Businesses - 1950's to 1960's

As in other Alberta towns and cities, the development of the gas and and oil industry in Whitecourt led to significant developments in the retail and service industries. The downtown and other areas of Whitecourt evolved rapidly to meet the needs of the various oilfield personnel moving into the area. Both the oilfield and forestry helped keep Whitecourt from the fate that befell other small Alberta towns during this time.

Towns not well situated for the oil and gas boom suffered also from agricultural changes. Farm equipment modernization led to an exodus from many rural areas largely dependent on this sector. First, there was a doubling or tripling in size of equipment. A 1940's seeder might be twelve to fourteen feet wide. A 1960's seeder was 36 to 42 feet wide and was pulled in gangs by larger tractors.

As well as being larger, the machines could do more. In the 1940's, combines were pulled by tractor, cutting the grain and allowing attendant windrowers or swathers to arrange the grain in windrows for proper curing before threshing. By the 1950's, the combine models also picked up the grain and threshed it. In a further refinement, the combined became self-propelled, doing away with the tractor driver, as well as the swathers. One farmer with a machine could now do the work that ten had done previously.

In 1941, almost half of Alberta's population (48.2 per cent) lived outside of towns and cities. By 1966, that number had declined to 19.2 per cent. Even within the rural population, the number of fulltime farmers declined. In addition to automation, erstwhile farmers were also driven into towns and cities by the financial pressures brought about through the need for expensive machinery, even while produce prices stayed relatively constant. A bushel of wheat that would fetch $2.75 in 1918 would still only bring about $3.00 a bushel in 1960.

The upshot was that towns such as Cloverdale, Langdon and Mercoal fell on hard times. Their predicament wasn't helped by the decreased demand for coal, which was an industry in some of towns. In many cases, one small town's loss was another's gain. Whitecourt was well positioned to absorb some of the population from dying towns, as it leveraged its natural oil and forestry advantages to create a thriving business environment.

The following is an update from the Whitecourt history book Sagitiwah Saga, by Doreen Olecko, which covers some of the people and businesses involved in the growth of Whitecourt's retail and service sector. The reader following the Advisor history series will recognize some pioneer names amongst the entrepreneurs taking advantage of the oil boom.

In 1956, Joff Hill sold his meat business to Archie Dumont and it became known first as Dumont Foods and then a little later as the M. & M. Meat Market. The name was coincidental regarding Whitecourt's current M&M Meat Shop.

Jerry Graham retired from the Post Office in 1956, and Vic Young became the Postmaster. The post office was established in the back of the meat market building in 1956. Then in 1960 it was moved to a newly constructed building on 51 Avenue. This building is currently home to some small businesses, as the Post Office moved on once again.

Joff Hill, in the meantime, had opened a Men's Wear and Variety Store in a building on Main Street in 1957. In 1958 the "variety" section of the Men's Wear store was leased to Ken Argue who converted this part to a drug store. Shortly thereafter, a larger building was built across the street and Ken Argue moved his drug store over there. The drug store was then sold to G. Lundgren around 1962.

In 1959 Joff Hill also took over the Whitecourt Lumber Store, operating it as Hill's Red and White. In 1963 he sold the building to Ed Zutz who started a furniture store in it. Joff moved the grocery business into a new building next to the Men's Wear, becoming part of the Tom-Boy chain. In 1966 Hill's Men's Wear was sold to Marshall Patterson and the Tom-Boy to Western Grocers, who in turn sold the Tom-Boy shortly after to Al Frizzell and a partner.

Another business to move in during the late 50's was the National Supply. It was situated in an old rooming house. This was destroyed by a fire in 1959.

The Imperial Bank once again located in Whitecourt around 1956. Their first "bank" was in a small house, behind the other businesses fronting on the main street. This was so small it was almost "a one person at a time in it" bank. Many people recall lining up outside the door waiting their turn. Around 1959, the bank moved to a new location where the Night Deposit is presently located. This later became an early home of the Alberta Treasury Branches.

A small building just to the north of Dumont Meats was put up in 1960 and served as the doctors' office. Later, the doctors began seeing patients in the old Nurses' Home and Allen Sulatycky located his lawyer's office in the front part of this building. In the back was a dentist's office where Dr. Olson came in once weekly to tend to patients. Allen Sulatycky became the Liberal M.P. for this constituency in 1968 - going down to defeat against Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark in 1972.

Sadie McClintock built a dress shop next to the Masonic Hall on Main St. in 1957. She sold this in 1966 and the store morphed into Arnell's Men's Wear. This building was later demolished to make way for the present day location of the Alberta Treasury Branches.

Battagin Stores of Mayerthorpe which had been operating there since 1939 put up their store on Main Street in Whitecourt in 1960. Son Rowland Battagin moved to Whitecourt to manage the store. This later became Home Hardware and is now the home of The Party Store.

Gould and Sons Insurance Co. set up business in the downtown in 1960. Janet's Gift Shop opened in a small house on Main Street and Bill Ish Electric set up shop next door to the Whitecourt Hotel, around 1960.

Jerry Graham's old insurance building, opposite the Whitecourt hotel was moved about this time. Mr. Graham had retired one or two years earlier.

In the mid 60's, members of the Masonic Lodge built a new hall up on the hilltop. The old hall on Main Street was converted into a store building and has housed several businesses, including Whitecourt Upholstery. During the 60's there were two laundromats, one next to the Legion and one known as King Koin Laundry.

In 1963 Consolidated Dry Cleaners and Laundry took over the Dumont Foods - M. & M. Meat Market building. In 1966 fire broke out in the living quarters at the back of the store occupied by owner. N. Bumphrey. The family escaped but due to a temporary shortage of water, the whole building was destroyed. Fortunately the Bumphreys were in the process of moving to a new location in the King Koin Laundry building and were able to rush their building program and carry on business shortly thereafter. After moving to the new building, it was renamed Whitecourt Cleaners & Launders.

The El Rancho Cafe between Klymoks and the King Koin Laundry started in 1963. Vic Kraft ran this for several months and sold it to "Pancho" Albertyne. This building was sold, remodeled and renamed The Bar-B-Que Pit. In the 1970's it was renamed The Lamplighter. Frank Laub built and operated the Whitecourt Bakery around 1963 across the street from the old Town office.

Gordon Ash began his Whitecourt Jewelry Store in the Gould building, operating there from 1956 to 1960 when the Insurance Agency was born. Mr. Ash then moved into the Wiggins Plumbing building, opposite the present day Town Administration offices. A few years later this store was expanded.

Bill James operated Bill's Men's Wear on 52 Ave. An added feature to this store was "steam baths and showers in the basement." When Bill ceased operating his business in 1965, Ogden Electric moved into the building.

Jeffries Hardware, later to become Valley Hardware, then Revelstoke, was built at the far end of 50th Avenue in the late 50's. "Mac's Woodwork" also operated close to Valley Hardware but was destroyed by fire in 1964.

In 1957-58 the Atlas Lumber Co. established themselves in Whitecourt and put up a sawmill. The Atlas Co. was taken over by Revelstoke Companies Ltd. in 1963.

In the mid 50's the Merrifield family started a dairy business which has been expanded and modernized over the years. Starting with just three cows and delivering raw milk by horse drawn van, the "Merri Dairy" operation grew as the surrounding district grew. In 1970 a pasteurizing and homogenizing process was added and in 1971 milk was being delivered in plastic packages. When the milk was bottled the dairy sold 700-800 quarts a day. In plastic, over 1600 quarts a day became available for sale.

In 1959 a local newspaper once again began to appear. It had been long time since Charles Alpine had published the Whitecourt News Record, from 1914 to 1917, while waiting for the train in vain. The new paper was called "The Whitecourt Echo" but usually only carried one page of Whitecourt news items, sometimes not even that. Cecil Mcllwaine was the local "editor" working with "reporters" Ed Zutz and Ev Gunderson. The paper was printed by a Mr. Pugh in Edmonton. Doris Flasha took over the editor/reporter job in 1960. All those working for the "Echo" found it somewhat frustrating in that the printed stories and facts quite often did not resemble the copy they sent in.

In June. 1962, Yellowhead Publishers Ltd. of Edson opened a newspaper office in Sadie's Dress Shop in Whitecourt. W. J. Owens of Edson was named Editor of the new paper, called "The Whitecourt Star." Although the paper was printed in Edson at the Yellowhead plant, it did focus on Whitecourt news. Owens commuted to Whitecourt and got the paper well established but after six months found the pace too hectic, so in November 1962, Ross Quinn of Whitecourt became Editor of the Whitecourt Star. Under Ross's jurisdiction the paper kept abreast of local happenings and gradually increased in size. The Whitecourt Echo ceased publication in the spring of 1963.

After operating out of his home for a few years, Ross moved the Star to the Meier Building (next to the old Post Office) and began Whitecourt Publishing Ltd., doing job printing. On August 31, 1968 Ross purchased the Whitecourt Star from the publisher Doug Caston of Yellowhead Publishers in Edson and the Star then became part of Whitecourt Publishing Ltd. and truly a local production. Whitecourt Publishing, after increasing staff and modernizing its equipment, moved into its own building on 50th Avenue in 1973. Barry Banulius then became editor, with Mr Quinn remaining as owner and publisher.

Next month, the Advisor will cover the early Whitecourt boom years and politics. This will be a summary of Chapter 20 of the book Sagitiwah Saga, put into the context of wider Alberta history, and some cases world history. Those interested in Whitecourt's history can purchase Sagitiwah Saga from the Once Upon a Time book shop on 51st Ave, next to the Vista Theatre or from the Forestry Interpretive Centre.