St. Norbert Provincial Heritage Park illustrates pre-World War I life
in a Manitoba French-Canadian agricultural community
St. Norbert Provincial Heritage Park illustrates how a natural landscape used for hunting, fishing, and camping by native peoples evolved into a French-speaking Métis development, then a French-Canadian agricultural community. The park is located at the junction of the Red and LaSalle Rivers, approximately three kilometres south of the Winnipeg Perimeter Highway in St. Norbert, a bilingual community on the outskirts of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Joseph Turenne built a log house on a river lot in St. Norbert in 1871. The house was well-known to travellers who used the nearby ferry crossing. Turenne and his wife lived in this two bedroom home for ten years with the surviving five of the eight children born to them during that period. When they moved to St. Boniface in 1882, newcomers often rented the house from the parish priests and stayed there until they became more established. Later, the Grey Nuns occupied the house. The house remained occupied and in use until 1971.
Turenne was a Québec professional recruited by the Roman Catholic clergy to hold public office in Manitoba shortly after it became part of the Confederation of Canada. Being fully bilingual, he translated laws for the Métis. My guide asked me a question. If a farm had belonged to a family for generations but they had no written deed to prove that, did they still own the land after the area became part of Canada? The answer was yes, but many did not know that and lost their land in negotiations. This was the kind of situation Turenne helped prevent.
The inside is restored as per the late 1800s. As photos are not allowed inside the houses, I cannot show you visually any of the details of the restoration which provides insight into life in those time. The Turennes were not rich, but were more well-off than the average. There was a parlour, which would have been heated and used only for company. Two bedrooms, one of which was used as Turenne’s office for the first years they lived there. Later it was the girls’ bedroom. The boys slept in the hall. A cellar where vegetables were stored over the winter. A kitchen which would have been the main living area. No bathroom. Even in the middle of winter, the outdoor outhouse would have been used, with chamber pots available for overnight or when one was ill.
My guide told me the garden was not 100% accurate to the times. Root vegetables would have been the mainstay, items that could be stored over the winter. Corn would not have been planted. The only corn grown in Manitoba at that time was in the southern-most edge of the province and it was feed corn. It was only later when hybrids and corn with shorter growing seasons were introduced that corn for human consumption was grown in Manitoba. She said that corn would have been grown many years prior and the natives had knowledge of corn, but when a mini ice-age occurred about five hundred years ago, the growing season became too short for corn
One of the newcomer families who stayed in the Turenne House for a while was that of Benjamin Bohémier and his wife Marie-Louise, who came from Québec to farm in 1883. They owned land in what is now the Fort Richmond sub-division of Winnipeg. They constructed a gambrel-roofed home. Two of the Bohémier children lived in the house and continued to market garden until 1973, when the land was purchased to build an apartment block. The two were in their eighties at the time.
The interior of the house has been restored to recreate the lifestyle of the family in the time period of 1906 to 1912. The Bohémier family was a wealthy family and this house is larger than the Turenne house. It contains original wood floors and paneling. The wallpaper in the front parlour and dining room (a company-only space) is a replica of the original wallpaper, discovered during restoration after peeling off layers of subsequent paper. Most of the furnishings are original to the family. When the house was restored for use in the park, grandchildren donated pieces passed down to them. A Gobelins tapestry from Fance hangs in the parlour.
An interesting feature of this house is the indoor outhouse on the second floor. It is vented to the outside to keep smells out of the house. The youngest daughter had the job of emptying the toilet pots. My guide told me that the room would not have been used regularly – only on the coldest of winter days or when someone was ill. For most of the time, the outdoor outhouse was used. When the land was sold and the house moved, it still did not have indoor plumbing.
The front entrance of the house opens into the parlour and formal dining room. This entrance would have been a company-only entrance. The back entrance would have been used by the family. At the back there was also an entrance to a larder, where food and preserves would have been stored.
The most expensive item in the house was the large and fancy stove. Like the stove in the Turenne house, it would have been taken apart and moved in and out of the summer kitchen at the start and end of summer.
Another house, not restored, sits in the park. It belonged to Pierre Delorme and was built in the mid-1850s in St. Adolphe, south of St. Norbert. It is an example of Red River frame construction. The home was used as a way station for travellers on the Pembina Trail between Fort Garry and St. Paul, Minnesota. Pierre Delorme was a close ally of Louis Riel and the first member of Parliament for the riding of Provencher. The house was occupied until 1950, when it suffered significant flood damage. Plans to restore it for the park stopped it from being torn down in the 1980s. However, it turned out damage was too extensive and restoration costs prohibitive. It now sits surrounded by a chain fence, to stop the house from taking anyone with it when it eventually falls down.
St. Norbert Provincial Heritage Park is located at 40 Turnbull Drive, just off Pembina Highway. Guided tours are available daily from the May long weekend through the September Labour Day weekend. Admission and tours are free.