Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Snapshots of a young city

Postcard collector teams up with city library for online project that delves into Winnipeg's past

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The next time bureaucrats are trying to come up with a catchy slogan for Winnipeg -- you know, something less inspiring than "One Great City" or "Heart of the Continent" -- they might want to flip through Rob McInnes's collection of vintage postcards.

McInnes's cards offer a glimpse into what Manitoba and its capital city looked like over a century ago. Furthermore, some of his specimens include billboard-ready captions like "I love the ladies in Winnipeg" or "I'd like to spend a day with you in Winnipeg." (The latter quote accompanies a shot of a young couple -- she's in a petticoat and fur-trimmed hat, he's sporting a three-piece suit and button-up boots -- lounging on the banks of the Assiniboine River, circa 1900.)

Thanks to his cache, McInnes has become one of the country's pre-eminent documentarians of early 20th-century Manitoba. So much so that the Winnipeg Public Library has made his collection an integral part of its PastForward project -- an online, visual resource that aims "to preserve and present digital information relevant to the public history of Winnipeg and the surrounding region."

At www.wpl-digitization.winnipeg.ca, interested parties can view scanned images from McInnes's collection, which are catalogued under a variety of subject headings including "General Strike," "Red River' and, wouldn't you know it, "winter."

McInnes grew up in Fort Garry. He began collecting postcards 14 years ago for a simple enough reason: he was feeling wistful.

"My wife is from California and we were living near Santa Cruz at the time," says McInnes, who now splits his time between Winnipeg and the Golden State. "I was browsing through an antique store in California and came across an old postcard of the Fort Garry Gate. The image really connected me to home and, in the context of that sense of connection, I decided to start a collection of antique postcards."

McInnes, an employment director who would have been a historian if "I could remember dates," is no longer surprised when he shops on eBay and comes across Winnipeg postcards being sold by dealers from every corner of the globe.

"You have to remember Winnipeg at the beginning of the 20th century was a boomtown; people were coming here from all over," he explains. "Naturally, they wanted everyone to know a bit about where they were living. But at the time, very few people owned cameras so postcards became an inexpensive way of sending pictures to family and friends back home."

One thing McInnes never anticipated was how his hobby would become what it is today -- an ongoing, investigative challenge. Many of the pictures he acquires have no markings whatsoever. So it's not unusual for the father of five -- and grandfather of four -- to spend an entire weekend trying to figure out where a specific picture was taken, and by whom.

"There's a lot of sleuth work involved, that's for sure," he says with a chuckle. "I had one postcard, for example, that showed the storefront of a real estate company but that was it. I could make out a numerical address but there was no street name -- nothing."

McInnes was getting ready to call it a day when he noticed a reflection in the real estate business's window. He fetched his magnifying glass and, a few minutes later, was able to make out the mirrored image of a building directly across the street from the one in the photograph.

"I recognized the building in the reflection -- it was on the corner of Princess and William. So from that, I was able to determine that the real estate office had to be on Main Street."

Another thing that makes McInnes's collection attention-grabbing is the number of postcards that aren't touristy in the least. Some, like those of the downtown Eaton's store and Union Bank Tower, were taken during the buildings' construction; the pics are just a hodgepodge of beams and piles. And one of his most eye-catching treasures shows a printing shop on Bannatyne Avenue going up in flames -- not exactly the sort of thing that screams, "Having a good time, wish you were here."

"A lot of the photographers who came to Winnipeg were hired to document the city -- to take pictures of anything and everything they found interesting," McInnes says. "We're lucky because Winnipeg's growth coincided with the technology of the day; if you take places like Montreal or Toronto, there are very few pictures of what they looked like early on because by the time cameras were commonplace, they were already built, for the most part."

Theresa Lomas is Winnipeg Public Library's administrative co-ordinator of information and virtual services. She became aware of McInnes's collection in 2012 -- around the same time her department started laying the groundwork for a digitization project.

A colleague of Lomas's was familiar with McInnes's images and showed Lomas and her co-workers some of what she had stored in her email.

Lomas and her fellow staff members were "completely blown away" by what they saw. Lomas got in touch with McInnes and invited him to her office to see if he wanted to be a part of what the library had in mind.

During the meeting, Lomas told McInnes she was sensitive to the fact his collection was invaluable. She also assured him the postcards would be in safe hands if he allowed the library access to them. As it turned out, there was no need to twist any arms; McInnes was receptive to the idea from the get-go and was a guest speaker when the library launched its PastForward website in Feb. 2013 at the Cornish Library.

"I have to say Rob got a lot of people in the room that day quite interested in local history," Lomas says. "He's so passionate about what he does that he can't help but ignite passion in others."

To date, approximately 700 of McInnes's postcards have been scanned, catalogued and posted online. Lomas isn't sure how long it will take to complete the project -- after all, his collection numbers in the thousands -- but she says visitors to the website can expect to see additions on a regular basis. (The PastForward project also includes scans of old Henderson Directories and is just beginning to build a music section, with images of posters, handbills and programs of concerts and performances through the years.)

Last year, a woman from Toronto contacted Lomas. It turned out she had seen McInnes's postcards online and told the librarian her late father, who was from Winnipeg, also collected Manitoba postcards. When her father died, he left behind a collection of close to 7,000 cards.

"She said she knew her dad would love of the idea of them being available to a lot of people so she made the decision not to sell them to a private collector, but to donate them to the PastForward project, instead," Lomas says.

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2014 D13

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