When contractor and lumber magnate John Hanbury died in 1928 the Brandon Sun wrote: "John Hanbury needs no memorial in Brandon to perpetuate his name. He lives in the memory of his old-time friends and all around are concrete evidences of his business career and successful achievements."
Over time, of course, his old friends died off and the physical traces of Hanbury’s business empire fell victim to the wrecking ball. The last prominent reminder, the Hanbury Hardware building on Pacific Avenue, was razed in the devastating fire that struck Brandon’s downtown last month.
John Hanbury was born in Markdale, Ont., in 1855 and apprenticed in the building trades, eventually becoming a successful contractor in the region. He moved to Brandon in 1882, the year the city was incorporated, to seek greater challenges.
Hanbury oversaw the construction of many of the Wheat City’s earliest landmarks, including the Langham Hotel on 12th Street (1883), the First Merchants Bank building (1890), Brandon’s first combined post office and federal building (1891), and the original Brandon Hospital (1892). All have long since been demolished.
'John Hanbury needs no memorial in Brandon to perpetuate his name. He lives in the memory of his old-time friends and all around are concrete evidences of his business career and successful achievements' — Brandon Sun, 1928
Most of Hanbury’s projects were houses, many for well-to-do families. Of note was his own family home located on Lorne Avenue. Designed by prominent Brandon architect W. H. Shillinglaw, it was constructed in 1899 and considered by some to be one of the finest private residences in the province.
The Hanburys needed a large home as John and his first wife, Martha Miles, had eight children. She died in 1898 and the following year, while the grand, new home was under construction, Hanbury got remarried to Minnie Isbister of Wawanesa.
In 1892, Hanbury stepped back from contracting and created the Hanbury Manufacturing Company, which consisted of a lumber yard and factory that initially manufactured doors and window sashes. As the West’s population grew, the company branched out into store fixtures and hotel interiors.
To feed the company’s ravenous appetite for wood, Hanbury bought out the assets of the Assiniboine Lumber Company in 1898. The deal included a sawmill in Brandon and, more importantly, its vast timber cutting rights in the Duck Mountain region.
Each year, trees were cut in the winter months and in springtime were driven down river to the Assiniboine River and to the Brandon mill. The 1,000-kilometre plus journey took between three to six weeks to complete. In 1901 alone, according to a period article in Canadian Lumberman magazine, 2.1 million metres of lumber were delivered to Hanbury Manufacturing this way.
Hanbury and his various enterprises at the time employed between 200 to 300 employees, depending on the season, making him the second-largest employer in town after the CPR. The Winnipeg Free Press referred to him as one of province’s "millionaire lumber dealers."
Over the next five years Hanbury purchased additional mills and cutting rights in British Columbia. In 1901, he created a retail hardware chain called the Manitoba Hardware Company which had stores in Hamiota, Virden, Miniota, Reston, and briefly, Vancouver. During this time the woodworking factory on Assiniboine Avenue in Brandon was doubled in size to 25,000 square feet.
The next business venture came in 1907 when wholesaler Hanbury Hardware Company was established.
The company, which distributed hardware to retailers across Western Canada, was housed in a new building located along the railway tracks on Pacific Avenue at Seventh Street. The top two floors were warehouse space, with the main floor reserved for the corporate offices of Hanbury’s various business ventures. It was this building that burned down last month.
In 1908, Hanbury turned his attention back to British Columbia and bought a defunct lumber mill in Vancouver on False Creek at Granville Street. He announced that he would soon build the region’s largest mill on the site.
In 1910, as the new project was being constructed, Hanbury announced he and his wife were relocating permanently to Vancouver. He remained president of his companies, but the day-to-day operations were handled by his sons.
The departure of the Hanburys was a blow to Brandon’s civic life.
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Minnie was involved in numerous charitable activities and had served as the chair of the Brandon YWCA. John was on the executive of numerous organizations, from the hospital to the curling club, and had also served multiple terms on city council and the school board.
When the new Vancouver mill was completed by 1911 it was said to have cost around $1 million and the adjacent woodworking factory could produce 1,000 doors a day.
In 1920, Hanbury sold off his Brandon-based hardware wholesale division to Wood, Valance and Company of Hamilton, which relocated the building’s contents to warehouses in Winnipeg and Regina.
Five years later, the remainder of his Manitoba assets were auctioned off, including the houses of many of his children as they followed their parents out to British Columbia to work at the Vancouver mill and factory.
John Hanbury died on April 3, 1928, in Vancouver at the age of 72. With the recent loss of the last significant remnant of his once mighty business empire perhaps it is now time for that monument to him in Brandon.
Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.
The devastating fire in downtown Brandon last month destroyed numerous businesses and left approximately 150 people homeless. It also razed two heritage buildings and left a third severely damaged.
The Hanbury Hardware building at 705 Pacific Avenue was constructed in 1907 and acted as the company’s corporate headquarters until it was sold off in 1920. In 1922, it became home to Cameron and Rathwell, the local International Harvester farm implement dealership.
In 1923, a portion of the main floor was leased to the provincial government and became Brandon’s first post-prohibition liquor store. It closed soon after a modern Liquor Mart opened on Victoria Avenue in 1970.
Since 1941, it had been home to Christie’s Office Plus. The company is older than the city itself, established by E. L. Christie in 1881 as Christie’s Book Store, later Christie’s School Supply. Christie and Hanbury were contemporaries and sat on a number of committees and boards together.
Another building that was razed was the former Cockshutt Farm Equipment building at 645 Pacific Ave. The original Cockshutt building, constructed on this site in 1910, burned down in 1946 when a fire at the Massey Building across the street rained burning embers onto it. The building was rebuilt in 1946 and vacated in 1962 after Cockshutt was bought out by a competitor. At the time of the fire it was home to the Brandon Boxing Club and a lawnmower and snowblower sales and repair shop.
The Massey Harris building at 705 Pacific Ave. was the largest of the three buildings impacted by the fire. The three-storey, 70,000 square foot structure was built in 1913–14 for the Gordon McKay Company of Toronto, the largest dry goods wholesaler in the country. The city of Brandon was so pleased to be chosen as the location of the company’s western warehouse that it donated the land and paid for its construction with assurances that the company would pay it back over time.
In the end, Gordon McKay never moved to Brandon, first citing a recession, then the war. In 1920, the building was bought by farm machinery manufacturer Massey Harris for use as their regional warehouse. By 1960, the building was vacant and due to its size, had to be subdivided into smaller spaces. It has been home to a number of furniture retailers, a toy shop and a recycling centre. In 2007, the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Westman office and the Brandon Friendship Centre announced a $6.7 million partnership that converted the building into a 58-unit affordable housing complex. It reopened in 2012 as Massey Manor.
The building sustained substantial smoke and water damage in the fire but it is believed that it can be salvaged.