Getting to know Walter and Gladys Hill
The Hill Family - Walter and Gladys Hill
This information was gathered from interviews with Ken and Diane Hill as used for plaques that are exhibited in the Hills Home that is located at Heritage Park, as well as through email communication with Ken Hill in Spring 2014.
Walter Hill, born in England, attended University in Edmonton and came to Fort McMurray to work as a pharmacist when the town was in its beginnings. He purchased a store and became a prominent member of the community. He played a role in shaping the early history of Fort McMurray.
Walter Herbert Hill was born in Tring. Herefordshire England on March 20, 1900. Walter began school at the age of four and advanced to Grade three at the age of five. In 1913 Walter, his parents and his younger brother immigrated to Edmonton where he was again advanced a few more grades.
Shortly before his 17th birthday Walter lied about his age and joined the army. His army career started in the 4th Canadian Field Ambulance. Walter undertook basic training in Calgary and within a month was granted permission to go overseas, transferring to the 31st Battalion of the 2nd division of Canadians. Walter served as a stretcher bearer, having the gruesome job of carrying the injured and dead from the battle field. He sustained minor injuries during the war, despite participating in major battles such as Vimy Ridge.
After the war, Walter returned to Edmonton. He continued his education while apprenticing as a pharmacist, working for J.W. Morris. Walter used his military pay to attend the University of Alberta's first School of Pharmacy in 1919. Walter graduated in the fall of 1921 with the advantage of four years of apprenticeship and being one of the first graduates from the University of Alberta Pharmacy program. He joined the staff of Giffen Drugs, as an assistant manager and later manager. He remained there for a year, after which time the lease expired and the store was forced to close. In 1922 Walter was preparing to move to California to open a store when another offer arose. Down North, Angus Sutherland, Fort McMurray's first pharmacist, became ill and needed assistance. Walter went to Fort McMurray for what he thought, was a temporary relief position.
Walter arrived in Fort McMurray in 1922 by train with the intention of staying only 3 months. He came to manage Sutherland’s Pharmacy to assist Angus Sutherland who was on leave due to illness. However, Sutherland returned still in poor health and was unable to manage the store. He offered Walter the chance to buy him out or he was going to shut down the store. Walter lacked the funds to buy so instead, marked by a handshake, the two began a 29 year partnership that went on until Sutherland's death in 1951. Walter Hill was very dedicated to his work as a pharmacist. His time was split between the store, raising a family and being involved the community.
Walter was called the 'medicine man' by the aboriginal people. He prescribed remedies for illnesses, and even served as a veterinarian. Walter helped Dr. Ing tend to broken bones and even pulled teeth. In 1938 the drugstore expanded and two new branches were opened, one in Waterways and one in Yellowknife. Walter went north to start up the new store, becoming the first pharmacist in the North West Territories. Eventually, a pharmacist was hired to run the Yellowknife store which allowed Walter to spend more of his time in Fort McMurray. After Angus Sutherland's death Walter took over the store and renamed it Hill Drugs Limited. Walter was an important community figure. He joined the Board of Trade (later the Chamber of Commerce) and was very active in the Anglican Church. He helped found the Royal Canadian Legion and in later years served on the Street Naming Committee. Walter was a sociable, outgoing and friendly man who was both well known and well liked. He taught dozens of children to swim in the Snye and had the reputation of being able to tell quite a good story. Walter received various awards for his efforts in the community, including a Keyano College Distinguished Citizen Award. Walter continued to work in the store into his 80s, when he finally cut back his usual twelve hour days. He finally retired at the age of 83. Walter Hill passed away October 27th 1986, 10 months after being hospitalized. His legacy still remains strong in the community.
Gladys came from England to marry Walter Hill in 1923. She was athletic, hard working and a determined woman. She adjusted to her new life in the north remarkably well. Gladys enjoyed the adventure and challenges the new community of Fort McMurray had to offer. Gladys May (Percy) Hill was born on June 23,1900 in London, England into an affluent family. She grew up without having to worry about household tasks. She did not even know how to boil water and certainly did not have the outdoor experiences that would be necessary to prepare her for living in the north.
Walter and Gladys' families were friends. Gladys' father was a builder and Walter's father worked for him as an estimator. In 1923 Walter wrote Gladys' father to ask permission to marry his daughter. Gladys came from England to Edmonton, where she and Walter were married. The new couple made the trip to Fort McMurray by train and then by boat. They only had $5.65 to get themselves started but unfortunately, somewhere along the way Walter lost the five dollar bill and they arrived in Fort McMurray with nothing left but a handful of change. Gladys was the 11th white woman to arrive in the area. When she stepped off the train at the end of steel in Old Waterways she was wearing a big gold picture hat, however the remainder of their journey was in an uncovered boat, through the rain to Fort McMurray. By the time they arrived Gladys had tossed that gold hat into the river, and traded it in for Walter's hat and old raincoat. Gladys quickly adapted to her new life with skill, determination and perseverance.
Gladys discovered quickly that the northern lifestyle was very different from England. However, she never complained and immediately adapted to her new surroundings. Gladys continued to enjoy some of the traditions of her former life in England such as listening to the radio and playing the piano. She also learned many new skills including fishing, horseback riding and hunting small game, like grouse and rabbit that were necessary for survival. The aboriginal people called her the 'medicine man's Iskwew'. They were amazed by her capabilities and her love of the water. Both Walter and Gladys taught dozens of children in the community how to swim and Gladys also taught a lifesaving course to Girl Guides.
In 1934, the drugstore, which was also their residence caught fire, Gladys rescued her children then ran back in to save important ledgers, recent prescription files, money and some books before everything was completely destroyed by the blaze.
Gladys was very involved in her new community. In 1950 she was elected as the first female town councilor, a position she held for five years. She was active in a number of organizations, the Anglican Women's Auxiliary and for 25 years serving in the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire Reagent (IODE). She helped organize the "1st of July" sports events, and played on a number of sports teams. Gladys was well respected in the community, she was known for her competitive nature and her athletic ability. She was active in swimming, running, curling, tennis, softball and badminton.
Gladys was a hard worker. She tended to the home and the children, and assisted Walter in the store. In her later years she was known to out work many of the younger staff. She retired at the age of 79 when emphysema had made it too difficult for her to work any longer. On December 5th, 1985 at the age of 85, Gladys Hill passed away, in Fort McMurray one year before her husband.
Walter and Gladys had two sons, David and Kenneth.
David was born on August 8th, 1924 in Edmonton, Alberta. While growing up David helped in the drugstore. He also had the job of delivering a weeks worth of the daily Edmonton Journal newspapers to the six subscribers in the community. His interests were in physical fitness, collecting movie posters and airplanes.
From the time David was very young he was able to identify planes that flew overhead. In 1942, after finishing grade twelve David left Fort McMurray and became a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. His father, Walter, always dreamed that after the war, he and Angus Sutherland would buy a small plane and David would fly them to their store in Yellowknife. David became a Flight Lieutenant in the air force and was based in England from 1943-1944. He was the Captain of a Lancaster bomber, the youngest in a crew of six. He came home twice during the war. David was shot down in February 1945 while flying a mission over Germany. He was reported missing and after six months he and his crew were found. As said by his brother Ken, “he always wanted to fly and he did."
When son Ken graduated from the University of Alberta he worked in the Fort McMurray store as well as the one in Yellowknife. Gradually he took over the reins of the business but into the 1980’s Walter enjoyed his daily trip to the bank. Both Ken and his wife Diane involved themselves in the community. Diane was on the board that built the first women’s shelter in town, 9 years on the Citizen Appeal Committee, on the Legal Aid Society, and the Anglican Women’s Auxiliary. Ken served on the Town Council, Founding 1969 Public School Board, Founding Keyano College Board and Hospital and Public Health Boards. A second generation Keyano College Distinguished Citizen Award. Both were keenly interested in the history of the community and it was through their efforts that both the original Hill Drugs building and the Hill home from Manning Avenue were relocated to Heritage Park, along with many of the artifacts of the store and home.
As Fort McMurray grew with the expanding oil sands operations the Hills saw a need for a bigger store and wider range of product. 1965 saw the first building constructed and then a larger two-story building was built in 1972. On the second floor CJOK, the new radio station had its offices, and Judge Mike Horrocks continued his early law career. The spacious basement housed a variety of stores and offices. The larger store made room for many departments, including gifts, dinnerware and cosmetics. In 1988 the store was closed after being under Hill guidance for 66 years. Many loyal customers felt the loss; most of all the visiting and storytelling they had enjoyed on many occasions.
Like others in the small community both Hill families raised large gardens. There was no television, few telephones, intermittent radio reception, in the first half of the century. In summer a Sunday afternoon trip up the Clearwater River for a picnic gave a break to the six and half days the store was open.
Walter Hill often recalled how his partnership with Angus Sutherland was done by a handshake, which lasted until his death in May 1951. Years later, son Ken and Diane sold the valuable property on the basis of a handshake. Trust and confidence in fellow residents and pride in the community they served characterized this remarkable Fort McMurray family.