“Winnipeg’s First Citizen” — Ashdown inducted into 2006 Citizens Hall of Fame

by Bruce Cherney

Among the 19 millionaires in 1910 living in Winnipeg — more per capita than any other Canadian city — was James Ashdown.

Just after his death in 1924, the Winnipeg Free Press called him “Winnipeg’s First Citizen.” Most Winnipeggers simply referred to him as the “Merchant Prince,” since he owned the largest chain of hardware stores in the British Empire.

All these accolades were for a man whose great-grandson Bill Ashdown said never sought public acclaim and “never forgot his roots in poverty and hardship.”

Unlike many of his conetmporaries, James Ashdown rarely attended social events and he and his wife were rarely mentioned in newspapers’ social columns. Strict Methodists, the Ashdowns were apparently content to spend their evenings quietly at home reading their Bible.

Bill Ashdown made his comments during a special ceremony last week at the Hotel Fort Garry, during which his great-grandfather was inducted into the Winnipeg Real Estate Board-established Citizen’s Hall of Fame. Ashdown was inducted in the historical category. The other category for the Hall of Fame is contemporary. The Hall of Fame was established 20 years ago and has 33 inductees. Inductees’ busts are sculptured by local artists and stand on pedestals in the Formal Garden of Assiniboine Park.

“The induction of James Ashdown is proof of the value of recognizing great citizens from Winnipeg’s past,” said Bill Burns, a REALTOR® and the chair of the Hall of Fame committee. 

When Ashdown built his business empire, Winnipeg was called the “Chicago of the North,” and was a hotbed of entrepreneurial drive and individual initiative. Young men, who invariably came from Eastern Canada with only a few coins in their pockets, seized upon the opportunities presented by a fledgling community, serving as the gateway to the West. 

The creation of the new province in 1870 and the coming of the railway in 1881 resulted in a massive influx of settlers to till the soil, which led ambitious individuals to believe that hard work and perseverance  would lead to prosperity. 

It was an era when people truly believed Winnipeg’s streets were paved with gold. 

From 1870 to 1913, these men dictated the business-friendly direction of the community by controlling the city’s political apparatus. The self-serving policies they advocated favoured their continued accumulation of wealth. With this in mind, the businessmen turned politicians used city funds to bribe the Canadian Pacific Railway to run its Trans-Canada line through Winnipeg rather than through Selkirk. 

The commercial elite’s political philosophy centred around the concept that what was good for business was good for the city. What wasn’t good for the city was organized labour and its demands for better working conditions and pay, according to the commercial elite, which led to open confrontation and the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. 

“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 origin, 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. 

Once established in business, he then turned his attention to politics, becoming an alderman and a two-term mayor. 

When he first ran for mayor in 1906, Ashdown became the candidate of “a citizen’s committee composed of the best businessmen of Winnipeg.” Running against a labour candidate and with the might of the commercial elite backing him, he was easily swept to victory. 

The rise to fame and fortune by Ashdown was set on paper by William Talbot Allison in a publication which marked the 50th anniversary, “Golden Jubilee,” of Ashdown’s arrival in Winnipeg. Like Ashdown, Allison also came to Winnipeg from Ontario. He was a pastor at Wesley College (University of Winnipeg), journalist, assistant professor at the University of Manitoba and the 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, his experiences during his first arduous years in the Red River Settlement, and the subsequent steps by which, seizing occasion by the hand, he mounted to a leading position as businessman and public-spirited citizen of Winnipeg,” wrote Allison in his introduction. 

The anniversary issue is full of laudatory comments about Ashdown’s legendary rise from poverty to wealth. The story he weaves is in the mould of Richard “Dick” Whittington’s (died 1423). It was Whittington who believed London’s streets were paved with gold. Raised in poverty, according to the myth, he became fabulously wealthy and eventually became mayor of London. 

The author also informs the reader that his commentary is filled with many personal reminiscences of Ashdown being related for the first time. 

Although born in London, England, Ashdown’s rise to fame and fortune would result from his father’s decision to seek streets paved with gold in the New World. Ashdown was eight when his parents decided to immigrate from London to Canada. William and Jean Ashdown took their family to Weston, near Toronto, and opened a small store. At the age of 11, the younger Ashdown was removed from school and put behind the store’s counter to help his father. 

A few years later, William Ashdown gave up on the store and turned his attention to farming, moving his family to Brant. 

By 18, the younger Ashdown had enough of eking out a meagre existence from the land and decided the time had come for him to seek his fortune. To finance the young man’s dream, his mother gave him a small sum of money obtained through the selling of a set of silver spoons she had brought from England. He then walked from Brant to Guelph where he was unable to find work. 

The future legend of Ashdown was enhanced when walking along the railway track toward Hespeler, Ontario, he chanced upon a six-penny piece sticking in the sand between two railway ties. This lucky find would provide him with one more meal ticket en route to prosperity. 

At Hespeler, he found employment with tinsmith John Zryd. During the three-years of his apprenticeship, his wages were $25 in the first year, $30 in the second and $45 in the last year. 

According to Allison, when Ashdown completed his apprenticeship, he moved to the western United States in the belief that a great boom would follow the American Civil war. Ashdown wandered from Chicago to St. Louis and then the frontier at Fort Zarah, Kansas. His big break eluded him and he returned to Ontario, although the great expanses of the West never left his thoughts. 

A letter from Portage la Prairie in the Toronto Globe, painting the prairies in glowing terms, caught Ashdown’s attention and prompted him to again head west. He travelled through the United States to take advantage of the new rail route to St. Paul and  then St. Cloud, Minnesota. From there he walked alongside oxen-drawn carts carrying freight for the Red River Settlement. 

What greeted him didn’t exactly bode well for his future. 

“I arrived here (June 30, 1868) in good health,” he wrote his brother and sister 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 that I found it very unpleasant ... In the morning of the nineteenth day we 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, though the country looked well enough, 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 husbandman’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 frontier town was spent cutting wood on the banks of the Assiniboine River and working on the St. Charles Catholic Church. 

His accumulated wages and a loan allowed him in 1869 to buy out George Moses, Red River’s tinsmith, for just over £243. He then set up shop on Lombard Street, erecting the sign, James H. Ashdown Hardware Merchant and Tinsmith. 

On October 26, 1869, Ashdown advertised in the Nor’Wester for “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.” 

The Red River Rebellion of 1869-70 interrupted all business in the community. 

As a recent arrival to Red River, Ashdown was associated with the Canadian Party and its leader Dr. John Christian Schultz. Although he also favoured annexation to Canada as advocated by his fellow Ontarians, Ashdown also understood the motivation of the Metis in objecting to the transferring of Hudson’s Bay Company land to Canada without consultating local residents. 

Although he regarded provision government president Louis Riel as a “strutting peacock,”  Ashdown also said that if Riel had stopped the execution of Thomas Scott, “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 the Scott execution was “worse than a crime; it, was a blunder.” 

Ashdown recognized the problems confronting the community resulted from Ottawa’s failure to assure the inhabitants that their land and way of life would be protected after the purchase and transfer of HBC holdings to Canada. 

When Canadian MP and John A. Macdonald government cabinet minister Joseph Howe visited the community in October 1869 to investigate the situation, Ashdown pleaded with him to hear out the Metis’ concerns. 

Unwisely, Howe ignored Ashdown. 

The MP spent all his time in discussions with Schultz and his followers. The Canadian Party was filled with newcomers who had no liking for the Metis nor for 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’s advice, “it is probable the threatened rebellion would have been averted.”

When Schultz organized the seizure of government supplies of pork, under the guise of placing them under protection, Ashdown protested the foolishness of the move, although he did join them in this enterprise. The Metis captured the 22 men and imprisoned them in Fort Garry on December 7. 

Ashdown was finally released with some of the other prisoners in February. 

When Manitoba entered Confederation, following negotiations instigated by a delegation sent east by Riel, the troubles in the Red River ended. The arrival of a contingent of British regulars and Canadian militia from the East to quell the now peaceful community presented Ashdown with a business opportunity. It  was reported in the Manitoban that Ashdown had within two weeks made 3,500 feet of stovepipes for the troops. 

At this stage, Ashdown decided that his premises on Lombard would be insufficient to deal with the impending influx of settlers into the new province. On November 4, 1870, he purchased a lot on Main Street where he built a two-storey wooden building, 20-by-60 feet. 

“To give some idea of the trade of the Northwest,” wrote Alexander Begg in his book Ten Years in Winnipeg (published in 1879), “we here mention one small order given James H. Ashdown in March 1876: 3,500 tin pails, 1,800 round pails, 1,500 oval pans, 1,800 pint cups, 1,500 half-pint cups, etc., etc. No wonder Ashdown grew rich!” 

In 1872, he entered into a partnership in Portage la Prairie. It was in Portage that he met and then married his first wife, Elizabeth Allen. But in March 1873, she died at age 16 and four months. 

Throughout the 1870s, the main transportation to Winnipeg was via steamboat. Winnipeg’s merchants considered the fees for carrying freight charged by the Red River Transportation Company — owned by former Canadian and then American, J.J. Hill — were unbearable. They hatched a plan to start their own steamboat company with business men from St. Paul which was subse- quently referred to as the “Merchant’s Line.” 

The line enjoyed only a brief career plying the Red River. Competing interests, which included the Hudson’s Bay Company, engaged in a battle to corner the lucrative market. 

Ashdown and the Winnipeg merchants ended up the losers and the onerous rates continued. 

Fifteen years after the fact, the Manitoba Free Press published an article critical of Ashdown’s handling of the steamboat deal. He sued the newspaper for malicious libel and asked for $10,000, but was awarded only $500 by the judge. 

Ashdown then supported the incorporation of Winnipeg as a city, despite its population of only 1,664 people. Ashdown was appointed chairman of the committee which was to lobby the Manitoba government for incorporation. 

“It is going to be a city, and we might as well start out right in the first place,” said Ashdown at the time.

It took a year of wrangling, but with Ashdown playing a leading role, the bill for incorporation was passed on November 3, 1873. Ashdown was elected an alderman to the first city council in January 1874. 

On February 10, 1876, Ashdown married his second wife Lillian Crowson. The couple built their first residence on Sutherland Avenue in Point Douglas. At the time, Point Douglas was the residence of choice for Winnipeg’s elite. The Manitoba Free Press referred to the Ashdown home as a “Manitoba Mansion.” 

Future Ashdown homes would be on James Street, Broadway Avenue and Wellington Crescent. 

Ashdown became a charter member of the Winnipeg Board of Trade (now Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce) in 1879. The board of trade was just one of many business- and community-oriented organizations in which he held a membership. At one time, he was on the board of directors of Winnipeg businesses such as Great West Life Assurance and the Bank of Montreal. He was also chairman of Wesley College and was involved with the YMCA, Winnipeg General Hospital, the Children’s Hospital, and the Girls’ Home of Welcome. 

Ashdown was a member of the Board of Trade for 30 years and its president in 1887. The objectives of the board were to promote Winnipeg’s commercial endeavours and counter the excessive rail freight charges which favoured eastern businesses. 

As president, Ashdown was in the thick of the “Disallowance Question,” the CPR’s continual refusal to allow competing railways in the West. To complete the transcontinental railway, the Macdonald government had given the CPR a western monopoly. “For 20 years no other line could be constructed south of the CPR to run within 15 miles of the United States border,” read the contentious clause. 

In 1886, the Manitoba Legislature had granted a charter to build a railway to the province’s southern border and connect with an American line. Ottawa was pressured to support eastern interests and the CPR monopoly; thus the proposed line was disallowed. 

It wasn’t until the CPR needed a massive loan from  the Canadian government that it showed a willingness to allow other competing lines. Winnipeg would eventually become the western headquarters for three competing railways — the CPR, the Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern. 

Ashdown added to his retail business by getting into wholesale distribution, building his first warehouse, a four-storey structure, on Bannatyne Avenue. It was the first wholesale warehouse west of the Great Lakes. 

In 1888, Ashdown published the first hardware catalogue in Western Canada. A later catalogue contained 2,000 fully-illustrated pages “and described in a comprehensive manner the many thousands of articles of the Ashdown Warehouse Stock, the largest and most complete in Canada.” 

By 1889, Ashdown was looking further west for more opportunities. He established a store in Calgary and then constructed a three-storey warehouse. 

More expansion occurred when wholesale centres were built in Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon and Nelson, B.C. 

The first tell-tale sign that a business empire had been created came in the spring of 1900. Ashdown conceived of the advertising stunt of outfitting a special train to make the journey west from Winnipeg to supply his other stores. 

“Each car in the long train (40 cars),” wrote Allison, “which carried eight hundred tons of building material and general hardware, was decorated with the phrase ‘Hardware from J.H. Ashdown,’ and caused nothing less than a sensation in commercial circles of the West. The newspapers of Winnipeg wrote up the event as  a striking evidence of the rapid development of the country, and it excited much talk on the part of the general public.” 

The “Ashdown Special,” as it was termed, not only signalled Ashdown’s personal success, but it helped put Winnipeg on the commercial map, attracting business interests to the city from America and the East. 

His business had expanded so rapidly that Ashdown built another warehouse on Bannatyne (now a condominium complex), and he decided to incorporate as the J.H. Ashdown Hardware Company Limited. It was incorporated with capital of $1 million, which was shortly increased to $2 million. At the time, the bulk of stock was owned by the Ashdown family. 

In 1904, the firm created the Diamond A trademark. All goods sold by the company bore this trademark stamped in red. 

The Ashdown retail store at Main and Lombard was destroyed by fire on October 11, 1904. By the 27th, the ruins were carried away and the construction of another two-storey store began. It opened for business the next spring. 

His Saskatoon distribution centre was also destroyed by fire in March 1918, but it was also quickly rebuilt. 

Ashdown’s storied good fortune almost faltered when he was elected by acclamation mayor of Winnipeg on December 11,1907, in the midst of a world-wide recession. By 1907, Winnipeg had accumulated a crippling debt of $14 million. 

Despite the debt, the city was also committed to creating its own hydro company, something which Ashdown fully supported but wanted delayed until the debt was addressed. Bill Ashdown said his great-grandfather felt all utilities “should be operated for the people in the interests of the people.”

Over Ashdown’s objections, a vote by council called for continuation of the hydro business plan. 

Still, Ashdown reorganized public works, putting the city on a more sound financial footing. 

“It is through the personal efforts of the Mayor that the finances of the city are being brought into order from the chaotic and nearly disastrous conditions where the last government left them” reported the Toronto Saturday Night magazine on April 4, 1907. 

The mayor was making a difference, but the city was still in financial straits and needed more money. Council authorized Ashdown to travel to London to attract investors. Because of the recession, he returned home empty-handed. The city’s debt continued to mount with banks refusing to honour Winnipeg’s overdraft. 

The fortunes of the city only turned around when the recession ended in spring of 1908 and the Bank of Montreal was able to sell a block of Winnipeg bonds on the London market for 99.5 cents on the dollar. Another block of city bonds sold for $7.5 million, some three cents above par. 

With greater financial security, the city’s first electric-generating power plant at Pointe du Bois finally got underway in January 1909. 

Ashdown was also a strong proponent for the construction of the Shoal Lake aqueduct, which was completed in 1919 and brought potable water to Winnipeg. 

Ashdown only survived the golden jubilee celebration of his arrival in Winnipeg by four years, dying on April 5, 1924. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at $1,634,000. 

“Just a week ago today this newspaper referred to Mr. James H. Ashdown as ‘Winnipeg’s first citizen.’ Now it will say that he will be known in the annals of the city as having been, for the first 50 years of its existence, its foremost figure,” reported the Free Press, following Ashdown’s death at age 80. 

A Free Press article of April 7, 1924, reported an earlier conversation with Ashdown which gave this reason for his staying in the city. “I never lost faith in Winnipeg. When once you have tasted Red River water you cannot leave the country.” 

After his death, the commercial empire Ashdown created began to shrink. But, the retail business he established continued for another 50 years in Winnipeg.