In the days before Europeans arrived on the shores of Canada, Neepawa was simply a spot on the prairies and the development of the community was on the distant horizon. The land was primarily occupied by the Cree, Ojibwe and Assiniboine people, who followed the Plains Bison that took shelter in the area north of Neepawa during the winter, before crossing through the area to head south again across the plains. The land provided everything the Indigenous people needed with bountiful game, water and plants.
It is for that reason that the area was named Neepawa, which was Cree for Land of Plenty.
Today, Neepawa sits on Treaty 2 land.
The word took some time to show up on maps though, not appearing until 1873.
For a long period of time, the only Europeans who came through the area were fur traders that followed the Fort Ellice Trail, which ran from the Red River area to Fort Edmonton.
The overall trail was known as the Carlton Trail but the section that ran from Upper Fort Garry to Fort Edmonton was more commonly called the Fort Ellice Trail.
It was along this trail that many settlers would journey through the Canadian Prairies after arriving in Canada, anxious to find their homesteads and settle down to a new life. In 1877, a group of settlers from Listowel, Ontario decided that the land looked quite nice where the Stony and Boggy Creeks met, and they chose to stop where they were and set up a new community. They weren’t the first to arrive in the community though. The first homesteads arrived around 1872 and started to settle on the land that had been freed up through the Numbered Treaties that the Indigenous signed with the government.
The first group to arrive in the Neepawa area, those 30 settlers from Ontario, would lay the foundation for the community that Neepawa is today.
At the time, the area was not part of Manitoba, which was only one-eighth the size it would be and was called the Postage Stamp Province. It was not until 1881 that the borders of Manitoba expanded, and the area became part of the province.
Neepawa would officially be founded in 1880 on the land homesteaded by Andrew Baker, who was the first person to erect a building in the area. Soon after, others would begin to erect buildings and the community slowly started to grow.
In 1882, the railway came through and the success of Neepawa was assured.
On Nov. 3, 1883, Neepawa was incorporated, and J.J. Hamilton was elected as the first Mayor of Neepawa. That being said, there is an interesting story of who really was the first mayor. The story comes from an early pioneer of the area named Fed Davis, who said there was an unofficial election in 1882 before Neepawa was a town. The ambitious young men of the town felt the community should be dignified enough to have a mayor, and due to his popularity because of the songs he would sing and his fun-loving disposition, Patrick Dempsey was chosen as the mayor of the town. Officially though, Hamilton is the first mayor of the town.
One year after Neepawa became a town, its significance in the area was displayed in the construction of a beautiful courthouse. This two-storey buff brick building served as the county and municipal offices, the judges’ courthouse, a police station and even a theatre. The cost of the building was shared with the Government of Manitoba, and for the next five years it was the only brick structure in the entire community. The building still stands to this day and houses the municipal offices of the Municipality of Rosedale. In 1980, the structure was made a National Historic Site of Canada.
The community would continue to grow thanks to its location and good land. By the turn of the 20th century, Neepawa would have two banks, three hotels, a dentist, three tailors, three schools, four churches, seven elevators, three doctors, two drug stores, two restaurants, two newspapers, four lumber yards, six blacksmiths and much more. It also had a population of about 1,500 at the time, which made it one of the most important communities in the entire province.
One interesting aspect of Neepawa is that it developed quite the rivalry between the north and south ends of the community. The two sides of the community were separated at a boundary where the train station was located, and each side of the community was competing to be the dominate side of the community in terms of commerce. For about 15 years, the north side was the business centre with the wheat market, sash and door factory, several hotels, three stores and much more. This continued until just after the turn of the 20th century when things started to change due to the building of the Canadian National Railway through the area, which changed the grain delivery location for the community. Add in there were no fire bylaws in the north side of town and things were bound to change. With that, the prosperity of the north end ended and before long the community was functioning as one whole, rather than two sides.
Around the time that Neepawa was forming and becoming a town, a man named Dr. David Harrison owned a private bank in the community. He would then be elected to the Manitoba Legislature where he represented the area from 1883 to 1888. During that period of time, and only for a very brief moment, he would serve as the sixth premier of Manitoba from Dec. 26, 1887, to Jan. 19, 1888. Unable to win the support of a clear majority of MLAs, he resigned soon after becoming premier and would be replaced by Thomas Greenway, who would serve for the next 12 years. Harrison would go back to his bank building in Neepawa, which he would continue to run until 1898.
In 1892, the Knox Presbyterian Church was built, in the rare example of Romanesque Revival in Manitoba. This church replaced the $1,200 church that had been built only ten years previous. The church features brick and stone exteriors, with round-arched openings, a bell tower and more. Designed by James Allen MacDonald, this building is one of the oldest Presbyterian churches in the province. Only three other churches are older than this one. The church continues to stand to this day in Neepawa, and in 1989 was named a Provincial Heritage Site.
In 1902, a new station was built in Neepawa to handle the growing number of visitors and settlers coming to the community. The total cost of the station at the time was $5,000, which was no small amount. A Second-Class style station, it was completed that year and served the Canadian Northern Railway for decades until it was closed in the early 1980s with the decline of the use of railroads at the time. The structure, despite being nearly 120 years old, still stands to this day and now houses the Beautiful Plains Museum. The museum was established in 1976 and moved into the former rail station in 1981. Today, it serves as a tribute to the Indigenous and settlers of years past. The station is split into three floors where you can see the recreation of a general store, medical hall, log cabin, chapel and much more. It also houses many artifacts form the past of the community, as well as pictures from decades ago. The museum is open from Victoria Day to Labour Day every year and admission is by donation.
In 1906, the Neepawa Opera House opened and would operate for the next three decades as a theatre, before it was repurposed into a movie theatre in 1936. Today, it is one of the oldest theatre venues in all of Manitoba and serves as an excellent example of an entertainment facility that adapted with the times. The theatre, now called the Roxy Theatre, stands to this day and still operates as a theatre. Any visit to Neepawa is not complete without stopping in to see the history of this structure that dates back over 110 years. In 2006, it was named a Municipal Heritage Site.
On April 14, 1912, the Titanic sunk beneath the waves, becoming the most famous shipwreck in the world. When it sunk, it took the lives of three Neepawa men with it, Lewis, Leonard and Stanley Hickman. Lewis had come to the area of Neepawa in 1908 to start farming and in 1912, he journeyed to England to get his brothers. The three men were coming back to Canada on the Titanic when it hit an iceberg.
Crews picking up bodies grabbed what they believed to be Leonard’s body in the water. He was identified by a lodge card and shipped back to Neepawa. Upon arrival, it was quickly realized that this was not Leonard, but Lewis but they buried the body as Leonard anyways and on the grave stone it lists all three brothers. The bodies of the two other brothers were either never found or may have been buried in unmarked graves in Halifax. Today, the Hickman grave is the farthest west any victim of the Titanic sinking is buried and roughly 100 to 200 people a year come to Neepawa to visit the grave, located at the Riverside Cemetery.
On July 18, 1926, a girl was born in Neepawa who would go on to become one of Canada’s most celebrated authors. Margaret Laurence was born on that day in the community, and her family ties went back to the earliest date of the community. In fact, her grandfather was the lawyer who prepared the incorporation documents for the town. Margaret Laurence would suffer heartache as a child when her mother died when Margaret was only four. Margaret would live in Neepawa until she was 18 and then she went to Winnipeg’s United College, now the University of Winnipeg. She had started writing short stories as a teenager in Neepawa and she would create a fictional town called Manawaka, which would appear in many of her works and was based on Neepawa. In 1964, she wrote The Stone Angel, also set in Manawaka, which became her best known work. Throughout the 1960s and beyond, she became one of Canada’s most celebrated authors. She would win two Governor General’s Awards in 1966 and 1974. In 1972, she was awarded the Order of Canada and in 2016, she was named a National Historic Person. In all, she wrote six novels, two short story collections and four children’s books. She would develop lung cancer in 1986 and the cancer soon spread to her organs. To spare her friends and family suffering, she committed suicide on Jan. 5, 1987. She is buried at the Neepawa Cemetery.
Today, her childhood home has been turned into the Margaret Laurence House. It is a museum dedicated to her life and was registered as a Provincial Heritage Site only six months after her death. The house can be visited today to learn more about one of the most gifted authors Canada has ever produced.
One unique aspect of Neepawa is that it is the self-proclaimed Lily capital of the World thanks to its annual Lily Festival. The festival began in 1996 and has become one of the premier festivals and celebrations in the entire area. The festival is held every July and is the perfect place for anyone with a love of beautiful flowers.