Manitoba History: Dan Bain: The Squire of Delta Marsh
by Gordon Goldsborough
Many famous people visited Delta through the years. Most of them stayed just two or three days, perhaps to shoot ducks in the fall, or to relax on the beach under the summer sun. But a few notables enjoyed themselves enough to put down permanent roots at Delta. One of these people was Donald H. “Dan” Bain, an influential Winnipegger who probably first arrived at Delta in the early 1900s as the guest of a friend who owned a shooting lodge in the western part of the marsh. Virtually every Manitoban of the day would recognize Bain on sight, or at least knew him by reputation, because he was widely admired or hated—depending on one’s disposition. Described as one of the most broadly talented athletes in Manitoba’s history, as well as one of its wealthiest businessmen and most eligible bachelors, Dan Bain was a crack rifle shot who won the Canadian trapshooting title in August 1903. Being an avid waterfowl hunter, and an intensely private man, Bain bought large chunks of marshland so he could have his own private hunting estate. He built a grand lodge on the shore of Lake Manitoba—accessible only by a private road he controlled with an iron fist—so he could enjoy long periods of quiet relaxation in relative isolation. In time, Bain’s fame would fade so that, today, he is remembered only by fans of arcane sports trivia and a few odd historians.
Born at Belleville, Ontario on 14 February 1874, Bain was the second-youngest of seven children born to James Henderson Bain (1828–1906) and Helen Miller (1832–1907) of Caithness, Scotland. When he was six years old, Dan moved with his family to Winnipeg, at a time when the city was still in its infancy. Like other wealthy Canadians who began pouring into Western Canada in the early 1880s, the Bains probably arrived aboard the railway that came up to Manitoba from St. Paul, Minnesota. They moved into a comfortable, two-storey house at 168 Fort Street (now long-gone), and Bain’s father augmented what was an already considerable personal wealth by purchasing farmland around the city and buying horses on behalf of the British government. Bain presumably attended a local public school for his primary education and received a baccalaureate degree from Manitoba College, a Presbyterian institution of higher learning established in 1871.
In 1970, Bain was posthumously named one of the five greatest Manitoba athletes of the century. Early signs of his athletic prowess were evident by 1887 when, at the age of 13, he won the provincial three-mile roller skating championship. Four years later, he was named Manitoba’s all-around gymnastics champion. One of Manitoba’s earliest cycling enthusiasts, he won the provincial racing crown in three consecutive years (1894 to 1896). He was an active lacrosse player, and an avid golfer. But Bain’s best-known athletic achievement came as a player with the Winnipeg Victorias hockey club. He joined in 1895 and played for seven seasons, including three seasons as team captain. He played Centre on the team that captured the Stanley Cup in 1896 and 1901.
In the early days of Canadian hockey, the Stanley Cup was awarded for amateur prowess, and unlike today, it was a challenge trophy whereby the team that held it could be challenged to a game or series, the winner of which held the Cup until the next challenge. On 14 February 1896, the Victorias played a Montreal team, also known as the Victorias, at Montreal’s home rink and won handily, with Bain scoring the game-winning goal. However, their claim to hockey supremacy was short-lived. The Montreal team successfully challenged the Winnipeggers when they came to town in December 1896.
Bain and his teammates played by a strict code of behaviour. In 1899, their challenge for the Stanley Cup was lost on a technicality; team members were outraged when one of their players was injured by a Montrealer who received what they perceived as an inadequate penalty. The Victorias left the ice in protest and forfeited the game (and the Cup). They lost again in 1900. But in January 1901, the Winnipeggers again won the elusive Cup, defeating the Montreal Shamrocks in two games at Montreal. Bain scored three decisive goals in those games.
Bain was a resolute amateur and, as he grew older, he was increasingly vocal that the quality of hockey play had deteriorated as the game was taken over by professionals lacking stamina and skill. Bain derided the use of protective equipment; in his day, players wore nothing but skates and a uniform. During Bain’s playing career, the team played the entire game without substitution, in marked contrast to regular shift changes that characterize modern hockey. When, in 1949, Bain was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, he said the honour gave him “no great thrill” because the quality of the other players in whose company he was enshrined was so low. But this was not to be the last Hall to which Bain would be inducted due to his hockey skills. He was one of the first western Canadians, and the first amateur player, elected to the International Hockey Hall of Fame in 1949. After his death, he was elected to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame (1971) and the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame (1981).
Bain retired as a hockey player in early 1902 but he remained affiliated with amateur hockey as Honorary President and Coach of the Victorias Club well into the 1910s. No one knows why he quit at what was arguably the height of his hockey career. He was only 28 years old; some of his teammates played well into their 30s. It is possible the demands of his growing business interests required greater attention, or he might have simply wanted to retire before the inevitable decline. A curious but unsubstantiated rumour passed down by the Bain family is that he quit after a grisly accident caused by a flying puck. In any event, Bain quit team sports but his interest in skating continued. As late as 1930, at the age of 56, he captured the Canadian figure skating champion in the pairs competition, and was active in the formation of the Winnipeg Winter Club.
Bain began his working life while still in his teens. In 1888, at the age of 14, he became a bookkeeper apprentice with grocery broker William F. Henderson of the firm Henderson and Bull, later W. F. Henderson and Company. (Although Bain’s middle name was Henderson, there is no indication that W. F. was a relative.) The firm had been established in business at Winnipeg on the heels of a real estate boom that had overwhelmed the city in 1881 and 1882. Henderson and Bull specialized in the importation of tea, sugar, and rice. In 1883, evidently doing well, the company moved to more spacious quarters on Bannatyne Avenue near the Red River. At the time, Winnipeg was the only metropolitan centre on the Canadian prairies, so it served as the commercial hub for a vast region. All goods destined for communities across what would become Saskatchewan and Alberta had to pass through Winnipeg. This meant those who controlled the flow of goods made vast profits, and Dan Bain arrived at just the right time as immigrants began flowing into the region. Grocery brokers bought foods in bulk quantities and transferred them into smaller packages for retail sale. In effect, grocery brokers were the proverbial “middle men” who made all the money.
By 1896, William Henderson (who two years earlier had founded the Winnipeg Humane Society) was financially independent so he sold the business to his manager, Edward Nicholson, one of Bain’s neighbours on Fort Street. Within a few years, Nicholson took on Bain as a junior partner in the firm which, by 1905, operated under the name of Nicholson and Bain. From all appearances, the business thrived, operating branch offices at Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, and Edmonton.
In 1906, soon after the death of his father, Bain bought the three-storey Waghorn House at 69 East Gate in the exclusive Armstrong’s Point area of Winnipeg. Although constructed just ten years earlier by publisher J. R. Waghorn, the structure did not meet Bain’s standards, as he undertook extensive renovations to turn it into a 4,500 square-foot, sumptuous mansion featuring, among other things, a spring-mounted dance floor and a trophy room to display his extensive collection of sports and hunting memorabilia. His mother joined him there but her residence was short-lived; she died soon after moving in. Bain was already well-to-do due to his growing business wealth; he also received a tidy inheritance from his parents, while his siblings received comparatively paltry bequests.
Bain’s East Gate mansion served two important functions: it was his home and refuge from the working world but it was also a place where business was done. It was common for early 20th-century businessmen to bring home clients, sometimes with little or no notice, for a fine meal followed by business transacted over cigars and spirits. Therefore, a man in Bain’s position needed a dutiful woman at home to coordinate and backstop his many social obligations. Being a life-long bachelor, Bain filled the position of “lady of the house” with a succession of relatives and near-relatives. The first such homemaker was his cousin Ella, of whom Bain was apparently very fond. When she died in 1910 at the age of 36, Bain was griefstricken, carrying a copy of her obituary and a small photo in a locket for years. The next matron of 69 East Gate was his sister Elizabeth. Her husband, early Winnipeg boot and shoe merchant A. J. Smale, had died in 1899 of tuberculosis, leaving her with three young children to raise alone. The Smales moved into 69 East Gate and provided Bain with an instant, surrogate family. Indeed, his nephew Albert Smale would in time join his company and later took over control from his uncle. Years later, many people who did not know the connection between Bain and his sister’s family were adamant that he had been married with three children. The final woman in Bain’s life was Verna Mackay, an enigmatic figure who is described by some sources as a distant cousin. Born in Scotland in 1912, she came to Winnipeg and worked as a packer in Bain’s warehouse from around 1930. In 1948, following the death of Elizabeth Smale four years earlier, Mackay moved into 69 East Gate and lived there for the rest of Bain’s (and her) life, and also became a shareholder in Bain’s company. She was widely rumoured to be Bain’s mistress but no corroborating evidence survives.
The two partners in the firm of Nicholson & Bain had remarkably different lifestyles. Nicholson was, by all accounts, an extroverted spendthrift who took his family on lengthy, motoring adventures around the United States (at a time when automobiles were rare, and highways nearly non-existent) and maintained an extravagant cottage on Lake of the Woods, whereas Bain was a hard-nosed workaholic who, after retiring from the Victorias, kept a low public profile. Described by a friend as “salty in speech and strongly opinionated”, Dan Bain was tough and individualistic. He felt justified in forcing his strict, moral code on everyone with whom he interacted, going so far as to fire one of his nieces when she used a swear word while working at his company. Later in his life, Bain would tell a young visitor to his Delta hunting lodge that, to be successful in life, he should avoid three things: women, liquor, and politics. Frugal to a fault, Bain also advised the young fellow to “look after the small change and the dollars will look after themselves.” It appears Bain was a strict adherent of his own advice. Although he enjoyed the company of women, it was always in a platonic capacity and he never seems to have had a serious personal relationship with any of them. Other visitors to Bain’s lodge recalled having to sneak alcoholic drinks in their bedrooms because Bain, a dedicated teetotaller, refused to let them drink in his presence. Bain, described by one of his business associates as an “arch-conservative,” never sought public office but did volunteer that “no thinking Canadian will ever vote Liberal.” So long as Bain perceived that his friends and family lived up to his high standards, he was generous and would shower them with largesse. But he was swift in cutting them off if there were any perceived transgressions in behaviour. Bain was not well-known as a philanthropist, but he nevertheless made donations to hospitals in Winnipeg, and in his will left bequests to several community projects.
Bain’s uncompromising personality must have led inevitably to friction with Nicholson because by 1917 the partnership had dissolved. Nicholson, known to be fond of drink, dabbled in Winnipeg business ventures for a couple of years but spent many of his waning days in Hollywood, boosting the movie career of his daughter-in-law, Lillian Rich (who would enjoy considerable fame on the silent screen). Bain became the sole proprietor of the now-renamed Donald H. Bain Company. Under his control, the business added branch offices at Vancouver, Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Toronto, and Montreal, and it opened purchasing offices at London and Liverpool in Britain. The firm bought train carloads of such fruits as dates, figs, raisins, and nuts, as well as sugar, peas, and other staples. For a period of time, the company held the exclusive distribution rights to Campbell Soup in western Canada.
Bain prospered at a time when there were few restrictions on business. Personal income tax was not imposed on Canadians until 1917. It was introduced as a “temporary measure” to bankroll the federal government’s efforts in the First World War. Given his independent-mindedness, Bain was vigorously opposed to taxes and was vehemently anti-government in virtually all respects. Business associates described him as a fierce competitor who, if given the opportunity to out-manoeuvre another businessman in a deal, would do so gleefully. But Bain was said to be completely trustworthy in upholding the conditions of business transactions that he had negotiated and always fulfilled the terms of an agreed-upon arrangement. Bain clearly thought of himself as an astute businessman and he bristled whenever accusations were raised that he had built his company on his hockey fame. In July 1923, Bain’s company became incorporated under the name of Donald H. Bain Company Limited, with Bain as its Chief Executive Officer and primary shareholder (having 4997 of its 5000 shares, valued at $100 each), and his accountant and salesmen (and later two of his nephews) as its (very much) minority shareholders.
Bain poured his growing wealth into real estate and other assets. In addition to his own home at 69 East Gate, he owned three other properties on Armstrong’s Point, at least two of which became the homes for members of his extended family. He bought farmland at Grosse Isle on the outskirts of Winnipeg, and a large land parcel on the west side of Portage la Prairie where Fort La Reine, an early fur-trade post, had been situated. He also had a summer cottage at Matlock, on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg.
Bain had an early love affair with automobiles and ranks among the very first car owners in Manitoba. In 1903, the Winnipeg Telegram newspaper reported that “Mr. Bain’s surrey, the only machine of this type in the city, is the largest “auto” in use in Winnipeg. The weight of the ‘mobile is 2,000 pounds. It has a seating capacity of six persons, is equipped with 9 horsepower, giving a maximum forward speed of thirty miles and a reverse speed of four to fifteen miles an hour. The most general type in Winnipeg, the gasoline runabout, weighs between 600 and 1,100 pounds and can travel twenty or twenty-five miles an hour.” In 1905, he was elected President of the Winnipeg Automobile Club, forerunner to today’s CAA Manitoba, and he was a founding member of the Motor Country Club whose clubhouse from 1913 to 1962 was Lower Fort Garry, now a national historic site. Bain participated in Club-sponsored “runs” to outlying destinations with other car owners.
Bain reportedly had a policy of never selling his cars, preferring instead to store them on one of his properties when they broke down or, more likely, he grew tired of them. Cars were parked in his Bannatyne Avenue grocery warehouse, at his Grosse Isle farm, and eventually at Delta. He was even said to have hoarded cars in times of scarcity. In the early days of the Second World War, he was rumoured to have purchased a pair of his favourite cars and stored them in anticipation of a shortage, for as peacetime car manufacturers stopped production they turned to building war machines. By the time of his death, he owned by conservative estimates well over a dozen cars.
Although not a gregarious social animal, Bain recognized the value of memberships in a wide variety of clubs as a means of fostering his business interests. He was a Mason for 57 years, a Khartum Shriner, and an Odd Fellow. He was a Life Governor of the Winnipeg General Hospital, President of the Niakwa Country Club and the Winnipeg Winter Club, and a founding member of the St. Charles Country Club. Recognizing his love of nature, he was a life member of the Manitoba Game and Fish Association, the Winnipeg Humane Society, and the Portage Country Club. Bain was a long-time member of Westminster United Church but he was not especially religious. As an illustration, Bain was having some excavation work done at his property. A worker for the company that Bain had hired refused to work on Sunday. So Bain bought the company and fired the worker, then hired someone who would do the work when Bain wanted it.
Bain had an abiding love of dogs and generally had at least a couple with him at all times, including at his office on Bannatyne and at home on East Gate. It was widely claimed that he treated his pets better than members of his family. In one anecdote, his Winnipeg housekeeper long exhorted him to install carpet on stairs where people were inclined to slip and hurt themselves. Bain resolutely refused her requests until one of his prized dogs was injured on the staircase and carpeting was installed forthwith. Visiting dinner guests recalled the stench of wet dogs lounging under the dinner table, to which Bain—who allegedly had a poor sense of smell as a result of a sporting injury—was oblivious. He owned dogs of several breeds through the years but seems to have had a special love for Curly-Coated Retrievers, a rare breed distinguished by its densely curled, black fur that makes them look something like a large, black poodle. Bain received his first Curly from a breeder in Scotland, around 1914, and later bred his own in kennels at his Portage la Prairie farm. Several generations of his favourite dog sported a racially charged name based on their blackness.
Foremost among Bain’s recreational pursuits was his passion for waterfowling. It is difficult to ascertain when Bain first arrived at Delta. It may have been as a guest of Winnipeg shipping company manager Joe Lemon, who he would have known through mutual business interests, and also by virtue that Lemon was a breeder of hunting dogs. Both men were trapshooting champions and they had several mutual acquaintances, such as lawyer Isaac Pitblado and hockey player Rod Flett. Even if Bain did not know Lemon well, he would doubtless have met him at Delta because Bain was a member of the Portage Country Club that owned the land immediately neighbouring Lemon’s marshland property. Bain became a Club member in 1917, the first member not resident in the RM of Portage la Prairie. Whether or not Joe Lemon facilitated Bain’s arrival at Delta, he clearly enabled Bain’s acquisition of a substantial landbase at Delta. In 1929, five years after Lemon died, Bain purchased 640 acres of marsh from the Lemon estate. He bought an additional four PCC shares in 1931 (at a time when, by practice, no member had more than a single share) and the Club sold him the eastern half of the land it owned along the lakeshore for construction of a lodge, for which it acquired right-of-way through the former Lemon property onto PCC property. This right-of-way would be a source of ongoing friction between Bain and the Club, as Bain would contend that club traffic degraded the road, forcing him to pay for repairs. (In the 1950s, faced with continuing animosity from Bain over the use of his road, the Club used a loan from three of its members to upgrade the road along the lakeshore, which became their primary means of access to their property.)
In 1932, Bain constructed the grand Mallard Lodge as a retreat for hunting and relaxation, replacing a comparatively humble lodge that he had acquired as part of the Lemon property, built around 1914 by Lemon and his then-hunting partner, Winnipeg physician Fred Cadham (who moved down the lakeshore and built another lodge near the Delta railway terminus). It featured electric lights (thanks to a gas-powered generator in a nearby powerhouse, because rural electrification did not reach the Delta area until the early 1950s), running water, insulation for year-round use, a sumptuous living room with a magnificent fieldstone fireplace, and a full concrete basement with a drinking water cistern. And it was built in Bain’s typical uncompromising manner. When told by the engineers he had hired to build it that the underlying sand would not support the structure, Bain fired them and did the foundation work himself, assisted by his nephews. (Eighty years later, the absence of cracks in the basement floor supports Bain’s point of view.) Other buildings at the site included an automobile garage, dog kennels, and a few outbuildings for storage. The original Lemon lodge became a residence for Bain’s live-in caretaker, the last of whom (in the early 1960s) was Edward Murray.
Over the course of the next 30 years, Bain would spend prolonged periods of each summer and fall at Mallard Lodge, and would even occasionally spend Christmas and other winter holidays there as well.. Family and friends relished invitations to spend time with him at the lodge, knowing they were only given to the privileged few. It is widely rumoured that movie star Clark Gable stayed at the lodge during his visits to the Portage Country Club in 1938 but Bain family members recall that he refused the famous visitor. This was characteristic behaviour for Bain, who was widely known to be fiercely protective of his privacy. In fact, to enforce his control over the property, Bain erected prominent warning signs and a fence around the perimeter, remnants of which remain in place today. Bain’s fence was a marked departure from past practice. While he was certainly not the first person to own land at the marsh, he was the first to make a concerted effort to exclude anyone but his invited guests. Numerous hunters who had taken for granted their “right” to trespass anywhere they pleased were highly incensed by Bain’s move. They risked incurring his personal wrath, and his ready access to legal muscle, if they were caught trespassing; so, most registered their protests from the safety of the property edge by shooting at his signs with their shotguns. Even those who walked along the lakeshore—technically public land—were likely to be run off at the end of a gun barrel.
Bain cemented his stranglehold on the central part of the marsh by purchasing, between 1937 and 1938, several surrounding sections of lands, and over a mile of lakeshore, bringing his total estate to over 3,000 acres. His was the single-largest privately owned land parcel in Delta Marsh. Included in the land purchase was a farm located southeast of the original Lemon lodge that had previously belonged to provincial sheriff Colin Inkster of Winnipeg (for whom Inkster Boulevard is named). The farm had been tended by the sheriff’s son, Colin R. S. Inkster, a former North West Mounted Policeman and First World War veteran. In May 1937, near the end of the Great Depression, Inkster (having bought the land from his father in 1929) sold the title to Bain, who permitted Inkster and his family to stay on the property until about 1950, when they moved to Winnipeg. Sheriff Inkster himself died as a result of smoke inhalation suffered when his Delta hunting lodge burned down in 1934.
In his declining years during the 1950s, Bain visited Delta less often but he nevertheless kept a caretaker on the site year-round, to keep the place in shape in case he decided to visit. He told visitors that he was considering giving the land to the provincial government for use as a game sanctuary. But Bain never acted on that plan and he gradually lost the ability to communicate with those around him. Administration of his company was gradually taken over by his nephew Albert Smale, assisted by a long-serving employee Duncan MacPherson. By the time he died, at his Winnipeg home on 15 August 1962 at the age of 88, Bain was a mere shadow of the powerful man that he had once been.
Bain was buried without fanfare in the St. John’s Cathedral Cemetery in north Winnipeg, along with many of the city’s other former business and social elite. By October 1962, Smale and MacPherson were appointed as executors of his estate. They undertook an assessment of its value, and allegations arose almost immediately that some valuable assets had disappeared mysteriously. The two men attempted to sell Bain’s lodge and property at Delta but the terms of the will were unclear about whether the executors had the power to sell real property. It took a legal decision that dragged into 1964 before a decision was made. Meanwhile, on 30 March 1964, a frenzied auction was held at Mallard Lodge, attended by numerous people who were curious to finally see the mythical lodge and its storied contents. The place was stripped to bare walls, including the carpets stained by generations of dogs urinating on them. The Delta property and buildings were sold to Octave Enterprises of Winnipeg in a suspicious transaction that involved re-selling them just four weeks later to the provincial government, at twice the original purchase price. The government eventually turned over the property to the University of Manitoba for use as a field research facility that operated until 2010. In Winnipeg, collectors of antique automobiles queued for the opportunity to buy Bain’s extensive collection. (Some would be shipped to buyers in England and others became part of an extensive collection at Carman.) By May 1964, acting on complaints from some of the family, the two Bain executors were relieved of their duties by the Court of Queen’s Bench, and a trust company took over. In the end, it was determined that the Bain estate was worth slightly over one million dollars. Bequests were made to the Winnipeg General Hospital, Winnipeg Humane Society, Shriners Hospital, Middlechurch Home, and Knox United Church. Seventeen employees of the Bain company received some $20,000. Verna Mackay was given two years to buy 69 East Gate and all its contents for a paltry $15,000. His relatives split the remaining value, including over $800,000 in stocks, bonds, and cash.
Bain’s company was in trouble by the time of his death. Unlike the heady days in the early 20th century when grocery brokers could make vast profits, by the 1950s the margins had become razor slim. Bain had secured a major loan to the company using his personal assets as collateral, and the death-knell to Donald H. Bain Company Limited was caused by a major miscalculation that is still studied today by business management students. The firm had purchased a large quantity of walnuts from China but were unable to sell them at anything approaching their purchase price when, for three successive years, Chinese walnut-growers had bumper crops that caused worldwide prices to plummet. Most of the walnuts in storage at the Bain warehouse went rancid before they could be sold. In desperation, the company’s assets were sold to a food wholesaler in British Columbia who kept the Bain name alive for several years, until finally its last vestige disappeared from corporate registers in 1992.
Verna Mackay lived in Bain’s former mansion at 69 East Gate—still filled with his sports memorabilia, personal effects, and furniture—until her premature death of a brain tumour in October 1980. Before she died, Mackay donated most of the sports-related items to the Hockey Hall of Fame at Toronto, bolstering dramatically the Hall’s collections on the early history of hockey in Canada. Among the items were hockey sticks liberally [autographed?] by members of the Victorias, skates, pucks, trophies, and photos. Additional non-hockey items went to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Mackay’s will left the bulk of the estate to her sister in England. The Stillmans, a wealthy couple from the United States—she with roots at Gilbert Plains and he a member of the powerful Rockefeller family— offered to purchase 69 East Gate, with all its contents. They were distressed to learn that Verna’s relatives had, in the meantime, taken some silverware, personal effects, and papers. The Stillmans bought the house anyway, took possession in 1980, then spent five years renovating it back to its former glory. The Stillman residence was short-lived, however, as Mr. Stillman did not like Manitoba’s “cold weather and abundance of mosquitoes.” They had most of the contents shipped to a new home in New Mexico. A collection of Bain photos left at the house eventually found its way to the archives of the University of Manitoba, some of which illustrate this article.
Donald Bain ended up no different from many other prominent Manitobans who, despite promises at their death that they would “never be forgotten,” have been largely forgotten. He is remembered mainly as having brought Lord Stanley’s Cup to Manitoba for two short visits, in 1895 and 1901. What is noteworthy about Bain’s story is that he was a pioneer in a lifestyle rare for his time but relatively commonplace today. He was a competitive athlete when most people got their exercise by dint of hard, manual labour, and he was a life-long advocate for keeping physically fit. He was a self-avowed “car nut” when horsepower was almost universally provided by horses but is now available to most everyone. And his ability to get away to the lakeshore, once available to the privileged elite, is now a ritual enjoyed by a broad cross-section of Manitobans, including many at Delta Beach.
Page revised: 3 December 2019