When Heritage BC proclaimed Main Street: at the Heart of the Community as this year’s theme for Heritage Week, this curator was slightly perplexed. What street in our downtown core was the historic heart of our community? Front Street (Lakeshore), Alexander, or Hudson?
The term main street sounded vaguely American, like Reeses Pieces versus Smarties, but the task of interpreting the theme was a familiar one. That’s what museum people do – interpret history. With a little research I came to the conclusion that the term Heritage BC was using applied to Front Street, the first commercial street in the community. There were several historic buildings and businesses on Front Street that made downtown Salmon Arm a vital place. One business was S-A-F-E Ltd. It was located on the northwest corner at the north end of Shuswap Avenue. It was a unique cooperative that had its roots in the Salmon Arm Farmers’ Exchange.
The Exchange, as it was known by locals, was established in 1907. It was a shipping organization created to get Salmon Arm fruit cheaply to market in a timely way – no buyers wanted rotten fruit! After securing a lease on CPR ground, the Exchange built a packing house west of the CPR station and concentrated on selling fruit to Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba markets and eventually to Europe.
The Exchange got into trouble when it expanded into the retail market, buying goods in bulk and selling them back to community members. Local retail merchants objected, seeing the Exchange as competition with an unfair advantage. Salmon Arm merchants could not compete on the added cost of shipping.
The Exchange shipped in bulk. So local merchants organized and petitioned the CPR to control the activities of its leaseholder. In 1913 CPR representatives nailed a notice to the door of the packing house, effectively serving the Exchange with a demand to vacate the premises within 30 days and cancelling the lease. The Exchange was in violation by operating a retail business.
What to do? A temporary location was found for the stock at the Finn Hall. The board of the Exchange decided to finance a separate operation and open a retail co-operative on the south side of Front Street and S-A-F-E Ltd. was born. Robert Turner, Frank Black, James Evans, W.J. Andrew and G.G. Barber were appointed the directors. The Exchange purchased the R.K. Scales store and entered into a lease agreement with S-A-F-E as a separate entity for $900 a year.
By 1916 the business had grown so much that additions were made to the original building. It was extensively remodelled and additions built on. There were three departments: dry goods, groceries, and hardware. The business boomed. The building was enlarged a second and third time in 1921 and 1936, respectively.
E.A. Weir, associate editor of the Grain Growers’ Guide, visited the S-A-F-E and reviewed the operation. He called the store convenient. “It has by long odds the largest, best furnished and most comfortable restroom for its customers that I have ever seen [in Western Canada].”
Manager G.G. Barber was smart. He knew that women who came into Salmon Arm from the country needed a place to tidy up. There was a restroom with easy chairs and a sofa, and a separate room with baby cots so that patrons could shop unencumbered by infants. He advertised that S-A-F-E was a progressive enterprise and those women – not just men – shareholders had a voice. They all had the right to vote, something women didn’t have nationally until 1918.
The co-operative was more than a business that did well, with profits paid back to members. It developed into a story about lifestyle, choices, and community.
The advertising slogan, “Meet me at the S-A-F-E on Saturday,” spoke volumes.
The S-A-F-E Ltd. store was a vital part of the heart of downtown. When the building was engulfed by fire in 1956 it took a year to rebuild and by that time buyer’s loyalties had changed. Unfortunately, the S-A-F-E was forced to liquidate its assets in 1959 after serving the community for 45 years.
To see displays courtesy of the Salmon Arm Museum at R.J. Haney Heritage Village, and others, visit the Mall at Piccadilly between Feb. 16 and 21.