James H. Ashdown — legendary rise from poverty to become a leading businessman in the West

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
In 1910, according to the January 29 Winnipeg Telegram, there were 19 millionaires living in Winnipeg, which was more per capita than any other Canadian city. Among the local millionaires was James Henry Ashdown, who transformed a small tinsmith shop into a retail and business empire that spanned Western Canada.
Winnipeg, called in those heady days the “Chicago of the North,” was a hotbed of entrepreneurial drive and individual initiative. The newspaper said Ashdown embodied “the essence of the commercial spirit of the Western Canadian metropolis. As the city has grown the enterprise and fortune of Mr. Ashdown have grown.”
Young men such as Ashdown, who invariably came from Eastern Canada or Great Britain with only a few coins in their pockets, seized upon the opportunities offered in the community that was dubbed the “Bull’s-eye of the Dominion” because of its strategic position in the centre of the nation.
The creation of the new province in 1870 and the coming of the trans-continental railway in 1881 resulted in a massive influx of settlers. It was a time when people were swayed to move westward by tales that Winnipeg’s streets were paved with gold. Ambitious individuals among the new arrivals believed that hard work and perseverance would eventually become the road to prosperity. 
From 1870 to 1913, these entrepreneurs dictated a business-friendly direction in the community by controlling the reins of power, including the city’s political apparatus. The self-serving policies they advocated favoured the continuation of their accumulation of wealth. For example, businessmen turned politicians used city funds to bribe the Canadian Pacific Railway to run its line through Winnipeg rather than Selkirk.
The commercial elite’s political philosophy centred around the concept that what was good for business was good for the city. 
“As Winnipeg grew and prospered in these years there sprang up among the business and professional group — 
the commercial elite — an unshakable 
optimism that was to be of great significance for the future of the city,” wrote historian Alan Artibise in his book Winnipeg: An Illustrated History. “Of Anglo-Saxon background, Protestant religion and relatively humble background, this elite shared the firm belief that the future of the city was boundless.”
Ashdown was the prototypical Winnipeg entrepreneur of the era. He came from the East with little money and only a smattering of formal education, but was able to convert a small hardware shop into a thriving business. Along the way, he earned the local reputation of being Winnipeg’s “Merchant Prince.” Once established in business, he turned his attention to politics, becoming an 
alderman (now councillor) and a two-term mayor.
When he first ran for mayor in 1907, Ashdown became the candidate of “a citizen’s committee composed of the best businessmen in Winnipeg.” Backed by the might of the commercial elite, he was easily swept to victory over labour candidate James Latimer.
Ashdown’s rise to fame and fortune was set down on paper by William 
Talbot Allison in a booklet to mark the 50th anniversary, “Golden Jubilee,” 
of Ashdown’s Winnipeg business, 
commencing in 1869. Similar to Ashdown, Allison also came to the city from Ontario. He was a pastor at Wesley College (now University of Winnipeg), journalist, assistant professor at the University of Manitoba and founder of the Canadian Author’s Association.
“While the name of James H. Ashdown is a household word in the western provinces of Canada, and while tens of thousands of people know that he has occupied a prominent place in the life of Winnipeg ... comparatively few westerners, not even his personal acquaintances, are familiar with the story of his early life,” wrote Allison, “his experiences during his first arduous years in the Red River Settlement, and the subsequent steps which, seizing occasion by the hand, he mounted to a leading position as businessman and public-spirited  citizen of Winnipeg.”
The anniversary publication is filled with laudatory comments about Ashdown’s legendary rise from poverty to wealth. The story Allison weaves is in the mould of the tale of Richard “Dick” Whittington, who believed London’s streets were literally paved with gold. Raised in poverty, Whittington, according to the myth, travelled to London, became fabulously wealthy and eventually the mayor of the English capital city.
The author of the anniversary booklet informed readers that his commentary is filled with many personal reminiscences from Ashdown being revealed for the first time.
Although born in London on March 31, 1844, Ashdown’s Whittington-like acquisition of personal wealth resulted from his father’s decision to seek new opportunities in the New World. Ashdown was eight when his parents immigrated to Canada. William and Jane Ashdown took their family to Weston, near Toronto, where they opened a small store. At the age of 11, Ashdown was removed from school and put 
behind the counter at the store.
A few years later, the family store failed and William Ashdown turned his attention to farming, moving his family to Brant, Ontario.
By 18, Ashdown had enough of 
eking out a meagre existence from the land and decided the time had come to seek out a better opportunity route toward prosperity. To finance his dream, Ashdown’s mother gave him a small nest egg obtained through the sale of a set of silver spoons she had brought from England.
With a few coins in his pocket, Ashdown walked from Brant to Guelph, but he was unable to obtain gainful employment.
The legend of Ashdown was enhanced by an event that occurred while  he walked along the railway track toward Hespeler, Ontario. As he trod down the track, Ashdown chanced upon a six-penny piece in the sand between two rail ties. This chance discovery would provide him with one more meal en route to prosperity.
At Hespeler, he found a job with tinsmith John Zryd. During his three-year apprenticeship, Ashdown’s wages were $25 in his first year, $30 in the second and $45 in his last year under Zryd's tutorship.
According to Allison, once his apprenticeship was completed, Ashdown moved to the western United States at age 21, believing the end of the American Civil War would result in an economic boom. Ashdown wandered from Chicago to St. Louis and then the frontier community of Fort Zarah, Kansas. But his big break continued to elude him, so Ashdown returned to Ontario, although he never gave up on the idea that the West offered the best opportunity along the road to riches.
A letter from Portage la Prairie published in the Toronto Globe, painting  the prairies in a golden hue, caught Ashdown’s attention and prompted him to again set out for the West. He travelled through the U.S. to take advantage of the new rail line to St. Paul and then St. Cloud, Minnesota. From there, he walked alongside oxen-drawn Red River carts carrying freight for the community at The Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. What greeted him upon his arrival didn’t exactly instill him with a feeling of confidence.
“I arrived here (on June 30, 1868) in good health,” he wrote his father in Ontario, “after a somewhat protracted journey, the latter part of which, namely from St. Cloud here, was the longest and most arduous part, although I cannot say I found it very unpleasant ... In the morning of the nineteenth day were arrived and put up at the only hotel in this place. There we got good board, and after resting awhile, I began to look around to see what sort of a country we had landed in, and sooth to say the truth, the prospect was not very enticing. The grasshoppers had about finished their work, and many of them had already flown away. But numbers still remained, and when they had eaten the last of the husbandmen's’ work off the fields, they began to eat each other, and for days and almost weeks the air was polluted and the water rendered well-nigh undrinkable by their dead bodies, passing down or up the settlement.”
Ashdown’s first year in the community was spent cutting wood along the banks of the Assiniboine River and working on the construction of the St. Charles Catholic Church.
By being frugal and saving a good portion of his wages, Ashdown was able to buy out George Moser, the settlement’s tinsmith, for just £243 in 1869. The hardware business he purchased from Moser was located in the rear of a liquor store at the corner of Portage and Main. Ashdown then purchased a lot for £30 and set up shop on Post Office Street (now Lombard), erecting the sign, James H. Ashdown Hardware Merchant and Tinsmith.
On October 26, 1869, Ashdown advertised in the Nor’Wester seeking “a large quality of farmers’ produce in exchange for anything in the tin, copper sheet-iron or zinc line of business at the Winnipeg Tin Shop, sign of the Big Bell.”
When the Red River Resistance led by Louis Riel erupted, Ashdown became associated with the Canadian Party led by John Christian Schultz, another immigrant originally from Ontario. Although he joined his fellow Ontarians in favouring the annexation of the vast Hudson’s Bay Company controlled territory in Western Canada, Ashdown also understood the Métis objections to the handling of the land transfer to Canada. He realized the Métis had a legitimate claim that the Canadian government had failed to consult them in order to alleviate their concerns, which included land titles as well as language and other rights.
When Canadian MP and cabinet minster Joseph Howe visited the settlement in October 1869, Ashdown pleaded with him to hear out the Métis’ concerns.
Unwisely, Howe ignored Ashdown. The MP spent all his time in discussions with Schultz and his followers, who were the minority in the settlement and held great animosity toward the Métis and the Hudson’s Bay Company. They felt both stood in the way of their own exploitation of the land and its resources.
Allison said if Howe had heeded Ashdown, “it is probable the threatened rebellion would have been averted.”
Even if Howe had relayed Ashdown’s concerns to Sir John A. Macdonald’s government, it might not have much of a difference, as the prime minister had already sent surveyors to the settlement and then appointed William MacDougall as lieutenant-governor of the territory in anticipation of the land transfer, although the £1.5-million purchase from the HBC had not been completed. In fact, the land purchase would not occur until nearly a year later in June 1870.
Still, the prime minister may have been a little less hasty and confrontational in initiating his plans for the territory if Howe had made an effort to report the concerns expressed by Ashdown.
When Schultz organized the seizure of government pork supplies, under the guise of placing them under protection, Ashdown protested the folly of such a move, although he joined the Canadian Party in this enterprise. The Métis captured the 22 would-be protectors and imprisoned them in Fort Garry on December 7, 1869. Along with a number of other prisoners, Ashdown was released in February 1870.
Although he recognized the valid concerns of the Métis, Ashdown was contemptuous of Riel, whom he called a “strutting peacock.” Ashdown also said that had Riel not allowed the execution of Thomas Scott on March 4, 1870, “it is probable he would have been pardoned by the Government for his share in the rebellion and would have been an important figure in the Western country.” It was Ashdown’s opinion that Scott’s execution was “worse than a crime; it was a blunder.”
(Next week: part 2)