Memorable Manitobans: Robert Scott (1858-1922)

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Robert Scott
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General merchant.

Robert Scott had a vision for Shoal Lake that combined progress, pride and duty resulting in an active, exciting hub where people came from near and far to buy and sell, rest and relax. Scott believed in the locals, the lake, the land and the little settlement’s future. Described as an “aggressive merchant” and a “very enterprising young man,” Robert Scott was one of the first and most successful entrepreneurs in Shoal Lake.

Information on Scott’s life before coming west is scarce but one thing is certain, he traveled the Carlton Trail searching for a new life. When he arrived at The Narrows at the south end, something stopped him, some intuition or circumstance told him this was the spot. The North West Mounted Police detachment was built at The Narrows in 1875. A few businesses sprang up around it to service the NWMP, their mounts and the constant river of settlers heading west. Scott set up his store near the barracks and, though he built a small warehouse for storage, he never actually constructed a building for the store itself. Instead, he ran it out of a tent.

Beside his police and pioneer customers, Scott did a thriving business with the local aboriginals, mainly Sioux. He exchanged goods for furs rather than cash, extending credit in spring and summer and collecting in fall and winter when the furs came in. It was a barter system the Sioux knew and understood. Scott used that to his advantage. When the settlement moved to the north end of the lake after the railroad’s arrival in 1885, Scott simply packed up his canvas tent and stock and easily shifted his business to the new town site. Seeing the potential of the location, Scott bought 100 acres of land in the town site section for $1500 from William Bates in 1885. Bates was an early homesteader who bought almost half the section, sharing the rest with Matthew Thompson,“the father of Shoal Lake.” Some of this land Scott used for his own businesses, some for residences. By 1886, he’d built two stores and a grain elevator, all north of the tracks.

Very much a visionary, Scott saw Shoal Lake as a recreation hub and relaxation spot. To that end, Scott built a number of lovely cottages on both sides of the lake about 1886. Well-built and charming, the cottages attracted vacationing city people. Some can from as far away as Ontario, seeking the clean prairie air. These cottages were later moved into the village, becoming family homes. 1889 was a significant year in Scott’s life. He began building the first Shoal Lake Creamery on the east side of the lake in May 1889. Scott’s creamery recorded a number of firsts over the course of his ownership including the first cream pasteurizer in Manitoba. His award-winning creamery eventually had a capacity of 8,000 lbs of butter, 500 gallons of ice cream and 5,000 units of milk per day. It supplied bottled milk to stores covering an area of more than 2400 square miles.

Robert Scott married Elizabeth Findlay in 1889. She was the second daughter of James and Emma Findlay who came to the area from Ontario in 1879, making them one of the district’s pioneer families. Elizabeth had two brothers and a sister, Scott’s new in-laws who helped him on a number of projects. Destiny balanced Scott’s good fortunes that year with a substantial loss. In early September 1889, a stiff northwest wind fanned a fire that swept through the business section north of the tracks destroying eight businesses including Scott’s store. The loss devastated the village and changed the face of Shoal Lake forever. The people rebounded. Thereafter the business section blossomed along Station Road where Scott built two stores side by side, one general and one hardware, opening them in 1892. His large general store had its own dressmaker and millinery and was well known in the district for its fine quality and tasteful merchandise. This building, later known as Thornbeck’s, then Menzies until it burned down in 1972, was one-storey pale buff brick with a central entrance and tall display windows across the façade. There were three sections with the hardware store occupying the one on the north side and the general store in the other sections. The south section later became Paterson’s Café. John Simpson, a well-respected local carpenter, built the store for Scott. Simpson had a carriage factory in Shoal Lake but he did major building contracts too. Besides Scott’s Store, Simpson also built the Creamery for him in 1889, Simpson-Miller Blocks, several houses and helped on many more construction projects.

According to an ad in a May 1899 Shoal Lake Star, Scott’s General Store was touting a recently added millinery section with special prices on the latest styles of trimmed hats ranging from $1.25 to $3.25. Ladies’ blouses ranged from 50 cents to $1. In March 1900, Scott was promoting a pre-stock-taking sale – 20 % off for cash purchases. He also pitched 500 pairs of children’s, ladies’ and men’s’ slippers priced to clear at 10, 15 and 25 cents a pair!

Robert and Elizabeth Scott had two children. Walter was born in 1891 and Margaret in 1899. Tragedy struck the family in 1897 when young Walter was killed in a riding accident.

In 1892, Scott expanded his business concerns to Hamiota. His father and brother-in-law, James and Charles Findlay, build a store for him there. The next year, Scott built a three-storey home for his family near the Shoal Lake Creamery. Shoal Lake Creamery was over capacity with butter in 1898. Always searching for his next opportunity and never afraid to venture far afield, Scott sent a boxcar of Shoal Lake butter to Dawson City, Yukon to capitalize on the Gold Rush, which had begun the previous summer. William Findlay, Scott’s brother-in-law, took the shipment north with very profitable results. About 1900, Scott’s trading adventures even took him and Elizabeth to the Orient with a shipload of, you guessed it, butter. Sealed in 2- and 5-poundcans to prevent spoiling, they sold 150,000 pounds of butter, trading some of it for silks and other exotic fabrics for the store back in Shoal Lake.

One consistent pattern of Scott’s business success was his excellent timing. In 1902, he opened a large grain elevator. He’d built a small one north of the tracks in the late 1880s. The capacity of his new venture was 100,000 bushels, just in time to handle the incredible increases in grain production occurring every year.

Robert Scott’s business acumen had become renown throughout the province. In 1902, Scott’s portrait was included in a book of prominent Manitobans called Representative Men of Manitoba. History in Portraiture. A Gallery of Men, Whose Energy, Ability, Enterprise and Public Spirit Have Produced the Marvelous Record of the Prairie Province. Published by The Tribune Publishing Company of Winnipeg, the book featured dozens of black and white portraits including the one accompanying this feature.

After nearly thirty years in business in Shoal Lake, Robert Scott needed a change. In 1904, he sold his holdings, lock stock and barrel, to the Smellie Brothers of Russell, entrepreneurs of the same caliber as Scott. The Smellies even bought the family house. Robert and Elizabeth lived in town for a few more years. Scott’s Hall, which he’d built on Station Road, was destroyed by fire in 1907. The couple moved to Winnipeg about 1911 where Robert successfully tried his hand at real estate. His timing was advantageous again as Winnipeg was experiencing a boom time with a fast-growing population.

During the First World War, the Scotts moved to Victoria, British Columbia. There Robert died in 1922 and Elizabeth in 1955.


This page was prepared by Reid Dickie

Page revised: 22 February 2016

Memorable Manitobans

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