J.C. Drinkle: Boom to Bust
Public Photo Exhibit
Copyright 2007 Pelican Properties
’s boom period everyone was
speculating in real estate. The
relatively poor were often made wealthy in a very short time. Drinkle may have been the most extreme
example. He arrived in 1903 at age 25
with less than $500, when
was a dirt street town of barely 500 people.
Only ten years later it had a population of 28,000 and was described as “the
fastest growing city in the world”. By
then Drinkle was a multi-millionaire and probably the richest man in town.
technology and was one of Saskatoon’s
most innovative early leaders. He
developed Saskatoon’s first automatic telephone
system in 1907, likely the first in the Canada. He started Saskatoon’s first modern steam laundry, and oversaw
the “largest and finest furniture store West of Winnipeg”. Drinkle has been
credited with bringing the first car to Saskatoon,
which he used to show real estate to prospective clients. He built the “first substantial business
block fit for a large metropolis”(2), complete with the first elevator, and
built for himself a modern house described as “one of the most beautiful homes
in the entire province”(3). His company
was one of the first to buy vast tracts of land on speculation for resale to
farmers, and this was the early base of his fortune.
When the boom was
in full stride, all eyes were on 3rd
was described as the site of “probably the greatest development ever seen at
one time on any street in Canada”(4). The city founders envisioned 3rd Avenue as Saskatoon’s greatest
metropolitan street. Drinkle envisioned this
building, then named Drinkle No. 3, as his greatest achievement and the
tallest, finest building in the City. Ultimately, both visions were only half
fulfilled. In 1913 the money supply
tightened, causing the bust, which brought building in Saskatoon nearly to a halt. While, many of
the grand 3rd Avenue
buildings from that time were completed, and several still stand today, many
more plans were left on the drawing board.
One can only imagine how 3rd
Avenue would have looked had the boom continued
for even one more year. The construction
of Drinkle No. 3 was stopped half-way and Drinkle’s vision of a ten storey
office tower was cut to five, without its grand cornice, marble corridors, or
rooftop garden. It stands today as an example
of the half-filled promise of Saskatoon’s
first boom period. Drinkle was bankrupted in 1917 and the building stood empty
for its first six years. Over the years
it has been home to hundreds of Saskatoon
families, and many businesses. It
currently comprises 60 modern apartments, eighteen private offices, and twenty retail
2. 1903 Saskatoon – The Last Best West
IMAGE: Image of 1rst Avenue in 1903 with
Caption: East side of 1rst Avenue
looking North from 20th
Street in 1903.
That year almost all of Saskatoon’s
storefronts were located within two blocks on the East side of 1rst Avenue, or
on Broadway. The arrow indicates the location of Drinkle and Kerr’s first real
Photograph XX courtesy of Saskatoon Public Library –
Local History Room.
Drinkle was born in Waverly,
in 1878 where he received his early business training as a retail clerk. He moved to
in 1898, where a disastrous business
venture early in his career drained his capital and left him in debt. From 1901 to 1903 he worked as a salesman for
Salada Tea Company to pay off his debts.
At age 25 he teamed up with F.E. Kerr, a business school friend, and
with a combined total capital of $500 they set off for
to set up a real estate
In 1903, when
Drinkle first came to Saskatoon,
the Canadian prairies were advertised as the “Last Best West”. Saskatoon
consisted of a couple of rows of wooden shacks along wide dirt streets and
barely 500 inhabitants! What gave the
little town promise was its central location on the railway branch line between
Regina and Prince
in 1902 the Minnesota-based Saskatchewan Valley Land (SVL) Company had bought
up almost a million acres along this branch line. Saskatoon
was considered a likely center from which they would settle and service this
vast tract. Drinkle and Kerr applied to
sell land for the SVL Company., but were repeatedly denied. They had little experience, and for the first
three months in Saskatoon
their cash dwindled and business was slow at their small office on 1rst Avenue.
“They decided that if business would not come to them they must go out and
carry the news of Saskatchewan’s
resources to the investing public” (5).
Accordingly, in June they mortgaged their horse and carriage to finance
a sales trip by Drinkle to St. Paul,
Minnesota. The trip resulted in a land sale to Iowa farmers netting a
$2000 commission, and more importantly, they were subsequently granted a valuable
agency with SVL Company. Rather than simply remain commissioned
salesmen for SVL Company, Drinkle and Kerr purchased a total of 50,000 acres
from them for $250,000 over two years, which they resold to individual farmers
for a considerable profit. Their
partnership ended amicably after two years, by which time they had built the
basis of their fortunes.
3: Drinkle the Businessman
many successful endeavors, his primary business was real estate. He acted as a real estate agent, insurer, lender,
and was often a successful speculator. For
example, in 1905 he bought John Caswell’s 280 acre farm east of the current Caswell
Hill neighborhood. He paid $100 per acre
for the land in November and sold thirty acres of it to the CPR only seven
months later for $1350 per acre! At the
time he refused an offer of $1000 per acre for the remaining portion of the
land and eventually sold most of it for over $3000 per acre. His stated
strategy was to “buy during prosperous times and in a new country on the
longest and easiest terms, even though it means paying much over the market
price, and selling for cash, even though that means selling less than the
market price”(Black). He thus made the bulk of his fortune during the boom
period, and also built three of Saskatoon’s
major downtown buildings, including Drinkle No. 1, Drinkle No. 2, and Drinkle
No. 3, the site of this exhibit.
In 1905 Drinkle
bought a small furniture store near the Southwest corner of 21rst and 2nd Avenue.
He incorporated it as “The Great West Furniture Company” and added wholesale
and mail order divisions. He realized that the influx of farm families into the
area created an expanding market for consumer goods. He therefore greatly expanded the company’s
product line and opened a second smaller outlet on 20th Street in Riversdale. In
1909 he built the grand Drinkle No. 1 building on the same site as the original
store and moved his furniture store into the new building, occupying three
levels. It was described then as the “largest
and finest furniture store West of Winnipeg”. In 1911 he sold the company to John Hair his
former store manager, and future mayor of Saskatoon.
The original Great West
Furniture Store and location where Drinkle No. 1 would be built.
In 1906 Drinkle
existing small telephone company, which had evolved from the single line Dr.
J.H.C. Willoughby had strung from his house to his office three years
earlier. Drinkle negotiated an extended
franchise from City Council and proceeded to expand its service area. In 1907 his company converted to an automatic
system, “the most thoroughly modern in Canada”(X). The same system had
just been installed in New York and was being
installed in Chicago. It was all housed in the Telephone building
he had constructed at 148 1rst Avenue South.
In 1911 Drinkle sold this telephone company to the Saskatchewan government, which would
incorporate it into a provincial network.
An example of an
automatic telephone from the period. The
announced the new system, explaining how to use the strange technology as
follows: “To call, say No 138, insert a finger in the hole in the dial opposite
the first numeral, swing the dial to the left until the finger touches a point
indicated, a finger-stop it is called.
Remove the finger and let the dial return of its own accord and repeat”. They described it as a “wasteless, curseless,
out-of-orderless and girl-less” system where “the subscriber is his own
There were a number
of small Chinese hand laundries in Saskatoon
when Drinkle established the Saskatoon Steam Laundry Company in 1906. It was housed in a new two story brick
building he constructed on 22nd
Street and Avenue C. His was the first modern electricity-driven
cleaning facility of its kind in Saskatoon.
advertising, Drinkle extolled the advantages of steam cleaning and its
suitability for laundering even the most delicate of fabrics. He offered
regular pickup and delivery service and, though advertisements from the time
indicate it had a rocky start, the business grew rapidly. In 1907 when he sold his business to his
plant manager, J.D. Palmer, the company had over twenty employees and three
delivery wagons. Palmer operated the
company and leased the building from Drinkle until 1911 when he also purchased
the building itself.
Saskatoon Steam Laundry in 1906
4: Drinkle’s Buildings
Drinkle No. 1.
the community” when in 1906 he commenced the erection of the first
large brick office building in town. Saskatoon’s architecture
at the time was humble, but Drinkle’s design was worthy of a large metropolis. It
was designed by W.W. LaChance, Saskatoon’s
first resident architect. The four-storey concrete and brick structure had Saskatoon’s first lift
elevator. It was called the “mercantile
mansion” and the “grandest building West of Winnipeg”.
The global economy underwent
a period of stringency from 1907 to 1909, but Drinkle was not deterred. The building was completed by 1909, and was located
on the Southwest corner of 2nd
Ave and 21rst St, which was the former site of his
Great West Furniture Store. He moved his
furniture store into the building as its first tenant, occupying 40,000 square
feet. The top floor was the first home for the University of Saskatchewan
for two years before the campus was built.
Students boasted that theirs was the only university in Canada with a
2007 photo of the MacMillan Building, which now stands on the site
of Drinkle No. 1. Built in 1927, it has similar
architectural features to Drinkle No. 1, and the same footprint, but is ten
feet higher. The Grain Building,
next door, still stands but looks different due to the addition of siding. It lost its cornice in the Drinkle 1 fire of
Completed in July,
1913, at the end of the boom period, Drinkle No. 2 was constructed for Drinkle
by Frid-Lewis Contractors at a reported cost of $60,000. Over the years it housed many street level
stores including: Colliers Music, Brown’s Delicatessen, Sherwin Williams,
Meedwill Radio, National Cash Register, and The Crown and Anchor.
Drinkle No. 3
Known as Regent Plaza
since 1976, Drinkle No. 3 was Drinkle’s most ambitious project. It was designed as a five story steel-reinforced
concrete and brick office building, complete with high speed elevators and
marble corridors trimmed with quarter-cut oak.
In 1913, after five floors had been built, Drinkle announced his
intention to add an additional five floors, making it the tallest building in Saskatoon. Architects intended the façade of the top
two floors to be treated with decorative terra cotta to draw one’s eye to the
grand cornice. Drinkle planned a rooftop garden similar to one he had admired
in a Vancouver
building. The projected cost of the ten
story structure was $450,000. The
construction of the additional five floors was delayed in the winter of 1913, reportedly
due to a shortage of steel. The onset of
“the bust” eventually put a stop to construction and the remaining five floors,
cornice, decorative terra cotta, and the marble lined corridors were never
built. The building was never used for offices and was converted to residential
use in 1919.
Original design Drinkle No. 3 by the local architectural firm of Thompson
and Crockart. The cornice along the
roof, retail windows, and decorative terra-cotta on the top floor were never
built due to the bust.
Station 5: Growth
of “The Wonder City”
Growth of “The
During the boom
years, investors from Eastern Canada, the United States, and all over the
world descended on “the fastest growing city in the World”. Investors were attracted to Saskatoon for varied reasons: it had four
bridges, major rail access to all three transcontinental railroads, a
university, a beautiful location by a river, and a strong wheat economy. Wheat sold for the equivalent of eighteen
dollars per bushel in today’s dollars (X-Bank of Canada), more than four times
higher than 2006 prices. During this
time property owners saw their wealth double, then double again, especially
during the boom years of 1910 to 1912 when banks lent freely. For example, commercial lots on 3rd Avenue,
worth only a couple hundred dollars in 1907, were valued at $4,000 by 1910 and
sold for $15,000 by 1912.
between 1903 and 1913 was phenomenal. In
just ten years, Saskatoon
went from a town of about 500 to a city of about 28,000, by its own count, with
projections of reaching 200,000 by 1920.
It went from a collection of primarily wooden shacks on dirt streets, to
a city with 20 large buildings “of suitable stature for a metropolis”, the
tallest being the eight storey Canada
Building which still
went from having a few wooden sidewalks, to having 41 miles of cement
sidewalks; from having no real utilities to having electricity, phones, 35
miles of sewers, and 37 miles of water mains.
in 1913 had 10 schools, 2 large
department stores, thirteen banks, fourteen pool halls, nine theatres and 267
real estate offices. At the end of
the period “there were on the architect’s drawing boards as many new major
buildings as had been already built”(kerr120). In April 1912 the Daily Phoenix
stated that “while labour seems to be in an unsettled condition, that is the
only cloud on the horizon of the builders” (6).
They did not forsee the tight money supply which began later that same
year. Had the boom lasted another year,
the number of major new building in Saskatoon
would have doubled.
The hot economy
also had its down side. Saskatoon experienced a housing shortage, and
in 1912 had the highest rental rates in the country. “Boosters”, who had already invested, often made
extravagant predictions for the city, in the hope of attracting more residents
and not coincidentally inflating real estate prices. Many locals were anxious
to get into the market, having witnessed real estate fortunes made overnight,
and realtors like Drinkle advertised for their business. Developers marketed
lots in subdivisions far from the city center, in areas only today being
developed for the first time.
Speculators, especially from outside the province, often bought these
lots sight unseen and eventually lost their investments.
Drinkle bought and
sold vast amounts of property between 1903 and 1913, during a time when
everything was going up. It was the
primary source of his fortune. At the height of the boom 3rd Avenue was Saskatoon’s premier street. It was the hottest address in the hottest
real estate market around. Drinkle would
not be left out and built two modern office buildings on the street in 1913:
Drinkle No. 2 and Drinkle No 3.
Station 6: Drinkle’s
Public and Private Life
Drinkle was married
twice during his early Saskatoon
years, then was married again in the 1940s.
He is said to have spent so much time on business that he had limited
time for family. One marriage reportedly ended with his wife returning home to New York after having had
an affair with Drinkle’s chauffeur. In
1911 Drinkle began selling many of his Saskatoon
properties. He liquidated over one million dollars in assets before the bust,
which would be worth over eighteen million dollars today. He formed “The Saskatoon Real Estate
(Drinkle) Company” in 1911 to manage his many remaining properties. He oversaw this company mostly from overseas,
often by means of telegrams and through his older brother William, who
continued to live in Saskatoon.
Beginning in 1911 Drinkle and his wife, Jane Godden, lived primarily in London, England
where they had four children. They were
reported to have traveled around the world three times and to have lived in a
very high style, even until well after the bust.
Drinkle’s home is believed to
have been built on the site of John Caswell’s pioneer farm home, which had been
moved (X). Drinkle’s was described at
the time as “one of the finest houses in the province”. Its fireplace was made of brilliant emerald
green stone imported from
. It was lit by chandeliers, and there was a
servant call-button installed in the floor at the foot of Mrs. Drinkle’s
chair. The home had a separate back
staircase for the servants, which was typical of such homes at the time. The back door exited onto a platform of the
same height as the horse-drawn carriage floor so Drinkle could walk directly
into the waiting carriage each morning without descending a stair. Mrs. Drinkle announced in the
in 1907 that the
house would be open to guests on the second Wednesday of each month(X). Drinkle sold the home in 1912, around the
time when he moved to
. The home was occupied by his brother
William’s family, under lease from the new owners, until it was converted to a
convent in 1919 by the Sisters of Sion. In
1926 the nuns built a brick structure in front of it, which still stands at
830 Idylwyld Drive North
. The brick building hid the large house
. The nuns made very few changes to the house
over the years. When the Drinkle family
visited the house in 1976, just before it was demolished, they found that “It
was still magnificent, as the nuns had not changed a thing since 1919, the
original wallpaper was still intact and in good shape”. The house was replaced by the now vacant
served on city council for a short time, his leadership was primarily
entrepreneurial. In 1907 Drinkle, James
Clinkskill, and William Sutherland were three prominent founding members of the
exclusive Saskatoon Club where businessmen would go to drink, smoke, play cards
and billiards, and where undoubtedly many deals were struck. The club continues to operate today from its1912
location on 21rst Street near the Bessborough.
Drinkle was also a principal member of the Industrial League, a group of
Saskatoon businessmen who in 1912 pooled resources
in a concerted effort to bring new industries to Saskatoon.
Saskatoon’s lack of manufacturing
businesses at the time was the primary factor limiting Saskatoon
from truly becoming the “Chicago
of the North”. “Their failure in this
enterprise was the final act in the early years in determining the nature of Saskatoon – it would
remain a small service centre for its region rather than become a large
7. The Bust
speculation collapsed in the spring of 1913.
The banks had severely cut back lending, and interest rates were
climbing. The newly tight money supply
was generally blamed on excessive financial demands on the London money market made by war and world
development and also on generally loose lending practices by banks. Many remained optimistic, thinking it only a
brief depression, but most building projects were scaled back or postponed. Just before the bust Drinkle borrowed $850k
by means of 40 year bonds sold to London
investors (Black). Having borrowed such
a large sum, and having divested himself of much property before the bust,
Drinkle seems to have been one of the few investors still in a position to
build in 1913. Drinkle built Drinkle No.
2 and Drinkle No. 3 that year at a combined projected cost of $260,000 and even
announced his intention, near the end of the year, to add five extra floors to Drinkle
No. 3. Developing office space late in 1913
after the money supply had tightened was a bold move for Drinkle. Earlier that same year he, along with most
other major builders, had signed a petition asking city council to permit
offices to be converted to residential use due to the low demand for office
space(kerr122). In the fall of 1913 Drinkle explained that
lack of steel was the only reason the additional storeys would not be put up
until spring. However, the onset of World War I in 1914 extinguished any hope that
the bust would end soon. In 1914 Drinkle
credited “crop failures, general depression, and war” with having greatly
reduced the sources of revenue needed to complete the building and it was
capped at five stories. When his company
went into receivership in 1917, the building was still incomplete, and empty
except for his office.
Construction of the University Bridge was halted by the bust, not to resume for several years.
Photo PH2002-141-23 courtesy of Saskatoon Public
Library – Local History Room.
On January 24, 1925
Drinkle No. 1, then housing the MacMillan Department Store, was consumed by fire. The janitor, Mr Thos. Simmons, nearly lost
his life making a heroic effort to rescue his wife. He was rescued by fire chief John Faithfull
after falling unconscious from the fumes.
Two days later the last flames were extinguished, but the search for the
body of his wife could not be resumed until the remaining walls were knocked
During the night of
May 19th, 1986 the fire department was called to Drinkle No. 2 where
flames were already coming through the roof and windows. Unable to get inside, the firefighters were
limited to using equipment to prevent the fire from spreading to either the
Saskatoon Credit Union or the Ross Block next to it to the south. No one was injured in the blaze, but the
businesses that occupied it lost their stock and were forced to relocate.
9. The Legacy
company went into receivership, Drinkle No. 3 remained vacant until 1919 when
44 residential suites were developed. In
1923 it was expanded to approximately 100 suites. Sample occupations listed in early tenant
registries include a cashier at Eaton’s, a traveling salesman for Swift’s, a
CNR employee, the superintendent for Empire Lumber Company, and the chief at
the Royal Mail Clerks. Commercial
tenants through the years have included Buckwold’s, General Motors, Firestone, Gassy
Jax, Custom Stereo, Macho, Lucci’s, Sardi’s, Muffin Break, Lee’s Vietnamese, Tarragon, and The
at least two entrepreneurial endeavors in Saskatoon
in the years after the bust, but neither took off. Perhaps his temperament was ill suited for
the post-war business and political climate, which was so different from the
exuberance of the boom years. Although
Drinkle lost his Saskatoon assets to receivership, he seems to have preserved some
of his wealth, possibly due to his having liquidated many of his properties
starting two years before the bust. He is reported to have lived in an
extravagant lifestyle in London
for ten years after the bust. It is unclear what his activities in London were during that time, but in 1920 he and his
family returned to Saskatoon
broke and ready to start over. He took over the Saskatoon Pure Milk Company, with
the support of his brother William, and adapted its operation to conform with
new pasteurization regulations. However,
this business went into receivership in 1926, and led to a falling out with his
brother. It appears that Drinkle left Saskatoon not long after
and did not return until about 1939 when he established the Drinkle Canning and
Preserving Company at 215 22nd
St W, near the site of his original laundry. This company operated in relative obscurity
until the early 1940s when he married his third wife, Loretta Rose, and moved
to Ottawa. With
the help of his wife, he managed to secure a military contract to provide marmalade
to Canadian forces during WWII. He was
unable to source ingredients during wartime and reportedly had to adapt by
making marmalade from cabbage. He was
still making commercial jams, from the basement of his home in Ottawa, when he died at age 73.
Drinkle died in his
Ottawa home in 1951. Today a large monument marks his grave.
This web page
provides text, photos and descriptions of the exhibit “J.C. Drinkle: Boom to
Bust” in permanent exhibit in the Drinkle Mall since 2007 at
115 3rd Avenue South
. This document includes all the text panels in the exhibit, but does not include the large
vintage photographs and captions on display in the mall. This exhibit was produced by Pelican Properties with the support of
, the City of
Capitals Canada and The Partnership, with research provided by Bill Delainey
and with valuable assistance from the Saskatoon Public Library – Local History