Discovering My Grandmother:
Jennie Elizabeth Lewis (1887-1959)

I never really got a chance to know my paternal grandmother, Jennie Elizabeth (Lewis) Broatch. She lived on the Canadian prairies most of her life. And our family emigrated from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Southern California in 1950, just before I turned four. She made periodic trips to California to visit the six of her nine children who had moved there, and her grandchildren. But she visited our house only once that I remember. So, I saw her mostly — and only briefly — at large family gatherings. She died when I was 13 – some 63 years ago. Researching her life has been a rewarding way to create a kind of “memory” of her.

When I’m writing about a family, I often place photos of them near my desk to look at while I work. I chose this formal portrait of Jennie and her family for this post, mostly because it’s the only photo I have that includes the whole family. But also because of its professional quality, and because I like the calm, direct gazes of the “subjects”: my great-grandparents, grandmother, great aunts, and great uncle. The photo was taken around 1903 in Selkirk, Manitoba, likely by photographer J.H. Clarke, who had recently built a studio there. Jennie’s parents were in their forties at the time, and their children in their mid- to late teens.

Jennie Elizabeth (b. 1887), right, stands behind her mother, Martha Caroline (Daniel) Lewis. Jennie’s younger sister Mary Cyrena (b. 1889), and her brother, Spencer Herbert Daniel (b. 1885), are on the left.  Seated are her father, James Oscar, and her sister Sarah Edna (b. 1884).

Manitoba Beckons

James Oscar Lewis (1861-1935) and Martha Caroline (Daniel) Lewis (1855-1940) were both born and raised in Blenheim, Ontario, Canada, and their four children were born there. Sometime between the 1891 and 1901 Canada Censuses, “Oscar” and “Carrie”, as Jennie’s parents were known to friends and relations, decided to move their family 1,245 miles (2,000 kilometers) northwest to the small, semi-rural town of Selkirk, Manitoba. Family members and their belongings were, I assume, transported to their new home by train.  

Traditional industries in this area included fishing, fish packing, logging, and ship building. In the 20 or so years before the Lewis family arrived there, Selkirk had begun developing the small businesses, civic institutions, schools, law-enforcement, and other amenities that would attract more families to settle there. Located on the north side of the Red River, about 22 miles northeast of Winnipeg, the town was primed for big changes. In the mid-1800s, it had been a small agricultural settlement where farmers’ livestock ran loose, destroying flower and vegetable gardens belonging to newly arrived householders. Waste from Winnipeg’s industrial areas and slaughterhouses was being dumped into the Red River, which, when it flooded, filled Selkirk’s streets with raw sewage. Nevertheless, the town grew.

For Oscar and Carrie, starting a new life far from family and friends must have felt both exciting and a bit daunting. The promise of economic opportunity in the west was probably what drew them. The Lewis family was part of a huge wave of migration to the Northwest Territories, of which the current provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta were once a part. Powerful political and financial forces were driving this westward settlement, in part to keep the U.S. or Great Britain from taking over that territory. In the 1880s and 1890s, the federal government in Ottawa launched an intensive national and international campaign to promote migration and immigration to western Canada.

Cheap and even free land were offered as an incentive. Farmers were especially needed in the territories, to grow crops to feed people in the eastern part of the country. Eastern Europe was specifically targeted for these promotions because farmers from that part of the world were accustomed to a harsh climate like that of the Canadian prairies, so were more likely to succeed and prosper. The result of these various efforts was an increase in population in the Northwest Territories from about 56,000 in 1881 to 212,000 by 1901.

John Wilson Bengough created this political cartoon for the Toronto Globe, 1898. Accessed on Wikipedia 11/23/2022.

Equally crucial to westward settlement and economic growth was the 1885 completion of the 2,000-mile-long (3,200-kilometer) Canadian Pacific Railway’s trans-Canada line, which ran from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Montreal, Quebec. “Exploded” and “boomed” are words often used in historical accounts to describe the impact of the railway on Canada’s economy. In 1883, the main railway line was laid through Manitoba’s capital city, Winnipeg, which immediately provided local industries, businesses, and farmers access to national and international markets for their products. When a 22-mile-long branch railway line from Winnipeg to Selkirk was negotiated by Selkirk’s mayor a short time later, the little town joined the big boom.

Note: When I refer to “Manitoba” in this blog post, I’m guessing that United States readers might envision the province at its current size – larger than North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska combined. But in 1870, it covered only about 62 square miles (160 square kilometers), encompassing Winnipeg and surrounding areas. Its borders expanded a bit in 1881, but it didn’t reach its current size until 1912.

Making a Living and a Life in Selkirk

From photographs, census records, newspaper articles, and other documents that I either inherited from my dad or discovered online, my impression is that Oscar and Carrie Lewis’s family lived a comfortable and socially active life in Manitoba. Family snapshots show the Lewises with extended family and friends, entertaining guests at home and taking recreational trips to the beautiful country around Selkirk.

Sarah Edna (“Sadie”) Lewis, Jennie’s older sister, holding a bouquet of flowers, appears to be the center of a celebration at the Lewis family home on Clandeboye Avenue in Selkirk. To Sadie’s right are two women, names unknown to me, who show up often in family photographs. Jennie and her mother, Carrie, are to her left.

Census records show that Oscar did various kinds of work over his lifetime. Neither he nor his father, Francis A. “Frank” Lewis, were farmers. “Teacher” was the occupation recorded for Oscar, age 20, in the 1881 Census, when he was still living in Ontario with his parents. He was working as a “grocer” when he married Martha Caroline Daniel in 1883. And in the 1891 Census he reports his occupation as “student”. I wondered what he was studying at age 30. My guess would be some type of business or commercial course.

In the 1901 Census, the first after the family’s arrival in Manitoba, people were asked for their annual income and hours worked per week. Oscar gives his occupation as “publisher”, and his annual income from that work as $700, which looks to be in the upper-mid-range among the working people in his neighborhood. He reports $300 annual income from a source other than his occupation, which is probably rent paid by his lodgers. He works 60 hours a week, which sounds about right for someone who is self-employed. There are two lodgers living in the household: Robert Baker, age 35, works as a printer; and John Sage, 50, is a teamster. I wondered if the printer might have been connected with Oscar’s publishing business. The occupations that seem most in line with the area’s economic boom, though, are those Oscar reports in the 1911 and 1916 Censuses: “Real Estate”, and “Real Estate Broker”, respectively.

Religion and Church Activities

Both of Jennie’s parents were raised in the Methodist faith. Methodism is an “evangelical” protestant denomination, which means that it is grounded in the teachings of Jesus, as revealed in the Bible. Members are expected to live their daily lives in accordance with those beliefs, and to share the teachings of their faith with others.

In the 1901 Manitoba Census, the Lewis family reported its religion as Presbyterian for the first time. This change in denomination from Methodist to Presbyterian was probably not a big a shock to their family or friends. There was a movement at the time to consolidate evangelical Protestant churches in Canada. After more than 20 years of deliberations, the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists would merge in 1925 to form the United Church of Canada.

The family would most likely have attended Knox Presbyterian Church, built in 1904, located at 341 Eveline Street, overlooking the Red River. This street was where the town’s leading businesses were located, as well as the homes of Selkirk’s prominent families. The church was probably within walking distance of the Lewis family’s home on Clandeboye Avenue, located a few blocks further back from the river. That address no longer exists. A shopping center now occupies the land, featuring a Safeway, a Starbucks, and a cannabis store. The beautiful stone church on Eveline Street, however, still stands.

Knox Presbyterian Church, Selkirk, Manitoba. Photo Source: Natalie Macintosh. Published by the Manitoba Historical Society.

Jennie appears to have been involved in church activities beginning in her early teens. She taught Sunday school, as evidenced by a snapshot taken of her, surrounded by her students. She looks to be in her mid-teens, just a few years older than the girls she’s teaching.

Jennie surrounded by her Sunday school students, sometime in the fall, judging by the tree.
This appears to be a graduation picture of the same group of girls, taken in the spring at the Lewis home. Each girl has a small corsage attached to her white dress.

Jennie would have been a member of the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor, founded in Maine in 1881. Its purpose was to provide teenagers – children who were too old for Sunday school and too young for adult Bible study – a social group that carried responsibilities for supporting the church’s mission. She also participated in national church projects as a young woman. The photo below, from my dad’s stash of family albums, shows delegates to a convention of the United Society of Christian Endeavor, a worldwide, non-denominational, evangelical organization.

Jennie is standing in the back row (right) wearing a fashionable wide-brimmed hat. Her father, Oscar, is the fourth person from the left seated in front, holding his straw hat between his knees. The white banner hanging above the delegates displays the name of the society (reversed in the photo); and the smaller print below reads, “Officers, Trustees, and Convention Speakers”.

The Adams Express Company, whose storefront is visible in the background, is an American corporation, for which I could not find any Canada branches. That means the convention was held in the U.S., but I’m not sure where. I did learn, though, that an international Society of Christian Endeavor convention was held in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1909, when Jennie was 22. St. Paul is the city closest to Selkirk that hosted an international convention while Jennie was living there with her family.

Photos from the albums Jennie put together for her children show Jennie and her family at what appear to be church camps. None of the photos have captions, so I’m just guessing. But from United Church of Canada archives, I know that Presbyterian and Methodist churches in Manitoba hosted summer camps beginning in the late 1800s.

A church camp located on one of the many lakes and rivers near Selkirk.
Women prepare food at a church camp. I believe the woman seen in profile on the right, closest to the camera, is Carrie Lewis.
Carrie keeps an eye on various pots perched on a campfire.
Hair needs to be washed and styled, even while camping. The chore looks like it became a kind of social occasion. Jennie is second from the left, and her sister Sadie is third from the left.

Some camps were offered to mothers and children living in the poor neighborhoods of east Winnipeg. Others were organized to serve families seeking spiritual renewal in the beautiful natural settings close to Winnipeg and Selkirk. [1] The camps are likely a 20th century successor to the religious revival camp meetings, or tent meetings, popular in the U.S. and Canada in the 1800s.

School and Other Learning Opportunities

The Lewis children’s formal education in Selkirk’s public schools would have included basic reading, writing, grammar, and mathematics; probably science and history; and possibly Latin. There were no province-wide policies governing curriculum, teaching practices, funding, or administration of schools until passage of the Manitoba Schools Act of 1890 – which was such a contentious process that the federal government intervened. Education wars had raged in the province for a couple of decades prior to that, reflecting the social, economic, political, religious, and language differences among its increasingly diverse population. But shortly after passage of the Schools Act, Manitoba simply ignored the federal guidelines and returned to earlier practices. Schooling for children from age 7 to age 14 did not become mandatory in the province until 1916.

As middle-class, Protestant, English-speaking parents, whose ancestors had emigrated from the United Kingdom, Oscar and Carrie would certainly have been comfortable sending their children to Selkirk’s equivalent of present-day elementary and secondary schools. The curriculum and teaching would have aligned closely with their own schooling a generation earlier in Ontario. [1] Jennie also took voice and piano lessons as an adolescent or young adult, according to a 1972 memoir written by her daughter, Nora Patricia (Broatch) Jolly. [2]

In 1907, at age 20, Jennie attended the second year of the “Classical Academy” program at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. This was a two-year, college preparatory program. According to the 1907 college catalog, in order to attend the second year without attending the first year Jennie would have been required to present detailed evidence of prior academic work in Selkirk – including titles of textbooks and number of instructional hours completed in core subjects. At Macalester, she attended 20 hours per week of textbook-based instruction, each with regular homework assignments. [3]

The Chapel at Macalester College.
The dining room at Wallace Hall, the women’s dormitory at Macalester College.

The curriculum looks pretty rigorous. Going into the second year of Latin, students were expected to have “acquired a large vocabulary, a wide knowledge of the rules of syntax, and the ability to convert English into the Latin idiom”. Either Greek or German was also required, with the same prior skills. English, Algebra, History and Civics, Physical Geography, and Bible, were other mandatory classes.

I’d guess that Jennie found Macalester a stimulating environment. Founded in 1874, the college first admitted women in 1893. Despite being affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, the college was open to students of all religious backgrounds. There were even some women professors at the time. Jennie would have lived on campus or in nearby housing. The campus is beautiful and there was nearby streetcar transportation into St. Paul, population more than 250,000, which offered many cultural and retail attractions.

A two-person dormitory room in Wallace Hall. Although damaged sometime in the last 115 years, the photo still contains lots of interesting details of the times.

A final note on the Lewis children’s education: Jennie, Spencer, and Cyrena all worked as young adults in jobs that required mastery of secondary school subjects, as well as some type of specialized training. Jennie taught school for two or three years in Tyndal, Manitoba, a small town about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southeast of Selkirk. Spencer worked as a bookkeeper in a bank in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, according to the 1911 Canada census. With the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Forces in 1914. In his enlistment papers he reported his occupation as “Bank Manager”.  Cyrena trained and worked as a nurse in the Isolation Hospital in Moose Jaw during World War I. Eldest sister, Sadie, married James Joseph Moody, son of the owner of the town’s hardware store, and was undoubtedly involved in the daily workings of that family owned and operated business.

In addition to formal education, Selkirk offered cultural events that might have attracted family members. A well-written history of the town [4] notes that a men’s organization, the “Literary and Debating Society”, was begun in town as early as 1882. In addition to poetry readings, its weekly meetings included debates on such assertions as “Early marriages are desirable”. The group also offered lectures on diverse topics, including: “The Search for Franklin” (Englishman Sir John Franklin led an ill-fated 1845 attempt to find a Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.), and “Modern Science and Free Thought Evolution – Mind and Matter.”

That same town history reports that the “ladies of the town” soon after formed the “Young Ladies’ Mutual Self-Improvement, Semi-Literary, Sewing and Benevolent Association”. Given the society’s name – which strikes me as humorous – I’m not sure if membership was based on age, economic and social status, or what. In any case, it sounds like a pleasant way to get out of the house and spend some social time with other women.

A Step Toward Jennie’s Future

Around 1909, according to Aunt Nora’s memoir, Jennie met the man who would later become her husband. George Nelson Broatch — “Nelson” to friends and family – was a law student at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg at the time. Aunt Nora reports that the two met at a social get-together hosted by Nelson’s eldest brother, James William, aka “Uncle Will”, and his first wife, Mary Ethel, who I believe was known to the Lewis children as “Aunt Mamie”. Maybe I’m just being suspicious, but I wonder if there might have been family matchmakers at work behind the scenes to set up that auspicious meeting.


1. Child, Alan, “The Ryerson Tradition in Western Canada, 1871-1906,” in McDonald and Charton (eds), Egerton Ryerson and His Times. Toronto: Macmillan, 1978).

2.  Address: Buffalo Coulee, by Nora Patricia (Broatch) Jolly, a memoir of growing up in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, 1972, (unpublished PhD dissertation).  

3. Macalester College, Twenty-Second Annual Catalogue, (1907). College Catalogs. © Macalester College.

4. Potyondi, Barry, Selkirk – The First Hundred Years ©1982; Published by University of Manitoba Libraries & Josten’s National School Services Ltd., Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

4 responses to “”

  1. Thank you soooo much Linda. This is great! Is this your first post in a year? Maybe you were working on your mom’s side of the family? I don’t think I have received anything from you in over a year. My life has been completely turned upside down. I believe you asked for some pictures about then and I know I didn’t respond. I apologize. This is rather late to ask, but would you still like to see anything I might have?
    Wishing you a wonderful holiday season,

    • Hi, BL–Sent you a longer reply via email. I’m glad that you found the blog interesting. If, by some miracle, I remember the photos I asked you about, I’ll email you.
      Happy Holidays to you, too!

  2. Wow! So much great detail. You did some research here, and we sure appreciate it! If’s fun to imagine their lives and adventures. Thank you for sharing!

    • Hi, Nikki — I’m so glad you found the post interesting. I had no idea how challenging it would be to try to imagine Jennie’s life as an adolescent and young woman, using just historical records. Thank goodness for the photos that got passed down.
      Happy Holidays to you and yours,

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