The long history of Burns Lake’s drug stores

From a pharmacy to a place to hang out for the unemployed during the Great Depression

© 2018 Michael Riis-Christianson and the Lakes District Museum Society

Gordon Wood, a pharmacist and part-time sign painter, arrived here in March 1920 and established Burns Lake’s first drug store near the present site of the Burnt Bikes parking lot on First Avenue. Because medical personnel were in short supply at the time, Wood was often asked to perform services totally unrelated to apothecary. He once set a man’s shoulder by placing his foot in the fellow’s armpit and pulling enthusiastically on the injured limb.

Wood, who played on Burns Lake’s first hockey team and was a member of the Burns Lake Citizens Association (the forerunner of today’s chamber of commerce), often opened his store at odd hours as demand warranted. Two gentlemen once arrived at his door and offered for sale the contents of a pail they were carrying. Perhaps thinking it was patent medicine, the druggist looked inside. The contents, he later claimed, smelled like alcohol but looked like stew.

Wood’s drug store burned to the ground in the March 18, 1925 fire that destroyed much of Burns Lake’s downtown core. Despite saving most of his stock and personal effects, he moved to Prince George the following month. In later years, though, he claimed he’d never had so much fun in all his life – nor made so little money.

Dr. John Taylor (Doc) Steele opened Burns Lake’s second drug store in a building that had previously served as a bakery. The drug store occupied by the front portion of the building, and Steele operated his medical practice out of the rear. The business didn’t contain a pharmacy per se, but carried a variety of patent medicines that the manufacturers claimed could cure everything from abdominal discomfort to shingles. Doc was reportedly partial to a tonic called Beef Iron and Wine.

Steele was a founding member of the Burns Lake Board of Trade, and served as a village commissioner (the equivalent of today’s councillor) from April 1928 until December of the same year, after which he sold the drug store to John McKenna and moved to Alberta.

McKenna had the misfortune of purchasing the business just prior to the Great Depression. The place was a favourite hangout for the area’s many unemployed during those lean years, and it was said that far more candy was consumed there than was actually purchased. In 1934, McKenna sold the drug store operation.

In 1936, Thomas P. Smith arrived from Telkwa and built a new store near the present site of Lakes District Printing & Signs. Smith left during the war, but returned after the cessation of hostilities and re-opened his popular store – which, to everyone’s delight, sold ice cream.

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Johnny McKenna displays moose horns in front of his drug store. (Submitted/Lakes District News)

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