Friday, 3 October 2014

HIStory & HERitage: Walter & Gladys Hill

                             HIStory & HERitage

The Fort McMurray Public School District recently celebrated the opening of its first new elementary school in 26 years when, on September 2, 2014, Walter and Gladys Hill Public School (WGHPS) officially welcomed students through its doors. 

Like many streets, sites and public structures in the region, this new school was named in honour of prominent members of the community who made a significant contribution to the area.

Which brings us to the question: who were Walter and Gladys Hill?

Walter Herbert Hill was born on March 20, 1900 in Herefordshire, England. His family immigrated to Edmonton in 1913, a year before the start of the First World War. As the war continued to rage on, Walter lied about his age and enlisted in the army, just shy of his 17th birthday. While stationed in England for training, Walter rekindled his friendship with a young woman named Gladys, whom he had known as a child.  

Following the end of the war, Walter studied at the University of Alberta, becoming one of the first graduates of its pharmacy program. In 1922, Walter was preparing to move to California to open a drug store of his own, when he heard of a temporary position in Fort McMurray. Angus Sutherland, Fort McMurray’s first pharmacist, was ill with arthritis and needed help running his pharmacy, Sutherland’s Drugs. 

Walter traveled north with the intention of only staying a few months. However, Sutherland offered Walter the opportunity to buy the pharmacy, or else he would have to shut it down. Since he didn’t have the funds to buy the store outright, the two men agreed to a partnership, sealing the contract the old fashioned way- with a handshake. 

With his career looking bright, Walter wrote a letter to Gladys’ father asking permission to marry his daughter. He agreed, and in 1923 Gladys embarked on the long journey to Edmonton, where she and Walter were married. Together they traveled to Fort McMurray by train, and then by boat. The rough and wild Fort McMurray was a stark contrast to the comfortable life Gladys had enjoyed in England, but she quickly adapted to her new surroundings with determination and perseverance. With her arrival, she became the 11th white woman to the area.

Together, Walter and Gladys had two sons: Dave and Kenneth. For a while, the young family lived in an apartment above the pharmacy. In 1934, however, a fire destroyed many businesses along Franklin Ave, including Sutherlands Drugs. The Hills were able to escape unscathed and Gladys is credited with running back into the burning building to save important ledgers, prescription files, money and books. Amazingly, Sutherlands Drugs was rebuilt within 30 days! Afterwards, the Hills moved into their own house on  Manning Ave, which has since relocated to Heritage Park. 

Following the death of Sutherland in 1951, Walter became the sole owner of the pharmacy. He officially changed the name to Hill Drugs once his son Kenneth joined the family business in the 1970s.  

In addition to working at the pharmacy, the Hill’s were known for their community involvement and were honoured by several organizations with lifetime memberships. 

Gladys was the first woman to be elected as a Town Councilor, a position she held for 5 years. She was also involved in a number of local organizations, including the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE), the Girl Guide Troop as well as many local sport teams. Gladys continued to assist her husband at the pharmacy until she finally retired at age 79. She passed away six years later on December 5, 1985.

Walter was a member of the Board of Trade (later named the Chamber of Commerce) as well as . He received various awards in his recognition for his efforts in the community. He continued working at the pharmacy well into his golden years.  He passed away on October 27, 1986 at age 86. 

Hills Drugs closed its doors two years later on October 8, 1988. However, the Hill family pharmacy tradition continues with Walter's grandson, Dave Hill, who now owns and operates Dave Hill Pharmacy in Thickwood. 

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