Strike and included a reference to the role played by John Conklin. Following this article I decided to write more about him and in 2006 located two of his grandsons: Robert and Murray Conklin. As well I wrote to Aidan Conklin’s wife, Flora Gladys Conklin. Fortunately, Robert Conklin has become the Conklin family’s genealogist and was able to provide me with detailed historical and biographical information as well as several family photographs. In addition in 2006, the Manitoba Legislative Library provided me with copies of Winnipeg Free Press articles by and about John Conklin, and the NAL (National Archives and Library) of Canada located a copy of the 22 March 1952 Canadian Moving Picture Digest’s memorial on John Conklin for his 25 years of service as the magazine’s Western Canadian correspondent.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to all the members of the Conklin “family” who have helped me in the preparation of this article on John James Conklin. I am especially grateful for the enthusiastic assistance and cooperation of Robert Conklin without whom this article honouring John Conklin, or “Pop Pop,” as he was affectionately known to his grandchildren, would not have been possible.
1. Stringers were freelance journalists who were paid by out-of-town, client newspapers, usually on a space rate or linage basis (the amount written). Often, as in the case of John Conklin, stringers were already employed by a newspaper in their own city, and because of low salaries used stringer work to supplement their incomes. The origin of the term stringer is uncertain. The possible derivations include (1) correspondents paid on the basis of “posted-up strings” of their clippings, (2) one who “strings words together,” (3) a writer paid by the number of words and “stringing out a story” for maximum payment, and (4) exclusive attachment, “as if by a string,” by a freelance reporter to an individual client paper.
2. Before becoming mayor, Elias Conklin was a Winnipeg alderman from 1877 to 1880. In 1888 he became a member of the Manitoba Legislature and a clerk of the legislature under the Liberal government of Thomas Greenway.
5. The hunting party included the 36 year old Duke of Cornwall, well-known hunter and trapper Jack Atkinson, Manitoba’s Conservative Senator John Nesbitt Kirchhoffer of Brandon, Governor General Lord Minto, and the Duke of York’s brother, Prince Alexander of Teck (Lord Athlone). Manitoba Free Press, 13 October 1901.
10. For further information on newspaper coverage of the Winnipeg general strike see the author’s articles in Manitoba History “The Toronto Star and the Winnipeg General Strike,” (June 2005), and in Labour/ Le Travail “William R. Plewman, the Toronto Daily Star, and the Reporting of the Winnipeg General Strike” (Spring 2006).
11. The Toronto Star “senior writer” was 31-year-old reporter William “Main” Johnson. He arrived in Winnipeg from Sudbury, Ontario at noon on Sunday, 18 May and met Conklin at the main CPR train station. Then they went to the Royal Alexandra Hotel across from the CPR station to discuss the strike situation. Johnson was accommodated in the luxurious Royal Alex during his stay in Winnipeg from 18 to 26 May.
12. Conklin wrote twelve reports for the Toronto Star from 20 to 26 May. Three of these reports, all front stories, were co-written and co-bylined with Main Johnson. According to the Toronto Star, in just two days, 19 and 20 May, Conklin and Johnson co-wrote over 10,000 words for Star readers. Toronto Star, 20 May 1919.
13. In fact Conklin wired his Star reports from Noyes and Thief River Falls, both in northern Minnesota. Noyes was just across the Manitoba-Minnesota border, about eighty-five miles from Winnipeg. Thief River Falls was a further sixty miles south.
14. Winnipeg’s 200 commercial and brokerage telegraphers left their keys on 17 May and did not return until 12 June. The one exception was the chief telegraph operator, Frank “Never Break” Turner, of the Winnipeg bureau of Canadian Press (CP). Turner earned his nickname because, during the strike, he worked both day and night sending and receiving messages.
15. Aidan Conklin is referring to the events of Saturday afternoon, 21 June 1919, described as “Bloody Saturday” by the strikers’ newspaper, the Western Labor News. However, it was not soldiers but Royal North West Mounted Police officers who actually fired a warning volley.
16. During the strike the closure of the Free Press began on 16 May with the walkout by all of its Webb pressmen and stereotypers. Four days later John Dafoe was able to have the Free Press resume publication albeit in a reduced, four page format. By 29 May, the Free Press was printing eight-page editions although at first without advertising. By 3 June, the Free Press had a regular edition available.
18. See Conklin’s reports in the Toronto Star, 20-26 May 1919, the Halifax Herald, 24 May - 9 June 1919, the Halifax Morning Chronicle, 22 May - 13 June 1919, the Vancouver Sun, 26 May and 4 June 1919, and the Montreal Star, 21 May - 9 June 1919.
25. The Conklin grandchildren called John Conklin by the affectionate nickname of “Pop Pop.” According to Robert Conklin, this nickname was given by his sister, Elizabeth, who was John Conklin’s first grandchild. She would say, “Pop Pop, tell me a story,” which he often did.
26. Excerpt from Conklin Chronicles: The Conklins at Victoria Beach Manitoba, by Robert Conklin. April 2005. In using the word “anonymously” Robert Conklin meant John Conklin modestly opted not to publish his name on the masthead of the Victoria Beach Herald, and rarely signed his name to the articles he wrote in the paper.
27. To the address were appended over twenty-five signatures including Winnipeg’s Mayor Dan Mclean, Farmer-Labor MLA Matthew J. Stanbridge, representatives from the Manitoba Free Press and Winnipeg Press Club, and officers from the CPR and CN railways.
31. Ibid. In the previous week’s issue of the magazine Ray Lewis also recalled Conklin’s great pride in Winnipeg’s new Legislative Building when he gave her a tour there in 1920. “It was you John Conklin, who showed me the colossal statues of Moses and Solon, the Hebraic and Greek law-givers, in the Parliament Buildings … which had recently been built … John Conklin was proud of that beautiful building, which he said would be appreciated in years to come. Canadian Moving Picture Digest, 15 March 1952.
33. Doug Smith and Michael Otto, The Best Possible Face: L. B. Foote’s Winnipeg (Winnipeg, 1985). Unfortunately the photo on page 121 of the book is erroneously labelled Winnipeg Telegram. According to Robert Conklin, the photograph is was actually that of John Conklin and Free Press staff in the Carlton Street building.
Page revised: 5 November 2012