Freer, James Simmons, journalist, farmer, and film-maker; b. 4 Jan. 1855 in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England, son of the Reverend John Freer and Mary Wells Simmons; m. 26 Feb. 1878 Emily Jenkins in Luton, Bedfordshire, England, and they had seven sons and two daughters; d. 22 Dec. 1933 in Winnipeg.
The son of a Baptist minister, James Simmons Freer worked as a newspaperman in various cities and towns in southern England before members of the Knight family, friends of his wife, Emily, convinced him of the opportunities available in western Canada. So Freer left his job at the Torquay Times and South Devon Advertiser and immigrated to Manitoba with his wife and their six children. They settled on a farm of 250 acres in Brandon Hills, ten miles south of Brandon, in 1888. There, they grew mostly wheat and oats.
Although, according to his obituary, Freer became a “successful and enthusiastic farmer,” he did not abandon the investigative skills of his previous trade. He had brought a camera with him and sometime in 1897, only two years after the Lumière brothers had presented their first moving picture in Paris, he purchased an Edison movie camera and projector. With the new apparatus Freer began recording life on and around his farm in the summer of 1897, thus becoming the first Canadian to make movies in this country.
Like the Lumière brothers, Freer prepared brief films (under two minutes long, with only in-camera editing, if any), of local, everyday activities. Farm scenes and trains were his favourite subjects and titles included Six binders at work in 100 acre wheat field; Typical stacking scene; Cyclone thresher at work; Harnessing the virgin prairie; and Harvesting scene, with trains passing. One of his productions, Premier Greenway stooking grain, featured provincial politician Thomas Greenway*; another, Coming thro’ the rye (Children play in the hay), probably showed his own offspring. Freer also filmed events elsewhere in the province, as is demonstrated by Winnipeg fire boys on the warpath.
The films Pacific and Atlantic mail trains and Arrival of C.P.R. express at Winnipeg seem to indicate that from the outset Freer had more than just a reporter’s chronicling in mind. He may have been in contact with the Canadian Pacific Railway Company before he began his film work, since the firm financed a promotional trip to England in the spring of 1898 to help sell the Canadian prairies to prospective immigrants and to publicize the CPR as the means to travel west. Freer returned to the land of his birth with a program of short films and magic-lantern slides entitled “Ten years in Manitoba.” He stayed there for six months, visiting his old haunts as well as London and Reading.
An outgoing, sociable man and a gifted public speaker, Freer detailed from first-hand experience “the value of agricultural pursuits in Canada” and the opportunities available even to people who had no previous experience in farming. He emphasized “the richness of the Canadian soil” in his presentations and used every opportunity to mention “the large free grants of land” that the Canadian government was giving to immigrants. He may have originally made his films to document his life in Manitoba, but when he showed them at public gatherings they became early examples of promotional films.
Freer returned from his tour with footage shot in England and during his journeys to and from that country; he used it to supplement his shows in Manitoba, providing views of the old country for homesick residents of the province. Among the short films presented were Changing guards at St. James’s Palace (as exhibited at Windsor Castle) and Canadian contingent at the jubilee.
While Freer was in England, a neighbour, Clifford Sifton*, was one of the friends who had helped to tend his farm. Sifton, federal minister of the interior for the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier*, was anxious to encourage immigration to Manitoba and used his influence to obtain government sponsorship of Freer’s second journey to England. That voyage, in 1902, was not as successful as the first. Much of the footage from the original tour was reused and supplemented with material shot by others, including views of the ever-popular Niagara Falls. Since Freer had been unable to obtain permission to film the Duke of York’s visit to Canada in 1901, he purchased a movie documenting the event and incorporated it into his presentation.
After he returned from his third tour, Freer continued to make films, but he soon tired of farming. He relocated to Elkhorn, Man., around 1910 and then, leaving his property in the hands of his son Joseph, moved with his wife to Winnipeg. After a fourth promotional trip to England in 1916, during which he used no films or still images, he joined Sifton’s Manitoba Free Press (Winnipeg) as an agricultural reporter. His familiarity with the people and places of western Manitoba likely made him an asset to the paper. He died in 1933, still in its employ 17 years after his retirement from farming. James Simmons Freer’s skills as a reporter had served him well in his film endeavours. He pioneered the use of the new medium to promote the Canadian prairies and the opportunities in the west.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Geneal. Soc., International geneal. index. Man., Dept. of Tourism, Culture, Heritage, Sport and Consumer Protection, Vital statistics agency (Winnipeg), no.1933-047194. Gene Walz, “100 years of moviemaking,” Winnipeg Real Estate News, 27 Nov. 1997: 3. Winnipeg Free Press, 23 Dec. 1933. Peter Morris, Embattled shadows: a history of Canadian cinema, 1895–1939 (Montreal, 1978).