A Conversation with Bill Agnew: Part One

The Highlands Historical Society is committed to preserving stories of the neighbourhood’s past. In this project’s latest chapter, longtime Highlands resident Bill Agnew shares memories of working and playing in the area. His fascinating experiences range from his early years in the neighbourhood to running a successful confectionary business that started in his Highlands home. In part one of the interview, Bill talks about helping his dad at the Agnew Drug Store, making lasting connections through hockey, and shares a story about a unique place to change at the community skating rink. The interview was conducted by Michelle Olsen, with transcription by Louella J. Janzen Pick, and has been edited for length and clarity.   

MO:  Thanks for speaking with me today.  We really appreciate it.  Would you please tell me a bit about your early years, where you were born and when.

BA:  I was born in 1944 — on February 22nd, 1944, in the Royal Alex Hospital, and I lived on 62nd Street and 111th Avenue next to the Holgate home, and that’s where I started my life.  I lived there for the first 18 years, and then got married and bought this house on 55th Street.  

     There’s a lot of things that happened along that way, and it was really a privilege to be in the Highlands and have an opportunity to participate in the development of the Highlands. And there have been a lot of changes, and it’s been a great place to have lived and raised my family and grown up.  

Room and Board at the Magrath Mansion

MO:  I remember earlier you were saying your dad rented in the Magrath Mansion?  

BA:  Oh, he room-and-boarded.  

     That’s a story, and I have some letters that I came across in his stuff.  He room-and-boarded at the Magrath Mansion with Magraths, and the only son of the Magraths lived on 62nd Street down, and I did their gardening and their yard maintenance for years.  He ran a company [that made the] jukebox machines that used to be in the soda fountains when you went into Jamieson’s or Cozy Corner and all the places downtown. The Silver Hat still had them  with the old circles around, you put in a quarter or a nickel, and you could push the buttons and play whatever tune you wanted, and the records fell into place, and you could play the music in the restaurant. Well, he did that out of his garage, and when I dug his garden or shoveled his snow, he always paid me in rolls of quarters.  So my dad actually was very close to the Magraths through school.  Because his dad had the first drug store on Jasper Avenue and 96th Street in the late 1800s through the 1900s right where the old jail was, but it’s not there anymore.  So I didn’t have the privilege of knowing him that well because he passed away, I think, just before I was born, but — as I’ve hinted to you, I have many other siblings and that, [has] opened up other doors along that way in the neighbourhood, too.  And that’s pretty special.  

The Agnew Drug Store and Other Highlands Businesses

MO:  Now, I know your dad owned the Agnew Drug Store.  

BA:  That’s right.  It used to be called Corner Drug Highlands originally.  My dad and my mother — my mother was the first female to get a pharmacy degree – my dad got a pharmacy degree at the same time at the University of Alberta.  My dad, when he got his degree, went to Jasper.  He ran the drugstore in Jasper for a year or so and had an opportunity to come to Edmonton, and he became the pharmacist and worked for Corner Drug Highlands, which was a consortium of six or seven drug stores in Edmonton who worked together throughout [the city].  

And he started as a pharmacy here where La Bohème Restaurant [was] in the old Gibbard Block, and the middle bay of that building was the drug store, and he took it over from a gentleman by the name of Mr. Husband that had been there from, I believe, 1932 until 1943 when my dad took it over in 1944, and he was there till 1979.  

MO:  So he took it over when you were just a baby.  

BA:  Yeah, just when I was born.  

MO:  And I think I heard you lived there, too, for a bit?  

BA:  I spent a big portion of my life in that drug store, right probably from the age of 3, 4 years old, because he [my dad] worked 365 days a year looking after the community and [was] involved in the community.  

He had to have supper every night, so my mom would make supper at the house on 62nd Street, and I’d have it in a bag.  I got in trouble a lot of times because it didn’t get to the store in the same condition it left the house [in]; but he had to have supper every night, and I always walked the supper up to the drug store and visited with him and then walked back every night.  

MO:  What did [the store] look like?  

BA:  I have a picture of it up on the wall there.  It was very small but very big inside.  And so the drug store had a post office, the pharmacy, a cosmetic department, a general department, and what every drug store had – the necessities of home living.  And basically the community supported the drug store very, very well until the late ’70s and early ’80s when Shoppers and all the bigger consortiums came in.  They couldn’t survive anymore, so that was when my dad finally, at age 71, I think he was, he actually just closed the doors and walked away.  

MO:  What year was that?  

BA:  I think 1971, ’72.  

MO:  So when he had the store in there did it take up the whole block, or were there other businesses in there? 

BA:  Oh, no, no.  There was a lot of businesses that were in there.  So — there was, right where the corner bay was now where the restaurant [La Boheme] was, it was originally many stores where there was a clothing store, and there was a general shop, and there was a plumbing supply plumber in there for a number of years.  The first bay where the walk-up was, there was a front door to the Gibbard Block that went to the suites upstairs.  And then my dad’s drug store was [on] the other side of the Gibbard Block.  

And, yeah, so I sort of called that home because I was there every day after school and at nights and that and spent a good, good portion of my time.  When I wasn’t playing hockey and running around and doing what kids do, I was at the drug store helping my dad.  And it was a great place,  yeah, it was a hub — I was very active.  

I mean, with the post office, everybody mailed Christmas gifts and Christmas cards.  At Christmas the post office truck would come to pick up the mail at least two or three times a day, there was so much mail going out, and people would line up and that sort of thing.  So it was really interesting.  

MO:  What ways did you help your dad in the store?  

BA:  Just by stocking the pop and the toilet paper and cleaning up. Because there was no place to store anything, the store rooms for the drug store were down in the basement of the Gibbard Block, so we had to truck it all down when it came — when all the pop came in and stuff like that, had to go downstairs to the store room and then had to bring it all back up, so I kept in pretty good shape.  

MO:  Sounds like it was fun.  

BA:  Yeah, right.  It was a lot of work, but it was fun.  Yeah.  It was great.  I enjoyed every minute of it.


Going to School

MO:  And you attended Mount Royal School?  

BA:  Well, I started in Highlands, because Mount Royal didn’t exist.  So I started Grade 1 to 3 in Highlands Junior High School, and then they were building Mount Royal.  So I went 1, 2, and 3 at Highlands; and I went 4, 5, and 6 at Mount Royal; then I went 7, 8, and 9 in Highlands; and till Grade 12 in Eastglen.  

MO:  And tell me about your experience with the school.  

BA:  Oh, boy.  

  Well, I wasn’t a scholastic guy.  I was busy.  I was doing a lot of things in sports and the community, but I wasn’t really good in school.  So the first three years were really good in junior — at Highlands Junior High School from Grades 1 to 3.  

Grades 4 to 6 I think I had a little bit of trouble, and that may be the change in environment and a little different distance to walk to school and that, but it was a — basically a good, a good experience.  I can remember the teachers and who they were, and the kids.  And all four of my kids went to the same schools and had some of the same teachers that I did, so they were in trouble, too.  

But, yeah, Mount Royal was good, and then back to Junior High School.  Yeah, it was a happening place with the community league there and the hockey rink and Club Star Dust and all the things that were happening there.  It was a great place to grow up and be involved with the school so close to the community league.  

I played hockey there from the age I was at the skating rink, probably started going to the skating rink on my own when I was probably 4 or 5 years old, and then [I] just hung out there skating and playing hockey and being involved.  

So the school  was the hub, and I met a lot of kids, and, in fact, some of the people I still associate [with] today were the kids I grew up [with] in junior high school at Highlands predominantly.  Those are the kids I still touch base with and are involved with.  

            And then Eastglen wasn’t so good.  I was very sports-minded, so I played on the junior football team, and I’d play football every day after school.  And then [as] soon as the football practices and the games were over then I went and played hockey in the Edmonton area.  I first started with the Maple Leaf organization, and then ended up in the Canadian organization and played hockey every night until I came home.  And then I’d start over and do it again the next day.  

So school was good to me.  The friends and the associations and being able to do all the things that I did was very special.  Very, very special.  

MO:  You mentioned you were involved with the Oil Kings?  

BA:  Through the Edmonton Hockey Association and the Canadian Athletic Association, a lot of the coaches that coached me in those teams from Pee Wee up till Juvenile A were coaches that ended up coaching the Oil Kings.  So at 16, I think, I had an opportunity, and I was called up to go to their camp at the beginning of the year, and I got a broken leg and that sort of ended.  I couldn’t play for a year, and that  ended my hockey career, because then I got married and started a family.  

Living and Working in Highlands

MO:  And you bought this house right after [that]?  

BA:  And I bought this house then.  

MO:  So you lived — how long was it that you lived here?  

BA:  This is my 56th, coming [up to the] 57th year since I bought this house [on 55th Street & 111 Ave].  So the community has really been a staple of where I came from, who I am, and what’s happening in my life today.  

MO:  And tell me about the businesses you started after high school.  

BA:  Oh, boy.  Well, I started working and digging gardens and shovelling snow and odd jobs around the neighbourhood probably from age 8 on, and so that was in, before Highlands School, in that era.  

It’s a long story, but it ended up that I would go away every summer from Grade 9 to 12.  The day I got out of school I would go up and work in the bush on survey crews and driving heavy equipment like Cats and earth-moving machines and drag lines and stuff like that.  And that  was the story of my life for the summer, so I would go away and work and worked sometimes two jobs and bettered myself and put a few dollars away every year.  

And then when September the 1st came [it was time to go] back to go to school.  I was back in Edmonton and would go to school and get involved in hockey and sports.  And so that’s how I started to get the work ethic that I’ve got, and even today as I sit here today I still keep myself busy doing something every day.  

So I had a guaranteed job with the companies that I worked with up north in the bush, and they were looking forward to me coming back as an employee when I finished Grade 12.  

And there was a gentleman that lived down the street four or five houses from me on ’11th Avenue.  His name was Mr. Price, and he was the head controller for Swift Canadian, the meat-packing plant, and I used to shovel his sidewalks, and he knew who I was and that sort of thing.  And he always said to me all those years, the day you’re finished high school, he said, I’ve got a job for you at Swift’s.  

And I thought nothing of it, and unbeknownst to me, the day I finished Grade 12 he was walking down ’11th Avenue, and said, aren’t you finished school this year?  I told you I got a job for you.  Well, I’d already committed that I was going back up north, and so I went to my dad, and I said, What should I do?  I got this job, and I know what it is, and it’s a good job.  He said, well, you’ve never done anything like that before in your life.  [The job] was starting off as a mail boy at Swift’s.  So that was running all the orders and all the communications through the seven floors of the Swift plant on 66th Street, and [my dad]  said, why don’t you try it.  

So I phoned up Mr. Price, and he said, you can start tomorrow morning.  And so September the 1st  I had a job at Swift’s, and I started as mail boy in the mail room, running.  And I did that, and I worked through every job in that office from mail boy until I was credit manager for Western Canada for Swift Canadian for all the feed mills and all the packing plants and the poultry department.  

And I worked there for nine years, I think, and I was going to get transferred to Toronto or Chicago.  Now I had three kids and a fourth one on the way, and I have my house here, and I’d already built an addition on it to start with.  And I said, no, I’m not going anywhere.  

And there was a company called Fred S. Tappenden that was a machine shop on the corner of 72nd Street and 119th Avenue, and they lived on the corner of Ada Boulevard and 65th Street; Mr.Tappenden was a real mechanical genius.  He built the revolving restaurant on the Chateau Lacombe, the Husky Tower, the Vancouver landmark, [and he] built all the latest and greatest oil equipment and stuff for mining oil and stuff like that.  He was a real special guy.  

And I happened to be chumming with his son Alan Tappenden then, and Mr. and Mrs. Tappenden got in a car accident one time when he was 21 years old, and his wife Mrs.Tappenden died, and he got leukaemia, and he died a year later.  So Alan was left with the business, and he needed somebody to help him, and because of my credit experience and my experience at Swift’s, [not to mention] he was my brother-in-law, I went and worked for him for almost nine years and had a real good experience with that.  

[Then] there was a company that needed a controller in the oil industry building pump jacks called National Supply, so I went and worked for that company as a new development manufacturing company here in Edmonton in the south side called Resmic Machinery.  

I stayed with them for probably four years, and then there was an opening because of one of the things that Tappenden had called Dart Truck Company.  So Tappendens did a lot of work in the mining industry, in the coal mines in Luscar and Grand Cache and all of Western Canada.  We did a lot of the manufacturing work for them, and I knew the customers and that, so Dart Truck called me to be their parts and supervisor for Western Canada and work out of the Edmonton Kenworth plant, so I did that for three or four years, but I was never home and that didn’t work real well with four kids at home and that.  

So I quit that and went to work for my brother who was ten years younger than me.  He owned Rescom Construction, and I went and worked with him for seven years, and we were the general contractors and we built a lot of buildings here in Edmonton, and did a lot of government work and [it] was a real going concern. 

The Skating Rink Caboose

MO:  Is there anything else you’d like to add or talk about?  

BA:  One thing I can — there’s one thing I can remember, and I distinctly remember it, the Highlands skating rink outside the old community hall door.  It was before the building was built on the property that now is the centre with the two-storey where the skating rink is.  So the skating rink was always in that area, but we never had any place you could change. Because the community door was open,sometimes we could use the cloak room at the top of the stairs in the old community hall to change, but there were so many kids that were playing there.  It was a family — , they lived on 67th, 68th Street and 114th Avenue.   

So they needed someplace, kids to change their skates and keep warm in the wintertime, and it was cold outside.  I mean, that’s when you played hockey outdoors and you froze to death.  All those years I was coaching, that’s what I did.  

Tom Adby owned a construction company, so  hauled in an old caboose and put it on the end of the skating rink.  And there was an old pot belly stove in there, and I can remember going up and skating all night and going in there changing, getting warm, and the fire was burning, and so that was one childhood memory I remember as a youngster of some of the things we did. I’ve truly been blessed in a lot of ways.  Yeah.  Life is good.  

Stay tuned for our next installment: The Story of Riddles Sweet Impressions  . . .

  6 comments for “A Conversation with Bill Agnew: Part One

  1. Ted Smith
    December 6, 2022 at 2:39 am

    Lovely to see the article on Bill Agnew, a fellow who has given so much to the Highlands community in the many years he has lived here. Looking forward to the next installment on Riddles Sweet Impressions, delicious chocolates, candies and their toasted coconut marshmallows were to die for.


  2. Marni Matheson
    December 6, 2022 at 3:26 am

    Oh, so many memories I knew and so many I did not. Great article, Ted, Bill and Michelle. Can’t wait for the follow-up. Love the Highlands!


  3. I
    December 6, 2022 at 3:37 am

    Thanks, I love these stories about our neighbourhood. We’re relative newcomers having moved here in retirement eighteenth years ago. These tales give me a sense of belonging to what has proven to be a delightful choice.


    • Bill Elliot
      December 6, 2022 at 5:02 pm

      Thank you for such an interesting article. It conjured up many memories of schools and sports and what a great neighborhood we grew up in.


  4. December 6, 2022 at 6:17 am

    The story of your life journey has been so interesting Bill. I look forward to the story of Riddles Sweet Impressions, signed Carol Logan


  5. Darryl Keith Havrelock
    December 14, 2022 at 7:24 pm

    Nice Going Bill sharing those memories Of course I have known you since the days you first worked at Swifts and then Eastglen. I always appreciated your warm personality- a people’s person! Continued good health. Darryl Havrelock


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