Woodward’s was a Western Canadian retail giant and I think it’s fair to say that Edmonton was a key part of its success. The company certainly had a large impact on Edmonton; it was involved in the creation of the Westmount (1955), Northgate (1965), Southgate (1970) and Edmonton Centre (1974) shopping malls.
Charles Woodward’s purchase of several lots at the northeast corner of 101 Street and 102 Avenue in 1921 caused excitement and speculation into whether he would soon open a store. According to the book The Woodwards, a family story of ventures and traditions, his sons had taken over the main company and Charles, who was in his late 60s, was looking for a new undertaking. He created a new company, C. Woodward (Edmonton) Ltd., and the first Woodward’s in Edmonton opened for business in October, 1926.
In the 1940s, Woodward’s had an annual Christmas tradition of teaming up with the Capitol Theatre to treat kids to a movie and a toy from Woodward’s Toyland. They also held fashion shows and we have some great images from one in 1949.
Letterhead is one of my favorite things and I was happy to find some of Woodward’s. I’ve only included one page with the letterhead (below) but I also made a pdf of the whole document as well as the City’s reply. It’s interesting that they went into such detail about the non-food related items for sale that would contravene the proposed bylaw. The final bylaw, No. 1632, passed in August, 1954 and it did address Woodward’s concern by excluding departmental or chain stores.
According to the newspapers, there was some controversy around both Northgate and Southgate. Accusations suggested that Woodward’s was able to push the development permits through Council, against the advice of the Town Planner. There were clearly influences at various levels of government as Douglas Harker, in his book The Woodwards, notes that when Southgate was being developed the City hadn’t built roads to it yet but this changed after “an appeal to Premier Manning who promptly and personally legislated in Woodward’s favour.” It would be interesting to look into this further using the archival documents from that time.
One of my colleagues worked at the downtown Woodward’s in the late 1970s and shared some memories with me, everything from being greeted everyday outside the store by Pete Jamieson, Edmonton’s Unofficial Town Crier, to Mr. Woodward’s frequent visits to the store where he greeted staff by name. She said the Southgate store was Woodward’s busiest store for years. Former employees have fond memories of Woodward’s and still hold reunions; the latest in Edmonton was in 2012.
The 1980s economic downturn had a disastrous effect on Woodward’s and they did not adapt as well as the other big retailers. A January, 1993 Edmonton Journal article blamed this on the fact that the family stopped running the company but were still major shareholders, so “outsider” managers couldn’t be effective or flexible enough to make the big moves that had previously characterized the company.
In the early 1990s, there were attempts to downsize and innovate – to turn the company around – but it didn’t work out. After several bids to take over and much speculation, the Bay Company bought the remaining Woodward’s stores in 1993. Several locations in Edmonton closed and the rest became Zellers or Bay stores.
Do you have any memories of Woodward’s in Edmonton? Please share them with a comment if you do!