Manitoba History: Edward Darbey, Taxidermy, and the Last Buffaloes
by James A. Burns
Photographed by Lewis Benjamin Foote and dated “ca. 1915” by the Archives of Manitoba, this is a truly historic image. However, reconciling it with listings in Henderson’s Winnipeg Directories, I deduced that the signage on the window next to Darbey’s read Jam(es Ballantyne) C(ompany Ltd.,) P(lumbing …). Ballantyne occupied that shop at 229 Main Street in 1910-1911. It was after 1911 that Brydges Engineering and Supply Company occupied it and changed the name. Though the photo pre-dates 1912, I’ll tighten the estimate below.
The most intriguing feature is the bizarre, mildly humorous array of gristly, numbered “buffalo” skulls. The back-story pivots on the fact that bison were extinct in Canada by 1900. Possibly motivated by a conservation ethic, the Canadian government bought 716 bison between 1907 and 1912 from Michel Pablo, a Montana entrepreneur who, with partner Charles Allard, had bred the animals to generate lucrative sales to museums and parks.  Most of the 716 reached Alberta game reserves but a small number were too wild and were simply shot. At a 1911 Winnipeg auction, thirteen of Pablo’s untameable bison—billed as the last “wild” relicts of the 50-60 million monarchs of the prairies—were sold for robes and head mounts (Manitoba Free Press, 27 November 1911). They likely arrived in Winnipeg in summer 1911 (note the snowless sidewalk and open window). Their carcasses would have been skinned and the hides salted and/or frozen; the skulls were numbered to facilitate reuniting respective skulls and capes before mounting by taxidermist Edward Darbey. Prepared for auction on 25 November, the heads sold for $500-$800 each, making fine wall trophies for eleven Winnipeg bidders. Foote’s 1911 photograph confirms Darbey’s eminence among taxidermists.
The Victorian British notion of “decorating” homes with “stuffed animals” had its heyday among sportsmen and the well-to-do of Canadian society, too. However, by around 1890, the notion was butting heads with the nascent conservation movement. Yet, the federal and provincial governments needed immigrants to settle and tame Canada’s vast, rich, untrammelled West. Stuffed mounted wildlife was considered symbolic of the North West Territory’s “superabundance”, and thus integral to strategies for attracting immigrants to Canada.  Taxidermy displays were featured at provincial, national and international exhibitions, and taxidermists were kept busy supplying mounts. By about 1902, George Atkinson, Alex Calder, Edward Darbey, George Grieve, Abel Hine and his three sons, and William White were noted Winnipeg taxidermists, all with shops on Main Street. Winnipeggers eagerly attended these shops and exhibitions because, until 1932, the city had no permanent public Museum to exhibit natural history specimens.
As a fifteen-year-old, Edward Wade Darbey came to Winnipeg in 1887 from Ontario with his parents and four siblings, and soon found work with William Fenwick White, noted dealer in Indian curios. In 1898 Darbey purchased George Grieve’s taxidermy at 247 Main Street, which around 1903 shifted to 233 Main where he further honed his talents in taxidermy and curio collecting. He also sold raw hides, buckskins, moccasins, and snowshoes, many made by Cree artisans.
Darbey’s shop is characterized by clapboard construction, poor-quality window glass imperfectly reflecting buildings on the west side of Main Street just north of St. Mary Avenue, awnings to protect the window displays from the sun’s bleaching rays, and a remarkable menagerie within. Several animals are exotic for Winnipeg, like the two white-coat seal pups (right-hand window), surrounded by Snowshoe Hare, Red Fox, Badger, Swift Fox, Ermine, and a squirrel, all overseen by an exotic Walrus skull. The left-hand window is cluttered, but when magnified the image reveals two grouse (Spruce and Ruffed) above a diorama with three (four?) White-tailed Ptarmigan in winter plumage. A magpie swoops down in front. Others are indistinct: possibly a Blue Jay, owls, and a wasp nest. At the open window, upper right, blurry, a man leans on his elbow; is this a “Hitchcockian” cameo of Darbey himself?
Darbey already had the distinction of appointment by Premier Rodmond Roblin as “Official Taxidermist to the Manitoba Government” about 1902. It required him to provide taxidermic mounts to beautify public buildings. Two of his bison mounts long stood guard inside the front entrance of the Legislature. The honour bestowed by Roblin, plus Darbey’s fine reputation, convinced collectors far and near to submit specimens, even rare Whooping Cranes, for taxidermy. The Pablo bison were a bonus!
Clientele included sportsmen, naturalists and scientists, like Cyril Harrold (a remarkable collector and taxidermist who worked briefly for Darbey), Ernest Thompson Seton, and William Rowan (later a professor and pioneer in bird migration studies). Darbey’s obituarist (Manitoba Free Press, 26 August 1922) emphasized the esteem afforded this fur man in whose shop “… could be seen Indians and trappers from the great hinterland of the Canadian west [come] to barter their season’s harvest”. It was a hub of activity and good fellowship. But then …
These claims about 233 Main Street remain unsubstantiated in both the United Church of Canada and City of Winnipeg Archives. Note that Darbey’s name was often misspelled.
For pun and prophet, the headline’s triple-entendre about disappearing relics must be appreciated: Edward Darbey, 49, passed away on 25 August 1922 from a heart-related illness, 18 months after that Free Press announcement. His son Verne and daughter Iris survived him, as did his wife Edith who operated the taxidermy elsewhere on Main Street and at two Edmonton Street locations until 1931.
1. G. MacEwan, 1995. Buffalo: Sacred and Sacrificed. Alberta Sport, Recreation, Parks and Wildlife Foundation, Edmonton.
2. G. Colpitts, 2002. Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada to 1940. UBC Press.
Page revised: 22 May 2016