MUSEUM MUSINGS: The Hill Grocery

Photo from the bill smiley archives The Hill Grocery and it's neighbouring building which was constructed as as a safeway store in the early 1930s

In his book about Prince Albert’s first century, from 1866 to 1966, Gary Abrams writes in the chapter White Coal City about the years 1910 to 1913. He notes how the “stores, shops, and trim blocks” were turning Central Avenue into a “bustling, modern main street”. He also refers to the many “handsome homes” being built, particularly on the brow of the hill.
A number of these homes to which Abrams referred were being built in, or near, the central hill area (on 18th Street to 20th Street and between 2nd Avenue East and 2nd Avenue West). These homes belonged to such notable citizens as Samuel McLeod, Joseph Kernaghan, George Baker, Algernon Doak, H.A. Lestock Reid, Dr. Frank Fourney, Thomas Baker, and James McKay.
Taking advantage of the City’s new found economic wealth, a newcomer to the community built and opened a grocery store in 1913 (called at the time Mann’s Grocery) on the north-east corner of Central Avenue and 20th Street. Wilbert W. Mann maintained ownership of the store until the early part of the 1920s. During the early years of its operation, Mann had as an employee Gilbert McKay Junior, a nephew of both Thomas McKay (Prince Albert’s first mayor and later Member of the Legislative Assembly of the North-West Territories) and the afore-mentioned James McKay (Member of Parliament for Prince Albert). Older residents of Prince Albert might recall Gilbert’s sister Mary, who worked for many years as a stenographer at City Hall, as well as his other two sisters, Jean and Catherine, both of whom taught school locally.
When the store was sold by Mr. Mann to Julian Garrish in 1921, the store became known as the Hill Grocery. It again changed hands in 1925 when it was purchased by W.D. ‘Bud’ Coombs, who retained the store’s name. Coombs, obtaining employment at Baker’s Department Store, sold the business to Steve Jasper in 1927. It was at this time that George Whitter first became an employee of the store.
Jasper, in partnership with John Harrison, had opened Magnet Grocery at 912 Central Avenue in 1925 when they bought the business from Mrs. J. Cassie. Jasper and Harrison had previously worked together as staff members at McLean’s Department Store on Central Avenue.
In 1929, Steve Jasper obtained the local franchise for Safeway Stores and the two groceries, the original Magnet Grocery in the 900 block of Central Avenue and the other at 1930 Central, were renamed and branded as Safeway stores. Jasper also opened a Safeway store at 900 Central Avenue, and one on the west side of the 1300 block of Central Avenue (currently housing H & R Block). Harrison, his partner, is believed to have sold his share in the business at this time and taken up farming. In the 1929 Henderson’s, George Whitter was listed as a department manager for Safeway.
By 1932, the Safeway store at the top of the hill had relocated to a newly constructed building immediately north of the original Mann’s Grocery. On September 15th of that year, George Whitter, their former department manager re-opened the Hill Grocery in competition to Safeway. Whitter was apparently successful, as the neighbouring Safeway store was closed by 1940. The new building sat vacant until 1945 when it became home to Campus Confectionery. (It was later known as Pat’s Place, 3D Confections, and is currently JP’s Convenience.)
By 1934, Steve Jasper had left the Safeway chain, and had opened another grocery store, once again called Magnet Grocery, at 914 Central Avenue. Gordon Barlett had taken over management of the Safeway stores at 900, 1213, and 1928 Central Avenue.
When he bought the building in which Wilbert W. Mann first opened his grocery store, Whitter established a business which would be staffed by three generations of his family. The Hill Grocery, sometimes called Whitter’s Shop-Rite, would serve not only the immediate area but much of Prince Albert. Telephone orders would be delivered across the city, first by horse and wagon as well as by bicycle, and later by motor vehicle.
Unlike grocery stores of today, in the early years the Hill Grocery carried items in bulk, including biscuits, candy, tea, coffee, beans, and cheese. Products would be displayed in barrels and tubs, and the staff would place the items chosen by the customers in appropriate packaging. When the store was first opened, many of the customers were coping with the depression of the early thirties. As cash was hard to come by, fresh farm goods, eggs, vegetables, poultry, and butter were often exchanged for food and household items which could not be produced in the customers’ gardens, and the $2.30 relief ticket was commonly used. Wages could be as low as $5.00 a week, and eggs at that time sold for ten cents a dozen. Three pounds of sausage could be obtained for twenty-five cents, as could three loaves of home baked bread.
In the early 1940s, Doug Whitter, George’s nephew, was attending P.A.C.I. He asked his uncle if he could work in the store. This was the beginning of an involvement which ended nearly fifty years later. Doug came to work when his school day ended, and during his summer vacation. Aside from a ten-year hiatus in the 1950s, when Doug attended post-secondary education and began his ordained ministry, he played an active role in the Hill Grocery until it closed in 1990.
As a result of his employment with Shelly Brothers, George eventually moved to Saskatoon. Shelly Brothers owned and supplied the ShopRite grocery chain. Stock lists would be checked over, and orders for what was required would be sent by STC bus to Saskatoon for delivery when the trucks next travelled to Prince Albert.
With George’s move, ownership of the Hill Grocery changed again in January 1960 with Doug buying the business from his uncle. It was after this change in ownership that the popular Friday Hotline on CKBI radio was initiated. Every Friday morning at 11:35, George Prosser would do a live telephone call with the staff at the Hill Grocery, and the weekly special would be announced. Randy still remembers how popular the specials were, recalling the number of times they had to scramble to try to fill the orders as they often exceeded the supplies which the store had on hand. On one memorable occasion, the deal was ground sausage. Although they had prepared a hundred pounds in advance, Randy recalls that they received orders for several hundred pounds of sausage meat for that Hotline special.
Special items were often brought in for various holiday occasions. For example, at Christmas, the store would sell mince meat. This was brought in in barrels weighing 500 pounds. Five or six men would be required to unload it from the truck and place it in the store. One Christmas, for a reason lost in the mists of time, two barrels of mince meat were delivered to the store. No one expected to be able to sell such a large amount of the product but, when the store closed on Christmas Eve, both barrels had been scraped clean!
Doug was ably assisted by his wife Signe in his early years of ownership. His children, Randy, Wendell and Brenda, all worked in the store. Randy and Wendell continued to play a major role in the store as they hit adulthood, with Randy’s wife, Carol, becoming responsible for keeping the books.
Some of the part time and full-time staff who worked in the store are still fondly remembered by the Whitter family, as well as by their customers. Some of these include Dan Paulsen, Arvid Aanvag, Phil Gaudet, and Gary Vennard.
As more national grocery chains located in Prince Albert, the Whitters made changes to the services they provided. They stocked items which became the first delicatessen in the city. These included pastas, sea food, and a large variety of cheeses (at one time, fifty different cheeses). They began to serve hot foods, including chicken, ribs and potato wedges. Many customers would buy such items for a special weekend meal, and Randy recalls parents establishing cash accounts for lunch time meals for their family members who were attending classes at P.A.C.I.
Yet even with all the changes they implemented, including the addition of the catering service called the Meating Place, the Whitter family had recognised by 1990 that they could no longer compete with the big national grocery chains. As a result, the Hill Grocery was closed that year. Sadly, after nearly sixty years, the Whitter family would no longer be providing groceries to Prince Albert families.
Fortunately, Randy Whitter continued to provide food services through the Meating Place, and even today continues to cater to public and private events, as well as providing food and drink to people at My Place in the Victoria Square.