Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Pioneer Retailer

I have talked about the Woodward's department store and told you about its history. However, what about the man who started it all? Charles Woodward.

Born on July 19, 1852, 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto, Charles Woodward was one of five children. His English-born father taught the young Woodward in modern agriculture techniques and Charles was later educated at the Mono College in Ontario's Wentworth County. At the age of 21 he married Elizabeth Anderson and a year later he left home to homestead with his wife and two young children.

Woodward travelled to the Prairies in 1882 to try cattle trading but that wasn't that successful so he returned to Ontario and began farming on Manitoulin Island. That is also where he opened the first Woodward's Store.

Woodward closed that store following a fire that destroyed his lumber business and left him with heavy, financial losses. However, Charles Woodward paid all his creditors to the penny.

Looking for a fresh start Woodward moved to Vancouver and opened another store. Just in time for the Panic of 1893 that saw a financial crisis on Wall Street, bank failures, excessive unemployment, violent civil and labour unrest. Then, just to add to the struggles, there was a disastrous flood in the Fraser Valley during the spring of 1894.

Yet the Woodward's Store flourished. Charles sold groceries, boots and shoes and rented out the unused space in the building. North America's economic situation may have been in rough shape but the Woodward's Store proved so successful that it was expanded into the rest of the building. The store was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the boom caused by the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. Then they moved to 624 Westminster. (The original Woodward's Store building was torn down in 1985.)

In 1902, Woodward's Department Stores Ltd was incorporated and the store moved into a new building at the corner of Hastings and Abbot Streets. The emporium featured twenty departments that were so complete it was like having twenty individual stores. It started out as a four-storey wood frame building with a brick facade but in 1908 two more storeys were added. The store was expanded seven more times until the structure was 645,000 square feet.
Woodward was an innovative man. He was the first to have one-price sale day. He started with a 25-cent sale in 1910, which was the inspiration of Woodward's famous $1.49-day sale days in the 1950s. A miniature Eiffel Tower was placed on the roof of the Vancouver store in the 1920s. It was constructed with a light so bright that it could be seen on Vancouver Island. Of course, we can't forget the Christmas displays in the storefront windows during the 1930s, which became legendary in Western Canada.

Charles Woodward died in 1937 and his son William Culham "Willy" Woodward took over. Willy was born in 1885 and had joined the family business as a bookkeeper in 1907. William Woodward kept the company progressing and he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of BC in 1941. He retired in 1956 and his son, Charles "Chunky" Woodward became the president of Woodward's.

The company was doing well. It had opened an anchor store at Park Royal in West Vancouver, a store in Victoria in 1951, Calgary in 1960 and Surrey in 1966 as well as stores in smaller BC areas. In 1974, the net sales topped $500 million but in 1987 Woodward's posted its first financial loss since the company went public thirty-seven years previously. Two years later Chunky retired. He passed away in 1990 - three years before the company declared bankruptcy and disappeared. Except in our memories.

Thanks to the book The Chuck Davis History of Metropolitan Vancouver for the above information.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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