The independent retailers who built this region
by Brian G. Spare
Our two cities’ histories, Port Arthur and Fort William, were home to some remarkably gifted retailers with big ideas, and an inspirational entrepreneurial spirit.
On June 19, 1909, C.E. Chapple introduced the Lakehead to full line department store shopping in the Roy Building at 410 Victoria Avenue East in Fort William. Clem Chapple saw a need and endeavoured to fill it. Business was so good that they expanded moving to the first two floors of the Grain Exchange Building at 701 Victoria Avenue East on November 13, 1913. Then they expanded again into their new five story building on the corner of Victoria an d Syndicate Avenues. This building’s design incorporated some groundbreaking innovations of its day, including two escalators, which were in themselves engineering masterpieces.
David Hurdon, grandson of Lloyd George Hurdon, owner and President of Chapple’s form 1970 to 1981, recounted, “When we dug out 10,000 square feet, as I remember it, to create ceiling height and installed two escalators, the pits for which hit an artesian spring. Pumps ran 24/7 in the lowest points, where the mechanisms were installed, complete with back-ups that worked on a float system. If the power went off, and the main pumps failed, the float would open a water valve, and suck water out of the pit much like foam is added to water for foaming a runway.”
… quality merchandise … exceptional service
For the first time, people could go to one store to buy furniture, appliances, clothing, cosmetics, sporting and yard goods, notions and groceries. Chapple’s became a truly regional store having, at one time, satellite locations in Nipigon, Marathon, Schreiber, and Geraldton. Its goal was to deliver quality merchandise, and give its customers exceptional service. Shopping trends started to change in the 1970s, and with them, Chapple’s fortunes changed as well. In 1980, Chapple’s had a fire, and half its merchandise was destroyed.
“We borrowed money at 9% to rebuild,’ said David Hurdon, “but when interest rates jumped to 21% during the recession, Chapple’s had to either close or face bankruptcy.”
Sadly, on December 31, 1981, Chapple’s closed its doors.
David added, “I think my fondest memories were provably made before I worked at the store. My father was comptroller early on, and along with the families of other managers, we had access to the roof of the main store to view the Santa Claus parade and we had seats at the Gardens for the Christmas Show. I’m sure many remember George the Porter reading letters from Santa on the radio.”
“It’s important to have a staff that know the products and sell the customers just what they need.”
At the same time as Chapple’s started, Barton and Fisher Hardware opened up a shop on Algoma Street in Port Arthur to supply the forestry and mining businesses. They saw a demand and undertook to meet it. Fred Maier bought the store in 1961, and changed the name to Maier Hardware. Charles Green purchased the store in the early 1970s. Maier Hardware remains a family business through three generations. Owners Dave and Michele Green said that being adaptable is how they have stayed in business. They have three locations in Thunder Bay, each catering to a different niche market. Dave told me:
… in Keskus downtown
In 1963, Don and Peggy Chase decided to bring Scandinavian giftware and contemporary design china and giftware to the Lakehead. They found a location at 7 South Cumberland Street, but then wondered what to call their store. A friend said, “You’re selling treasures, so call it The Treasure House.” Don and Peggy liked it. Their motto was “Where every gift is treasured.” Scandinavian giftware was new to the people of this area, and it quickly became popular. In the 1960s and 1970s, stores were not allowed to open in the evening. But Don and Peggy would stay open in the evening for the tourists. They recalled one evening in the 1960s when the police came, closed their store and fined them.
During the 1970s, shopping malls became increasingly popular. Don and Peggy kept up with the times by moving into Keskus in 1975. With the demise of Eaton’s and then Keskus, the Chase’s moved to Red River Road, where in 2008, after 46 years in business, they decided it was time to retire.
Don and Peggy fondly recounted their years with The Treasure House. Peggy said, “The ‘60s and ‘70’s were the glory days of the independent stores. We had a wonderful staff, and loyal customers.” Their business took them all over Europe to the factories that made the the giftware and fine china they sold.
I can still see and hear Don Chase on TV saying, “At The Treasure House, in Keskus downtown.”
“The Store of Personal Service.”
Jim Hupka, from the age of 12, worked in his father’s Bata shoe store on Victoria Avenue for five years. Then he worked for Pot Pouri Gifts in the bottom of The Royal Edward Hotel. When he was 21, in 1971, Jim Hupka started out in business for himself opening Mister J Men’s Fashions at Centennial Square. Jim was blessed with a good eye for co-ordinating colours. This served him well, because the men who shopped at Mister J knew they would leave well dressed. Jim Hupka’s motto when he started was, “The Store of Personal Service”, and 43 years later, he still stands by it. Jim has developed a loyal clientele over the years. When I asked him what was the secret to his success, Jim said that because they are small, they could adapt to the changing retail landscape. He added,
“People like good quality clothing, and a small store where they receive personal service.”
The fortitude of the independent retailer cannot be understated. These men and women ventured to fulfill a need, bring us new products and provide their clientele with the best possible service. These people can rightly stand among those who built this region.
Christmas is fast approaching. It brings to mind, when I was a kid, looking at the displays in the Eaton’s store windows and the fronts of the stores done up in their season’s best. I remember well Christmas shopping downtown, going into one store, then walking back out into the frosty air and crunching through the snow to the next. They were happy times.
So this Christmas, whenever you go out to the mall to shop, think of the independent stores too. The shops are smaller, the service is personal and the owner knows you by name.
It has been a delight writing this article. I want to personally thank:
David Hurdon, Chapple’s Department Store
Dave and Michele Green, Maier Hardware
Don and Peggy Chase, The Treasure House
Jim Hupka, Mister J Men’s Fashions
Thank you the following for their assistance with this article:
Thunder Bay Historical Museum
City of Thunder Bay Archives
Brian G. Spare is a local author and freelance copywriter who is a regular contributor to Bayview Magazine. Contact him at https://BrianGSpare.com
*Previously published in Bayview Magazine*