On June 25, 2014, about 10:00 pm the Criddle/Vane house was completely destroyed in a “suspicious” fire.
I’m feeling sad and angry right now at this loss. Sad because we have lost a significant and unique piece of Manitoba history, a place that has become very personal to me in the last four years. Angry at the sicko arsonist(s) who set the fire. RCMP are asking for help with information about the blaze but if it was someone local, odds are good the arsonist will not be found. I’m also angry at the province for their lip-service to heritage and their continuous failure to protect it.
Like the Criddle/Vane families, their house had an exceptional genesis. When the families moved here from London, England in 1882 they survived the first winter in tents. Thereafter Percy Criddle and his sons set about building a log house using trees cut and hauled from the Spruce Woods area. Not much for house-building, it was a crude affair with little insulation against the raging weather. Nonetheless, the ever-growing family lived in it for 20 years.
After much designing and re-designing, costing out and more costing out, Percy decided his dream home would finally become a reality. Luckily a local carpenter, Mr. Harms, had extraordinary ability as a builder and set about constructing the new house. According to Percy’s specs, the house was to be 39.65 feet by 37.65 feet, 1493 square feet per floor!
The main floor would have a central hallway with the stairway on the right. The first room on the right was the parlour or games and billiards room as the families called it. Behind that was a huge dining room then left and back into the hall, the kitchen on the right with a rear entrance. The front room was the library filled with Percy’s collections.
Upstairs eight bedrooms, each with its own window, accommodated the whole family, 12 people at that time. Once Norman Criddle became world renown as an entomologist, various scientists and students would stay and study on the homestead. A two-room main floor addition, called the East Annex, was added to the house to accommodate the visitors.
In the spring of 1906 the family hauled the gravel for the new foundation from the Assiniboine River, about 2 miles away, as well as doing all the spring chores and planting. With Percy in charge of the project there was bound to be disagreements, which vexed Percy no end. In his own words from his diary, Percy rued, “Wish I’d put off building that cursed house for another year, brought me nothing but troubles, bickerings, muddlings and ill luck.”
Despite Percy’s rages, threats and impatience, the new house was completed by Mr. Harms and ready to occupy on November 28, 1906. An Exodus from the log house took place that day. Though keen to get into the new, weather-proof house, Percy did express fondness for the old log house in which Elise had died and his final four children were born.
At the same time, via Eaton’s mail order, the families received all new furniture for the house, the first that wasn’t home-made. Wallpaper and pictures went up on the walls, carpet covered the floors, civilization and luxury arose at St. Albans (Percy’s name for the homestead). It was a dream come true. As Mr. Harms continued to refine the interior of the house – building cupboards, decorative flairs and storage areas as required – the families settled in. Criddles occupied the house until 1960 with Maida and Evelyn the final occupants.
In my post four days ago, after visiting the Criddle/Vane homestead, I said not having access to the house doesn’t take away from the ambiance of the site. But not having the house at all will change the place permanently. As an icon of prairie survival and home to exemplary figures in Manitoba’s history, the Criddle/Vane house has few matches. I will miss it terribly.
For my part, I am happy to have spent so many wonderful hours at and in the house, documenting it, getting a sense of how the family lived on a daily basis, imagining Percy at the organ singing and playing while his guests merrily danced around and around through the rooms and hallway.
It’s gone. It’s not right.
You can still take my 3:55 personal tour of the interior of the house.