GERRIE, ROBERT, businessman; b. January 1830 near Insch, Scotland; m. c. 1862 Margaret Bathgate, and they had six children; d. 29 Jan. 1908 in Winnipeg.
In 1838 Robert Gerrie’s widowed mother and her children journeyed from Aberdeenshire, Scotland, to a farm near Dundas, Upper Canada. Gerrie joined the United States cavalry in 1861 as a veterinarian and purchasing agent and was posted to Chicago. Four years later he settled in Montreal, establishing himself in the retail tobacco business. He soon joined his half-brother David Ritchie in the Dominion Cut Tobacco Company, a wholesale concern.
During the American Civil War Gerrie had become convinced of the commercial future of the northwest. In 1871 he sold out to Ritchie and moved to Duluth, Minn., which was experiencing a great boom. There he entered the wholesale liquor trade. He also began to speculate in land, probably for the first time, and by 1873 he had investments in mining lands near Marquette, Mich.
The depression of 1873 soured Gerrie’s operations in Duluth. Arriving in Winnipeg on 24 May 1873 with a load of furniture, he rented a building in the business district and, according to a contemporary account, “led the way in the importation of the better class of house furnishings.” He also engaged in the lumber trade and constructed a building in autumn 1873, likely the first party-wall structure in Winnipeg.
Gerrie’s “extremely rich” furniture was sold to the city’s growing entrepreneurial class. Perceiving yet another business opportunity, in 1876 he expanded into wholesale and retail dry goods with his brother-in-law, Robert Dundas Bathgate. Bathgate was to become a close associate, in both mercantile and other business pursuits. By the following year Gerrie was involved in the grain trade, sending large shipments of wheat to the A. W. Ogilvie and Company mills in Goderich, Ont. [see William Watson Ogilvie*]. He also shipped the first Manitoba wheat from Winnipeg to Scotland in October 1877. As settlement increased in the northwest Gerrie and Bathgate quit the retail trade and established what was probably the first exclusively wholesale dry-goods firm in the province. R. Gerrie and Company flourished in the boom of 1881–82, keeping two travelling salesmen, and servicing retailers who had established enterprises in the newly founded towns along the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In addition, the company employed eight shop workers.
The construction of the CPR resulted in an increased demand for land in Winnipeg. In 1880, therefore, after having disposed of his retail dry-goods operation, Gerrie entered the real-estate business. Within a few months he acquired much property on Princess Street, believing it would eventually become a major wholesale thoroughfare because of its strategic location west of the retail centre on Main Street. Confirming his faith in Princess Street, he started building there in 1881. The Gerrie Block, completed that year, was at the time Winnipeg’s largest building. The Grand Union Hotel, a luxury hotel to the north of the Gerrie Block, opened in March 1882. He added a third structure to the street later in 1882. Gerrie spent about $100,000 improving his Princess Street holdings. In addition, in 1882 he offered 50,000 acres of farm land for sale.
Although the boom established Winnipeg as a commercial centre, its collapse left many speculators, including Gerrie, in severe debt. Of fiery temper, Gerrie attacked the bailiffs who executed a sheriff’s order to seize his hotel. Assault charges against him were subsequently dismissed. By late 1884 he had a lease on the Grand Union Hotel and became embroiled with the Manitoba Electric Gas Light Company in a legal suit that was eventually decided in his favour. Again before the courts in 1887, Gerrie, with his colleague Bathgate, was charged with forging the mark of a Métis minor on a land patent which she had conveyed to them. The case was dismissed when neither the witnesses nor the prosecutor appeared in court, but it is suspected that a settlement took place out of court.
In 1886 Gerrie and Bathgate were said to be the fifth largest taxpayers in Winnipeg, and by 1889 Gerrie was the 36th largest private landowner in the city. Gerrie’s luck eventually ran out, however. His wife, Margaret, died of cancer on 1 June 1889. In November he was assaulted on the street and lost his right eye. A gradual breakdown of his health ensued. In 1890 he sold the Gerrie Block and the Grand Union Hotel, which he had reacquired sometime after the sheriff’s sale, and he maintained a low profile until the turn of the century.
The influx of immigrants during the early 1900s brought fresh opportunities for realtors. Around 1904 Gerrie began selling land in the city’s west end, a district which was experiencing a rapid increase in residential building. Profits from those sales allowed him to live in comfort during his final years. Latterly, Gerrie was hailed as the Nestor or founder of the real-estate profession in Winnipeg. Wearing dark glasses to hide his missing eye, he charmed people with his broad Scottish accent. He died of pneumonia and was buried near his wife in Brookside Cemetery. He was survived by one son and four daughters. Underlining the importance of real-estate investors in the development of the city, the Evening Telegram said that “Robert Gerrie was more probably than any other man of his day – the father of the Winnipeg Boom.”
Commercial (Winnipeg), 12 Dec. 1882. Daily Manitoban (Winnipeg), 16 Oct. 1886; 9, 23 March 1887. Manitoba Morning Free Press, 18 Oct. 1873; 19 June 1875; 24 March 1887; 4 Nov., 9 Dec. 1889; 1 April, 18 Sept. 1890; 30 Jan. 1908. Manitoban (Winnipeg), 4 Oct., 15, 22 Nov. 1873. Manitoba Sun (Winnipeg), 23 March 1887, 5 Sept. 1889. Sun (Winnipeg), 17 Oct. 1881. Telegram (Winnipeg), 1 Dec. 1906, 29 Jan. 1908. Winnipeg Daily Times, 28 April 1879; 22 March 1882; 4, 20 Jan. 1883. Winnipeg Tribune, 29 Jan. 1908. Alexander Begg and W. R. Nursey, Ten years in Winnipeg: a narration of the principal events in the history of the city of Winnipeg from the year A.D. 1870 to the year A.D. 1879, inclusive (Winnipeg, 1879). Man. Electric & Gas Light Co. v. Gerrie (1887), Manitoba Reports (Winnipeg), 4 (1886–87): 210–19. Winnipeg, Manitoba, and her industries (Chicago and Winnipeg, 1882).