John Gerow Van Wart

Calgary, Alberta, 1883
Submitted by Kathleen Rogers, Great Great Granddaughter, March 22nd, 2022

John Gerow Van Wart
John Gerow Van Wart

John Gerow Van Wart was one of Calgary's first merchants. Born in 1838 in Wickham Parish, New Brunswick, JG was the descendant of Jochem Woutersze who arrived from Holland in 1662 and settled in Midwout, Long Island, then a Dutch colony which later became Brooklyn. After the final surrender of the Dutch to the British, the family moved up the Hudson River to work as tenant farmers in Philipsburg Manor and were founding members of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow.

Three generations later, the Revolution split many of the families of Westchester. Initially fighting alongside other family members in the rebel militia, Jacob Van Wart switched sides in 1781 and enlisted with the British army. As violence was escalating in New York, the family with their six children encamped at Newtown, Long Island for the summer prior to evacuating in one of the twenty square masted ships that transported the final 3,000 persons in the fall fleet of '83. Arriving in present day New Brunswick, they were settled up the Saint John River and eventually claimed farm land in Hampstead, Queens County.

The family settled into farming for three generations. In 1859, at age twenty-one, John Gerow left home and 'journeyed around the Horn to California with the gold seekers. The following year, he set out for the Cariboo Gold Rush in British Columbia. Sailing to South America, he crossed the Isthmus of Panama and then carried on to Victoria. He journeyed into the British Columbia mainland via the old Cariboo Trail. At the time of this visit the governor's house in Victoria was still a log hut built within fortified walls.

After a brief trip home, he came back west to the Montana Gold Rush, and made some money placer mining before returning home to open a general merchandising store. He was married on Christmas Day 1860 to Martha Jane Jones. The four children, John Havelock, Edith Lillian, Dora Maybell, and Alberta Jones were all born and had their early years in Prince William, York County, NB.

Freeze and Van Wart Business Card

In 1883, one hundred years after his teenaged grandfather had left New York, JG departed for the west by rail via Sarnia, Chicago, and Winnipeg. He met up with fellow New Brunswickers Isaac Freeze and Howard Graves- both traveling west to see about business prospects opening up along the new CPR train route. They arrived June 2 at the end of the line, the 13th siding, 40 miles east of Medicine Hat. They rode a few more miles on a construction train, then hired horse drawn wagon freighters to take them to Calgary. They made only about 15 miles a day, walking most of the way. They arrived in Calgary on June 1, two months before the railroad and then a collection of tents situated east of the Elbow.

Freeze wrote in his diary "our tent is pitched at the junction of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, and on the east side of the Elbow. All our luggage is in the tent with us, we also have a sheet-iron stove. Mr. Van Wart lies on the south side of the tent on a buffalo robe." Each investing $1,000, Freeze and he established a general merchandising store in a tent east of the Elbow. Freeze and Van Wart advertised in the August 31 first edition of the Weekly Herald. James Linton, his son-in-law, later recalled that, every week, JG sent copies of the Herald back home where Martha and the children would read it.

In October, the Van Wart/Freeze partnership dissolved when JG's son John arrived and father and son opened a new store together. In May '84 the store had moved to the bank of the Elbow opposite the HBC store. Martha and the girls arrived a few weeks later, the ride west taking three weeks. Daughter Alberta Robinson later recalled arriving on a beautiful bright sunny morning on May 24, 1884, and being met at the station by their father, who then drove them in a buckboard across the prairie to the ferry on the Elbow River to take them across to their new home. The small frame bungalow house was at the juncture of the Bow and Elbow rivers. Martha had cried leaving New Brunswick, and after the long train ride out, arrived to a house with a leaky roof in a very wet summer. There was no plastering so the walls and ceiling were lined with unbleached cotton and when it rained they would poke a hole in the cotton and let the water run into a pail. They quite often slept with a rubber sheet over them to keep dry. Dora and Alberta soon started school, attending the first class with Mr. Costello.

Van Wart House

In June of 1886, the Herald noted that JG was "erecting a handsome two-storied home building, for a dwelling house, across the Elbow, near the former site of G C King & Co's store". This home built on land along the Bow River on Eighth Avenue at the north end of King Street (11th St SE) was purchased from John Stewart and is still standing in Inglewood.

A few years later a two mile irrigation ditch that started near the race track and led to the Walker and Pearce estates was constructed. The ditch was adjacent to the property and the home "made good use of the water for the garden".

The family owned this home until 1901, when they moved over the Elbow to the main townsite.

In 1886 JG also set up in Davisburg (S1/2 18-21-28-W4), with their son John farming the north half of the section. Although John eventually moved on to Spokane, JG did live out in Davisburg for a few years in the early '90's with Martha and the the youngest daughter Alberta, and was president of the Davisburg Agricultural Society in 1893.

JG maintained his business efforts in the city, having graduated from the early tent locations in east Calgary and moving over in 1884 to a general store on Atlantic Avenue across from the CPR where he advertised "Licensed express wagons, all trains met". He had a few locations along east Stephen Avenue including the Barber Block, then in 1901 set up east of the Queen's Hotel with Irvin Anderson. His final store was east of the old Post Office on Eighth Avenue where he established a flour and feedstore which he ran until retirement.

JG had a life long involvement in the community. A strong Baptist, JG became one of seven charter members and one of the two original deacons of the First Baptist Church when in May, 1888, the organizational meeting was held in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Ernie King. Although he never held office, in June 1884 JG agreed to let his name stand for nomination for the first Mayor of the town of Calgary but withdrew before the election but twenty years later ran for ward one council. Along with fellow merchants, he signed a petition to proclaim the 11th of August, 1896 a Civic Holiday agreeing to close their stores for the day.

John Gerow Van Wart
John Gerow Van Wart

In 1900, at the age of 61, he set off for one last gold rush when he went up to Nome, Alaska with the Lineham brothers.

Returning from this adventure, and having sold his Davisburg farm, he and Martha made the move across the Elbow to move closer into town and his business. In April 1901 the stone foundation was completed for their new home at 402 Centre street at the SE corner of Fourth and Centre, now in the shadow of the Bow Tower. By moving into town, JG and Martha joined daughters Edith (m. James Linton) , Dora Maybell (m. Jack Macdonald) , and Alberta (m. George Robinson), each early town merchants. Through this first decade of the 1900's, Edith and James lived down the road at 121 Fourth Ave, and Maybell and Jack across the street at 112 Fourth Ave. They kept him company after Martha died in 1905. He stayed in this home after Martha died in 1905 and tow years later he remarried Drucilla Van Wart, the daughter of a cousin from New Brunswick and retired soon after.

His final initiative was with the newly formed Parks Board. Appointed as Park Commissioner by Mayor Jamieson, in 1910 JG travelled to Innisfail and Ponoka to bring back some samples of the 6000 native Balsam Poplar trees that had been purchased by the city. The trees, known as Balm of Gilead Trees, would be sold to citizens at the price of 30 cents each.

In 1916, JG and Drucilla moved to a new home at 215 Fifth Ave W, a few houses east of his daughter Alberta Robinson. He suffered a stroke in 1915, and passed away five years later at the age of 81.

The Southern Alberta Pioneers

In June 1901, JG attended the first meeting of what would become the Old-Timers. James Reilly called for a meeting at the Royal Hotel of "the Old-Timers of '83" to get together to plan a celebration for those who had arrived in the early days and had witnessed the growth of Calgary. Since the early days of the east tent village, Calgary had grown tenfold in less than twenty years. Senator Lougheed moved, and was seconded by JG Van Wart, that those present organize themselves into the Calgary District Old-timers' Association. The motion was carried, and a committee consisting of Messr's Van Wart, Brown, Smart, Lougheed and Brett was appointed to draft the constitution and bylaws.

This original constitution became the foundation of the bylaws when our association incorporated twenty years later and still forms the basis of the Southern Alberta Pioneers and their Descendants.


Family Histories held in the SAPD archives
Calgary Herald May 22, 1954 SAPD Memoirs- Alberta Robinson
Calgary Herald May 13, 1920 (Obituary)
Calgary Atlantic Avenue Inglewood Historical Walking Tours 1999