Market gardens — surrounded the city to supply vegetables to residents carving fresh produce

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

At one time, market gardens virtually encircled Winnipeg. At the turn of the 20th century, market gardening was viewed as an enterprise that had the potential to provide substantial profits for its practitioners; as a result, the time period was regarded as the heyday of this type of business activity.

The point of market gardening was to supply the residents of a city craving fresh produce.

Of course, Winnipeg’s borders of that era were significantly smaller in scope and held fewer people to feed than today. Unicity was an expansion of Winnipeg’s boundaries that was decades into the future.

In 1907, the city’s outer limits were Kenaston Boulevard, St. James Street and Keewatin Street to the west, Wilkes Avenue and Parker Avenue to the south, the Red River to the east and as far as Polson Avenue to the north. As such, the city didn’t include such modern-day neighbourhoods as Charleswood, St. Vital, St. Boniface, the Kildonans, St. Norbert and Transcona. It was in these neighbourhoods, as well as municipalities such as Headingley, East St. Paul and St. Clements, among others, that market gardening flourished.

Local daily newspapers contained pages of classified and display advertisements offering land for sale that could be converted into market gardens.

For example, the April 5, 1915, Manitoba Free Press contained a classified ad for 12-acres of market garden land in East St. Paul, along Bird’s Hill Road, for $100 an acre, and another five acres in West St. Paul for $350 per acre.

A display ad on September 8, 1910, in the same newspaper promoted “Victoria Park Market Gardens,” located 10 miles north of Winnipeg, along Main Street, running back from the Red River bank and encompassing 690 acres. The property advertised by R.G. Thompson & Co. was divided into plots of two, five and 10 acres. Prices ranged from $60 to $300 per acre, and payment for each allotment was one-quarter in cash with the balance either paid monthly, quarterly or yearly at an interest rate of five per cent.

The real estate firm claimed that Victoria Park Market Gardens was the “cheapest and best located market garden and own-your-home proposition ever offered to people in Western Canada, and the soil is the very best ...”

Many Winnipeg-based real estate agents specialized in the sale of property designated as “market gardens.”

One such agent was W.E. Bonner, whose office was in the Union Bank Building. An article in the December 15, 1906, Winnipeg Tribune, reported that he was “ a specialist in the real estate business in the handling of market gardens, poultry farms and dairy farms within a ten-mile radius of Winnipeg in any direction.”

Bonner bought blocks of land, divided the land up into smaller plots and set the terms of sale. To make the plots more attractive, Bonner even had the land plowed before being put on the market. In fact, plowing land prior to sale was a common practice used to promote the purchase of market garden plots.

“The man who wants to start ... a market garden on a limited area does not want to go to the expense of horses and ploughs and all sorts of heavy machinery before he can make a start,” explained the Tribune article, “so this method of getting the land in prime condition suits him to a dot and he can go to work in the spring with nothing to buy but his seed ...”

According to the newspaper, Bonner bought 1,000-acre blocks of land outside the city and divided the land into plots from one acre to 40 acres.

“Mr. Bonner is in a position to offer practical proof of the profit from market gardening close to town,” reported the newspaper. “He has a twenty-acre garden in Kildonan in charge of a German expert. He puts the nice fresh vegetables on the Winnipeg market and reaps a handsome profit. In Stony Mountain he has another garden on a still, larger scale.”

The attraction for market gardening was claimed to be that some people didn’t enjoy “town life” and that market gardening offered them “endless pleasure” and an “immense profit, especially near a town like Winnipeg where fresh, crisp vegetables bring such high prices.”

A July 15, 1904, Winnipeg Free Press article reported that the “Winnipeg market shows early receipt of abundance of choice vegetables immediately around the city.

“Cauliflower are usually regarded only as a choice, but also as a somewhat tender vegetable, yet for ten days the local market has been supplied with home grown cauliflower, grown too in the open air and of a size and a color that would make the gardeners of the famed Niagara district green with envy.”

The article said that cauliflower were appearing in pyramids in the city market, and “surrounded by heaps of white turnips, yellow carrots, crisp green cabbage, deep red beets and baskets of plump green peas.”

Also on sale in the market, which was located just west of city hall on Main Street, where the Public Safety Building now stands, were “green (new) potatoes, “large, smooth and entirely free from excrescencies (abnormal growths on plants) of any kind.”

By far, potatoes were the most abundant crop grown by market gardeners.

The same issue of the newspaper stated that potatoes were selling for 60-cents for “farmers’ loads,” cucumbers 90-cents per dozen, cabbage three-cents to four-cents a pound, turnips 60-cents per dozen, and Egyptian onions (name of a variety) sold for five-cents a pound.

In a May 21, 1908, Tribune article, it was indicated that market gardens located around Winnipeg could only supply a “small percentage of the vegetables consumed by this city inhabitants.”

Still, the article claimed that there had been a steady increase in the number of market gardens in “recent years,” as “investors have come to realize the revenue producing qualities of market garden properties and the men who were farsighted enough to invest in this class of property have mostly laid up snug little fortunes as a result.”

It was alleged that there was little risk for investors in market gardens and that real estate agents were witnessing an active demand for such properties. The risk was low since vegetables were able to grow under conditions that were not conducive to produce other crops such as grains.

“The product of their lands is snapped up at the highest prices as soon as it is ready for the market, for the fresh, home grown article is much superior to the imported ...”

It was claimed that the realty market in other classes of property was slow, but the demand for market garden properties was steadily increasing.

“People must eat, but they do not at all times have to buy building lots, and herein lies the strength of the former class of properties (i.e., market gardens). The people who purchase them know that they can readily dispose of the property at almost any time, and at an advance.”

The Tribune reporter was told by a real estate agent that during “the past two years no class of land had increased so much, proportionately, in value, as had market garden property.”

“The man who owns a market garden,” the agent said, “has an assured income. He cannot fail in the business if he attends to it at all.”

Representatives of W.J. Christie & Company real estate firm said that people preferred to purchase market gardens along the Assiniboine River. Sales were “reported to be good and the demand with this firm is greater than is usual at this time of year under similar circumstances.”

The real estate firm of David Reid & Company found demand for market garden properties to be brisk, a statement echoed by other real estate companies.

M.J. Stanbridge, of the Stanbridge Realty Company, said his firm was handling an unusual number of inquiries and was in the process of closing a number of sales.

“The demand for this class of property is growing,” said Stanbridge, “and people are coming more and more to realize that it pays to grow vegetables and small fruits around here. The market is always good and very little risk is taken by the purchaser.”

It was the strong demand for market gardens that created widespread speculation in acreage around the city.

According to the November 7, 1907, Free Press, there were “thousands and thousands of acres of vacant property in the immediate vicinity of Winnipeg, connected with the city by either good roads, street car facilities with freight carrying possibilities, or railroad communication — in many cases with all three — which are held by speculators, who at present allow the land to be idle awaiting some opportunity of disposing of it at a profit, and in the meantime paying taxes annually, which are an absolute loss to a non-revenue-bearing property.”

The newspaper proposed that the idle land could be rented in five-acre plots for market gardening.

“There are a few real estate men in Winnipeg who have paid attention to this particular phase of the real estate situation, and those who have not only found the renting and selling of market gardens to be a very good business but have conferred a very decided benefit on the city of Winnipeg in helping indirectly to augment the supply of vegetables grown in the vicinity of the city.”

The article reported that less than 40 per cent of the vegetables sold in the city were locally produced. And that 40 per cent was imported from the south in the winter at high freight rates and customs duties. The figures compiled only referred to the vegetables that could be grown in Manitoba, such as potatoes, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, onions, celery, etc.”

(Next week: part 2)