The Doukhobor Trading Company in Canora

            (EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles, written by Former Canora resident Jonathan Kalmakoff of Regina, relating to the building and business activities of the Doukhobor Trading Company - the commercial arm of the Doukhobor community which between 1907 and 1918, undertook a substantial amount of building and business activity on Second Avenue North in Canora. The articles not only examine the original Doukhobor builders and owners of these properties, but also tracks the subsequent owners and businesses to the present day.)

 

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            Like many prairie communities, Canora owes its existence to the expansion of the railway across the West. 

            In 1904, the Canadian Northern Railway laid steel through the area, built a station and surveyed the townsite.  The same year, a hamlet was formed there.  Canora expanded and progressed rapidly as it became a shipping point and trade centre for homesteaders. 

            Village status was conferred on it in 1908. Two years later, it became a town.  An important but little-known role in this explosive growth was played by the Doukhobor community which, under the auspices of the Doukhobor Trading Company, undertook an ambitious building program on Second Avenue East, where it established several communally-run enterprises from 1907 to 1918. 

            This article examines the Doukhobor Trading Company in Canora, including its business objectives, structure and activity within the Doukhobor community as well as its contribution to the community history, commerce and architecture of the town.    

Doukhobor settlement and trade

            In 1899, several thousand Doukhobors from the Caucasus region of Russia made their way to the Canadian Prairies. They fled persecution under Tsar Nicholas II arising from their refusal to serve in the Imperial Russian army. 

            A main tenet of the Doukhobor religious philosophy is pacifism. Following the arrest, imprisonment and exile of many of their followers in the mid-1890s, the Doukhobors began looking for a new home.

            To attract these industrious farmers to the prairies, the Government of Canada offered inducements by way of exemption from military service, religious freedoms, material aid and assistance, and the granting of large tracts of homestead land reserved for their exclusive use. They were also permitted to settle together in villages, a form of settlement they viewed as essential to maintaining their traditional society and way of life. 

 

            Two of the homestead reserves granted to the Doukhobors in 1899 were situated in the immediate vicinity of what would later become Canora. To the east lay the South Reserve, comprised of 16.5 townships (380,161.5 acres) of land between the Assiniboine River and the Whitesand River on which 3,106 Doukhobors settled in 22 villages. To the west lay the Good Spirit Lake Annex, consisting of six townships (138,241 acres) of land along Good Spirit Lake and Spirit Creek on which an additional 995 Doukhobors settled in 10 villages. 

            Upon arriving at these reserves, the Doukhobor settlers established a communal way of life. Working together in community, they cleared the forest and brush, broke the land, planted fields and raised livestock. All land, grain, hay, herds, machinery and other property was held and used in common. 

            As pioneer settlers, they were almost totally self-sufficient, with Doukhobor farmers doubling as millers, carpenters, wheelwrights, tanners, blacksmiths and more. 

            However, any provisions they required that they could not make or grow themselves (e.g. sugar, tea, salt, kerosene and other staples) were provided to them by the community. 

            In this regard, a Doukhobor Trading Company was set up to handle the purchase of supplies required by the community. Dealing directly with Eastern Canadian manufacturers, it purchased wholesale goods in bulk, resulting in substantial cost savings. These supplies were shipped by railcar to their central warehouses, from which they were distributed to individual villages.

            Prior to 1907, these warehouses were located in Swan River and Yorkton, the nearest railheads. The 60-mile round trip for supplies from the Doukhobor settlements to either town took up to 2-3 days by horse and wagon. However, the establishment of Canora as a rail point created an opportunity for the Doukhobor Trading Company to bring supplies much closer to their settlements, saving considerable time and cost to Community members. 

The Canora purchase

            To this end, in 1905, the Doukhobor Trading Company paid an $85.00 deposit on lots in the hamlet of Canora for the purpose of establishing a distribution depot. A total of seven commercial lots were subsequently purchased from the original co-owners of the townsite, Christian Rhodes Graham Jr. of Des Moines, Iowa and the Toronto-based MacKenzie Mann & Company, Limited, in two transactions.

            On February 20, 1907, the Doukhobors purchased three 50 by 125-foot lots for the sum of $1,000.  Ten months later, on December 19, 1907, they purchased an additional four 50 by 125-foot lots for the amount of $450.  Together these lots comprised the entire north block of Second Avenue East between Main and Third streets. 

As the Doukhobor Trading Company was not a legal corporate entity at the time of the purchases, title to the lots was placed in the name of the company chairman and spiritual leader of the Doukhobors, Peter V. Verigin who held them in trust for community members.

Communal construction

            Construction on the Second Avenue East property was a major communal undertaking that required considerable organization and planning. The entire local Doukhobor community participated in the building effort, which was co-ordinated and supervised by the managers of the Doukhobor Trading Company under the overall direction of its chairman, Peter V. Verigin.

            Labour for the construction was provided by Doukhobors from the surrounding community villages.

            Each summer after spring sowing, crews of Doukhobor carpenters, bricklayers and other tradesmen arrived in Canora from their settlements to work on the buildings. They worked for no wages, but received all of their material requirements (tools, equipment, food and other provisions) from the community.

            A tent camp was set up on the premises for their accommodation. At the end of each summer, they returned to their villages for haying and harvest. After harvest, several men came back to complete site work (filling, grading, pile-driving) until snowfall.  

             Most of the building material for the construction was locally produced by the Doukhobor community. Tamarack and spruce lumber was cut at the community sawmills near Thunderhill. Bricks and cement blocks were manufactured at the Doukhobor brick factories in Veregin and Yorkton. Other building materials (window glass, nails, screws and other hardware) were purchased wholesale and shipped by railcar to Canora for the construction.           

            The construction was carried out in two stages. The first stage of building occurred on Second Avenue East between 1907 and 1909. The second stage took place between 1910 and 1913 on the corner of Second Avenue East and Third Street.

Initial development, 1907-1909

            Between 1907 and 1909, the Doukhobor Trading Company built a trading store and warehouse, dwelling house, barn and drive shed, and a large livery stable on Second Avenue East. These six buildings, representing several architectural styles, were some of the most distinctive structures in Canora, and helped transform its burgeoning downtown district.

Trading store and warehouse

            The trading store (Lot 15) was constructed on Second Avenue East in 1907-1908.  It was a two-story wood frame structure, 56 feet long by 25 feet wide, with a concrete pile and slab foundation. A modern Edwardian-style building, it was designed with retail space on the ground level and storage rooms and offices on the second floor.

            The most distinctive feature of the building was its brick exterior, with the Doukhobor-manufactured bricks placed on edge and the indentation (or ‘frog’) exposed, along with detailed arches outlining the main story windows. 

            It had a steeply-pitched gable roof clad in tin, with decorative latticework on the front and back gable ends, metal filigree along the roof ridge, and molded cornices along the eaves.  It originally had a plain, windowless entry. A modern storefront entrance with wide flanking display windows and a verandah were added later, probably in 1916.   

            Adjoining the rear (north) of the store was a long warehouse constructed in 1907-1908.  It was a plain single-story wood frame structure, 68 feet in length by 25 feet in width, with a concrete pile and slab foundation. It had a Doukhobor-manufactured brick exterior and a flat tin roof.  It received substantial upgrading and refurbishment in 1916.

Dwelling house, barn and drive shed

            A handsome dwelling house for the store manager and his family was built to the west of the store on Second Avenue East between 1907 and 1909.  It was a two-story wood frame structure, 32 feet long by 25 feet wide, with a whitewashed clapboard exterior, full concrete basement, and attached 12.5 by 25-foot back porch.

            A classic example of early Doukhobor architecture in Saskatchewan, it was reminiscent in structure and appearance to the prayer homes in the Doukhobor villages.  A distinguishing feature was the steeply-pitched gambrel roof, clad in cedar shakes with a dormer, which projected out over the gable ends giving a chalet-like appearance to the dwelling. 

            The street-facing gable was boxed in and had a door opening out onto a small balcony; it extended out over an open verandah supported by a row of pillars with decorative tin fretwork along the front of the house.      

            In traditional Doukhobor fashion, a banya (“bathhouse”) was built behind the dwelling house.  A plain 18-foot by 12-foot wood frame structure, with a whitewashed clapboard exterior and gable roof with cedar shakes, it contained a wood-burning stove and chimney.

             Inside the building, rocks were heated on the stove, then water was poured on them to produce steam. The interior was lined with wooden benches on which Doukhobors sat or lay.  The steam and heat made the bathers perspire.

            When a bather became too warm, he or she poured cold water on him or herself (in summer) or jumped into a snowbank outside (in winter) to cool off, then entered the banya again.  It was a healthy, relaxing experience and often an opportunity to socialize.   

To the rear (north) of the dwelling house and banya was a barn for boarding the teams of horses used by the store, constructed in 1907-1909.  It was a two-story wood frame structure, 32 feet long by 25 feet wide, with a whitewashed clapboard exterior, gambrel roof with cedar shakes, and earthen floor. The ground level was divided into six box stalls while the upper floor was used for storage of hay, feed and bedding.  

            Connecting the rear of the barn and the warehouse was a long drive shed for the drays and buggies used by the store, built in 1907-1909. It was a plain one-story pole frame structure, 50 feet in length by 18 feet in width, with a whitewashed clapboard exterior, open on the street-facing (south) side, with a flat tin roof and earth floor. 

            The dwelling house, barn, drive shed, warehouse and trading store formed a “U” shape around a small courtyard. A white picket fence was built along the open street-facing (south) side. The courtyard was used to stockpile Doukhobor-manufactured lumber, bricks, cement blocks and other bulk merchandise for sale.  It was also used, from time to time, to conduct large, open-air Doukhobor prayer meetings.

Livery stable and yard

            In 1909, a fine large livery stable was constructed to the west of the house on Second Avenue East.  It was a two-storey wood frame structure, 94 feet in length by 30 feet in width, with the exterior clad in Doukhobor-manufactured concrete blocks (first storey) and Doukhobor-manufactured bricks placed on edge (second storey), and a concrete pile and slab foundation. 

            The ground level was divided into 20 box stalls for boarding teams of horses from the surrounding Doukhobor villages (when in Canora for supplies) and the upper floor was used for storage of hay, feed and bedding. It had a gambrel roof clad in tin, with dormers and with three cupolas on the roof ridge for ornamentation and ventilation.

The two lots between the stable and the house formed a large livery yard for walking the store and village teams and parking the village wagons and drays. It was used to stockpile hay and manure. A bell-shaped well lined with Doukhobor-manufactured brick was dug in the livery yard for watering the horses.