Manitoba History: Cool Things in the Collection: Cecil Guest and the Town of Hamilton
by Al Thorleifson
One of the most prized collections in the Pembina Manitou Archive is a set of images taken from glass negatives currently in the Archives of Manitoba. These photographs were all taken by Cecil Francis Guest, an immigrant from Liverpool, England, who farmed near Pembina Crossing from 1900 to 1909. He also became known as the community photographer.
The photographs in the collection were taken by Cecil Francis Guest between 1899 and 1909. When Guest left his farm to work for the Manitou Western Canadian newspaper, and then returned to England, he left the boxes of glass negatives in the house on his farm—“Edgewater.” His best friend while he lived there was Ted Lea who lived a mile west across the Pembina River. In 1913, Lea’s father bought the half-section which Guest had owned. At some point, the Lea family went through “Edgewater,” discovered the glass negatives, and brought them to their own home farm. They were stored in a barn on the Lea farm until a brother-in-law, Felix Kuehn, discovered them in the 1960s. He asked Ted Lea, and several other people who would have known Guest and his subjects, who was in the pictures. The collection was transferred to the provincial archives in the 1970s for preservation. Since receiving the digital copies from the Archives staff, Felix Kuehn and I have documented what he remembered from his interviews with Ted Lea and his age-mates. Since many local families were pictured, original photographs prepared by Guest for his subjects have also been found and shared with us—with many names, events and sites included. Others have appeared in community histories published in the last few decades. As well, many scenes can be identified by the slope of the Pembina Hills or by other landscape clues in the background. Some of the photos were published by Guest in the Manitou Western Canadian or as postcards. In all, we have identified the persons and scenes in about 200 of the 225 photos.
Cecil Francis Guest was born on 9 December 1874 to Francis Richard Guest and Ellen Abode in the village of Barton-on-Irwell, near Liverpool. His father was a shipping clerk and seems to have provided well for his family. When Cecil Francis was quite young, his father moved the family to one of the wealthier districts of Liverpool. The quality of the photographs in the collection, especially the quality of the images which he took as he arrived in Canada, indicates that he was already an experienced photographer. Soon after his arrival in Manitoba, he was developing his photographs in the small dark room at the back of his farmhouse.
The earliest photo in the collection is of steerage passengers on the SS Lake Superior, which sailed from Liverpool and arrived in Montreal in August 1899. Guest visited a family in eastern Canada and, although the family has not been identified, the Manitoba Forestry Association has identified the trees in the photos as typical of the Eastern Townships of Quebec.
On arrival in Winnipeg, several photos—of the rail bridge over the Red River with Point Douglas in the background and of the Fort Garry Gate—place Guest in Manitoba before freeze-up.
The first reference to Guest in Canada can be found in the 10 January 1900 issue of the Winnipeg Evening Telegram. The paper indicates he is “of Manitou” and staying at the Leland Hotel in Winnipeg.
He was reported to be taking portraits of local citizens while at the same time making plans to rent land in the district. His first portraits were taken indoors, probably at Boundary School in Mowbray. He later tended to photograph individuals and their families at their doorsteps—with good outdoor lighting.
Guest chose to rent a half-section of land in the Pembina Valley where he named his home “Edgewater”. He took many photos, which included himself by using a string mechanism to release the shutter from a distance.
In the photo above, we see the interior of Guest’s home, him at the table with a cup of tea, his books, his photographs on the wall, and the general clutter of a bachelor’s farmhouse in 1904. His dark room is through the door at the back of the kitchen.
Many people invited Guest to attend functions at their homes where he would be engaged to photograph parties, weddings, celebrations on 24 May, and harvest scenes. He also, over the next few years, collected many photographs of the first farmyards in the district. Some of these scenes show the evolution of the community with tents, log homes and frame houses in the same shot.
Guest took what are believed to be the only existing photos of the town of Hamilton, a now-abandoned point where the Missouri Trail rises out of the Pembina Valley northeast of Snowflake, shown in the satellite photo below. A whitewashed log building shown on the next page, with its prominent roofline window, originally housed the first general store at Hamilton.
The site of Hamilton was at the centre of section 28-1-9W. The town site, where this building stood, was surveyed on the very southeast corner of the northwest quarter. The east half of 28-1-9W was surveyed and sold as woodlots which were 110 yards (north to south) by 880 yards (west to east)—so that each owner had access to their woodlot from the west, since the main street ran straight south along the half-section line. The satellite photo on the previous page shows that the east half, which forms the slope of the Pembina Valley, is still wooded today. The left half of the photo shows section 28-1-9W. Site #1 is the Hamilton Cemetery. Most of its graves were later moved to the Snowflake Cemetery. Site #2 is the point where the Missouri Trail rises from the Pembina Valley, and was the townsite of Hamilton. Site #3 is the approximate location of the South Ford or Hamilton Ford across the Pembina River.
The first reference to Hamilton appeared in the 29 April 1881 issue of the Southern Manitoba Times, published in Emerson/West Lynne. Later newspaper references mention the Victoria Day celebration on 24 May 1881 and the building of the first bridge over the Pembina at Hamilton Ford on 17 June 1881. These articles are accessible from the the newspaper collection in the Pembina Manitou Archive’s website.
Hamilton died when the railroad followed the path to Snowflake two miles southwest of Hamilton. By the time that Cecil Guest photographed the district, the original general store, then used as a farmhouse, was one of the few buildings still standing at the Hamilton site. At that time, it was owned by Duncan Muir and his family.
Similarly, a bridge over the Pembina River, which Guest photographed circa 1908, was, due to the repetitive floods on the Pembina River, not likely the same bridge that the Hamiltonians celebrated. Guest did, however, photograph many of the early bridges and roads through the district. One photo, shown on the following page, shows the old bridge over the Pembina south of La Riviere. The concrete abutments of that bridge, built circa 1903, can still be seen west of present-day’s Maurice Ridley Bridge on Highway #242.
Rumour associated with these photos say that Guest was lonely in his small bachelor quarters beside the Pembina River and that he spent much of his time at the home of his neighbours, the Leas, at Fairbrook Farm and the Jardines at the Walronde/Jardine Ranche. So, many of the photos are taken of persons associated with these two farms, including weddings and family gatherings.
Some people also speak of an unrequited love for a local young lady. The experience may have left Guest with little hope of a successful life as a farmer in the district.
By 1908, he was working for the Manitou Western Canadian newspaper and was looking for scenes, which could become postcards for sale in local businesses. As an example, Guest photographed the old river ford at Pembina Crossing, this negative being one in the collection of glass negatives. The postcard version of the photo shown below was available in the district for several years. Similarly, Guest was one of the first staff photographers to work for the Manitou Western Canadian and several photos can be traced directly to him.
Guest photographed a crew which was laying “granolithic” sidewalks on the streets of Manitou, shown on the following page. The glass negative is in the collection. The 9 September issue of the Western Canadian shows the same photo taken by their “staff photographer,” presumably Guest.
On 20 August 1909, Guest’s sister, Ethel Mary Guest, landed in Montreal aboard the SS Corsican. We do know she spent the autumn visiting her brother in Manitou. We do not know whether she had a purpose in mind, but some have suggested she was carrying a message from a young lady in England. In any case, Cecil and Ethel Guest both registered with US Customs in Winnipeg to leave for England via the United States in December 1909.
Guest had left a forwarding address—in an upscale district of Liverpool—and the taxes on his half-section were billed to that address. They were not, however, paid until the legal work on the sale of the land to R. N. Lea went through in 1913.
It would seem that the young lady in England had convinced Cecil to give up on life on the Prairies. Cecil Francis Guest and Louisa Nicholson were married in St. Nicholas Church at Liverpool on 10 January 1912.
We have not been able yet to trace Guest’s life in England, but he died at Inglehurst Glovers-brow Kirkby near Liverpool on 29 May 1945, leaving Louisa his estate.
This collection of photographs provides a close look at an entire district of Southern Manitoba, its people, and their homes at a time when the initial architecture and the “pioneer ethic” were still strong in the area. We are still seeking originals from this collection. They are distinct from some of the more “professional” photographs of the time in that, although Guest mounted them on thick photo board, he did not emboss a signature or logo on the bottom corner. Consequently, they have a bit of an “older” or “amateurish” look to them. Our archive is still following rumours in the hope that other photos from the collection can be identified and a more complete story told.
The Pembina Manitou Archive is grateful to the Archives of Manitoba and staff for their preservation of the collection and for making copies available for our research into the early history of our district.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 7 January 2021