This photo dated around the mid-1960s looks west along Chipman Avenue. Judging from the garland strung overhead, the busy Christmas Season had arrived. Men’s, boy’s and ladies wear had been sold here since 1919 when it was built. Eventually it was owned and operated by the Thomson family from 1954 to 1986. Photo courtesy Fort Ostell Museum

Men’s wear stores of yesteryear gone with our changing culture

By Marty Schmidt with Mike Rainone

Growing up in small town Ponoka during the 1950s and early 60s was, for this writer, filled with good experiences. With a population in the range of 3,000 to 4,200 people, it was easy to really feel like you belonged to a closely-knit community.

Outside influence from larger urban centres such as Red Deer, Wetaskiwin, Edmonton and Calgary was present, but unlike today, to a much more limited extent. Aside from staff at local schools and the General Hospital, major employment occurred at the nearby Ponoka Mental Hospital with almost all the staff living in Town or District. Shopping downtown was the habit of most people.

Hwy. 2, which we now call Railway Street, ran right through downtown as it connected the “dots” between Calgary and Edmonton. During the early to mid-1960s the new, four-lane highway made its appearance and our otherwise somewhat sleepy town began to be impacted in significant ways.

Prior to the 60s decade, the local merchants and service providers could count on strong support from town and country residents. All types of businesses flourished in the 40s, 50s and early 60s, but that was all about to change. It was my distinct privilege to work in several of them.

Early in my teens I worked at the Revelstoke Lumber store as a yard “hand.” After school at the age of 15 it was a privilege to be able to make deliveries with the company pick-up truck even before having a driver’s license. However, after one cold winter of loading and delivering loads of coal – all by shovel – from the dark and spooky boxcars behind the grain elevators, I knew it was time to consider a “career” change.

With three, thriving, dedicated men’s wear stores in town, I set about looking for a clean, warm, indoor job with more agreeable working conditions. And so it was that I entered the world of “haberdashery.”

First up was Jim’s Place owned by Jim Trahan and his wife Noreen, located in the historic Bird Drug brick building – now vacant – on Chipman Avenue. Jim gave me good training in how to deal with customers, apply suggestive selling, coordinate clothing choices, handle money, maintain the inventory and do window dressing. Of course, being the “grunt” on staff, it also included janitorial duties inside and out – bathroom included.

Jim would always find a way to make his customers comfortable, had a polished approach to selling, and was always ready to discuss local affairs and share some good humour. On several occasions in the summer, I went on purchasing trips to Edmonton with him in his immaculate, huge Hudson Hornet car. I recall being impressed with the way he was respected as a gentleman by the manufacturer’s representatives.

A year of more later, I was enticed to move to a competitor … Jack’s Men’s Wear. The owners, Glen Mah Poy along with his wife Win (“Winnie”), were very persistent and enjoyable characters as employers. A bigger pay cheque was offered so I moved up the alley about 300 feet to my new “post.”

Even in this small town, I recall there being a noticeable difference in the profile of clientele. Glen was in the habit of going to the Auction Market almost every Wednesday to possibly buy some goats, ducks or whatever other animals might be suited to his little “hobby farm” below the railroad tracks near the river. This “side line” of his connected him with many rural folks, so they tended to gravitate to his store. He always found time to take an interest in each customer and share jokes and stories.

Glen was the consummate salesman. He never wanted to lose the chance to sell something to whomever came to the store. His mantra could be worded this way: “If they come to this store, they must be planning to buy something. So, make sure you sell them something.”

Old and outdated stock, such as shoes, pants or jackets were never just given away or tossed out. “There is a buyer for everything,” he would say. On more than one occasion I was requested to rummage through old stock in the back room or basement to find an item that just might meet a customer’s need. Wrapping paper wadded up and stuffed in the end of an “old” new pair of shoes just a bit too roomy would more than once ring up a sale and send a customer away happy. A good deal sometimes trumped a good fit.

“Work life” at Jack’s Men’s Wear was a valuable experience. But, an opportunity for still better pay in a larger store, with more challenging work was too good an opportunity to miss. So, after a year and a half I moved back down the alley to Thomson’s Men’s Wear (now the location of Jones Agencies Insurance) which was often considered to be the prime men’s wear store in town.

It was apparent very early that this store, in general, served a rather different slice of the Ponoka market. This was partly due to the fact that the owner, Richie Thomson with his wife Jean moved in different circles than the owners of the other two men’s stores.

Richie came from a local merchant family dating back to 1924, with his father first having a grocery and bakery store on Railway street, and then in the early 1950’s acquired the Green’s Gent’s Furnishers business and building on Chipman Avenue. Later, the store took on his family surname. Also, this couple was much involved in local Kinsmen and other service organizations, with friends and associates who were long established as leaders in local businesses, community government, civic organizations and a wide range of professions. It often happened that the expectations of this clientele, concerning product knowledge and customer service, were higher and as staff we tried hard to meet those expectations.

A part of this store’s offerings was the “added value” service of a very talented and amiable tailor, being Frank Turner who was the lead tailor at the Ponoka Mental Hospital. He was regularly available to perform his “sewing magic,” making alterations to suits and pants so that customers would be assured of the very best fit and look.

Another unique service was membership in the store’s “Suit Club.” It fell to me to make the rounds on Tuesday of each week to many local businesses to collect a $2 membership fee. This money accumulated in their account, allowing a purchase of clothing – typically a dress jacket or suit – with a significant discount once a year. This was another marketing strategy to ensure a good grasp of the “business clientele” in Ponoka.

The Town and District of Ponoka were well served by these men’s wear stores with their skilled, dedicated and congenial owners and staff for many years. However, as for many other retailers in town, this “Mom and Pop” business model has been challenged in increasingly significant ways over the past five decades.

Increased ease of highway access to bigger urban centres with extensive product choices, easy credit plans, slick marketing strategies as well as the arrival of online purchasing – plus many other factors – has made many small businesses such as these clothing stores unviable.

Considering how the world of commerce has changed, it is now imperative to be highly service-oriented, knowledgeable and innovative in finding new ways to attract and hold customers in order to develop a profitable small business. Happily, some Ponoka retailers are achieving this, thereby helping to preserve the small town culture that we enjoy.

Just Posted

REFLECTIONS: Ponoka was booming after the war years

By Mike Rainone for the News At the end of the long… Continue reading

PHOTOS: Ponoka Festival of Trees opening night gala and auction

Generous donors and bidders will help reach $100,000 goal

Fundraiser a test of endurance and fitness

Ponoka gym setting up to participate in worldwide fitness event

Alberta Justice Minister advocates UCP rural crime plan

Expanded property rights, more power to peace officers, demonetizing scrap mental part of UCP plan

Teen with cancer whose viral video urged Canadians to vote has died, uncle tweets

Maddison Yetman had been looking forward to voting in her first federal election since junior high school

Protesters say Alberta bill would make it harder to access some medical services

The bill would mean a health-care provider could not be sanctioned for refusing to provide a service due to morals

MacLean says “Coach’s Corner is no more” following Cherry’s dismissal from Hockey Night

Cherry had singled out new immigrants in for not honouring Canada’s veterans and fallen soldiers

Rebels ride 3-goal first period to 4-3 win over Brandon

Goaltender Byron Fancy with key saves in third period to save game

Supreme Court of Canada dismisses murder appeals in 2013 Calgary swarming death

Assmar Shlah and Franz Cabrera were convicted in 2016 of second-degree murder

One year on, most oil-and-gas bailout money has moved, federal government says

Sweden’s central bank says it has sold its Alberta-government issued bonds

Ski resorts selling mountain water is a risky move, critics say

Alberta allowed ski resort in Kananaskis Country to sell about 50 million litres to third party

Sportsnet looks at new options for Coach’s Corner time slot, post-Don Cherry

Spokesperson says Hall of Fame feature on tap this weekend after co-host’s firing

Most Read