John A.F. McDonald, the first owner of my house, was a retired carpenter at age 59. Of Scottish ancestry, John and his wife, Mary were born in Ontario in the mid-1800’s. They may have moved to follow available work since their daughter, Ethel Ellen was born in Manvel, North Dakota, and her younger brother, Angus John was also born in the United States.
The move to Calgary in 1907 would have provided a carpenter with abundant job opportunities related to the pre-WW1 building boom, but it appears that McDonald no longer worked at his trade. He obtained building permit no. 149 in June 1908 for the lot owned by his wife at 315 - 18 Ave SW. The estimated cost of construction was $1000.00. Since no builder is listed, it is possible that McDonald intended to construct his own house. A structure valued at $900.00 first appears on the City of Calgary assessment roll in 1909 when Ethel was 24 years old, and her brother Angus was still a teenager at 16.
The 1916 census notes that at age 23 Angus still did not work nor was he able to read or write. There was no record of any involvement on his part in WW1. The bare facts suggest that Angus suffered a life long disability, a circumstance verified by chance during a conversation with a former Rideau resident who remembers the McDonald family. According to anecdotal evidence, Angus spent many a fine day on the front porch waving to passerby. His highly visible daily pastime lent the McDonald family some degree of local notoriety, at least among the fellow Catholic community members who traveled along 18 Ave. W to reach the Cathedral.
Meanwhile Ethel worked for 46 years in Calgary, mostly as a bookkeeper for several piano shops including Heintzman & co. Ltd located at 228 – 8 Ave. W, Willis & Knabe (advertised as “Alberta’s Greatest Piano Store”) and Howes Music Store. Later on she was employed by the Phoenix Press until she retired on 1955. The family also took in lodgers which must have made for a crowded house.
Ethel, who remained unmarried, seems to have been the sole family wage earner for most, if not all of her working life. Her mother probably took care of the domestic household chores until she died in 1935 having outlived her husband by 13 years. Ethel and Angus stayed on in the house. Though Ethel lived to the ripe old age of 87, the house was sold to Sam and Bessie Christopher in 1967. Three years after Angus died at 71. Sam ran the Lower Deck Billiard Lounge located in the Wright Block (221 – 8 Ave SW) which has since been demolished. My house was purchased from the Christopher family in 1985.
The McDonald house itself is of unpretentious, straight forward design which some experts identify as a “North American Folk House”. It is the iconic house from common to children’s drawing. Built as a cost of $900.00 in 1909 it was much more modest in value than brick homes built that year which were probably also larger, and of more complex design. It is the only Mission house that I know of a without a fireplace. The house was never divided into suites; it still retains its original floorplan. Though the house was modestly upgraded over the years there have been no grand renovations. The exterior siding is original as is much of the window glass. The most elaborate details are the front gable shingle patterns, and the one leaded glass window which casts rainbows over the interior walls at certain times of the year in the late afternoon.
In a city where residents tend to move away every 5 years, two generations of McDonalds held onto the house for 58 years through local economic booms and busts, and the great Depression. In 103 years just three families have lived here. The old time neighbors used to say “three was something special about that house.”
Ethel McDonald died in Father Lacombe Nursing Home. The McDonald family is buried together at St Mary’s Pioneer Cemetery just a few blocks from home.
Many thanks to the courteous, smart resource people at the William Castell (main branch) public library, City Hall Corporate Records, St Mary’s Rectory, and Leydens who were so helpful and kind in guiding my research for information. Thanks also to Marilyn Williams whose newsletter article about her home provided inspiration.