When David Spector retired from his position as research manager at Parks Canada, his chief passion project was to delve into the history of Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park, the site of many enjoyable excursions with his parents in the ’50s and ’60s.
“My parents introduced me to Assiniboine Park including the Zoo, English Gardens, the original Conservatory, and cake and ice cream in the Pavilion. As an adolescent, I cycled to Assiniboine Park regularly from my parents’ home in River Heights,” he recalls.
After nearly five years of research, writing, and working with the publisher, Spector’s Assiniboine Park: Designing and Developing a People’s Playground is being published as a beautifully illustrated and designed oversized book.
From the onset, Spector, a trained historian, reveals that the preliminary research presented an unanticipated challenge. “I searched for a good published history of the park but, much to my surprise, no comprehensive history had been written,” he says.
So, it was literally back to square one for Spector, who decided to research and write the book as a record for anyone interested in the park’s development in terms of infrastructure, its social history, and its relationship to the growth of Winnipeg.
Spector recalls the research process with exuberance. “The book was a delight to research and write and full of surprises,” he says.
The City of Winnipeg Archives records and daily and weekly newspapers provided unexpected information about the vehement initial opposition by the Municipality of Assiniboia to the creation of the park, the religious focus of Sunday social activities until the 1920s, the use of the park for military recruitment purposes during the two World Wars, and the City’s underfunding of the park for over 20 years until the 2008 takeover by the Assiniboine Park Conservancy.
Spector discovered that the inspiration for Assiniboine Park was Como Park in St. Paul, Minnesota. He describes the robust north-south relationship between Winnipeg and St. Paul in the 1890s and early 1900s, when there was frequent passenger train service between the two centres. “The parks communities in Canada and the United States were closely knit. Politicians, public servants, and landscape architects involved in parks design, creation, and management knew one another through correspondence and conferences.”
Como Park in the late 1880s offered various opportunities for recreation – horseback riding, walking, and unstructured play. Later, floral gardens, a conservatory, a pavilion, an aquarium, a zoo, and playing fields were added to the mix. When Assiniboine Park was conceived in 1903, municipal politicians and Public Parks Board officials chose to emulate the features of this closest American example.
Spector felt it was essential to include in his book details not only of the construction of the physical park, but also “biographical sketches of community leaders, rogues, and villains who were involved in the park’s development.” His goal was to make the book appealing to the general reader as well as to convey useful information to park administrators and volunteers.
“This Victoria Day, 2019, will mark the 110th anniversary of the completion and official opening of Assiniboine Park,” Spector says. “I want readers to learn that Assiniboine Park has enjoyed a long and colourful past. It is a history worth preserving.”