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Always Achnacarry, Rutherford's house revisited

University buildings, some tall, some sprawling, overlook the river along Edmonton's Saskatchewan Drive these days, but 75 years ago there was only farm land and bush, and the view was up for grabs.

In 1909, five lots had been newly subdivided here, and on May 29 a 1.3-acre triangular parcel was sold to one Alexander Cameron Rutherford, described in the deed of sale as a "gentleman of Strathcona."

The gentleman was no ordinary gentleman. At the time he bought the land, he was Alberta's premier — its first — and in the prime of his power and influence. The house designed for the river-view lot was to be a premier's residence, appropriate to his status and able to accommodate the demands of his social life.

But by the end of May 1910, when the foundation for the new home had been poured, Rutherford had resigned as premier, the victim of party divisions and scapegoat for financial mismanagement. In February 1911, when he and his family moved in, he was in the political wilderness. He remained, however, an eminent gentleman indeed. And in 1911 his house must have looked every inch the "gentleman's residence".

"Achnacarry," he called it, after the ancestral home of the Camerons in Scotland. It was square and red-bricked, with two-storey bay windows, tall chimneys, and a multi-gabled roof — the chunky lines relieved by a white-pillared porch and balcony in front and a semi-circular sun porch on the west side. It cost the handsome sum of $25,000.

Today, overshadowed by the concrete and brick edifices of the University of Alberta, it testifies to the changes wrought by time, and it is a testimony to the man who lived in it and filled it with people — and books — for 30 years.

Alexander Cameron Rutherford was an Ontario lawyer who came with his wife, Mattie, and two children to the settlement of South Edmonton in 1895, at least partly because he believed the climate would relieve his asthma.

He was then 38, hard-working, immensely public-spirited, and determined to recreate the best of Ontario public life in his new community. He had opened his legal practice within 10 days of his arrival and shortly after was deeply entrenched in the affairs of the community. He helped found the South Edmonton football club, became secretary treasurer of the school board, was involved in the Literary Institute and in the Agricultural Society — to name but a few of his commitments. Later he would be engaged as a solicitor by the Imperial Bank of Canada and by the new Town of Strathcona.

In a paper on Rutherford prepared for Alberta Culture's Historic Sites Service, historian Douglas Babcock writes:

By the turn of the century, Alexander Cameron Rutherford had become a prominent citizen in the town and district of Strathcona, successful in both his legal practice and in his business investments. His integrity and sound judgement were universally recognized, as well as his willingness to serve in the many voluntary organizations which shaped the social life of early Strathcona. Deeply involved in the political, social and economic affairs of the time, Rutherford was soon to convert that influence into political power.

After having made two unsuccessful bids for a seat, in the spring of 1902 Rutherford was urged to again stand for election to the territorial assembly to represent the new district of Strathcona. This time he swept in, and he was deputy speaker in February 1905 when the Autonomy Bill which was to create the new province of Alberta was introduced in Ottawa by Prime Minister Laurier. In August 1905 the Liberals of the proposed province met in Calgary for the founding convention of the Liberal Association of Alberta. With the Liberals in power federally under Laurier, it was a foregone conclusion that the new Liberal Party leader would be called on to form Alberta's first government.

Rutherford — reported to have been terrified at the prospect — won the nomination, and diffidently expressed hope he would not disappoint those who had chosen him. He was sworn in as premier on September 2, 1905. In November of that year, and again in March 1909, he led the Liberals to sweeping electoral victories.

In the first legislature, he was provincial treasurer and minister of education, as well as premier. He served on most of the standing committees of the house. During the course of the first legislature (1906 to 1909) he personally introduced 40 bills, including those to establish the treasury department, the public service, the provincial university, and the public libraries. Under his leadership the first government-owned telephone system in Canada was developed.

The project dearest to Rutherford's heart was probably the establishment of the University of Alberta. Babcock notes that he personally introduced the University Bill in the legislature's first session and guided it through to royal assent in spite of widespread opposition. Then, on April 6, 1907, he announced its location — the recently incorporated city of Strathcona.

Rutherford's downfall stemmed from his government's railway dealings. By 1908 growth in the province had rapidly outstripped the available facilities, and there was pressure to build more lines. In the absence of federal government support, the provincial government, through its newly established department of railways (with Rutherford as its minister), had agreed to guarantee the bonds for three railway companies chartered to build lines in Alberta.

The crisis came in 1910 when serious questions began to be asked about one of the bond guarantees. Rutherford — perhaps naive in business dealings of this magnitude — had been party to a dubious agreement with a railway company. Accused of opening the province's financial credit to abuse and of failing to protect Albertans' interests, he was forced to resign — though a subsequent Royal Commission cleared him of any intentional wrongdoing. He remained a member of legislature until the 1913 election but never again held power.

A devout Baptist deeply involved with his church, and a man with high ideals about morality in public life, Rutherford must have felt bitter about his political demise — brought about, at least in part, by dissatisfied elements in his own party.

But whatever his feelings were, they did not prevent his continuing involvement in the affairs of the community. And his house, although not the premier's residence it seemed destined to be, welcomed the public nonetheless.

The heart of the house, at least for its master, was the library with its fireplace and floor-to-ceiling fir bookshelves. Rutherford was well-read in Canadian history, and possessed a fine collection of Canadiana — which he loaned freely. Staff and students from the university next door considered his library almost an extension of their own.

Mrs. Rutherford's domain was the drawing room, with its Nordheimer piano, occasional seats upholstered with needlepoint, chesterfield, whatnot, tables and plants. Newspapers of the day enthusiastically reported on her tea parties and "at homes," which filled the house with flowers and ladies in crepe-de-chine.

Visitors, also frequent in the dining room adjoining the library, were greeted in the spacious entrance hall, from which an imposing oak-panelled staircase, lit by a stained-glass skylight, led upstairs. Here the best bedroom (with bath attached) was saved for the ever-present guests.

Perhaps because of their straitened circumstances, the Rutherfords bought little furniture to grace their new home. Compared to the grandeur of the house, the furniture was modest and sparse. But this made the house seem more spacious and airy, well able to contain the large crowds frequently gathered in it.

Crowds there were — the Rutherford hospitality was apparently unbounded. Aside from the regular academic visitors, the social and political elite of the province came to call — and Mrs. Rutherford did almost all of the cooking. There were countless gatherings of community groups and musical evenings in aid of worthy causes.

An event which yearly increased in both fame and participation was the Founder's Day Tea for the graduating University class. As the inspiration behind the University's establishment, a founding member of its senate, and its chancellor from 1927, Rutherford took great pleasure in entertaining the graduands, and in watching their numbers grow — from 25 in 1912 to more than 300 in 1938.

When his wife died in 1940, Rutherford sold the house and most of its furnishings to the Delta Upsilon fraternity and went to live with his son. He died on June 11, 1941, just three weeks after presiding over Convocation.

As a fraternity residence the house contained a floating population of 20 to 25 students — including the young Peter Lougheed and some of his future cabinet colleagues. The fraternity made some changes: the kitchen was modernized, showers were added in the basement, rooms were partitioned, floors were tiled, and the roof was reshingled. But the history of the house was respected and it was well cared for.

By 1961 the University was planning an eastward expansion which would involve the demolition of the house and its residential neighbors in the late 1960s. A public campaign opposing the demolition was launched and in 1970 the decision to preserve and restore the house was made.

The restoration, complicated by vandalism during the preceding winter, began in the fall of 1971. It mainly involved removing the additions of the Delta Upsilon tenancy and repairing the damage caused by the vandalism. While the provincial department of public works concerned themselves with the structure, staff of the provincial museum set about the acquiring of suitable furnishings. On June 10, 1973 the house-museum was opened to the public.

Recently, the kitchen — which had been modernized in the early 1970s — was restored to its original state, complete with wood-burning stove. And other touches made necessary by today's more exacting standards for authenticity in restoration were added. (Not only was the design of the wallpaper in one of the upstairs bedrooms too contemporary, vinyl wallpaper certainly was not to be found in 1910.) While its setting has been dramatically changed by the modern university which crowds around it, and it is now known simply as "Rutherford House," the red brick building on Saskatchewan Drive just east of 112 Street is today very much the Achnacarry that Rutherford planned for his family 75 years ago. And it continues to embrace a multitude of guests, allowing them to slip back in time to the early part of this century. Then the Province of Alberta was new, and so was its university. So much lay ahead.

Published Autumn 1984.

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