Sorrow came to Russel this week in the form of fire, when a seemingly random act destroyed an historic house full of mysteries, ghosts, family memories and possible future stories.
Dubbed the Red House, 312 Pelly Avenue South in Russell has changed hands a scant four times in the 133 years since William James Barrett-Lennard (1857-1940) moved its bricks by ox and cart from the right bank of Bear Creek to a hill to what is now known as Russel.
The story line goes like this: the Boultons, the Drevers, the Falkevitchs and, most recently, the Flockners.
The current owners since 2019, Marina and Christian Flockner, are in Austria with family for the year. From that distance, they learned the house was the site of alleged arson. The RCMP have arrested a 22-year-old male after he came forward, confessing to setting the January 5 fire. The Flockners hadn’t even quite moved in yet.
Marina is a member of the local museum group, as is Anita Zimmer, a retired teacher and local historian, who wrote about the house in her history of the area titled “A Walk Back in Time, Russell & Area, Town and Country Histories”. Karen Falkevitch was a member in the early days, as well.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Zimmer said about the destruction of the house.
In her history, and in conversation, Zimmer recounts how Barrett-Lennard came to the area with Senator Charles Boulton. Barrett-Lennard‘s daughter Georgina married Boulton’s son, D’Arcy. After living on a farm, then Winnipeg, and on the farm again, the couple settled into the Red House. They raised seven children in the house.
In 1948, the house changed hands — the Drevers raised their children there. Then, in 1990, Ron and Karen Falkevitch, along with their children Christopher and Christina, moved in. The house hadn’t been repaired in many years, but it was Karen’s dream home, despite being engulfed by trees.
Chris Falkevitch, who now lives in Brandon, grew up in the house.
“It always hurts when it’s any home. But when a home has that much history, it affects more than just the families. The entire community is going to feel it,” he said.
“Throughout the 90s my dad completely restored and renovated the inside of it, brought it back to life."
“We did extensive repairs,” said Karen, now Ewankiw.
But Karen also had her eye on history. Repairs were substantial indoors, while outdoors the integrity of the house was maintained. Thanks to the family’s efforts, the house is listed as a historical site with the Manitoba Historical Society.
Everything changed when Ron excavated a crawl space off the master bedroom. The discovery from behind the wall made headlines in the 90s. CTV even went to Russel for the story.
“There was carpet on the walls and he (Ron) started pulling the carpet off the walls, and he noticed this hole. So he kind of stuck his hand in the hole and he pulled out a flour sack. He looked in the flour sack and he pulled out memorabilia from 1914 to 1917,” Karen said.
“They were filled with government papers from the First World War. There were secret Red Cross documents. World War One shipments, newspapers, all this stuff literally hidden in the walls,” Chris recalls.
Karen said there were so many stories going around for so many years, it was hard to keep up. The documents, detailed documents, reported on by the Russel Banner March 8, 1994, all refer to the WWI years.
There are also unsubstantiated rumours that a tunnel ran from the Red House to Boulton Manor, built in 1894.
Baby shoes were also found inside the walls of the Red House.
“We met the lady, who was 92 years old, and it was her baby shoes that we found in the wall,” Karen said.
The shoes were returned to her.
Christina Olson, Karen’s daughter, wept as she said, “This (the fire) didn’t have to happen. For me, personally, there are just so many good memories in there with my dad and my mom … Those years, in that house, I was a happy kid. Those were the best years of my life.”
Mother and daughter recall people knocking on the door for a tour, or offering to buy the property.
“Nobody wants a place until somebody buys it and does a little bit of painting or whatever, then all of a sudden the whole town wants it,” said Karen, who also did presentations at school about the property and its history.
“And the school would do tours.”
But Christina also remembers ghostly occurrences. Her brother alluded to them. Christina said there were so many instances, yet the family never felt threatened.
“I will never forget it, ever,” said Christina.
Christina would place a recorder in the earthen cellar. While they (she and her brother) didn’t hear anything while they were upstairs, the recording was a different matter.
“There were voices on it,” she said.
“You can hear a door open and slam shut. It was just me and him and we were just sitting in the kitchen waiting. We didn’t hear any of it, and it was all on the recording.”
Christina also recalls the time she and a friend, having a drink of water in the kitchen, heard footsteps.
“We stopped and we stared at each other. We heard footsteps right above, which was in the crawlspace. We heard the footsteps go to the top of the stairs. We both heard it, without saying a word to each other. I thought those footsteps were going to start coming down those stairs …” she said.
They ran out of the house and were met by Chris and his friend.
The four young people witnessed the bathroom curtain open — the bathroom was not far from the stair — and they saw someone.
“In one of the burn photos, I zoomed into the bathroom, and I could clearly see a face,” said Christina.
She has many other stories.
In her conclusion about the Red House, Zimmer wrote: “All the treasures in the Red House were the final and missing link to what the mystery is all about. Who knows what the future may hold? More treasures could be found in the Red House over time.”
Reportedly, the red brick house will now be torn down, and a cairn may be built with its bricks on the site to commemorate its history.
Michèle LeTourneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun