Centuries ago, the location of future Brandon was the home of the Sioux, Bungay, Yellow Quill and Bird Tails Indigenous tribes. The Indigenous would follow the bison through the region, harvesting the animals for many resources that they would use in their day-to-day lives including for food and clothing.
Located five kilometres west of Brandon, there is an ancient Indigenous burial mount, bison kill site and campsite located along the Assiniboine River Valley. It was here, about 1,000 years ago, the Indigenous would trap and kill large numbers of bison using the steep terrain to harvest great numbers of the beasts. In the shelter of the valley wall, the meat was processed, and other resources such as fish, birds and berries were collected. There is also evidence of a burial site at the location, and habitation within the forested slopes of the valley wall. In 1948, the site was made a Provincial Heritage Site.
By the 18th century, fur traders were coming into the region, upsetting the dynamic of the Indigenous as well as their trading networks. The first fur traders were French Canadian voyageurs who passed through on their way to the Hudson Bay Post, Fort Ellice.
The area of Brandon was first settled by John and Dougal McVicar and their families, and their choice of a location would prove to be beneficial. In the 1870s, it was believed that the transcontinental railway would take a northwesterly direction going up towards Fort Edmonton and through the Yellowhead Pass. In 1881, that plan was changed and a southerly route was taken instead. As a result, the railroad would be built through the area, towards the homesteads of the McVicars, on the opposite side of the river of where Brandon sits today.
With the expectation that the railroad would be coming through, settlers and land prospectors began to come to the area to capitalize. On one side of the river there was Grand River, while Brandon sat on the other side. When Thomas Rosser, the Chief Engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway, arrived in the area he had to choose which side of the river would get the railroad, Grand River or future Brandon. Rosser would offer McVicar $25,000 for the railway to go through Grand Valley, which McVicar countered with $50,000. Rosser was said to have stated quote:
He then went across the river and chose that location for Brandon.
As for the name, that comes from the hills located south of the city. Those hills were in turn named for a Hudson’s Bay Post named Brandon House, which get its name from a hill on an island in James Bay, where Captain Thomas James anchored his ship way back in 1631.
Grand Valley hoped to still be an important community even though it didn’t have a railway but to add insult to injury, a flood hit the community soon after and settlers decided to moved directly to the new location of Brandon.
One fascinating fact about Brandon is that it grew so quickly that the community was never incorporated as a village or a town, but was immediately incorporated as a city.
One year after Brandon became a city, in 1883, the Brandon Courthouse and Jail would be built. This building would serve as the courthouse for the entire area initially, before it was remodelled in 1910 to serve only as a jail, and until 1979 it served as a detention centre. Today, it is a multi-use building and its former second-floor courtroom now functions as a meeting space for the Rideau Park Personal Care Home. The most interesting aspect of this building is that it is the oldest remaining courthouse not only in Manitoba, but across the Canadian Prairies.
It was a tough year for Brandon in 1894. It was in that year that two major fires caused massive amounts of damage. On March 1, 1894 at 11 p.m., a fire broke out in the Syndicate block, destroying several businesses in the process and doing $30,000 in damages, or over $1 million today. If that wasn’t bad enough, on Aug. 17, also at 11 p.m., the flour mill went up in flames due to a spark from the smokestack falling into the dust of the warehouse and igniting. Firefighters did everything they could to save the building but it burned to the ground, resulting in $75,000 in damages, or over $2 million today, and only half of that was covered by insurance.
In 1900, a fence was built in Brandon. Why am I talking about a fence? Well, that fence stands to this day, 121 years later. Called The Stone Fence, it was built with high, thick walls made from limestone blocks of varying shades. Construction started in 1900 and would continue for the next four years, as part of an estate structure. The fence once encircled the entire block but now it borders seven houses built on the property in 1939. Charles Whitehead, the founder of the Brandon Sun, was the person who had the fence built initially to cover his 6,000-square-meter estate and now the fence is a landmark and a reminder of days long since gone. The fence runs half a kilometre in length and is about 1.6 metres high and 40 centimeters thick. Due to its historic nature for the community, it was made a Municipal Heritage Site in 2003.
In 1911, construction began on the new Canadian Pacific Railway Station in Brandon. It would be finished the following year and was built two-storeys tall out of brick and stone from the area. The First Class station showed the importance of the city for the railroad, and it would soon become a focal point of the community. The building stands to this day and can be visited. Currently, it is one of the three largest and most impressive CPR stations still standing in Manitoba. In 2011, it was made a Provincial Historic Site.
One year after the construction of the CPR station finished, a new building would be built in the community. The two-storey brick Normal School was one of four teacher-training institutes built in Manitoba between 1903 and 1913. Today, it remains the only one that still remains in the province outside of Winnipeg. It was built in order to prepare teachers for working in rural teaching environments in the one-room schools that dotted the landscape. One of its long-time principals was also Benjamin Hales, who would found the BJ Hales Museum of Natural History, now part of Brandon University. The Normal School would train teachers for 30 years before it became the Manitoba Agriculture and Homemaking School. From 1959 to today, is has been the Agricultural Extension Centre of Brandon University. In 1985, it was preserved as a Provincial Heritage Site.
A lot of the buildings built at this time in the growing community of Brandon still stand to this day, including the Dominion Exhibition Display Building, built in 1913. Today, it is the only known surviving building built for the Dominion Exhibition, which was held every year from 1879 to 1914. Once built in the community, it became a focal point and important centre for the city of Brandon. This building was inspired by the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and was built by architects Shillinglaw and Marshall. Due to its historic nature, it was made a National Historic Site of Canada in 1995.
While several historic buildings were built between 1911 and 1913 in Brandon, there was one man in the community who was obsessed with burning buildings down. Throughout the spring and summer of 1913, an arsonist was busy at work in the community, burning down everything from small sheds, to at one point, lighting the A.E. McKenzie warehouse on fire, as well as the Brandon Wire and Stamp Company. Luckily, the fire brigade was on hand quickly to put the fire out in both buildings before too much damage had occurred. By the time the fires stopped in August, 23 had been lit over the course of only three months. Charles Dollimore was arrested in relation to the fires, having been seen acting strangely and talking of lighting fires. The newspaper would describe him of weak intellect but he was released.
On May 15, 1914, a young man named Walter Edward Broda would be born in Brandon to a Ukrainian family. As a young boy in school, due to his many freckles, Broda would gain the nickname of Turkey Egg, which eventually became Turk and from then on, he was known as Turk Broda. A skilled goaltender, Broda would win the Memorial Cup in 1932-33 and was invited to the Detroit Red Wings training camp but he didn’t make the team. In 1935-36, the Toronto Maple Leafs acquired him and he quickly became one of the best goalies in the league. In 1941-42, he won his first Stanley Cup, helping the Leafs become the only NHL team to come back from three games down in the Final to win the Cup. After serving in the Second World War for two and a half years, Broda came back to lead the Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup in 1946-47, 1947-48, 1948-49 and 1950-51. He would retire the following year. In 1967, Broda was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. During his career, along with his five Stanley Cups, Broda won the Vezina Trophy in 1941 and 1948 and had his #1 jersey retired by the Maple Leafs. In 1998, he was ranked the 60th greatest player of all-time and in 2017, he was named one of the 100 greatest NHL players in history. Through his NHL career, all with the Maple Leafs, Broda had 302 wins, 224 losses and 62 shutouts.
When the First World War erupted, many men from Brandon would go overseas to fight in the trenches of Europe, but the war would come to Brandon as well, through an internment camp that was set up at the Exhibition Building. This camp did not house German prisoners of war though, but Canadians who had been deemed enemy aliens by the Canadian government, despite living in Canada for many years and even decades, but had come from Germany or Austria originally. The Brandon City Council was in support of the internment of enemy aliens and would even write a letter to the federal government stating quote:
“With respect to the registration of Austrians and Germans, there are a large number of these aliens.”
The city would then request that the City of Brandon become a registration centre, and then the location of the internment camp. The City Council would pass a motion unanimously stating quote:
The prisoner of war camp would open in September of 1914 and would continue to operate for nearly two years until July 1916. The internment camp was located between 10th and 11th Streets, in the arena buildings. During the time it operated, about 900 men were imprisoned at one time in the camp, and they would work on area farms. Due to the extreme boredom many suffered in the camp, and the distance from their families, there were several escape attempts. On June 7, 1915, 15 men attempted to escape and 19-year-old Andrew Grapko was shot by guards in that attempt. It has also been reported that many men died of injuries at the camp, or committed suicide. Today, a plaque is at City Hall honouring the men who spent nearly two years at the camp, whose only crime was the place of their birth.
On June 18, 1923, Brandon would endure one of its most significant storms when a near tornado hit the city at 3 p.m., uprooting trees, blowing fences across roads and taking the roofs off of several buildings. Telephone lines were knocked down, with 700 poles needing to be replaced, cutting the community off from the outside world in that regard, but the telegraph lines were still okay and transmitting. Several cars had their tops completely torn off, and a few cars even rolled in the wind but thankfully, there were no serious injuries.
On Sept. 13, 1957, about 20 office staff were finishing their last coffee break at 4 p.m. at the Manitoba Power Commission building. Suddenly, a massive explosion blew out the bottom of the smokestack, showering the canteen below in bricks. Several people were thrown from their feet and burned by hot coffee. Kelvin Gerry would be thrown through the air and a cupboard door would fall on his back, which ended up protecting him. Irv Powers would have his spine crushed by a heavy beam landing on him. Two men, Fred Morden and Tom Tawes, were killed by falling bricks. Both men were fathers with young children.
Mrs. Jim Miller, who owned a beauty shop across the street, was sitting in the back of the building when she felt everything rumble. She would say quote:
“Then there was a double explosion.”
The explosion had occurred when a pocket of gas built up at the base of the smokestack and ignited. The operator was unaware of how much oil vapour and fuel had gathered when the boiler was reignited. About 100 feet of the 130 feet brick chimney would collapse as a result. Rescuers would work in the wreckage up to their hips to free the trapped men.
Located in Brandon, you will find the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum, an aviation museum dedicated to the memory of the airmen from the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan who trained across Canada during the Second World War. In the museum, several Second World War aircraft are on display, along with various artifacts from that time. Among the items displayed are two Avro Ansons, two Bristol Bolingbrokes and a Hawker Hurricane. The building the museum is located in was the Service Flying Training School, built in 1941, and used to train pilots for fighting overseas. The building is a registered historic place, and the museum would move into it in 1981.
On June 6, 1967, Brandon would receive the first of its four Royal visits when Princess Alexandra, the daughter of Prince George and Princess Marina, and the first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, came to the community. She would unveil the Brandon Centennial Auditorium cornerstone and state quote:
She was greeted at the Brandon Airport by 200 people, where she chatted with spectators. She would also attend an assembly of 7,000 school children, before having dinner in the college dining room. The City of Brandon would present the Princess with six silver centennial teaspoons.
Three years later on July 12, 1970, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip where thousands of people packed the roadsides and the grandstands to see the Royal Couple on their first visit to the community. Over 1,000 people came to the Brandon University campus to see the Royal Family during their 20 minute visit to the campus to lay a cornerstone for the John R. Brodie Science Centre. The Royal Family then went to Exhibition Park where 10,000 people had crammed in to see them and watch the Centennial Pageant be performed. They would also visit the Fairview Senior Home, where 100 senior citizens waited to see the Queen as she passed through on their way through the community. As the family was leaving, a man threw a rolled up Welsh flag to Prince Charles, who unrolled it and spread it across the railing of the coach.
The Queen would return alone to Brandon during a visit to Canada on Oct. 5, 1984 when she came to Brandon University to unveil a plaque commemorating the opening of the Queen Elizabeth II Music Building. She would only remain in the community for just over an hour before venturing on to Winnipeg. Once again, several hundreds of people lined the streets to see the Queen when she arrived in the community.
Princess Anne would also return to Brandon, arriving in the community on July 16, 1982 where she watched a rodeo, wore a cowboy hat and awarded trophies to winners. During her visit, she was greeted by country music and took a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. She had come to the community to help Brandon celebrate its 100th anniversary. Along with the rodeo, the princess visited a farm research station, a seed plant and dined at a beef barbeque with 100 other guests.