J.C. Drinkle: Boom to Bust

Public Photo Exhibit

Copyright 2007 Pelican Properties

 

   

During Saskatoon ’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 Saskatoon 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.  

 

Drinkle loved 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 Avenue.  It 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 spaces.

 

 

2. 1903 Saskatoon – The Last Best West

 

IMAGE: Image of 1rst Avenue in 1903 with Drinkle/Kerr office

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 estate office.

Photograph XX courtesy of Saskatoon Public Library – Local History Room.

 

John Clarence Drinkle was born in Waverly, Ontario in 1878 where he received his early business training as a retail clerk.  He moved to Winnipeg 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 Saskatoon to set up a real estate office. 

 

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 Albert.  Also, 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

 

REAL ESTATE

Among Drinkle’s 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.

 

 

FURNITURE

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.

 

  TELEPHONES

In 1906 Drinkle bought Saskatoon’s 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 Phoenix newspaper 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 operator”.

 

LAUNDRY

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.

 

Through aggressive 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.

Drinkle “startled 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 lift elevator.

 

 

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 1925.

 

  Drinkle No. 2

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 Wonder City

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. 

 

The transformation of Saskatoon 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 stands. Saskatoon 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.  Saskatoon 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 Europe .  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 Phoenix 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 London .  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 from Idylwyld Drive .  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 Kelsey apartments.

 

While Drinkle 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 industrial centre”(7).

 

7. The Bust

Real estate 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.

           

8. FIRE

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 down. 

 

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

After Drinkle’s 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 Publican.

 

Drinkle continued 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.

 

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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 Heritage Canada , the City of Saskatoon , Cultural Capitals Canada and The Partnership, with research provided by Bill Delainey and with valuable assistance from the Saskatoon Public Library – Local History Room.