The Doukhobor Trading Company in Canora

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of articles, written by former Canora resident Jonathan Kalmakoff of Regina, relating to the building and business activities of the Doukhobor Trading Company - the commercial arm of the Doukhobor Community which between 1907 and 1918, undertook a substantial amount of building and business activity on Second Avenue North in Canora. The articles not only examine the original Doukhobor builders and owners of these properties, but also track the subsequent owners and businesses to the present day.)

Growth and Consolidation of Operations, 1907-1912

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Distributive operations

 

            The initial development of its Canora property enabled the Doukhobor Trading Company to establish a distribution depot for the movement of goods and supplies within the local Doukhobor community between 1907 and 1912. 

 

            The system under which this distribution network operated was described by contemporary observers as “simplicity itself”.

            Everything necessary to feed, clothe and provision the community was ordered through the central office of the Doukhobor Trading Company in Veregin. Initially, the ordering was carried out by a central committee; however, in 1909 a general manager position was created to carry out this function.

            In placing these orders, they were advised by village delegates at the general meetings of the Doukhobor community of the probable requirements for each village in the near future. Additional orders were placed throughout the year on an ad hocbasis as required.

            Bulk orders were placed via telegraph, letter and personal visit with wholesalers in Yorkton, Medicine Hat, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal and were paid for by the central office of the Doukhobor Trading Company. Prior to 1907, these orders were purchased on credit; thereafter, they were paid for in cash. Separate arrangements were made with the various railway companies to transport the wholesale goods by railcar-load from the factory outlets to the trading store and warehouse in Canora.

            In Canora, a local Doukhobor was placed in charge of the trading store and warehouse.  Initially, Dmitry N. Gritchin of Mikhailovo village was appointed manager from 1907 to 1909; in 1910-1911, Fyodor I. Wishlow of Blagoveshcheniye village performed this role; and after 1912, Vasily A. Shishkin of Blagoveshcheniye served as manager. 

            These men were each chosen for their high personal character, amiable disposition, strong intellect and solid grasp of business principles. Basic literacy and fluency in English were also essential. 

            Reporting to the central office of the Doukhobor Trading Company in Veregin, the store manager was responsible for receiving, storing, distributing and maintaining inventories of goods. Other duties included grooming, feeding and watering the store and village teams of horses; maintaining stores of hay, feed and bedding; managing the stable manure; and cleaning, repair and upkeep of buildings. 

            Residing in the dwelling house with his family, the store manager lived in the same simplicity as other members of the Doukhobor community, without any luxuries, and paid the whole of his salary into the central office.  

            When a freight load of goods arrived at the Canadian Northern Railway station in Canora, the railcar was parked alongside the station platform for unloading. Once advised by the station agent of its arrival, the store manager dispatched the store dray and team of horses to the station.  The dray (a flat wagon without sides used to haul freight) was drawn up beside the long wooden platform.  

            Supervised by the station agent, the store manager and his helpers then transferred the boxes, crates and pallets from the railcar to the platform, and from the platform to the dray.  It sometimes took several dray loads to haul away the entire load of freight.

            The supplies were carted by the store dray and team back to the company warehouse on Second Avenue East, where they were unloaded and carefully organized and stored until they were needed.  Samples of the merchandise were set out in the store display cases and counters for the perusal of Doukhobors visiting Canora from their villages and the general public.

            As for the merchandise itself, the Doukhobor Trading Company store maintained a general line of staple goods including: groceries (sugar, tea, salt, butter, etc.), canned goods (jam and preserves, etc.), dry goods (wool, fabric, thread, clothing and winter footwear), hardware and tools (axes, hammers, drills and other gear), crockery and enamel saucepans, general supplies (soap, coal oil, harnesses, axle grease, lanterns, pails, shoe leather, garden seeds, etc.) and building supplies (glass, fasteners, paint, stoves, chimney covers, rope, etc.). 

            Goods produced by the local Doukhobor community were also stocked, including bricks, concrete blocks, lumber, milled flour, rolled oats and surplus garden produce.

            Several notable items were not carried by the store, including meat, alcohol, tobacco, guns, cartridges and shells, as the use of these items was strictly prohibited under Doukhobor teachings.

            The only known complaint made by local Doukhobors in connection with the goods and supplies stocked by the trading store was with respect to foodstuffs, in that the range was somewhat limited, and some items which the ordinary Doukhobor regarded as ‘necessities’ were regarded by the store and general managers as ‘luxuries’ and therefore not provided. The availability of goods was also limited by the quantity of inventory stocked in the warehouse.          

 

            In making goods available to members of the Doukhobor community, there was no ‘sale’ for a ‘profit’ by the store per se, but merely a process of distribution. No money changed hands.            In theory, any member of the community could come to the store and ask for whatever he or she wanted, and there were no limits placed on the demands, nor were accounts kept of the consumption or quantity taken by any individual; it was considered a matter of honour whether a person took more from the store than necessary. 

            In practice, however, each community village established a credit account through the central office of the Doukhobor Trading Company in Veregin and received goods from the store up to the value of same; although villages having a credit account readily shared it with those villages that had none. 

            The distribution network of the Canora trading store included all community villages within a 12 to 15-mile radius. When a village needed supplies, the village foreman dispatched one or more wagon teams and drivers to the store in Canora. Often these trips coincided with village grain deliveries to one of Canora’s elevators. Upon their arrival, the village wagons were drawn up beside the warehouse for loading, while the village teams were unhitched and taken to the livery stable where they were groomed, fed, watered and rested. 

            The village drivers, together with the store manager, loaded supplies onto the wagon.  Meals were provided to the drivers by the store manager’s wife and family and if an overnight stay was required, accommodations were made for them in the dwelling house and the banya was heated for their use. The drivers and teams then departed to their villages. The trip for supplies was regularly made by the villages every few months.         

Regular visits to Canora were made by Peter V. Verigin to oversee and inspect the operation of the trading store. Often remaining two or three days each time, the Doukhobor leader practically counseled the store manager on day-to-day matters, carefully examined the ledger and account book, and shrewdly directed the business of the trading store. 

            In the evenings, special meals and celebrations were held to mark his visits, often accompanied by psalm-singing, prayers and spiritual discussion. The dwelling house contained a gornitsa(special guest quarters) for him to stay in during his visits. The Doukhobor leader then returned to his headquarters in Veregin or continued on to Yorkton or elsewhere to transact business.     

Retail and Commercial Operations

            In addition to its distributive operations, the Doukhobor Trading Company store was also open to the general public between 1907 and 1912, selling Doukhobor-manufactured goods and (reselling) wholesale goods at a profit to the townspeople of Canora and to homesteaders conducting business in the village. 

When customers entered the trading store, they were met with dim light, long aisles and side walls lined with display shelves, drawers and bins. A counter divided the customer from the genial store manager, who retrieved merchandise from the display cases behind him for the customer, and tallied the bill when the shopping was done. Merchandise was often sold at lower prices than other shops, as the Doukhobors purchased bulk goods at wholesale rates and incurred no labour costs of their own. 

            Payment in full was always preferred when a transaction took place; however, the store frequently gave credit to customers who could not afford to pay until later. Many customers were Galician and Ukrainian settlers, recent immigrants to Canada who spoke a language similar to that of the Doukhobors, with whom they could converse.

            The Doukhobors’ livery stable provided a vital transportation service to the general public, renting out horses and wagons to travelers who arrived in Canora by train, allowing them a means of getting from the Canadian Northern Railway station to their destination. 

            It offered cartage services, providing men, teams and wagons for hire to transport freight within Canora and surrounding area. The livery stable provided a place where horse owners could pay to have their horses temporarily boarded and cared for, whether it was a homesteader in the village for a few hours to get supplies, or a townsperson departing for a few weeks by train. Even the manure from the horses was turned into a commodity and sold as fertilizer.    

             While these retail sales and services remained secondary to the distributive operations of the trading store in Canora, they still generated a considerable amount of revenue for the Doukhobor Trading Company. In the year 1909, for instance, the Canora store reported a profit of $2,714 ($68,000 in today’s dollars), surpassing the net incomes of the other company stores in Veregin and Benito for that year. Only the store manager handled cash, which was kept in a strong box in the store office and regularly remitted to the central office in Veregin.   

            Finally, the Doukhobor Trading Company hired itself out as a general contractor. 

            Based out of the trading store, Doukhobor work crews supervised by the store manager used Doukhobor-manufactured building material (lumber, bricks and cement blocks) to construct a number of buildings in Canora and surrounding district. 

            Notable examples include the N. Bawlf Grain Company Ltd. elevator in Canora (1911), the N. Bawlf Grain Company Ltd. elevator in Mikado (circa 1912), and the Gravel Hill School near Buchanan (1918) to name just a few. In the year 1909 alone, the Doukhobor Trading Company earned $6,434 ($167,000 in today’s dollars) from commercial building activity in Canora.    

            In carrying out this retail and commercial activity, the Doukhobor Trading Society gained renown for its first-rate reputation, integrity and business standing. 

            Contemporaries remarked that, “everyone is anxious to do business with them, and those who have, pronounced their business transactions eminently satisfactory. In some cases their word was taken instead of the usual written agreement, although large sums of money were involved, and not one instance came under notice… where they failed to live up to their obligations.

            “Bank managers speak of them in the highest terms, as customers on whose accounts were most welcome. The largest trading firm gives them almost unlimited credit, and their books show that they are doing business with many of the best-known leading wholesalers and manufacturers in the Dominion.”