A HISTORY OF THE FRASER-MCROBERTS DEPARTMENT STORE, Part 2
By Farley Wuth, Curator,
Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village
Copyright, Pincher Creek & District Historical Society
Continuing our history of the pioneer Fraser-McRoberts Department Store located at the southeast corner of Main Street and Police Avenue.
UNIQUE SECOND FLOOR FEATURES
The store was impressive indeed and housed more than the shops and departments located in the basement and on the main floor. The complex boasted a second floor, situated at the rear or south side of the store. Public access was provided via a door and staircase at the east side of the building. The upper floor ran the full south width of the building, and incorporated with a sweeping balcony a commanding view of the main floor some nine feet below.
The second floor was multi-functional. Four spacious offices, finished in dark wood, were situated at the top of the stairs. Local folklore indicates that two of these may have been used by the Fraser-McRoberts Co. Ltd. itself. The third one was rented out over the years to the Forestry Department. The fourth served as the medical offices of local physician Dr. J. J. Gillespie who previously had been located in the Scott Block less than a block further west. The centre of the balcony served as a customer fest area furnished with a couch, easy chairs, writing table and a lavatory complete with a flushing toilet, a real novelty during the pioneer era. The entire rest area was popular with local seniors and rural customers requiring a break from their shopping. In the far west corner of the second floor was a well-equipped sewing room occupied by Miss Frances Chaput who was a milliner and dressmaker. She resided in Pincher Creek with her younger siblings Joseph and Alberta, the former of whom managed the Alberta Livery Stable owned by the Robbins Family.
Yet the true feature of the second floor was its massive hall and recreation room, measuring an astonishing 2,730 square feet. It was remembered by locals for its highly polished hardwood floor. A stage was located in the middle of the hall’s south end and was adorned on either side by dressing rooms. Advertized in the local press as early as 1916 as being “without doubt one of the cosiest and best equipped dance halls in the province”, this hall in the midst of a favoured commercial outlet proved to be very popularly attended by an entertainment-hungry public eager to listed to both local and big time bands throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
BUSINESS PARTNERSHIPS AND EMPLOYEES
The Fraser-McRoberts Department store saw many a prominent businessman as either a partner or employee there during the thirty years following its 1916 opening. Although the Company’s name featured Fraser and McRoberts, it is said that there were two other owners in this partnership when it opened mid way through the First World War. These additional businessmen were the twenty-five year old Reginald Brown and Dr. Edward L. Connor (1881 – 1928). Brown was an accountant with the Pincher Creek branch of the Bank of Commerce which indicates where the Company did its banking. The latter practiced medicine in Pincher creek from 1908 to 1916 in an office just east of this new business complex. Although he subsequently set up a practice in Lethbridge, he maintained his business interests in Pincher Creek.
Big corporate changes came about in 1928 when William McRoberts purchased the partnership interests of W. A. Fraser. The other two partners apparently had dropped out of the picture. McRoberts operated the store as sole owner until his passing on February 28th, 1939 at the age of 59 years. At that point, the store’s ownership was divided amoung his five siblings and two local businesspeople who had previous connections with this place of commerce. McRoberts’ siblings included one brother and four sisters, one of whom was Mrs. Marry Miller who also resided in Pincher Creek. For years, her husband worked as the bookkeeper for the store. He succeeded Harry Clements who had adeptly served in that position during the 1920s. The other two new business partners included Vern Burns whose long time connection with the store began as an employee at the age of twelve years. His father Alex had previously served with the old Hudson’s Bay Co. store on the same location. The final partner was Mrs. Beatrice (Duthie) McMurdo, who was known to her friends as “Trixie”. Her husband Alex B. (Mac), popular in musical circles, too was a long time employee of the store’s Hardware Department. He worked for the store’s entire thirty year history and had assisted in the digging of the drainage ditch from the store to the creek when the building was constructed.
Some of the other employees of the Fraser McRoberts Store over the years included Adam Lees “Scotty” Freebairn (1881 – 1973) who served as the Store’s first Dry Goods Manager. Later he operated his own ladies wear store in Pincher Creek. Harry Purkis, who also was active in local musical circles, served as the Manager of the Hardware Department. Archie McKerricher, who enjoyed both a business and farming career, managed the Grocery Department and W. A. Fraser managed the Gent’s Furnishings. Other employees included W. A. Fraser’s brother Sam, Alex Scott, F. Telford, V. McKinnon, Henry Marquis (who had previously worked in the old Hudson’s Bay Co. store), Mrs. Walsh, Miss Ralston, Mrs. Jack Buchan, Miss McKinnon, and Jim Staples. Each made their own special contributions to the store’s success.
Although the Fraser-McRoberts Co. Ltd. started its business in 1916 on a cash only basis, this was a reflection of the tough times witnessed during the First World War. It built up a steady clientele from both within town and the surrounding rural districts through a large selection of merchandize, favourable prices and attentive store owners and clerks who also were local residents. As a result, the store thrived during good times and managed to survive the tough economic conditions prevalent during the 1930s. But with the demise of the original business partners and the economic changes at the end of the Second World War, the Company believed it was time for a change. The business was put up for sale, and it was purchased by the Pincher Creek Co-operative Association Ltd. effective June 1st, 1946. Several employees, including Vern Burns and A. B. McMurdo, continued on staff with the new owners.
The Fraser-McRoberts Department Store indeed was a local landmark with a vibrant thirty year history from 1916 to 1946. This article was based upon archival documents housed at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village, family recollections, and census records.