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Cart builders prep for 2020 expedition

By: Jordan Ross

Posted: 05/11/2019 1:47 PM

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In their shop near Oakbank, Kelly and Armand Jerome lay out a cart wheel for a half-size cart in progress. The couple is also working on the first of 13 full-size carts commissioned by the Manitoba Metis Federation, several of which will be used in next spring’s Red River Metis Expedition.

JORDAN ROSS | THE CARILLON Enlarge Image

In their shop near Oakbank, Kelly and Armand Jerome lay out a cart wheel for a half-size cart in progress. The couple is also working on the first of 13 full-size carts commissioned by the Manitoba Metis Federation, several of which will be used in next spring’s Red River Metis Expedition.

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A special Metis-led heritage expedition marking Manitoba’s 150th is a year away, but one couple is already hard at work building the Red River carts that will feature prominently in the journey.

Armand and Kelly Jerome are the husband-and-wife team behind Jerome Cartworks, Canada’s only producer of historically accurate, fully operational Red River carts. Their craftsmanship has attracted orders from schools and museums across the country and beyond.

"We didn’t intend it to be a business. It started out as a passion," Armand said.

From their shop north of Oakbank, they’re currently at work on their largest order to date: 13 full-size replicas commissioned by the Manitoba Metis Federation for each of its local chapters across the province.

As many as five of the carts will be used next spring during the 2020 Red River Metis Expedition, which the Jeromes are organizing. Part cultural celebration, part historical re-enactment, the expedition will travel from Kenora, Ont. to Winnipeg’s Upper Fort Garry, with stop-overs in Hadashville, Richer, Ste Anne, Lorette, and Ile des Chenes.

A dogsled leg will begin in February, followed by a horse-drawn trek in April or May.

"We’ve assured that the Metis will have representation (during Manitoba 150 celebrations) by doing this project," Armand said.

The full order of 13 carts will take three years to complete. When the last cart rolls out of the shop, the Jeromes plan to retire the business, train an apprentice, and write a book about a traditional craft that nearly became a lost art.

The horse or ox-drawn carts were once ubiquitous in the pre-railroad Red River region, but by the late 1990s, cart building know-how was scarce among the Manitoba Metis community, Armand explained.

He found himself reviving the craft in the run-up to the 2002 North American Indigenous Games in Winnipeg. The St Norbert Metis Council approached him about building a cart as a way of showcasing Metis culture during the event.

"At the time, I didn’t know how to make carts," he recalled.

"Nobody did," Kelly added.

He formulated a rough blueprint as best he could, consulting historical photographs for clues to the cart’s all-wood design.

"We didn’t want to deviate from the original design," Armand said. "We wanted them to be historically accurate."

Design flaws quickly became apparent during road tests of the first prototypes.

"The very first carts were basically breaking down every night," he recalled.

Historical research and shop tinkering continued until he had a durable, authentic, and reproducible model.

Today, Armand and Kelly have built and sold more than 25 Red River carts, including one for the Juno Beach Centre in Normandy, France in honour of Metis veterans, and another for the Metis pavilion at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Many others are purchased for use in parades and other summer festivities.

"It’s a tremendous source of pride," Armand said. "Our heart is built into every cart. There’s a little twinge, actually, as it’s leaving the shop."

The couple has also logged thousands of kilometres on the carts they build. The longest trek spanned 800 kilometres, and took them from St Norbert to Batoche, a national historic site north of Saskatoon, Sask., over nine weeks in the fall of 2004 and spring of 2005.

A fully assembled Red River cart weighs about 800 pounds, requires a minimum of 200 hours of labour, and sells for about $4,200. Elm, oak, ash, and maple are used, some sourced locally. Each wheel stands nearly six feet in height, and spokes are hand-fitted to precise specifications.

"You live and die by the ruler when you make these wheels," Armand said.

They also produce a half-size model popular with schools. The Jeromes view education as an important part of their work. Students can try assembling a replica, sample a traditional Metis meal, and watch a video of the Batoche journey.

The couple hopes to impart the same tangible sense of history to those who take part in next year’s heritage expedition along the Old Dawson Trail.

"Nobody is left out. This is open to anyone," Kelly said.

A public information session on the expedition will take place May 15 at 7 p.m. at the Young at Heart Club in Richer.

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