Tea with the Captain is Long Overdue

By Bob Turner

Three years ago, our daughter suggested she would like to take her grandmother to the tea room at Captain Kennedy House,  south of Lockport on River Road. Sadly, the tea room closed that April (2015) before she was able to.

The reason for the closure? The province closed it because engineers found that the 150 year-old historic building had “structural problems”. They estimated the repair bill to be up to $1 million, and said it could take 2-1/2 years.  Well, here it is, over three years later, and the building remains closed. The tea room, (opened by church volunteers 1970, and then operated privately from 2003 onward), and the adjoining museum,  and ornamental garden were popular tourist attractions in the area.

To date, the promises on the sign in front of Kennedy House ring hollow

This summer, Red River North Tourism started a petition to present to the Manitoba Government, asking it to make the necessary repairs so that this important historic structure can be re-opened, and continue to provide a very important tourist attraction for the region.

Why is Kennedy House historically significant?

In 1985, the Minister of Culture, Heritage and Recreation designated the residence as a provincial historic site, in recognition of its importance in the history of our province.

The house was built in 1866, four years before Manitoba entered Confederation, for Captain William Kennedy, who was an explorer, missionary, HBC employee, a founding member of The Manitoba Historical Society, and one of the founders of the Winnipeg Board of Trade in 1873.

A brief biography of Captain Kennedy on the grounds.

Kennedy was a Metis, born at Cumberland House, on the Saskatchewan River, in 1814, the son of Alexander Kennedy, a Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Factor, and his indigenous wife, Mary Bear, who brought nine children into the world.

Following schooling in Scotland, he worked for the HBC from age 22 until 1848, when he went to Canada West, as it was then called, where he ran his own business fur trading , and lobbied for the expansion of Canada into the north-west.

He had originally wanted to return to England to become a surgeon like his older brothers, but he could not get the sponsorship, so he was destined to be a Canadian.

As a lad, Kennedy had met Sir John Franklin, and in 1850, offered his services to Franklin’s wife to help search for the Franklin expedition, leading two of the searches for Franklin and his men. He is credited with being the first to use dogs and sleds from an exploring ship.

In 1859, he married Eleanor Cripps, a kinswoman of Lady Franklin, and they had two children. Eleanor was a talented musician and singer, and an accomplished painter. A book of her original paintings is on display in the library of the Museum of Man and Nature in Winnipeg

In 1860, Kennedy settled at Fairford, on Lake Manitoba, as an Anglican missionary and teacher to the indigenous people of the area. A year later, he moved to St. Andrews on the Red, where he returned to the employ of HBC as storekeeper at Lower Fort Garry, although his relationship with the company soured.

Kennedy became a director of the North-West Transportation, Navigation and Railway Company. He made a journey from Toronto to the Red River Settlement in February 1857 to prove the possibilities of the route, even in the worst weather. The following year, Kennedy carried the first mail from Toronto to Red River for the company, which held the contract with the Canadian government.

Kennedy worked tirelessly to bring the northwest into Confederation, and circulated a petition in the Red River Settlement, requesting union with Canada which 575 settlers signed. He is also credited with working to keep tensions in the area minimized during the Riel Rebellion, although he took no active part. During the rebellion, bed ridden and crippled with arthritis, he volunteered to act as negotiator meeting privately with Riel.

His efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1879, that he was made a Magistrate of Manitoba, in recognition of his services to help bring about the expansion of Canada into the west.

Kennedy was crippled by rheumatism for the remaining years of his life, living a retired life at St. Andrew’s, still a visible personality in Red River society, passing away in 1890.

There was an economic depression from 1882 to 1885 in the U.S. and much of Europe. The fledgling Manitoba economy did not escape it, and Kennedy suffered a severe business setback, forcing his wife to support the family through dressmaking and millinery endeavors. Unfortunately, in 1892, two years after Kennedy’s death, Eleanor was forced to sell the St. Andrews house, and property, (known at the time as Maple Grove, the name given to the tea room).

Both William and Eleanor are buried in the churchyard at St. Andrew’s on the Red.

In addition to attracting visitors to the tea room, Kennedy House was an opportunity to view one of only seven historical houses left standing along River Road, and one of only three in good condition. The house was constructed using stones quarried from the Red River banks at nearby St. Andrews Rapids. The Gothic Revival style of the Kennedy House is architecturally distinctive, compared to the other old stone houses built in the Red River Settlement, which reflect Georgian influences. By Eastern Canadian and British standards of the time, Kennedy House was simple and unadorned, but by Red River Settlement standards, it was very fashionable.

So why does Kennedy House remain closed?

In 2015, engineers estimated the repair bill to be up to $1 million, and said it could take 2-1/2 years to perform the repairs. Here it is 2018, and there has been no action taken.

The large sign in front is a sad reminder of what once was.

What’s another million or two?

So why isn’t the province doing something about it? Sure, the $1 million price tag might be $2 million by now, but it’s not going to get any smaller if the building is left empty to suffer erosion, mould, and possible vermin infestation.

Yes, the government has committed to getting its financial house in order by holding the line on many new expenditures. But surely if our government can write off $200 million owed in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers stadium fiasco, it can find another million or two to help restore a significant piece of Manitoba’s past, and a critically important tourist attraction for our area.

The building is in remarkable condition, considering its age, but will not stay that way unless the government acts soon.

To date, the petition started by Red River North Tourism has gathered close to 3,000 signatures, and if enough people sign, it may help to bring about government action.

I hope that all who read this will agree with me that there are plenty of “Red River Reasons” to restore this valuable part of Manitoba’s history.

Please sign the petition.

Hopefully my daughter will be able to take her 90 year-old Grandma for tea at Captain Kennedy House in the not-too-distant future.

The building is a unique example of The Gothic Revival architectual style.