A HISTORY OF THE FRASER-MCROBERTS DEPARTMENT STORE, Part 1
By Farley Wuth, Curator,
Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village
Copyright, Pincher Creek & District Historical Society
Pincher Creek’s history has been noted for its thriving business district. The history of the local Hudson’s Bay Company Store has been chronicled from its establishment in 1886 until its tragic burning some twenty-seven years later. The local enterprise which essentially replaced it was that of the Fraser-McRoberts Department Store.
BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY SEIZED BY FRASER AND MCROBERTS
The Hudson’s Bay Company’s devastating fire of November 1913 left a significant void in Pincher Creek’s business district. The local economy was booming, thanks to the immigration boom brought on in part by the arrival of the Crowsnest Branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway some fifteen years earlier. The community’s population had quadrupled from 300 to 1200 pioneers between 1901 and 1911. This resulted in a consumer demand for two department stores in the settlement. One was the Hudson’s Bay Co. whose efforts went by the wayside with the tragic events only a month before Christmas. The other enterprise was the three-storey Timothee Lebel and Company Store of stone construction. Although the boom had slowed down during the First World War, local commerce still demanded a second “big store”. The result was the Fraser-McRoberts Company Limited, whose store opened in September 1916 on the old Hudson’s Bay Co. site at the corner of Main Street and Police Avenue.
This new business endeavour actually had historic origins in the community which pre-dated the outbreak of the First World War by many years. Two important firms, Fraser Brothers and W. J. E. McRoberts, joined together to establish this business partnership. The former operated in Pincher Creek during for nearly a decade in a variety of capacities. Born in 1875 in Ontario where he also was raised, William A. Fraser developed business experience through stores he operated in the early 1900s, the first being a drygoods store in the Crowsnest Pass, and the second being a store in Lacombe which he operated for two years. He had arrived in Pincher Creek in 1906 to purchase the dry goods store previously owned by Mr. McEachren. Shortly thereafter, a business partnership was struck between Fraser and “Scotty” Freebairn to expand the business into ladies wear. Fraser’s younger brother Samuel, known better amoungst his friends as Sam and a carpenter by trade, arrived some three years after William’s move here and the siblings moved their dry goods enterprise into a second building.
William J. E. McRoberts, born in October 1879, caught the business bug which too led him to Pincher Creek. Arriving in 1910 after operating hardware stores in New Liskeard, Ontario and Lille, the coal mining town north of Frank up in the Pass, he purchased the hardware store of Ormand and Alexander. Both the Frasers’ and McRoberts’ businesses in Pincher Creek were known for their up-to-date business methods accompanied by the people skills.
CONSTRUCTION ENDEAVOURS, BUILDING DIMENSIONS AND STORE DEPARTMENTS
The Frasers and Mr. McRoberts saw a prime commercial opportunity by forming a business partnership which not only fulfilled a community need but expanded their own enterprising profits. Thus was born this massive two-story brick building in the south side of Main Street. Construction started in early 1916, thanks to building plans drawn up by E. Ouilett and supervised by him in conjunctions with the Fraser Brothers. Work was completed in time for a grand opening the following September. Overseeing the brick works end of the building were Bob Hedderick, Albert Woods, and G. Landower. An estimate of $15,000 was provided for the total construction costs.
The structure measured some sixty by ninety feet, and faced grandly out onto Main Street with a series of plate glass windows running the full width of the store. Prism glass was used in an attempt to spread the natural light coming through the windows throughout the main floor. The windows were enclosed on the back and top by paneled woodwork which assisted in keeping the glass clean and frost free, the latter being especially important during the cold winter months. The building was steam heated, based upon a plumbing system installed by local plumber Stanley Pearson. Fred Rhodes was responsible for the electrical work. Electrical fixtures included a semi-indirect type which reflected light to the ceiling and then down below in an attempt to outdo interior shadows caused by floor display units. Two-hundred candle power oxygen lamps were used to supplement the store’s lighting. There were nine such units installed on the main floor alone.
This innovative building rested on the old basement dug many years previously by the Hudson’s Bay Co., a savings which significantly cut down on the excavating work and costs. It had the same dimensions as the store itself and eventually featured a cement floor, a very up-to-date convenience in an era when most “basements” were little more than root cellars with dirt floors. Housed in this lower level were harness and tin shops accompanied by crockery and produce departments, services which the Frasers and Mr. McRoberts all considered essential activities of their Department Store. A large portion of the basement also was dedicated to storage.
The main floor, which provided 5,000 square feet of display and work area, housed the bulk of the store’s business operations. Several Departments were established. Occupying 1400 square feet on the structure’s west side was the Drygoods and Ladies Wear Department. On the opposite east side was the Hardware Department. It ran straight back to the rear of the store, measuring some 1700 square feet of floor space. Strategically placed between these two departments was the Men’s Furnishings Department which was allotted some 1300 square feet. At the rear or south end of the store was the Grocery Department, occupying only one hundred square feet, but proudly exclaiming its modern equipment. Walker Bin Fixtures, a new feature of 1916, assisted in keeping sales items clean and well organized.
More history on our Fraser-McRoberts Department Store is available elsewhere on this site.