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Heritage site up in flames

108-year-old 'Big House' was home to Prairie pioneers

The Big House at the Criddle / Vane Homestead Provincial Park.

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The Big House at the Criddle / Vane Homestead Provincial Park. (JAMES O'CONNOR / BRANDON SUN FILES )

BRANDON -- After Marg Trollope got the call at 11 p.m. Wednesday, only two walls stood as a blaze ravaged the home where she spent many of her childhood summers.

It was the historic "Big House" on the Criddle/Vane Homestead Provincial Heritage Park, designated as such in 2004. The area honours the Criddle and Vane families, Prairie pioneers who became well-known for their contributions to science, horticulture, art, sports and culture.

The secluded, eight-bedroom home, is located about 40 kilometres southeast of Brandon in the RM of South Cypress.

Trollope, a great-granddaughter of Percy Criddle, has been part of the Criddle/Vane Homestead committee since its inception in 2000 and had one word to describe the feeling after the 108-year-old building was levelled by the late-night flames.

"Devastated," she said.

Arson has not been ruled out.

"People all around worked really hard to make this a viable entity where some of Manitoba's history can remain alive and people can see it."

The home has been a magnet for petty vandalism in recent years. The RCMP say about eight incidents have been reported since 2009, including smashed windows, kicked-in walls and graffiti.

There were many conversations with the province in recent years on how to address the ongoing issue in the area monitored by Spruce Woods Provincial Park staff. But a major piece of the homestead is now gone and perhaps at some point will be replaced by a cairn, Trollope said.

"The memory can still be kept alive," she said.

"It's sad, it's really sad. I'm old enough to have been there when part of family still lived there."

Percy Criddle's 93-year-old grandson Paul Criddle, who was instrumental in protecting the heritage site, also has fond memories of the homestead and was "overwhelmed" when he heard his grandparents' home burned to the ground.

"I feel very sick about it. I'm not in good humour or health."

In its heyday, the Criddle homestead featured a golf course, tennis courts and pasture. A lab, which was built in 1917 at a cost of $50, is the first entomological field station in Western Canada.

Blue Hills RCMP Staff Sgt. Mike Zens said the fire is considered suspicious by investigators, considering past incidents at the remote location.

"You have to look at the fact that it has been the location of previous vandalisms and damages," he said. "We didn't have any lightning strikes that could have set that off, there's no power going into the property itself so you have to look at those circumstances."

Police are relying on the public to provide any information about the blaze and no suspects have been identified.

"We're still actively involved in the investigation," Zens said. "Unfortunately, the home was completely destroyed, so that makes evidence more problematic for us."

However, in 2012, police were able to track down five young people who smashed walls and extensively damaged the home.

Persistent mischief left the home looking like a derelict building in the final years of its life, despite its provincial significance.

Last month, the recurring vandalism forced the Department of Conservation and Water Stewardship to render it off limits, along with the second lab building -- its windows boarded up and closed off to the public.

The province says the rest of the park remains open to the public.

The value of the building was its heritage and history, and not the building itself, so it was not insured, a provincial spokesman said.

RCMP are asking that anyone with information contact the Blue Hills RCMP detachment at 204-726-7519, or call Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-8477, submit a secure tip online at manitobacrimestoppers.com or text "TIPMAN" plus your message to CRIMES (274637).

 

-- Brandon Sun

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