Why 2 historians dispute the history of one of Calgary's oldest homes

·7 min read
A blue plaque in front of the Major John Stewart House in Inglewood reads, 'In Major John Stewart's optimistic vision, Calgary would rise around his home here by the Bow River.' (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)
A blue plaque in front of the Major John Stewart House in Inglewood reads, 'In Major John Stewart's optimistic vision, Calgary would rise around his home here by the Bow River.' (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)

In front of a home on New Street S.E. in Calgary's Inglewood neighbourhood stands a blue plaque with white writing declaring: "In Major John Stewart's optimistic vision, Calgary would rise around his home here by the Bow River."

Historians, the city and the province agreed that Calgary's oldest residence was significant for its link to the major, an ambitious military man who became a rancher, militia leader and member of early Calgary civic life. That link earned the property provincial protection and recognition for years as Major John Stewart House.

  • WATCH | Calgary historians try to get to the bottom of the mystery in the video above.

But now two Calgary historians say the plaque and story behind the residence are wrong. The home that many thought was completed in 1885 wasn't done until 1900 — seven years after the major died in 1893.

"I thought I knew the story," said historian Harry Sanders.

"It took me completely by surprise. I could hardly believe what I was looking at."

Military commander, rancher and civic leader

Stewart was born into a prominent Ottawa family in 1854 and became known as an ambitious military man.

He served as commander of the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, as well as organizing escort troops for the Governor General, prime minister and Princess Louise during the 1870s.

He came west in 1881, forming the Stewart Ranch Company in partnership with John Heron. It was one of the first ranching enterprises around Pincher Creek in southwestern Alberta.

Then, according to the Alberta Registry of Historic Places, he travelled north to Calgary and bought the estate of another prominent early Calgarian, Cecil Denny, a former North West Mounted Police officer who co-founded Fort Calgary.

Stewart helped shape the city, serving on a committee to establish infrastructure, serving as the proprietor of the Royal Mail and stage lines to Fort Macleod and Lethbridge, and playing a key role in early coal mining at Anthracite and Canmore. He's also known for founding the volunteer militia the Rocky Mountain Rangers in response to the 1885 Northwest Rebellion of Métis people led by Louis Riel.

The Denny estate he purchased was amid the early settlement east of the Elbow River, and that's where Stewart wanted the city established.

But the Canadian Pacific Railway ultimately took its station to the west side of the Elbow River, and the city began to grow around it.

As the plaque in front of that Inglewood house indicates, people believed for years that Stewart was steadfast in his vision and established his property at the spot on New Street S.E.

It's a fact that historians like Sanders and Manfred Baum say no one argued. It has been cited for decades, so there was no reason to question it.

Historian's research uncovers inconsistencies

Looking through newspapers used to mean hours sitting with the microfiche in a library or dusty archive looking through pages of newspaper clippings until one found one's subject. Now many papers have been indexed using Optical Character Recognition.

With Calgary Herald newspaper records online, Baum said he was able to type in a simple search for "Major John Stewart," hit enter and scroll through a list of results.

He found reports about Stewart's plans to build a house, designed by Winnipeg architect Robert Moberly.

But then, one detail from the late 1880s stuck out like a sore thumb: an article that suggested Stewart was staying in the Royal Hotel in downtown Calgary.

A blue plaque in front of the Major John Stewart House in Inglewood reads, 'In Major John Stewart's optimistic vision, Calgary would rise around his home here by the Bow River.'
A blue plaque in front of the Major John Stewart House in Inglewood reads, 'In Major John Stewart's optimistic vision, Calgary would rise around his home here by the Bow River.'(Helen Pike/CBC)

"Why would he be staying at a hotel when he had a perfectly good house on New Street?" Baum wondered.

"I kind of let it go."

He found other tidbits in the papers, like a story about the Stewart family's first time overwintering in Calgary, years after their home was supposedly built.

The details nagged at him, but without more information he was stuck.

The plot thickens

Meanwhile, Sanders was hired by Heritage Calgary. The group is in the process of re-evaluating more than 120 historic resource files on the City of Calgary inventory. The Major John Stewart House happened to be on that list.

Sanders said he was excited to add more context to the already storied residence. With his experience digging through various city documents and archives, he decided to see who else lived in the house between the time it was owned by Stewart, and years later when architect and former alderman Jack Long bought the property.

Historian Harry Sanders was hired by Heritage Calgary to help re-evaluate more than 120 historic resource files in the city of Calgary's inventory, including the Major Stewart House in Inglewood.
Historian Harry Sanders was hired by Heritage Calgary to help re-evaluate more than 120 historic resource files in the city of Calgary's inventory, including the Major Stewart House in Inglewood.(Helen Pike/CBC)

The land was indeed owned by Stewart, but Sanders said the city's property assessment rolls tell a different story about when the residence was constructed.

"I found in the assessment roll, that there was no house on this property in the life of Major Stewart, or for seven or eight years afterward," Sanders said.

1st resident likely British horse trader who spoke Blackfoot, Sioux, Cree

So, who built it? Sanders believes the original residents were Roland and Mary Spurway, who lived in the home for five years before moving to Nelson, B.C.

Spurway was a farmer from England who went into horse trading and spoke three First Nations languages: Blackfoot, Sioux and Cree.

When the house was ready for them to move in, the Herald published a cryptic reference stating that the Spurways were "leaving town."

Crossing the Elbow River to live in the "Brewery Valley" was akin to leaving downtown Calgary for the sticks back then, it seems.

How could this be?

When the home was designated a provincial historic resource in the 1970s, a researcher was tasked with digging into the home's history.

Sanders said he used the report to retrace the researcher's steps. But he had access to files he says weren't available in the 1970s, because the city had not yet developed an archive.

The files were likely in storage.

"They looked at all the evidence that was available and made their best interpretation of what that evidence meant," Sanders said.

Stewart owned a lot of land in Inglewood, as a developer would, including the parcel where the Stewart Residence sits to this day — but Sanders believes researchers made a leap because it was reported Stewart died in his Calgary residence.

Historians Sanders and Manfred Baum dug through various city documents and archives, along with newspaper clippings while researching the Major John Stewart House in Inglewood.
Historians Sanders and Manfred Baum dug through various city documents and archives, along with newspaper clippings while researching the Major John Stewart House in Inglewood.(Helen Pike/CBC)

That doesn't mean it isn't still worthy of attention.

"Major John Stewart House is one of the earliest homes still extant in Alberta and features a striking and unusual architectural style," says the Alberta Register of Historic Places, citing the Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, Historic Resources Management Branch.

"Designed by Winnipeg architect Robert Moberly, the residence manifests the influence of the Gothic Cottage architectural style — a popular style in Stewart's native Ontario. This style is evident in the steeply sloped and complex roofline, the use of elaborate trims and finials, the dormers on the front facade, and the wrap-around veranda. With its delicate decorative elements and complex massing, the home remains one of the most striking buildings in Calgary's historic Inglewood district."

Current owners unconvinced

The current homeowners aren't convinced about the new story. They asked Sanders and Baum for better evidence. Inside, they have photos they say previous homeowners passed down and saved, some of the Stewart family.

People have even stopped Baum and Sanders on the street, questioning their conclusion.

But Sanders said historians work with breadcrumbs to form narratives, and this is the new definitive tale of the Spurway Residence, formerly known as the Major John Stewart House.

"We don't know what happened in the past," Sanders said. "We go through the evidence and, and it's like the scientific process, we build a theory based on the evidence. Now there's new evidence, and we've revised our theory. So I think that's where we're reaching toward the truth."

Both see an opportunity. Stewart did die in Calgary in his home — it's just a matter of finding where that residence is, if it's still standing, or where it was.

"I've fully invested almost 30 years in the history of Inglewood," Baum said. "It's kind of like gnawing at me now and I — I gotta find out."