One of Nelson’s finest brick buildings marks a major milestone this weekend.
A century ago, the two-storey block at 523 Front Street was the newest addition to what was then the city’s burgeoning warehouse district. Now staff at Ellison’s Market are getting ready to mark its centennial with a bash on Saturday (see more on that below).
The building’s story is the story of two competing flour companies who occupied it, Brackman-Ker Feed and Milling, and Ellison’s Milling and Elevator.
The former’s roots dated to 1878 when Henry Brackman, who made his fortune during the Cariboo gold rush, teamed up with Scottish miller James Milne on Vancouver Island.
Their partnership dissolved the following year, and Brackman took on another associate, David Russell Ker, the son of BC’s auditor general. The new firm of Brackman-Ker, based in Victoria, proved highly successful with its line of B&K cereals, feeds, and wheat flakes.
The Nelson branch opened in late 1898 with Frank B. Gibbs as local manager.
“In Nelson the company will carry a full line of manufactured products of the mill, as well as oats, bran, shorts and mill feed to supply the local as well as the jobbing trade throughout the district,” the Nelson Tribune reported.
At first the company had makeshift headquarters in the Turner Beeton and Co. warehouse, but in 1900, local architecture firm Ewart and Carrie designed a new building for them.
By 1912 this was evidently inadequate, for a brick building, 70 by 107 feet with close to 15,000 square feet on its two stories, capable of storing 30 car loads of stock, was erected at 523 Front.
It cost either $16,000 or $40,000, depending on conflicting accounts, but It’s unclear who the architect and builder were. Nor is it known who supplied the bricks
“The improved property that the company is now occupying makes it one of the heavy taxpayers in this city,” said the Nelson Daily News of January 6, 1913. “The Brackman-Ker Co. supplies only in wholesale quantities in flour and breakfast cereals, but its customers extend to Cranbrook on the east; to Arrowhead north and Waneta on the south and to Hedley on the west.”
By now the operation had a staff of half a dozen and was managed by George A. Brown, who would become synonymous with Brackman-Ker during a career that lasted over 40 years.
“He has been most effective and energetic in attending to the trade of the company, in extending its resources and patronage and in giving the public the service it should expect,” the Daily News gushed.
By 1928, the company had 20 other BC locations, including one in Rossland. But sometime between 1950 and 1952, Brackman-Ker sold its Nelson holdings, and its chief rival moved into the building.
THE ELLISON’S ERA
Ellison’s Milling and Elevator Co. was founded in Lethbridge in 1906 by Ephraim P. Ellison and grew to be one of that city’s largest employers.
Ellison’s specialized in seeds, fertilizer, hay, and poultry supplies and had its own line of flour.
According to civic directories, it did business in Nelson first at 1214 Water Street and later 212 Stanley. Managers included R.D. Barnes, Cliff Haydon, Barton C. Poulson, and Melvin Oxspring. But at the time of the move to Front Street, the boss was Joe Kary, who went on to become mayor.
In the basement, Kary made a curious find: a carriage reportedly used by Doukhobor leader Peter (Lordly) Verigin. It was donated to the Nelson museum, but since they didn’t have room to display it, it was transferred two years ago to the Doukhobor Discovery Centre in Castlegar.
Fred Heddle, 80, worked for both Brackman-Ker and Ellison’s, in stints several years apart.
At 18, he began driving a truck and delivering feed to farmers from Rossland to Kaslo. When Brackman-Ker left Nelson, Heddle worked at Nelson Transfer before coming to Ellison’s, where he stayed until 1967.
“In those days it was a 44-hour week,” he says. “You got Wednesday afternoon off and worked all day Saturday. Hard work, you betcha.”
He recalls there were only a handful of employees between the office and the warehouse, although they had some part-time help, including retired district agriculturalist Earl Hunt: “It was a great boon to them. People would pump him for information.”
During Heddle’s time, Ellison’s was a distributor for bread company U-Bake, as well as insecticides and pesticides. In the basement was a repair shop called We’ll Fix It, run by Pete Stewart and Rex Little. Upstairs, they stored hay.
FLOUR IN 100-POUND SACKS
Yosh Tagami, 86, went to work at Ellison’s warehouse in 1956 or ‘57.
“We used to deliver flour to Trail, Fruitvale, Rossland, and Castlegar to most of the bakeries,” he says. “Flour came in 100-pound cotton sacks. Feed came in 100-pound jute bags. Later on, we had pallets. But till then we had to load it all by hand.”
Tagami says they would back the truck up to the customer’s door and then stack it. Nelson’s Hood’s bakery, however, stored flour in the basement.
“So you went to the alley to unload the flour off the truck and put it down the chute. You’d get so many bags in, then go down to the basement and pile it up again.”
Flour and feed came in by rail cars from Ellison’s in Lethbridge every three weeks — a railway spur behind the building also served the neighbouring National Fruit Co., now the Front Street Emporium.
They only had 48 hours to unload the cars, while still making deliveries and looking after customers. (The spur was eventually removed and all the flour brought in by truck.)
Later Tagami worked in the office, and in 1965 took over from Kary as manager. During his time the building saw few changes, except for a partition put in to create a flour room.
In all, he was at Ellison’s for nearly 35 years. Although Tagami expanded the product line a bit — adding paints, garden furniture, and lawn mowers — flour and feed remained their primary business.
It wasn’t until the McLaren family bought the business in 1989 that it became Ellison’s Market, with organic produce, bulk goods, groceries, pet supplies, and more recently, a natural foods cafe, music venue, and weekly gardening seminars.
“It’s pretty exciting that Ellison’s has been able to stand tall for 100 years,” says Susan McLaren. When the family took over, there were only a couple of employees. Now there are 21.
“We introduced wholesale foods into the store,” McLaren explains. “Then we had a buyer who was into the organic industry. He led the charge and we threw our support behind him.”
She says their growth has been driven by customers’ needs and wishes — they do a lot of special ordering — and as a result, Ellison’s has carved out a niche in Nelson.
“Ellison’s has a place in this city,” McLaren says. “We provide a lot of quality food for people and pets, and things to grow your garden with. We’re interested in providing heathy food so we can be a healthy community.”
While it still bears the Ellison name, the store is no longer affiliated with the Lethbridge company — but you can still buy Ellison’s brand flour.
Today the century-old building boasts several interesting quirks, including a charming freight elevator, still in use. An old front door embossed with “Ellison Milling and Elevator Company Ltd.” in gold leaf has been repurposed as an interior door.
A number of vintage Ellison’s flour and oat sacks hang from the walls, and there’s a huge, ancient Fairbanks No. 5 platform scale in the middle of the store. A set of back doors that faced onto the railway siding were recently re-opened for the first time in years.
The building’s rear east corner evidently collapsed at some point; you can see where it was re-bricked and some of the windows covered over.
But perhaps the most famous feature is an interior brick wall on which dozens of former employees have left their names since 1918. (Those signatures used to go around the other side where there was once a walk-in vault, but it has since been removed.)
The building, McLaren says, has lots of character: “People walk in and go ‘Wow, I love the feel of this place. Look at those beams, look at the brickwork.’“
That warmth is reflected in her staff, she adds.
A FOND FAREWELL
Saturday’s birthday celebration at Ellison’s is also a final hurrah for the longest serving current employee.
After almost 12 years with the business, garden manager Greg Creary is moving to Winnipeg to be closer to family. (His last day was a week ago, but he’s coming back for the party.)
“I loved it. It’s been really good,” he says. “The [McLaren] family has treated me great as well as all the employees and customers over all these years.”
McLaren praised Creary as a “key part” of the business, responsible for not only the selection of products but the general atmosphere.
“He’s going to be hard to replace because of his personality and willingness and encouragement. We wish him all the best in his new adventure.”
Before he goes, Creary will continue a longstanding Ellison’s tradition by writing his name on a wall inside the store, joining nearly a century’s worth of former employees.
ELLISON’S MARKS A CENTURY
Ellison’s Market will celebrate the centennial of its building Saturday from 2 to 6 p.m. with numerous things to see and do including horseback rides, hens and roosters, staff in costume serving up a barbecue, organic ice cream, and goodies.
There will also be children’s activities including egg spoon races and apple bobbing, plus samples, giveaways, and a raffle with $3,500 worth of prizes, including a year’s supply of Horizon dog food. Donations to the raffle will benefit the Mothers and Midwives Group in Haiti, where Nelson midwife Melinda McLaren is currently working.
On top of that, there will be birthday cake and musicians performing off the loading dock. The musical line-up is:
2 p.m.: HeartSong
3 p.m.: Hot Tin Can
4 p.m.: Julie Kerr and Craig Korth
5 p.m.: Square dance with Bob Dean