A PIONEER DRUGSTORE: E. J. MITCHELL AND THREE GENERATIONS OF THE CORNYN FAMILY
Farley Wuth, Curator,
Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village
Copyright 2021, Pincher Creek & District Historical Society
Perhaps the longest continuously operated drug store in southern Alberta if not the entire province, the Pincher Creek business owned by the E. J. Mitchell and Cornyn families witnessed close to a century and a quarter of rural retail entrepreneurship. Opened way back in 1886, when this frontier settlement and its embryonic business core were just beginning to develop, this drug store loyally served local customers. Allan Cornyn the third family generation to head the business, retired and closed the store in 2008. Very few businesses witnessed such a long term family tenure-ship throughout their history.
PIONEER CONNECTIONS A DEFINITE ASSET
Part of this business’s long running success was due to its owners having significant connections with the community. Like most of their customers, they too were pioneer residents of the Pincher Creek area. This was particularly true of E. J. Mitchell, the Uptons and Hintons who ran the store for four years after Mitchell’s 1911 passing, and three generations of the Cornyn family. Yet the store’s establishment those many years ago and that of its original founder today remains a bit of a historical mystery. There is documentation that the premises first owner was an Arthur W. Bleasdale, of whom we know little and who did not remain in Pincher Creek for very long. Bleasdale opened and operated the drug store for only a few months in 1886, and then moved off to Fort Macleod, where he became active in that community. He served a one year term in 1894 as Fort Macleod’s Mayor. Bleasdale and his family had an infant son, born in 1894, passed away a few months later. Two years later, the Bleasdales moved west to Fort Steele, where A. W., a druggist by profession, established a drug store there. Today that frontier frame structure is one of the heritage buildings preserved in that community’s outdoor museum.
Edward J. Mitchell served close to a quarter of a century as the store’s proprietor and druggist. He purchased Bleasdale’s business in 1886, the year he arrived in Pincher Creek from Ontario, where he had trained as a druggist at the University of Toronto. Mitchell resided at what was then the west end of town and was active in the community, serving on our early Town Council, the Board of the Memorial Hospital, and helping with the early days of the Pincher Creek Agricultural Society. Born in February 1855, he passed away on February 24th, 1911.
Upon Mitchell’s death the business was purchased by Upton and Hinton, who operated it as a partnership. The new owners retained the business name of “E. J. Mitchell Drugstore Company” established under their predecessor’s tenure. Both partners represented old time pioneer families. The Thomas Upton family settled in the Marr District south of town in the early 1900s. The Hintons’ Pincher Creek connection dated to 1883, serving as hardware store proprietors and construction contractors.
New ownership was secured in 1915 when the business was purchased by Adam Cornyn, a graduate of the Ontario College of Pharmacy. Adam and his wife Emma too became active in the community. Adam served on Town Council in the 1920s and make an unsuccessful run for Mayor in 1926.
The business’s name became “A. E. Cornyn, Druggist” with the First World War era proprietorship change. Adam operated the drugstore for eighteen years until his death in 1933. His widow then ran it with John. F. Gray as the pharmacist until her passing some six years later, in 1939. Mr. Gray remained with the store until the end of the Second World War, assisted by Frances Cornyn, sister of William Cornyn who took over upon returning from the Air Force. William graduated in Pharmacy from the University of Alberta in 1941.
William passed away in July 1973 and the family business was taken over by his son Alan. The previous year Alan Cornyn graduated in Pharmacy, also from the University of Alberta. The family’s connection with this pioneer drugstore lasted 93 years, truly a legacy of which to be proud.
STRUCTURES KEPT UP WITH THE TIMES
Two handsome structures housed the drugstore business well over its lengthy history. Both were located on the south side of Main Street, in Pincher Creek’s downtown core. The first location was subsequently enumerated as 706 Main Street. The 1886 building was of frame construction and featured a large one sash window facing out onto the street, thereby allowing potential customers to view the merchandize for sale inside the store. The building’s northeast corner provided the public access with a small inset entrance with a wooden door and transom window. The rectangular block, which ran lengthwise back from the street, was one storey in height at the front of the building but is believed to have included a storey-and-a-half at the rear or south end of the structure, thereby providing extra storage room or possible staff accommodations. There was no dugout underground. Within a few years, a square wooden addition was completed on the east side of the premises, indicative of the increased trade which the drugstore enjoyed.
In historical sequence the front of the building boldly blazed the store’s ownerships “E. J. Mitchell Druggist” and “A. E. Cornyn Druggist”. The stenciled lettering looked very professional in a pioneer era setting.
In 1961 Bill Cornyn had a new building constructed immediately east of the former Bank of Commerce location at the southeast corner of Main Street and East Avenue. The drugstore’s new locale was at the west end of what had been the old Scott Block, tragically destroyed in a winter fire just over a decade earlier. Cornyn’s previous location had served the business well over the previous sixty-five years, but the volume of trade and the nature of the post-World War Two times provided the arguments for a more modern facility. The new one-storey cinder block business measured 26 by 82 feet, with retail space at the front accompanied by plenty of dispensary and stock room allocation at the rear. The Pincher Creek firm of R. and R. Contracting, operated by Ralph Cleland and Ralph Pilling was responsible for the construction. The new dwelling was officially opened on Monday, June 22nd, 1961 following the big move the previous weekend.
The 1886 structure continued to serve a variety of additional businesses until it was torn down in 1996. The 110 year old building truly was a local landmark.
A diversified, well-stocked merchandise was one of the keys for the drugstore’s long time business success. During Mitchell’s tenure a variety of prescription drugs were sold to customers requiring medical attention. Many were packaged in glass bottles of a variety of sizes measuring up to eighteen centimeters in height, the size depending upon the type of medication and the volume required by the patient. Attached were paper labels with the E. J. Mitchell Company logo and the type and quantity of the medicine. Decades later those bottles in near mint condition and labels have become very collectable, as they represent tangible reminders of our heritage. Over the counter medicines were itemized as White Pine cough syrup that was tar mentholated and sold with promises that it would cure coughs and colds, “Witch Hazel Skin Cream, and Cod Liver Oil with emulsion.
The E. J. Mitchell drug store sold much more than medications. Regular features were cameras and film supplies. A dark room was added and films could be developed directly in the store, a very valuable service offered in a pioneer settlement where long distance transportation was an issue. Sporting goods were offered during the pre-First World War era. One ad dating from the autumn of 1907 itemized these as fishing tackle, baseball, football, lawn tennis and croquet equipment. Books and stationery were store staples, and stocking these was one of the reasons why the east wing to the business was added during the early years. Christmas gifts offered to Pincher Creek consumers included toys, toiletry sets ranging in prices from five to thirty dollars, burnt leather souvenirs for up to four dollars apiece, cut glass bowls and bottles for one to fifteen dollars and sewing sets (a must for any pioneer dwelling) which retailed for two to ten dollars apiece. The extra non-medicinal stock lines meant that additional items in the store added to its economic profitability.
A similar store philosophy was offered under the Cornyns’ tenure-ship. Offering prescription drugs and over the counter medications continued to be the primary thrust of the business. Glass medicine bottles with the historic A. E. Cornyn labels provided the containers for many of the earlier dispensary items, but in later years the industry-wide trend was altered to disposable plastic. Veterinarian medicine products were offered during the 1910s, Blacklegoids being one which was used to protect cattle against blackleg. Norwegian cod liver oil sold for a dollar per bottle as of the late 1920s. The selection of camera equipment was expanded to include fancy metal frame cameras with pull out lenses that retailed for two to thirty dollars, depending on the brand and style desired. Christmas and Valentine’s Day cards were regularly on hand, as was a wide variety of stationery products. Post cards, often visually depicting local scenes, such as our frontier looking Main Street or St. Michael’s Church on the south hill, were retailed under both Mitchell’s and Cornyns’ proprietorship.
Stock was displayed during the early years in long wooden display cases featuring large panes of glass. These were arranged on the store floor. Open shelves adorned the exterior walls where more items could be requested by purchasing customers. This type of merchandizing, popular throughout most pioneer retail operations, allowed the goods to be seen by shoppers while decreasing shoplifting concerns.
Marketing to local consumers utilized pioneer techniques which helped secure the business’s success. Display advertizements in the back issues of the Echo, often altered to depict rotating stock or changes in consumer seasons, were depicted regularly. In fact, E. J. Mitchell promoted his business in the first issue of the Rocky Mountain Echo, which was dated August 15th, 1900. Mitchell also used promotional items such as wooden rulers on which was labeled his store’s name and contact information. These were distributed to potential and return customers in an attempt to secure or maintain their patronage. One of these now serves as a coveted artifact on display at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village.
One of the staff members associated with the drug store during the pre-First World War era was Jean Dobbie who shortly later became Mrs. E. Gordon Tucker. She adeptly worked there as a clerk.