A Brandon exhibit is taking folks back to the city’s boom-town days through one of the companies that grew the city — and brightened its gardens.
The “Imagining Summer Gardens: Images from the A.E. McKenzie Visual Archive” exhibit at Daly House Museum tells the story of A.E. McKenzie, and his company’s rise to be one of the largest domestic seed companies in Canada.
Albert E. McKenzie moved to Brandon with his family in 1882, according to the Manitoba Historical Society. Brandon was incorporated as a city that year, and its population was rapidly expanding.
In 1896, A.E. took over his father’s flour, seed and grain business and brought in his vision for the company: leaving agriculture and conquering the domestic seed market.
In McKenzie’s fourth annual catalogue from 1900, A.E. wrote a note to his prospective customers, captured in the exhibit:
“Perhaps you are neither a Gardener nor a Farmer, but you have a Home. If you have a garden, you want vegetable seeds. If no garden, you surely have a lawn, and that means you want our Superfine lawn grass mixture. If you have no Lawn, perhaps you have a few yards of Earth around your home for flowers, Beautify Your Home.”
“He was the marketing genius,” said Eileen Trott, curator of Daly House. She said lawns, and gardens around every house were a new concept at the time.
“Everything that we see now, you know, that we take for granted, it was basically started with men like A.E. McKenzie changing our mindset,” Trott said.
McKenzie also began to use his catalogue covers to give customers their own visions. Covers moved from black-and-white drawings of their building to vibrantly coloured, stylized drawings of flowers and vegetables. These covers are displayed at Daly House.
Trott says she imagines how these pictures, in the dead of winter, might have inspired customers to buy for the coming spring.
By 1905, McKenzie had about 50,000 customers across Western Canada. The company had about 100 employees around that time, according to the Manitoba Historical Society.
Many of these workers were women and immigrants because they were cheap labour, said Trott. A.E. could pay them less and channel money into marketing and building his seven-storey concrete-and-brick office building on Ninth Street in Brandon, which was briefly the tallest in the city.
More than 100 years later, McKenzie Seeds still operates in Brandon.
Trott said since the exhibit opened, they’ve had many visitors including former employees of McKenzie Seeds who remember working with the historic seed-packaging and office equipment displayed. They can also tell stories of A.E. McKenzie.
“He supposedly would watch the staff come in and if you were a few minutes late he’d grab your time card and dock you for the time that you were late,” said Trott, laughing.
“We’re always glad to have them come and tell us their stories about McKenzie Seeds. We love to hear them.”
The exhibit will be open until October 12.