Manitoba History: Cool Things in the Collection: Gowen’s Brandon, Then & Now

by Christy M. Henry, Brandon University
and Eileen Trott, Daly House Museum

Number 77, Winter 2015

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Museums and archives have a common mission within their communities to collect, preserve and provide access to historic documents and artifacts that allow the community to access its cultural heritage. This shared initiative means that archives and museums in small communities can often find themselves competing with each other for collections, funding and audiences. However, their common mission also makes them natural partners for collaborative projects, which allows each organization to develop closer links within the community and with each other. Over the years, Daly House Museum and the S. J. McKee Archives (Brandon University) have both co-operated with and competed against each other. In 2012, Daly House Museum curator Eileen Trott and University Archivist Christy Henry decided to use their similar mandates—to preserve the heritage of Brandon and area—as an opportunity for both institutions to let the community discover its jointly held collections through the production of a photographic exhibit showcasing images taken by local photographer Frank Gowen during Brandon’s boom era (1900-1914).

The resulting exhibit, Gowen’s Brandon: Then & Now, features 47 reproductions of Frank Gowen’s historic images of Brandon paired with present-day photographs of the same locations taken by local photographer Graham Street. The joint exhibit, which will be on display concurrently at the Daly House Museum’s Exhibition Gallery and the Tommy McLeod Curve Gallery at Brandon University’s John E. Robbins Library from 22 January to 31 April 2015, aims to contrast Brandon during a period of unprecedented development to the cityscape we see today.

The photographs held by the S. J. McKee Archives were all taken by the Davidson & Gowen Studio and come from the Alf Fowler collection. Fowler, who spent the majority of his life in Ontario, served in the Royal Canadian Artillery during the Second World War and for part of his service was stationed in Shilo, Manitoba. During his time in Manitoba, Fowler met his wife, Elsie Bowen, and also acquired 105 prints created by Davidson & Gowen. The photographs, which depict Brandon buildings and street scenes, were likely produced for display and/or for commercial sale as part of the Harvest Edition of The Brandon Daily Sun. Following Fowler’s death, the prints were left to his widow and upon her death the estate passed to Elsie’s nephew, a resident of Brandon who donated the photographs to the McKee Archives in 1999.

In contrast, the images from the Daly House Museum came from a number of sources. A quarter of the photographs displayed in Gowen’s Brandon: Then & Now come from the Assiniboine Historical Society and the City of Brandon collections. The Assiniboine Historical Society, a group dedicated to the promotion of public history through the collection and preservation of historical materials, founded the Daly House Museum and donated its collection of 78 photographic images depicting the history of Brandon and Western Manitoba to the Museum. At the time the Museum was established, the City of Brandon was also looking for a repository for 175 images and other artifacts that had been in storage since the demolition of Brandon’s original City Hall. The newly formed Museum was the perfect location for this collection, which ranged from mayoral portraits to images of the activities of various public works departments, including the construction of the Brandon Street Railway. Like other archives and museums, the Daly House also receives rare and unique photographs from private citizens. The collections of Francis Lister, Mrs. Paul Chiesche, A. McKenzie, Florence Clark, W. McRae and William J. Birtles provided the remaining photographs from the Daly House featured in the exhibition.

The historic images in this exhibit were carefully selected from the more than 150 Frank Gowen photographs held between the Daly House Museum and the S. J. McKee Archives (Brandon University). Some of the photos were taken by Gowen and his business partner Alexander Davidson specifically for the Harvest Edition; others were taken by Gowen alone. All of the images were shot during Brandon’s boom era. The modern images were taken by Street during the latter half of 2014. Every effort was made to provide a range of businesses, institutions, organizations and amenities, both from within the downtown core and outside the city. Whenever possible, particular care was given to taking the “now” images from the same angle and under similar conditions to those of the originals. It is our hope that by contrasting these images side-by-side the viewer will be able to trace both the similarities and the changes within Brandon’s architectural history over the past century.

Over the past year, the collaboration has faced a number of challenges. In terms of photograph selection, it was at times difficult to find a balance between the appeal of the historical image and the reality of the current-day location. A number of historic images also had to be excluded due to an inability to access shooting locations, either because the appropriate location no longer existed or because Graham Street was unable to gain access. Other images were culled during the research process when it became difficult to trace a building’s history.

This partnership proves that museums and archives can collaborate productively and fruitfully to bring their collections to new audiences and improve the public perception of each institution within their communities.

Gowen’s Brandon: The City and The Photographs

In anticipation of the Dominion Fair to be held in Brandon in June 1913, the Brandon Sun, in co-operation with a number of Brandon’s businessmen, released the Harvest Edition of The Brandon Daily Sun on 1 November 1912. Featuring photographs and stories on a large number of Brandon businesses and amenities, the publication was endorsed on the front page by the businessmen, manufacturers, wholesale merchants, professional men and citizens generally who proclaimed that the edition was “published in the interest and commercial welfare, and for the up-building of Brandon, the city with a future.” The spirit of optimism featured in the Harvest Edition was a reflection of the boom era that Brandon had been experiencing since the turn of the 20th century. During the period 1900–1914, Brandon saw the greatest growth in its history, its population more than doubling. This growth changed the face of Brandon completely, perhaps most noticeably in the business sector, although civic improvements and a residential construction boom also characterized the period.

Local photography firm Davidson & Gowen was hired to produce the images for the Harvest Edition. Owned and operated by Frank Gowen and Alexander Davidson, the company was located at 115 Tenth Street and specialized in photography and framing.

Frank Henry Gowen was born on 1 November 1878 at Sutton Benger, Chippenham, in the county of Wiltshire, England. Gowen belonged to the Mekshem Camera Club and apprenticed with a photographer in London. During a trip to Manitoba with his younger brother Rex, Gowen met and fell in love with Nellie Gertrude from Brandon whom he married on 30 March 1907.

Gowen opened Gowen’s Studio in Brandon around 1905, with initial premises at 35 Eighth Street, before moving to 22 Eighth Street. Specializing in scenic photography, he also produced studio portraits and did commercial work, provided developing and finishing work and advertised Kodak products. Gowen also partnered with various individuals in Brandon while operating his solo enterprise, including Bryant’s Studio and Davidson Bros. By 1911, Gowen was also operating a branch studio in Wawanesa. During his last two years in Brandon, Gowen was in partnership with Alexander Davidson as Davidson & Gowen—photographers and purveyors of art goods.

Alexander Davidson was born in Ontario in 1865, and arrived in Brandon in 1882 at the age of 17, making him among the original group of settlers in Brandon. In 1896, Davidson started a photography business with his brother—Davidson Bros.—which was located at 831 Rosser Avenue. A branch of the business was also operated out of Deloraine. Around 1906, Alexander Davidson became the sole owner of Davidson Bros. When Gowen moved his family to Vancouver in spring 1913, the Davidson & Gowen Studio became Davidson Photography. Operating out of the same location, Davidson continued business until his retirement in 1923. He died in Vancouver on 8 March 1928.

Frank Gowen continued to work as a professional photographer in Vancouver. In 1916, he bid for and won the exclusive right to take photographs to be sold commercially at the Big Tree and at Prospect Point in Stanley Park. He added a souvenir kiosk at Prospect Point in 1932, which he operated until 1944. During his years as “the Official Stanley Park Photographer,” Gowen also partnered with Alfred James Sutton in Gowen Sutton Company Ltd. and, with his daughters, tinted black-and-white photos for George Noble, a well-known Banff photographic studio and gift shop and processed Western Canadian Airways’ aerial photographs at his home darkroom. Frank Gowen died in Vancouver on 3 February 1946.

Rideau Park

Rideau Park
Source: Alf Fowler Collection (6-1999.70), S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon University

Located between the two city blocks bordered by Lorne and Louise avenues and Park and Franklin streets, the land designated for Rideau Park was initially believed to have been donated to the City of Brandon by James Woodsworth. However, in 1907, during the early planning stages for the park land, it was discovered that Woodsworth had actually sold the land to the Clementi-Smiths in 1884.

Homeowners in the neighbourhood took an active role in the ownership dispute, petitioning City Council to secure possession of the property, arguing that many of them had purchased their houses/property because there was to be a park established nearby. They further argued that, if the west end of the city had a park (West End Park, renamed Stanley Park), then so, too, should the east end have a park.

Ownership of the land was resolved in 1908, when the Clementi-Smiths, who had lived in England since 1890, had the title transferred to the City. A year later City Hall ordered the property be prepared for trees, shrubs, flower beds and a bandstand using prison labour, and work began.

The park has undergone a number of improvements over the decades. The 1920s saw the expansion of the bowling greens and improvements to the Wheat City Bowling Club house, as well as the construction of a public playground under the auspices of the Kinsmen Club. In 1929, the Parks Board was successful in its petition to have the proposed elevated water tank constructed south of the park proper; the block of land where the water tank stands was officially recognized by the City of Brandon as a public park in July 1931. Church services and open-air concerts were commonly held in Rideau Park during this period. Additionally, plans were made to establish a recreational park with tennis courts, softball diamonds and other summer recreational facilities as well as a skating rink and toboggan slide for the winter.

On 12 May 1937, in connection with coronation day simultaneous ceremonies were held in four places around the city: Rideau Park, Coronation Park, Livingstone School and McLaren School. At Rideau Park, the ceremony included the planting of a blue spruce tree and the erection of a marble slab reading “Coronation Tree, May 12, 1937” in the northeast section of the park.

In 1967, the Brandon Kinsmen Club approved the construction of an $80,000 centennial swimming pool; the Brandon Family YMCA currently receives money from the city every summer to operate the Kinsmen pool during July and August. A new splash pad and spray park, owned and operated by the city opened in 2014.

Laying Brandon Street Railway Tracks

Laying Brandon Street Railway Tracks
Source: City of Brandon Collection (1986.1.170), Magnacca Research Centre, Daly House Museum

In 1911, Brandon City Council decided to endorse a public works project to lay streetcar tracks followed by asphalt paving. Before any work could begin, $25,000 had to be raised, followed by innumerable council disputes over where to set out the steel and how the new street railway should be administered. The council endorsed an offer by J. D. McGregor to operate the service but then decided that municipal ownership was preferable.

This Gowen photograph depicts the track-laying preliminaries that the City undertook on Tenth Street in October 1911. The City’s Chief Magistrate informed spectators that they were “there to witness a start on one of the most important things that made for progress and development ...”

The Brandon street railway operated from 1912 to 1932 but the citizens of Brandon continued to pay for the system until 1952.

Central Fire Hall

Central Fire Hall
Source: Assiniboine Historical Society Collection (1978.14.7), Magnacca Research Centre, Daly House Museum

The Central Fire Hall located on the northeast corner of Seventh Street and Princess Avenue was built in 1911. The building designed by local architect W. A. Elliott cost $49,000.00 to construct. The fire hall officially opened to the public on 21 January 1912. The building continued to be used by the Brandon City Fire Department until 2009 when the city built a new fire hall at 19th Street and Maple Avenue for $8.7 million.

Brandon’s first salaried fire chief John Melhuish insisted that, in the interest of the city, the newly constructed fire hall be equipped with the most modern equipment available. Chief Melhuish had attended a fire-fighters’ convention in Milwaukee in the fall of 1911 where he had seen a motorized fire truck in operation. He reported to The Brandon Daily Sun that the “motor apparatus during the convention at Milwaukee clearly demonstrated that hills can be climbed and speed made that is absolutely impossible where horses are used.”

The photograph of the Central Fire Hall taken by Gowen features the first motorized vehicle bought by the fire department in 1912. This eight-horsepower hose-and-ladder truck had a wheel at the rear to steer it around corners. The wheel at the front was used to raise ladders. When extended it could reach the top floor of the newly built Prince Edward Hotel. A year later the fire department had approximately four fire trucks but continued to use horse-drawn equipment.

Chief Melhuish (pictured next to the driver in the fire truck) reported that the ability of this new fire-fighting technology to reach fires quickly had decreased the severity of blazes within the City. He claimed that fire losses in the City in 1911 had totalled $18,054 compared to $8,730 in 1914. While the benefits of these modern technologies to the City could be clearly seen, it was not until 1921 that the Brandon City Fire Department was fully motorized.

See also:

Manitoba Photographers: Frank Henry Gowen (1878-1946)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: S. J. McKee Archives / Brandon University Archives (270 Eighteenth Street, Brandon)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Daly House Museum (122 Eighteenth Street, Brandon)

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 15 November 2019