This article was published 11/6/2016 (1165 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
EAST ST. PAUL — Once upon a time, East St. Paul was all about market gardens.
Today, it’s about posh housing.
Average home prices in the municipality are the second-highest in Manitoba, at $550,000 last year.
Its most well-known subdivision, Pritchard Farm Properties, is a gawker’s delight. The same goes for the mansions and near-mansions on Highland Park Drive and Whidbey Harbour.
You may want to check if the Parthenon is still standing because all the stone columns look like they made their way here. Many front doors are framed by gothic arches, some two storeys high, as if you’re entering the gates of heaven.
East St. Paul is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. So is West St. Paul.
They were once just the Municipality of St. Paul. The church bell would ring in St. Paul’s Anglican Church in West St. Paul, and people in East St. Paul would clamber aboard a ferry — a flat, open barge pulled by cable — to get there.
Hence, the green road sign you see on Main Street, just past the city limits, for Middlechurch. The sign is not for a town, village or hamlet. Middlechurch is the parish name for St. Paul’s Anglican Church, originally built in 1825.
A church, built in 1876, stands today and holds services every Sunday. St. Paul’s Anglican is the middle church between St. John’s (the upper church) in North Winnipeg, and St. Andrew’s (the lower church) in the RM of St. Andrews.
It wasn’t just church services. East St. Paul residents had to ferry across the Red River every time they paid a municipal bill or renewed a licence or conducted some other municipal business.
In 1916, people finally decided it was ridiculous, and the municipality split in two. The populations at the time were about 450 on the west side and 350 to the east. The populations were still nearly identical as recently as 1971 — East. St. Paul, 2,616; West St. Paul, 2,429 — but that’s the last time.
East St. Paul has 9,000 residents, according to the last census, compared with 5,000 across the river even though East St. Paul (42 square kilometres) is half the size of West St. Paul (88 sq. km). East St Paul’s assessed tax base is also way ahead — $900 million versus $400 million.
West St. Paul has a mini-version of Pritchard Farms — called River’s Edge — but the municipality has more older housing. You can easily find a "shack" — a colloquial term for a small ramshackle house — in West St. Paul, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just indicative of the way it has developed.
It raises the question, why have the two St. Pauls, separated at birth, developed so differently?
When the council of the Rural Municipality of St. Paul met for its inaugural session May 3, 1880, the first order of business was to set up a ferry service across the Red River. In fact, it was the only order of business.
West St. Paul Mayor Bruce Henley knows that because he’s read the council minutes. Not just the minutes from 1880, but all council minutes dating back the past 135 years.
People either admire him for it, said Henley, or think he needs to be checked out. He estimates it took about 300 hours going through page after agonizing page of the most droll and chronically fatiguing council minutes. "I’d read 10 years at a time over a weekend," he said.
Instead of a cure for insomnia, it kept him up. He got hooked. It not only informed him about his job as mayor, but turned him into a local historian.
For example, Henley can tell you all about the ferry, and provide photos. There’s a picture of a group of citizens, dressed in their Sunday best, being pulled across the river on a barge, along with their horse-drawn wagons. If it was a small party, you came across by rowboat. Police, doctors and clergy rode for free. When it was foggy or misty, the ferry rang a bell to warn other traffic it was crossing. The bell, which dates to 1825, is preserved in the RM of West St. Paul office.
In retrospect, it was a crazy way to run a municipality. Residents on the west side didn’t mind, but those on the east side must have felt second class always being the ones having to cross the river.
The ferry service continued long after the municipalities separated, all the way to 1935, said Henley. However, after 1931 it only operated on Sundays to get parishioners to and from church. You can still see the indent of the boat launch at the end of Balderstone Road in West St. Paul, where the ferry docked. On East St. Paul’s side, you can see the backyards of some of the mansions of Whidbey Harbour.
West St. Paul grew around the church. When the land was settled, it was divided into long, narrow parish lots so everyone had access to water and river transportation. The lots were 100 feet wide, and anywhere from 800 feet to two miles long. Throughout its history, the municipality has had trouble building roads because they would invariably cross someone’s lot, and they wouldn’t want to see their property split. The roads are still broken up that way, with some residential streets ending abruptly.
One of the biggest projects in West St. Paul history was the digging of Grassmere Ditch.
West St. Paul was mostly swamp, initially. The land was flat with nowhere for the water to go, so it just pooled or flowed where it wasn’t wanted. Farm lands were constantly flooded.
That’s not unusual. The Red River Valley is the former lake bottom of glacial Lake Agassiz. An estimated 60 per cent of the Red River Valley was once swamp, at least for part of the year, in its natural state.
As many as 700 men helped dig the Grassmere Ditch, including Henley’s grandfather. It took five years, from 1929 to 1933. It was the Great Depression, and the Grassmere Ditch became a giant relief project for families that couldn’t find work.
Workers were paid $2 per week (a loaf of bread cost 5 cents at the time), plus free meals. With relief work, Ottawa paid 95 per cent of the cost, the municipality the rest. A work camp was built (later converted for use as a German PoW camp for the Second World War) near the corner of Main Street and Grassmere Road.
The 14.5-km trench was dug with hand shovels and wheelbarrows. In winter, the relief workers shovelled the streets and railway tracks leading to Winnipeg.
The Grassmere Ditch effectively drained water into the Red River. Henley estimated the original ditch was about 100 feet wide by 12 feet deep. The province took it over and enlarged it in the 1960s. The ditch allowed farmers to farm, people to build houses, and governments to build roads.
That was one water problem solved. The other was drinking water — and that has yet to be resolved.
In 1959, according to minutes, local council planned to build a pipeline to obtain water from Transcona, which yet wasn’t part of Winnipeg. It didn’t happen. "Seventy years later, we’re still talking about water," said Henley.
Some Winnipeggers driving to East St. Paul expect to see people with soil under their fingernails and earth stains worked into a smooth patina on their overalls. That horse has pretty much left the barn. It’s been decades since there was much commercial market gardening in East St. Paul.
Stan Buksak was one of the last, and he retired in 1996. His parents started market gardening in 1928. "I spent all my teenage years helping at home," Buksak said. The Pritchards, where Pritchard Farm housing is today, were market gardeners, too.
"My father (Frank) had a team of horses, and was hauling produce to the North End market (on Main Street between Flora and Stella avenues) along a mud road," Buksak said.
Stan and his wife, Marianne, took over where his parents left off. They harvested 60 acres.
"You name it, we grew it," said Buksak: cooking onions, celery, cabbage, potatoes, cauliflower, green peppers, pumpkins. Children would ride out from the city on their bikes to market gardens such as Buksak’s to earn a few dollars picking weeds in the hot sun. Many came away thinking they’d better stay in school. Automation slowly took over.
"When we quit in ’96, almost everything was being done by machine," Buksak said.
At one time, everything north of the Disraeli Bridge (before the bridge was opened in 1959) along Henderson Highway was market gardens. Many street names in Elmwood, East Kildonan and North Kildonan are named after market gardeners. Developers kept pushing out, usually paying landowners inflated prices for their land. It was only a matter of time before urbanization moved into East St. Paul.
There are only a handful of market gardeners left who operate on a commercial scale, Buksak said. Neumann’s Market on Henderson Highway sells fresh local produce, and you’ll find roadside stands for some produce at harvest time, especially pumpkins and gourds around Halloween.
Urbanization started with the village of Birds Hill, East St. Paul’s only townsite. The village was founded to service the gravel industry. It’s at the foot of an esker formed about 15,000 years ago, near the end of the last glaciation.
The name Birds Hill comes from Hudson’s Bay Company factor James Curtis Bird. (A factor was an agent in charge of HBC business in an area.) Bird owned 1,245 acres there, bestowed on him by the company. So the former esker initially took on the possessive name, Bird’s Hill.
It wasn’t a term of endearment. Bird was a harsh man, according to Ted Stone’s The Story Behind Manitoba Names, who was "difficult to get along with and generally unpopular throughout the settlement."
The quarry was started by 1871, and the village rose up beside it beginning in 1881. Twenty-million tonnes of aggregate later, the pit was finally exhausted by the late 1990s. The quarry has been converted into a park, called Silver Springs, by the last owners, brothers Don and Bill Swistun and their families. The families paid 90 per cent of the cost to rehabilitate the quarry.
Residential development started to take off in the early 1970s, after council decided to build a sewage-treatment plant. Removing the nuisance and space required for septic fields allowed for denser development, said Bruce Schmidt, the RM’s chief administrator.
Pipes are the reason East St. Paul grew, said Schmidt, who was the private engineer consultant for the East St. Paul area for 22 years before working for the municipality. "I know all the pipes and roads in this community," he said.
Interest in development was also piqued by the closure of Imperial Oil’s refinery on Henderson Highway. The refinery opened in 1951, and gave off a pungent odour that discouraged residential living. In 1975, Imperial Oil shut the refining operation and became a storage facility and distribution point.
The nuisance smell was gone, but the massive industrial tax base continued filling East St. Paul coffers. Last year, Imperial Oil paid $452,000 in municipal property taxes to the municipality. An envious Henley, mayor of West St. Paul, calls it East St. Paul’s "sugar daddy."
Hoddinott Road, which runs from Henderson Highway to the village of Birds Hill, sounds like something out of Alice in Wonderland, but was really the name of the landowner, Edwin Hoddinott, whose farm was at the end of the original dirt road.
It was to the north and south of Hoddinott the next residential development took place. In the 1980s, Glengarry Properties was built on the south side of Hoddinott, and North Hill Place opposite it.
Pritchard Farm came along in the 1990s. It introduced big houses with high-peaked roofs, giving them an "estate" look, on large lots of one-third acres. People could choose their own builder but housing had to meet the developer’s guidelines. "You don’t want all of a sudden a house with a pink roof," said Wayne Penner, a Royal LePage realtor, who was in on Pritchard Farm sales from the inception.
Houses in Pritchard Farm sell for $500,000 to $2 million today, with an average sale price of about $700,000, Penner said.
At the time, council made another prescient decision: it brought in piped drinking water.
The developer, Art Defehr of Palliser Furniture, wanted potable water in his vision for an upscale subdivision. People wouldn’t have to deal with septic fields or well water. The water is piped under the floodway from underground springs in the RM of Springfield. All new homes in East St. Paul are hooked up to potable water.
"What really changed East St. Paul was Pritchard Farm Properties. It became where we had to supply piped water," said Schmidt.
With sewer and water, development took off.
Property taxes were an attraction at first, starting out 20 per cent cheaper than Winnipeg, but are now only four or five per cent less, said Penner.
One frequent remark is how well East St Paul’s developments have been planned out. An example is the retention pond in Pritchard Farm. In most communities, the retention pond is a small lake in the middle, surrounded by houses. The retention pond here was made into a creek and walking trail that threads its way throughout the neighbourhood. It even has fish.
East St. Paul currently has 3,200 houses; 2,500 are served by sewer lines. More than 1,000 homes have water.
Another prescient decision by council was to exercise "controlled growth." East St. Paul has kept growth to a manageable 40 to 60 homes per year, with few exceptions. That frustrates developers but it’s made for careful, deliberate development, unlike the helter-skelter development in some capital region municipalities.
"East St. Paul has just done it right, to the credit of its municipal councils," said real estate agent Greg Michie.
When asked if he could foresee ever joining Winnipeg, Schmidt wasn’t sure what the advantages would be.
East St. Paul has its own sewer, its own water, its own voluntary fire department, with 40 members who are paid on a per-call basis. It shares ambulance service with West St. Paul. If the RM ever had to pay for Henderson Highway, the way the city pays for Henderson and other provincial roads inside its boundaries (with help of subsidies from the province), some attitudes might change.
The majority of people moving to the community have been from North Kildonan and East Kildonan, said Penner, but there’s a growing influx from south Winnipeg. "People in south of Winnipeg don’t really want to move north, but once they get here, they never want to move out," he said.
Today, East St. Paul has the second-highest average house price in the province. (The average house price was $546,000 in 2015, ahead of Linden Woods at $490,000, but behind Tuxedo’s $664,000.) Newer homes in East St. Paul start at about $600,000.
You could repeat the old joke about people dying to get into West St. Paul, and not be far from wrong.
As you drive north on Main Street, leaving the city into West St. Paul, you come across "cemetery row." There are no fewer than seven cemeteries on the river side of Main Street.
The burial grounds are: St. Paul’s Anglican Cemetery, Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Cemetery, Holy Family Ukrainian Catholic Cemetery, Glen Eden, All Saints Ukrainian Catholic Cemetery, Bnay Abraham Jewish Cemetery, and St. Benedict’s Monastery Cemetery.
The Glen Eden has 16,000 burials alone.
The St. Benedict’s Monastery, established in 1902, does pay tax on its monastery, retreat centre and life-lease assisted-living residence. However, the rest of its 71 acres is zoned agricultural.
The problem is the dead don’t pay taxes, although bureaucrats somewhere are probably trying to devise a way.
Those seven cemeteries could be subdivided into pricey residential property worth millions of dollars in annual municipal taxes. Every municipality in North America would be licking its chops wanting to develop that property — but occupants refuse to leave.
Henley won’t go there. It is what it is, the mayor says in so many words. It’s one reason West St. Paul hasn’t developed like East St. Paul.
West St. Paul has grown with niche developments — Rivercrest subdivision was built in 1946, Riverdale in the early 1980s, Lister Rapids in the late 1980s, Riversprings in the mid-1990s. These are all relatively small developments tucked here and there among older housing.
Its priciest development is River’s Edge, which was built in 2008, where homes sell for $400,000 to nearly $1 million. It’s like Pritchard Farm in style but homes are smaller, on smaller lots, and have sewer but not piped water.
The history of sporadic, niche development may be changing, say municipal officials. West St. Paul anticipates a potential for strong development in the next few years. The reason is pipes.
At long last, West St. Paul signed a service-sharing agreement in 2013 for a $16-million main sewer pipe connecting to Winnipeg’s sewer system.
Half the cost is being paid from the federal-provincial Building Canada Fund, $6 million by West St. Paul, and $2 million by the Manitoba Water Services Board. As a result, an area from McPhillips Street to the Red River, including long stretches of river property, is opening up for development.
It doesn’t come without pain: some owners of older residences won’t be able to afford a hookup, and those required to be connected will have to pay.
The sewer line connected to Winnipeg started being installed in 2015, and more is being rolled out this year. One-thousand homes should be hooked up by the end of the year that didn’t have sewer service two years ago, Henley said.
In addition, West St. Paul is getting drinking water. It is hooking up with the Cartier Water Co-op, which includes the municipalities of Cartier, Grey, Headingley, the Headingley Correctional Institution, Portage la Prairie, Rockwood, Rosser, St. François Xavier and Woodlands. The central water-treatment plant is in St. Eustache, 46 km west of Winnipeg.
The cost of piped water is also being paid through a tripartite agreement, with the federal government (Build Canada Fund), province, and municipality each putting up $1.5 million. Council is hopeful piped water will arrive in 2017, but it will be almost exclusively for new development.
"It’s taken us 100 years to get water to West St. Paul. We were the only municipality in the capital region without permanent potable water," said Henley.
That should also spur commercial development.
"Tim Hortons won’t hook up to well water and a holding tank," said Henley. The same applies to Costco, Canadian Tire, etc.
You can’t buy gasoline in West St. Paul.
The RM anticipates adding up to 2,000 homes in the next decade and possibly doubling its current population of 5,000.
ReMax real estate agent Linda van den Broek thinks the municipality may be overly optimistic.
Land is selling for $140,000 per lot, plus the cost of sewer and water hookup. With new home construction and developer guidelines, new homes will be priced in the $600,000-$700,000 range.
She wonders if there will be enough people who can afford the sticker price. "Will our economy sustain that? We’ve had significant growth in real estate for 15 years." It’s a lot to ask for the market to continue for another 15 years, she said.
She said houses sell from $350,000-$800,000 range in West St. Paul.
"We’re still at least 20 years behind East St. Paul," said van den Broek, who lives in the area.
The unevenness of its development has helped to hold down prices, she said.
However, West St. Paul house values are rising. The average home sale was $408,000 in 2015 (versus $550,000 in East St. Paul), but the average was $442,000 in 2014; and its $433,000 for the first part of 2016.
West St. Paul celebrated its centennial with a large banquet April 21 at the Sunova Recreation Centre. Guests of honour included Arthur Christensen, 99, and Olga Herdy, 97.
Christensen’s daughter, Diane, took him to the event. As for Herdy? She drove herself.
Nonagenarians got to serve themselves first at the buffet table, and about a dozen people rose up, according to one count (no one checked IDs).
At Christensen’s home, the Maple Leaf flies proudly at the top of a tall flagpole in his yard. Christensen served as battery sergeant major for the Canadian Forces in the Second World War. (A battery sergeant is in charge of squadron duty and discipline.)
He returned in 1946 and took up residence in a new housing development in West St. Paul. He still lives on the property 70 years later.
Christensen is an imposing man — even at nearly 100 years of age — standing almost 6-2. He ran for council within two years of returning from the war and became a councillor by acclamation. A decade later, he was reeve, which he served as for another decade.
Christensen helped bring in such local improvements as telephone (previously, six households shared a party line), street and highway lights, and garbage pickup. Before pickup, people used to burn their garbage in the backyard.
West St. Paul was very poor in those days, Christensen explained. For example, his subdivision of Rivercrest was once surrounded by farmland. There were some market gardens but not like in East St. Paul, and there weren’t nearly as many roadside stands on Main Street as on Henderson Highway. It was only through membership in a pre-Unicity association called Metropolitan Winnipeg that West St. Paul was able to obtain those services, he said.
Christensen was also part of the council that made the fateful decision to reject Imperial Oil.
The company approached West St. Paul council in the early 1950s, wanting to build an oil refinery in the RM. The refinery would give off a pungent odour no one wanted to live near. So Christensen and the council refused. Council even went so far as to write a letter to East St. Paul urging it to refuse Imperial Oil, too.
Today, we would say West St. Paul was on the side of angels and made the right call in terms of its residents and the environment — but that’s not how it turned out.
At the time, East St. Paul was as poor as West St. Paul. It was just farmland and the village of Birds Hill with less than 400 people. When Imperial Oil came courting, East St. Paul said ‘yes.’
That’s the huge Imperial Oil yard with the giant oil tankers you see to the east, when you take a Sunday drive down Henderson Highway.
Willi Jantz moved into East St. Paul in 1970. He remembers how awful the refinery smelled. It had a huge smokestack and he could smell it as far away as Birds Hill, where he lived, if the wind blew in the that direction. That’s why he was able to buy his home and half-acre so cheaply. It cost him just $1,500.
"The market gardeners didn’t care what it smelled like. The plants don’t worry about the smell," he said.
But as fate would have it, Imperial Oil closed its refinery in 1975, and the site became an odourless distribution centre. Suddenly, East St. Paul was on the radar as a desirable place to live.
The two St. Pauls went separate ways because of the Imperial Oil refinery. The annual cash injections allowed East St. Paul to invest in a sewage-treatment plant. That spurred development. It’s why their populations were the same until 1970. Then, East St. Paul’s took off.
Even today, West St. Paul’s largest taxpayer, Middlechurch Home, a personal-care home, pays less than one-quarter of what East St. Paul gets from Imperial Oil.
West St. Paul didn’t have that kind of money. It did what it could afford, building mini-treatment facilities for some neighbourhoods such as Lister Rapids, Riverdale and Rivercrest. Those treatment plants are now decrepit, but the subdivisions at least have the underground pipes allowing them to hook up to the new trunk sewer lines.
As for Jantz, he doesn’t know what he could get for the house he purchased for $1,500. But he knows empty lots the same size are selling for $250,000 in his neighbourhood.
Bill Redekop has been covering rural issues since 2001.