The history of the bank building housing Empressive Gifts began in in the bustling community of Empress, Alberta in 1919.
Five years earlier the Canadian Pacific Railway had come to town. They had a deal with the Canadian government to service the homesteads that were opening up the prairie landscape.
The Canadian Pacific Railway had chosen Empress as a townsite because of its proximity to the forks of two rivers ... the Red Deer and the South Saskatchewan. It was intended that it would be a railroad hub between Swift Current Saskatchewan and Calgary, Alberta and to that end eventually grow into a large metropolis when additional tracks were laid down in a north/south route.
The company surveyed the town site for miles around and opened a
station that year. In the summer of 1914 they set a day to auction the
lots. I'm told that in few hours every lot was sold and more than
$160,000 changed hands...a huge amount given that some of the lots went for as low as $10.
Business men set up shops to service the homesteaders that were arriving from Europe and parts of eastern Canada and the United States. Grocery stores, a livery stable, a drug store, restaurants, a bank (think shack), even a cement company sprung up in no time. A lumber yard supplied materials by floating a barge up the South Saskatchewan River.
But two months later WW1 broke out and many dreams fizzled.
Nevertheless, by war's end the Canadian Bank of Commerce built the sturdy red brick structure that we now call home. The town got a second wind and in its heyday was home to 1500 people.
In 1939 the Canadian Pacific decided to finally build that north/south track through the village. They got so far as constructing the embankment that would support a bridge to cross the Red Deer River.
Then WW2 broke out and that was the end of that.
By war's end the world had changed profoundly. Industries that had built tanks reconfigured their assembly lines to build cars and trucks that everyone could afford. Originally, grain elevators had been built every twenty five miles along the tracks because that was the distance a team of horses could handle in a day. When farmers had trucks to deliver their grain, the elevators began to close one after the other.
The farmers had been the economic backbone of the villages, Empress among them. When the grain elevators disappeared from Empress, so did the CPR. They closed the roundhouse in 1954 and workers and their families moved to greener pastures.
The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, as it was by then called, got cold feet and closed it's doors. They sold the building to the Nickle family who used it as a boarding house for the benefit of the CPR section crews who maintained the track.
The family removed the bank counter and divided up the main floor into rooms for themselves and rented space to ten men in what had once been the bank manager's accommodations. At the time there was still no plumbing in Empress. There was an outhouse at the rear of the building and Mrs. Nickle cared for her family and the boarders with water pumped from a basement cistern.
I had always assumed that the cement covered stairwell to the basement of the building had been constructed when the building was put up.
Nope. Mrs. Nickle made her husband break through the wall and build the back door. That was so she didn't have to go out of the front door and round to the outhouse while everyone on the street new where she was heading! She probably turns over in her grave every time somebody reads that.
There had always been (still is) an enormous clawfoot bathtub on the second floor. But the men and family members had to heat kettles of water on the wood stove and carry it upstairs when they wanted to bathe....which of course is why it was only done once a week!
The grey water drained into the gravel below the building because it wasn't until 1962 that Empress got a water and sewer system.
When her husband died, Mrs Nickle carried on in the boarding house business but with a distinct change for the better. Instead of caring for ten working men, she took in high school students who returned home to the farms every Friday night and came back on Monday with their own clean laundry.
But eventually maintenance got the better of her. The building desperately needed repairs and a new roof. Not up to the task she gave the whole kit and kaboodle to her daughter, Marie and retired.
Marie had no intention of running a boarding house for a living but had the gumption to head up the road to the town of Oyen and suggest to the manageer of the Toronto Dominion Bank that if they ever wanted to open a branch in Empress that she had just the building ....vault and all.
Well, there is many a wealthy rancher living in the area, They're the guys who had a bit of cash in the 1930's and were able to pick up land for a song. The Toronto Dominion Bank knew how many of them were making the trip to Oyen to do their banking and decided to take a chance on Empress.
They made a deal with Marie.
Three thousand dollars for the building. One thousand dollars down and they would renovate the place...new furnace, new roof, PLUMBING...and they would open their doors for a year. If at the end of that time they didn't make any money she would get the renovated building back. If they made money she'f get the balance of the sale...$2000.
She got her two grand. Up until 1997 when an artist knocked on the door and asked the bank manager if she wanted to sell the building, the Toronto Dominion Bank in tiny Empress Alberta had the highest earnings to deposit ratio of any branch in the country...including Toronto.
The manager had said no to the artist but he retorted with "Who else can I ask?"
When the request went up the chain of command it was decided to sell the building while they had a hot customer. Banking had started to change profoundly so they took their money and left town.
The artist in question, Peter Ziemen was a jeweler who worked with precious metals and stones so having a working vault on the premises was a big plus. What I appreciate about him is the work he did on the floors in the upstairs apartment. They were built of soft wood and couldn't easily be sanded because of the warping that had taken place over the years. Peter hand painted the floors, door and window casings and the baseboard to imitate the original woodwork. Beautiful work but I think his knees must have given out by the time the job was done.
I'm a painter and purchased the building as a semi-retirement project in 2004. At the time I was still doing shows across the country and intended the gallery to be a part time project. I thought if I took in $200 in a good month in the summer I'd put it towards utilities and be content.
My husband and I made sure we were ready for the community's annual Artisan Open House which is held the first weekend in June every year. I thought we might get a couple of dozen people through the door and at nine o'clock that first morning was still drying the paint with my hair dryer on a set of shelves in the corner of the gallery.
I got the display up by ten o'clock and opened the doors. By eleven o'clock we already had two Greyhound busloads of people arrive from a city to the south. By two o'clock that afternoon I quit counting.
Instead of retirement we had a business and the rest is the history of the bank and of Empressive Gifts!