CHRONICLES FROM THE ERA OF FRONTIER COMMERCE:
T. LEBEL AND COMPANY – PINCHER CREEK’S INDEPENDENT DEPARTMENT STORE
By Farley Wuth, Curator,
Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village
Copyright, Pincher Creek & District Historical Society
Pincher Creek’s former Lebel Store has long been a historic icon within the community. The T. Lebel and Company was in business for an impressive forty years spanning from 1884 to 1924. Born as part of the settlement’s frontier infancy, it grew along with the town’s expansion into a major commercial centre for the ranching industry of southwestern Alberta. The store commanded a wide trade during those early days. Its impressive sandstone building, constructed in 1904, continues more than a century later to be an important physical landmark in Pincher Creek’s downtown core.
Unlike the Hudson’s Bay Company which was owned by an outside corporation, this business’s history was connected with local entrepreneurship. Its co-founder and long time owner was the French Canadian businessman Timothee Lebel (1857 – 1935) who arrived in Pincher Creek in 1884. Some years later, he and his wife Hortense built their impressive brick house with north facing verandah overlooking the south hill. Lebel’s initial business partner was Thomas H. Hinton, a long time friend of Lebel’s who also settled in Pincher Creek. A few years later, Hinton’s portion of the business was purchased by retired North West Mounted Police constable-turned-rancher Charles Kettles (1851 – 1923)–whose massive two-storey frame house sits further west on Main Street. With Kettles joining the business, the store became a limited liability company. These efforts ensured that the business remained local.
IMPRESSIVE PIONEER STRUCTURES
Property for the T. Lebel and Company store was purchased at the northeast corner of what was to become Main Street and Christie Avenue. In those days before the construction of the 1957 Hewetson Avenue bridge, Christie Avenue continued north as far as the creek crossing spanned by Morden’s Bridge, a wooden footbridge very rustic in nature.
The initial set of Lebel Store buildings was an array of wooden structures. A one and a half storey frame building, located just east of the corner and facing onto Main Street, is believed to have served as Lebel’s primary retail centre. Here, clothing, dry goods, furniture and groceries would have been high on the purchase list for most pioneers. Immediately to the northwest, facing Christie Avenue, was a second structure of similar size. It and a series of smaller outbuildings housing hardware goods and horse drawn wheeled vehicles suitable for summer transportation in addition to sleighs and cutters used in winter. Between the two main buildings was a yard delineated by a picket fence whose festive courtyard appearance was where people could meet and greet. Depicted in a Steele and Company photo of the Lebel yard were vehicles and farm implements.
Folklore indicates that business boomed early for the T. Lebel and Company. Most of these buildings would have been in place prior to 1898 which was the ranching era in Pincher Creek’s history. Many of the Winnipeg-based Steele photos were taken that year which saw the start of great local change with the completion of the Crowsnest Line of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The sixteen years up to the First World War were boom years for Pincher Creek and Timothee Lebel’s business expanded as well. So increased was his volume of commerce that new premises were required. In 1904, an impressive three-storey sandstone building was constructed in the former courtyard on the corner. As was the case with the old Union Bank complex across the street and a block to the east, the stone was quarried at the Harrad’s property on the Pincher Creek a mile or so upstream from its confluence with the Oldman River. Stones cut there were transported by rail to Pincher City and then labouriously moved with teams into town. The store faced north onto Main Street and had two large picture windows on the main floor where merchandize was displayed. Overhead was an open verandah. A series of seven vertical windows on both the second and third floors overlooked the street. Further traditional windows were in place in the west wall. The new complex was large enough that most of the store’s stock could be housed there. However, the warehouses to its north remained as part of the Company’s operations.
The new stone complex added a sense of permanence to Pincher Creek’s growing business street. The Lebel Store and the King Edward Hotel located nearly a block further east, both three-storey buildings, were Pincher Creek’s most massive retail buildings of that era.
HORRENDOUS TURN OF EVENTS
Tragedy struck the T. Lebel and Company as well as Pincher Creek’s business core early the morning of Tuesday, January 19th, 1915 when the just over ten-year-old massive structure was consumed by fire. The blaze was discovered at twenty minutes past five that fateful morning by local pioneer A. P. Burn who was leaving town with his team of horses and sleigh for a load of coal to be delivered later to town customers. The alert Burn noticed smoke pouring out of the upper southeast corner window of the store and immediately sounded the alarm to the Fire Brigade which responded with lightening speed. Burn also roused Lebel and his family, informing him of the impending disaster, as well as alerting neighbors who might be in danger.
The Pincher Creek Fire Brigade did everything within its human power to curtail the blaze but in the words of the Pincher Creek Echo which gave the disaster front page coverage in its weekly edition the following Friday they “could make no headway against it.” The stately building soon became engulfed in fire accompanied by smoke and its roof collapsed at seven o’clock that morning. Flames shot directly upwards instead of leaping across the street which helped contain the blaze, although some sparks were blown southward, causing great concern for the firefighters. The rear warehouse, although separated from the main structure by only a few feet and in grave danger throughout most of the event, was barely spared. The saving grace was that the store itself was constructed of sandstone and this helped contain the disaster.
Firefighting was hindered by water constraints. Some hydrants had two hoses attached which decreased water pressure. A four inch diameter intake pipe located in the building’s interior, from which the brigade had hoped to access, was spewing out water as the valve had ruptured. Brigade volunteers were prevented from entering the crumbling building until conditions had cooled off. The origins of the fire were not determined.
Only the building’s hollow sandstone shell remained standing following the disaster. Its entire interior, furnishings and stock were destroyed in the blaze. Total losses were valued at one-hundred thousand dollars, seventy per cent which was pegged as stock with the remainder being the monetary value of the building. Undaunted, Timothee Lebel decided to continue his business and took the next several months rebuilding his beloved store. Unsafe structural conditions did not allow him to retain the third floor and this had to be removed. Yet he was able to salvage the bottom two floors from where he was able to operate the T. Lebel and Company for another nine years, until 1924, when he retired from active business and sold the store to the Webster Brothers. Nearly a century later, the now two-storey stone building proudly stands at the same street corner as the home, since 1945, of the Pincher Creek Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. A series of black burn scars are still visible near the top of the building’s exterior walls, a physical etching reminding us of that disastrous 1915 blaze.
FRONTIER GOODS AND CONSUMER MARKETING
Throughout its history, the T. Lebel and Company was a full fledge department store as it sold a wide variety of pioneer goods. Advertizing itself as “Southern Alberta’s Big Department Store”, within its walls were housed many lines of consumer items. These included clothing and dry goods, furniture, groceries, and saddlery items, each organized into their own areas of the store. Archival images of the business’s interior depict abundantly stocked shelf-lined walls with wood and glass rectangular display cabinets strategically arranged across the floor. Out in the north warehouse customers could access hardware items including stove pipes at thirteen cents each, elbows, T pipes, and furnace pipes a quarter apiece. There were auto parts and horse-drawn vehicles. In the spring of 1909, two train car loads of Tudhope Vehicles including open and topped buggies, Mikados, surreys, democrats and carts were received. These were advertized as having the best in finish, durability, and style.
Farm equipment featured Double Disk Seed Drills and Land Packers. Lumber of all descriptions including window sashes, doors, and mouldings was regularly in stock. Lebel also served as an agent for wholesale lumber. Dimension lumber retailed at twenty dollars per thousand feet during the winter of 1916-17.
In terms of clothing, for instance, men’s overalls in all sizes, with and without bibs, usually sold for up to one and a half dollars apiece but were on sale for a dollar each in October 1913. Men’s fall and blue suits went for ten to eighteen dollars. Stetsons retailed for three dollars and fifty cents while Buckley Hats cost only two dollars each. “Ladies’ Suitings” in green, grey and brown, of heavy tweed, usually sold for seventy-five cents per yard. That autumn’s sale price was forty cents. Ladies’ fall and winter overcoats, of tweed and other fabrics, usually sold for eight to twenty dollars each but were on sale at a third off the usual price. Raincoats for the fairer gender were on sale for up to thirteen dollars apiece. Ladies’ dresses featuring Serges, Prnamas and heavy Corduroys were available for up to ten dollars. Some six years earlier, in the fall of 1907, Sanford’s High Grade Clothing for men and boys, men’s Currie’s Neckwear, Stanfield’s Unshrinkable Underwear, and Ames Holden Shoes were popular retail items at Lebel’s.
Groceries were a regular staple with Lebel. Both Medicine Hat and Pantry Queen Flour sold for three and a half dollars per sack, although the weight was not specified, in 1914. Number One British Columbia eating apples sold for two dollars per case. Cases of Sand Pitt B.C. Apples weighed fifty pounds. Rock Salt retailed for thirty-three dollars per ton.
By the close of the First World War, Moline Plow Shares retailed at two dollars apiece. In stock were a pair of cutter shafts, two second hand McCormack mowers, and large tents. Always interested in diversifying his business interests, Timothee Lebel was by early 1918 selling real estate. For sale that February were cottages and a series of improved farms ranging in size from one-hundred to eight-hundred acres apiece.
Following the 1915 fire, existing stock was sold at wholesale prices in order to clear as many items as possible and make room for new items as well as building improvements. Wagon grain tanks and truck wagons sold for as low as thirty-five dollars. Hay bales retailed for one-hundred and fifty dollars and those which were self feeders were double the price. Fanning mills complete with an elevator and bagger sold for as low as twenty-five dollars. Linseed oil went for one dollar and fifteen cents per gallon and a gallon of machine oil was less costly at fifty cents.
Customers of the Lebel Store were many and varied, the volume verified by four decades of continuous business in Pincher Creek. Most consumers were locals, townspeople from down the street who dropped by on a regular basis to make their purchases, or ranchers and farmers from the rural districts who came by on a regular if infrequent basis once or twice a year. Travel from outlying settlements was not easy in the pioneer era but when the trips from Twin Butte or Beaver Mines were made, purchasing much needed supplies at the Lebel Store was a must. Likewise, a great deal of business conducted by Timothee Lebel was with the coal mining and lumber towns up in the Pass, particularly the work camps. This expert businessman quite rightly noted that his place of commerce was “the farmers’ mart for all produce”, particularly baled hay, oats, wheat, butter and eggs which were shipped to the rough and tumble settlements of the Crowsnest Pass eager for agricultural goods. Some agencies, such as the Town of Pincher Creek, also had outstanding accounts with T. Lebel and Company where items they needed could be charged and paid on perhaps a monthly basis. The account read at the Monday, October 13th, 1913 Town Council meeting totaled ten dollars and twenty-eight cents and was ordered paid.
Most pioneers knew well the Lebel Store but Timothee Lebel realized the importance of effective marketing. This kept the business and its changing merchandize, sales and prices in the public’s presence. One of the long-term marketing techniques used by Lebel was a series of display advertizements in the Pincher Creek Echo which ran regularly during the early 1900s and throughout the 1910s. These usually were featured prominently as two and three column ads on the left hand side of the front page which ensured maximum exposure. The top of the ad proudly mast headed the store’s name “T. Lebel & Co. Limited Departmental Stores” with the prominent note that Lebel’s branch stores also were located at the coal mining settlement of Beaver Mines and the Piikani First Nation community of Brocket. An aesthetically pleasing artist’s rendering of the handsome three-storey structure was centred immediately under the mast head. Marketing regularly identified with such iconic slogans and images made the ads more recognizable for the early consumer.
Tokens of metal construction were also used by T. Lebel and Company to enhance the store’s marketing. In local circulation for more than a generation from 1890 to 1915, they had values which ranged from a nickel to five dollars. These trade items often assisted with sales to pioneers often strapped for readily available cash.