Museum Musings: George Will

George Will and his family.

by Fred Payton

My wife’s maternal grandmother used to reminisce about her early days in Prince Albert, when she was a student nurse at the Holy Family Hospital.  She would often tell the story about Sunday drives in a horse drawn carriage, checking progress on the construction of a big house on the west hill.

As a child attending elementary school at Queen Elizabeth School, I had at least one teacher who lived in that big house.  The grandeur of the house, which by that time had been converted from a single-family residence into apartments, has since those school days always fascinated me. 

Many of you will be familiar with the Colonial Apartments.  The house still stands on 20th Street West near 6th Avenue.  Based on the questions and comments directed our way at the Historical Society, I suspect that the house still holds a certain allure for local residents and for people visiting Prince Albert.

The late Phil West would occasionally lead walking tours of the west hill, and a number of years ago my wife and I joined Phil on one of those tours.  As luck would have it, the owner of the building allowed us to visit one of the suites during the tour, and we will never forget its beauty, character, and the height of the ceilings!

I recently had an opportunity to chat with a descendant of the man who built that big house on the west hill, and to my delight our conversation confirmed much of the information which I had discovered doing research on the house, and on the man who had built it.

As I talked with the descendant of the man who had had the house in question built, she recalled going on a bus tour of Prince Albert’s historical sites.  I wasn’t quite sure what her feelings were when she mentioned that as they passed her great-grandfather’s home the tour guide said “the man who built this house had more money than he knew what to do with”.

The man responsible for the construction of the house was George Will, a name not unfamiliar to those of us who have lived in Prince Albert and studied its history.

George Will was born a New Year’s baby in 1866, in Aberdeen, Scotland.  He came to Canada at the age of 19 years, and for two years farmed in the Peterborough, Ontario region.  Whether he found farming to be too difficult, or was attracted by the mystique of the North West Mounted Police, he joined up on April 9th, 1888.  Will was posted to ‘F’ Division (now Saskatchewan), where he served for ten years, seven of which were as a sergeant.  He resigned from the force effective January 1st, 1898, and settled in Prince Albert, where he opened a book and stationery store.

Will lasted in that business for two years, before selling out (likely to John Merritt, who eventually sold to L.S. Parrott, who in turn sold to Fred Adams).  After selling his book and stationery store, Will went into the real estate and insurance business, opening first in the Masonic Temple on 10th Street West, and then moving to the Bank of Commerce building, the McDonald Block, and later to the Imperial Bank Building.  In later years he used his homes as his place of work, including the Carlton Apartments at 300 River Street West, 110-21st Street West, and 109-20th street West.

Around the turn of the century, from the 19th to the 20th, the Will family lived at 119-14th Street West, across the street from the former Central School.  At that time, there was a lot of money to be made in real estate in Prince Albert and area.  Will advertised that his firm carried “Improved Farms and Wild Lands” as well as City Lots for sale.  Through the years, he was the agent for land companies from Winnipeg, Toronto, New York, Glasgow, and London, including such businesses as the Canadian National Railway and the Hudson’s Bay Company.  He handled insurance for the Great West Life Insurance Company, Car and General Insurance Company, and Confederation Life Insurance.  In later years, he was also the District Director for Empire Life, at which time his son Duncan was an agent and his daughter Emily was the stenographer.

Will had married Robena McGregor in 1894.  Robena had been born in Ontario, but obviously moved to Prince Albert with her family.  Prior to, and at the time of her marriage, Robena was a teacher.  Will and Robena had three children, George, Emily, and Duncan.  It has been suggested that Emily was courted by a young lawyer, John Diefenbaker, but he did not meet with the approval of the family as a suitor and the relationship was terminated.  Suffering from a debilitating illness, Emily never did marry, and died at a relatively young age. 

George Junior married, and later lived in Melfort with his wife and family.  Duncan married twice.  He had three children with his first wife (George, Agnes Robena, and Mary Lou) and a son with his second wife (Duncan).  Duncan Junior later followed his grandfather into the Mounted Police, enlisting on January 3rd, 1964, and serving until June 1st, 1993.  Duncan achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant, and was a well-known drill instructor at Depot.

Like many residents of Prince Albert, Will invested heavily in the La Colle Falls project.  Also like many others, he lost a considerable amount of money.  As a result, Will had to sell his house on the hill, and moved into a home at 25-11th Street East.  Within a few years, he had recovered sufficiently so that he could move his residence to 2006-3rd Avenue East.  This was later followed by a move to the Carlton Apartments on River Street West, and then back to homes on the central west hill.

Known as a motorcar enthusiast, Will was one of the first residents of Prince Albert to own a motor vehicle.  He was a strong supporter of education, and served several terms on the Public School Board.  A founding member of the Prince Albert Outing Club, he was the treasurer for that organisation for several years, owning property at Round Lake from 1913 and having a cottage built there in 1918.  Will also served as president of the NWMP Veteran’s Association.

Will retired from business in the mid-1940s, but continued living in Prince Albert.  In September of 1949, he travelled to Pine Falls, Manitoba, to visit his son Duncan, after which he joined his son George in Melfort.  He remained with his son and daughter-in-law until January 1st, 1950, at which time he was taken ill and transferred to hospital in Saskatoon.  Predeceased by his wife in 1948, and his daughter, George Will died in hospital in Saskatoon on February 16th, 1950.

Will had been a member of the Masonic Order (Knights Templar and Shriner), and he and his family were members of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church.  It was from that church that his funeral was conducted by Hart Caslor in February 1950.  The Masonic service was conducted by W.E. Bristow, Worshipful Master , Kinistino AF & AM.