Home Town or Home Community:
Looking at the history of Saskatchewan and the gamble many took to be at the forefront of this province’s incredible history, there is a parallel that can be drawn between Swift Current’s own W.W. Smith, both the man and the business, and the growth of the province and the city he would call home. Dedicated to his family, his business and his community, W.W. Smith took a gamble that paid off, not only for himself and his family, but for the province as a whole.
Taking a Gamble
In 1903 the Northwest Territories was a destination for many young pioneers looking for a new life. Across the ocean, thousands of miles away in a suburb of London, England known as Woolwich, a young William Wensley Smith had just turned 17, and was ready to embark on a journey to discover what adventures and opportunities lay waiting for him in Canada. Little did he know then, that he and his descendants would one day play a significant role in the development of a soon to be established province by the name of Saskatchewan, and in the development of the growing settlement of Swift Current, which had been given Village status that very same year.
Leaving his family and his homeland behind, never to be seen again, Smith set out on his journey with nothing but a few shillings in his pocket, some personal belongings, and a letter from his Pastor vouching for his character.
“The bearer of this letter Mr. Willie Smith is well known to me, having been in my Sunday School & Band of Hope from a child. He is quiet, reliable & trustworthy & I can speak with confidence about him. I believe him to be willing to do his best wherever he may be and any favour shown him will be appreciated.”
– G.Y.Radford, Superintendent
Westergan Sunday School
Starting his new life in the wilds of Manitoba where he worked as a farm labourer, Smith would soon pull up stakes yet again, to go even further west, where he would resettle just prior to the Territory joining the Dominion of Canada as the Province of Saskatchewan on September 1st, 1905.
Yearning to make his mark on the world, after a few years working as an employee in a general store in Qu’Appelle, Smith moved to the “big city” of Regina, where over the next few years he established himself in the insurance business working as a representative of the Confederation Life Association. A career move that would forever change the course of his life.
“He was a born salesman,” says son Jerry of his father’s early successes. “And he got interested in insurance as a way to better himself.”
“There was a good demand for it,” adds Jerry. “And he did well in the Life Insurance business which eventually brought him to Swift Current.”
In 1913, nearly a decade after he first set foot on Canadian soil, W.W. Smith again headed west as a representative of Confederation Life, to the rapidly growing town of Swift Current, going into business first with a Mr. Trotter selling insurance and real estate out of the Imperial Hotel annex on Central, before settling into a partnership with Alexander L. Wallace, in Wallace & Smith where together they continued the tradition of acting as agents of Confederation Life and entered into the buying and selling of real estate.
By now Smith was 27 years old, and the town of Swift Current was on the brink of becoming a city. His wanderlust satisfied, W.W. Smith, or “Bill” as he was known to his clients and friends alike, settled down to make Swift Current his home after meeting and marrying Islay M. Fyffe, the daughter of a Staff Sgt. of the North West Mounted Police, with whom he would have four children: Elizabeth (Beth (1915), Jack (1918), William Jr. (Bill (1920), and Jerry (1925). The beginning of his Canadian legacy.
A Time for Growth
In 1914, after two years of sudden prosperous growth, Swift Current officially became a city. While there are those to this day, who are doubtful that it ever really had the requisite 5,000 inhabitants it needed to earn city status, its prospects were never in doubt and there were as many as 27 insurance agents in Swift Current that year. Yet only a few of these businesses would be able to survive the coming war years and the Great Depression that was to follow.
As illustrated in the letter of recommendation given to him by his childhood Pastor before he set sail for Canada, W.W. Smith was a man of great character, who was eager to be a part of the growing city he now called home.
Letting his name stand for election, Smith became a city Alderman in 1917 for a two year term, and would eventually hold the position of Mayor of Swift Current from 1922-1923. An aspiration son Jerry Smith says may have possibly saved the town from what could have been imminent financial ruin.
“I can remember Dad telling me that while he was Mayor, the City of Swift Current was in poor financial straits at one time,” recollects Jerry. “He said that the “powers that be” down East were holding the mortgages or the finances from Swift Current, and they were coming through Swift Current on the train with the intent of picking up the City’s books so that they could put it into bankruptcy. Dad told me, he “got the books, the heck out of town.”
“He knew these people from the East wouldn’t stay very long, because there weren’t that many trains,” continued Jerry. “So they couldn’t check them, and the city kept going.”
While Smith says he has no way of verifying if the story transpired exactly the way his father described it, there were still many other recorded ways that W.W. Smith worked to ensure the stability of the City, not only through his business, but through the many community endeavors he became associated with.
Prior to his tenure as Mayor in 1920, Smith had ended his partnership with Wallace and had taken on a new partner by the name of John Paisley, with whom he set up the W.W. Smith Agency. In addition to acting as agents of life insurance, the W. W. Smith Agency also offered its clients general insurance and loans as an agent for a Winnipeg-based savings and loan association, eventually representing the Crescent Finance Company of Regina which offered farm loans as their specialty.
A series of business decisions and expansions that would serve the agency well, as it approached the “dirty thirties” and the great drought.
“I don’t think we would have survived just selling Life Insurance at that time,” says Jerry. “Which is why he diversified, got into general insurance, and acted as an agent for different loan companies.”
“Through the loan business, he gave lots of people their start around here” writer Ron Shorvoyce quoted grandson Gord Smith, saying in a piece he written on W.W. Smith for the insurance trade magazine “Insurance West” in 2004.
“He sold a million dollars-worth of life insurance at one point during the 1920s, which was quite a feat at the time,” adds Jerry. But it was his father’s friendliness that he says most people remembered.
“Dad was always very friendly, and someone who genuinely liked people. He’d go out of his way to meet them. During the later years, when I joined the firm, he liked to stand outside the office and greet everybody…and he never really retired, he just slowed up a bit.”
By 1929, W.W. Smith was ready to throw his hat even further into the political arena, serving Swift Current as a Conservative Member of the Legislative Assembly under Premier J.T.M. Anderson.
Shorvoyce wrote of that period saying, “It was not a particularly good time to be in politics. Smith served in the government of J.T. M. Anderson during a period of severe economic hardship, social upheaval and bitter political rivalries at a time when drought would bring the province to its knees.”
Known as the “Dust Bowl” years (1924-1937), many ranchers and farmers, and the subsequent businesses that served them, were faced with huge losses.
Using his tenure as the MLA for Swift Current and as a Minister without Portfolio, W.W. Smith tried to do his best for the unemployed of the area, by persuading the government to establish the Cypress Hills area that lay to the west of Swift Current. Individuals that were unemployed and languishing in relief camps situated in the Hills were able to be put to work cutting trees and building the necessary roads and infrastructure.
While W.W. Smith would never personally have the chance to own a recreation home in the park, years later after his death, his wife Islay would have a chance, thanks to her husband’s diligence, to be one of the first cabin dwellers to reside there, a cabin still owned by the Smith family today.
Another initiative he undertook, according to his son Jerry, included the improved development of the southern portion of Highway No. 4 leading away from Swift Current, which helped to connect Swift Current to communities further south, including those of its U.S. neighbors.
Surmised by some, that it was his fast-talking ways that enabled him to convince government officials of the worthiness of these two projects, son Jerry says: “He had the reputation of being the fastest talker in the legislature, and when reporters were unable to keep up with his rapid speech, they called him “Machine Gun Smith.”
When not working diligently at building up his business, or working in the political arena, Smith actively involved himself in the community by joining and helping to form a number of local service and community-oriented organizations.
A Charter Member of the Swift Current Rotary Club formed in 1920, Jim Greenblat former Editor of the Swift Current Sun, wrote in his book “Those Were The Days,” remembering Swift Current’s history, “through the [Rotarian] years among the outstanding song leaders were W.W. (Bill) Smith and Bob Bridgman; they just loved to sing – and sing – and sing.”
So much did Smith love music, that in 1938 he composed the lyrics to a song entitled “Saskatchewan” which paid homage to his adopted country and province. Set to the tune of Beulah Land, the song was recorded by Toronto folk singer Alan Mills who sang W.W. Smith’s version of the tune on the album O’Canada: A History in Song – published Jan 1, 1956 by Folkways Records.
A fellow Rotarian, Greenblat, also said of the Rotary club that Smith helped to establish: “Rotary clubs have truly contributed much to communities and nations as have the many other service clubs since established and flourishing.”
Of the other service clubs the City boasted at that time, Smith was also a member of the Masons, the Wa Wa Shriners, the BPOE (Elks), the Eagles and a charter member of the Kinetic club established in 1935, which functioned for 12 successive years running the City’s Annual Frontier Days, until it was merged into today’s Swift Current Agriculture and Exhibition Association.
With so much on the go, it’s hard to believe that he ever found time to relax, but son Jerry says that in addition to being very active in the First United Church, his father also took great enjoyment from Swift Current’s age-old pastimes of curling and golf, and from hunting game birds on their property just south of the City, where a small “getaway” cabin lies nestled beside the creek.
In 2000 the Smith family donated a portion of that land to the Swift Current Wildlife Federation for a pheasant rearing facility, but retained the portion of the land that housed W.W. Smith’s cabin, affectionately referred to as “The Funny Farm,” which family members still frequent.
A Family Affair
As his business grew, W.W. Smith welcomed each of his son’s into the company at various points in the company’s history, but not before he saw two of his three sons off to fight in World War II. Jack, his eldest, who enlisted in the Canadian Army, and Jerry, his youngest, who enlisted in the Royal Canadian Airforce. Much to middle son Bill Jr.’s chagrin, a childhood injury prevented him from joining up.
“Bill had an eye injury when he was growing up and he couldn’t get into the armed services,” remembers brother Jerry. “And consequently that always was a sore spot in his memories, and he always felt bad about that, because all of his friends and both of us brothers were in the armed services.”
Instead Bill Jr. moved east to Toronto in 1942 to learn the Life Insurance Business, bringing back with him, new knowledge as he entered the family business in 1943.
Marrying Donaleen Edgar, the couple would have two children: daughter Islay Jean Holmes (nee Smith), and son Ronald Smith.
As active as his Father in community concerns, Bill Jr. became a Charter Member and Past President of the Swift Current Lion’s Club, a member of the Kinetic Club, the Elks, a member and past manager of the Swift Current Chamber of Commerce, and served as a city alderman from 1971-1973. Finding the time, somehow to equally be involved in the First United Church as a member of the Board of Stewards.
In 1948, home from his adventures in the war, son Jerry first attended University, and worked for the Bank of Montreal, before being welcomed into the family business. Married to Vernie Bennett of Swift Current, Jerry would welcome his own two children, Gordon and Colleen, soon thereafter.
1948 was also the same year Trans Canada Airlines (the present day Air Canada), would appoint the W.W. Smith Agency as their agent, making them one of the first and now the oldest independent retail travel agencies in Saskatchewan existence.
It was also the year that the W.W. Smith Agency would move and separate its two business divisions: one at 110 Central Avenue, which would house the general insurance and real estate aspects of the agency, and the other across the street at 109 Central Avenue, which would house the travel agency.
In 1949, Jack Smith joined his father and brothers in the family business, heading up the Travel Agency location, after having lived in Moose Jaw for a number of years, where he worked for the Royal Bank, and after marrying Carmen Pederson of Swift Current, with whom he had one daughter, Suzanne.
Following their father and younger brother’s example of service and their own unofficial motto that “a business is only as good as the community it serves,” both Jerry and Jack actively continued the family tradition of being a part of the community and its various organizations.
Jack, in addition to being a member of the Rotary Club for 19 years, was also president of the Swift Current Chamber of Commerce, was a supporter of the Red Cross and a member of the Royal Canadian Legion, was chairman of the United Way on two separate occasions, chairman of the Centennial Committee, past-president of the Swift Current Progressive Conservative Association, and was presented with an Honorary Life membership in the Swift Current Real Estate Board..
While brother Jerry was an active member and past president of the Lions Club, a member of the Masonic Lodge and a member of the Swift Current Wa Wa Shriners, where he was a drummer in the Shrine Band.
On those rare occasions where leisure activities could be sought, in addition to being avid upland game bird hunters like their father, both Jerry and Jack also loved to curl, were longtime members of the Elmwood Golf Club, and were active in the First United Church, where Jack was co-chair of the finance committee of the Christian Education building.
In 1950, Bill Jr. decided to strike out on his own as an entrepreneur, first by establishing himself with Harold Ellerman in the Farmer’s Equipment Company, which would later become the Southwest Equipment Company. Selling his interest in the business Bill Jr. went on to establishing W.W. Smith Realty and the W.W. Smith Furniture Store in 1972.
While he never officially retired, W.W. Smith’s health began to deteriorate due to complications from diabetes, and in 1955 after undergoing a major operation at the Swift Current Union Hospital, died at age 68.
“He was a bad diabetic,” recollects Jerry. “I don’t know if he took that good of care of himself.”
In a testament to how respected he was throughout the province and for all that he had done to contribute to its growth, upon his death, Premier Tommy Douglas on February 11th, 1955, just 11 days after his death, made a Motion of Condolence to the House, in which he listed the achievements of W.W. Smith and the impact they made on the growth of the province.
“I think it is a good thing that at the beginning of each Session we stop for a moment to pay tribute to the men and the women who through the years have helped to make Saskatchewan what it is today and to draw from their efforts and their contribution the inspiration necessary to go on and do our part in our day.
I would therefore like to move, Mr. Speaker, seconded by the Hon. Leader of the Opposition, Mr. McDonald:
“That this Assembly records its sincere regrets at the passing, since last Session, of Mr. William Wensley Smith, Minister without Portfolio in the Government of 1929-34, representing Swift Current Constituency in the Seventh Legislature;
“In paying tribute to his memory, the Assembly acknowledges with gratitude and appreciation his sterling service to his community and to the Province to which he came in early youth and helped, through a long and useful life, to create and develop.”
“This Assembly extends its deepest sympathies to surviving members of the bereaved family” (CARRIED UNANIMOUSLY)
– Hon. T.C. Douglas (Premier)
Joining the Premier in celebrating the life of W.W. Smith, were the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. A.H. McDonald, the Speaker of the House, Mr. Tom Johnston and Members of the Legislative Assembly, Mr. Robert Kohaly and Mr. Harry Gibbs.
As the then current MLA of Swift Current, Gibbs had this to say to the House of his friend:
“We always called him “Bill,” and I might say that when he died, a few weeks ago, it was a great shock, both to Swift Current and to the province. He was very well known and respected; he was a lively chap – when you were in his company you felt that he was the life of the company. He was a great fellow for social work and community spirit and I think he was in practically everything that went on in Swift Current for the past number of years.
As you know, Mr. Smith was one of the oldest real estate and insurance men in the west – that is oldest by his trade or profession, and no matter where “Bill” went he took with him that air of friendliness and goodwill. He was always a good clean fighter; I never saw him in action in the House here, but I know he had plenty of action and plenty of fun when he was outside.
Mr. Smith’s sons are carrying on the business in Swift Current, and I wish them every success they can possibly have…
So in the passing of Bill Smith I would like to pay my respects…it is too bad these pioneers had to go this Golden Jubilee year because they would have been a great source of strength in planning activities for our celebration.”
In his own tribute, listing the accomplishments that W.W. Smith made while a member of the House, Mr. Robert Kohaly, MLA for Souris-Estevan highlighted some of the more significant contributions Smith made during his tenure.
From being, actively associated, and in many instances the prime mover, in endeavors that often crossed political lines, Kohaly listed Smith’s involvement as chairman of the Select Standing Committee on Debt Adjustment legislation, his involvement as the man “actively behind the proclamation of the Workmen’s Compensation Act of Saskatchewan,” the work he did that helped to establish the “first cancer clinic in the Dominion of Canada,” and his efforts to restore the revenues of Saskatchewan’s natural resource back to the people of Saskatchewan, as just a few of the examples of the contributions he made.
“The people of the province, young and old,” said Kohaly, “should remember that Mr. Smith was one of those who was very actively involved in an effort to return the natural resources to our province and around Swift Current today Mr. Smith would find, if he were able, that the natural resources that were returned are providing new revenues, new works, new welfare, for the people of this Province and that part of this was the result of the work that he carried on very quietly in the House.”
A New Beginning
With his Father’s passing, Jerry and Jack were left to run the business on their own. Jerry took over the day to day operations of the general life insurance, while Jack continued to run the travel agency until 1973 when Jerry’s son Gordon joined his father and uncle in business after graduating from the College of Commerce in Saskatoon.
Plagued by family passings far too young, starting first with their father in 1955, and Jack’s wife Carmen in 1959, Bill Jr. died in 1976 at age 56, followed by his wife Donaleen the following year and Jerry’s wife Vernie in 1983.
“Young Bill, as I always knew him is, of course a chip off the old block of our longtime friend W.W. (Bill) Smith Sr. now deceased,” wrote Jim Greenblat. “For near half a century [he] was one of our greatest boosters and civic minded guys.”
In 1979 Jerry Smith experienced his own health scare when he suffered a heart attack, leading him to decide to hand over the reigns of the general insurance side of the business to the third generation of Smiths, his own son Gordon.
To ensure a smooth transition, Jerry slowly phased himself out of the operation over the next 2-3 yrs until Gordon and his new business partner, Don Schaitel who had joined the agency in 1978, were fully up to speed and ready to take the W.W. Smith Agency upwards to a whole new level.
Originally from Swift Current, Schaitel graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a Commerce Degree in 1972 and spent four years in Medicine Hat in the banking and accounting business, before returning to Swift Current as a partner in the K Motel for two years, selling his interest in that business before joining on as a member of the W.W. Smith management team.
First thing on the agenda for the two young partners, was to bring the Agency, up to new modern standards and technology, without ever losing sight of their “customer first” policy.
After 4 months of intense research the partners traveled to Calgary to purchase a state of the art in-house computer system, which was rated as the time as the best system available for independent agencies in North America. Giving office staff the ability to instantly process client inquiries on policy coverage, deductibles and balance owing.
So new to the industry was this technology, that a case of equipment failure meant a quick 24hr round trip to Calgary with all of the equipment stowed in the back of one or other of the partner’s vehicles.
It was a dedication to modernization and the latest technology that would pay off as the company continued its journey.
In 1983 Jerry Smith’s wife Vernie passed away, and the following year, Smith remarried, the former Betty Lou Armstrong. They continue to make Swift Current their home to this day and leave the younger members of the family and their new partners to continue the growth and development of the company.
1983 was also the year that Dave Parenteau joined the W.W. Smith Agency. Born in Saskatoon, Parenteau graduated high school in Yorkton where he spent 7 yrs working for independent agencies, before joining SGI, where he worked for three years as their Senior Marketing Representative in Swift Current, prior to becoming a member of the W.W. Smith team.
In 1984 when Jack Smith decided to retire, nephew Gord and partner Schaitel purchased the travel agency from him, and started making plans to amalgamate the two businesses, under one joint roof, with an additional new partner in the form of Parenteau, who had completed his Insurance Institute of Canada professional designation that same year.
Custom designing the facility to meet the needs of the newly merged operations, both operations moved into their new facility at 208 Central Ave N., which is still the home of the combined Agencies today.
While 1985, brought with it some sadness when Islay Smith, beloved wife of W.W. Smith, and mother to Beth, Jack, Bill Jr. and Jerry passed away at the age of 94, it also brought with it some exciting new opportunities.
As proof of their good-standing in the province and of how well the W.W. Smith Agency was thought of in the industry, that same year saw Saskatchewan’s largest insurance carrier, the government owned Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI) invited the W.W. Smith Agency to participate in a pilot project which would design and implement a direct link system between SGI’s computers and the offices of W.W. Smith.
Quoted by SGI’s “Agents Only” periodical, SGI said they chose W.W. Smith for the implementation because “they are always looking for better ways to deliver the product to the consumer.”
In the spring of 1986 the pilot was completed and hailed a complete success and today more that 40 other agencies throughout the province have followed suit and gone directly on-line with SGI.
A Future of Continued Growth
As both the travel and insurance agencies of W.W. Smith continue to match the evolution of their respective industries, and change with the times, Jerry Smith looks back on the companies past, and the direction this new generation is headed.
“The boys have done well,” says Jerry with admiration. “The reason this business has been so successful, is its ability to adapt to fit what the city needed at the time. While the backbone of the business is still the insurance they sell today, this new generation isn’t afraid to try new things, just as we weren’t and just as my father wasn’t.”
As the new millennium brings with it the prospect of new growth for the province as a whole, and the city of Swift Current begins to see growth unlike anything they’ve seen since 1912, many new businesses are starting to take the gamble that pioneers like W.W. Smith took so many years ago.
Today, not so much as a gamble as an expansion of a well-established business, the W.W. Smith agency has begun to diversify their investments to help the City as it deals with its period of growth.
Banding together with other local business people interested in the continued development of the downtown core, the group started the Swift Current Redevelopment Company, which operates as ReDevco, to reinvest in the heart of the City of Swift Current, with their first project undertaken being the redevelopment of the Chinook Centre, and the creation of a larger parking area for patrons of the downtown core.
Now owned by a series of partners that, upon the retirement of Don Schaitel, includes: Gordon Smith, Dave Parenteau, Bob Armstrong (stepson to Jerry Smith), and Chuck Audette, W.W. Smith continues to expand and change in response to opportunities and market forces.
In 2009, in keeping with the company’s focus on continued evolution W.W. Smith underwent a merger with Key Agencies which took effect on June 1st.
Previously owned by Les Loeppky, upon his retirement, his son Devin undertook a merger with W.W. Smith bringing the city down from two independent locally owned brokerage firms to one, with the younger Loeppky staying on and joining the W.W. Smith team.
In an interview conducted with the Southwest Booster to celebrate the merger, Gord Smith says, “I started in the business working for my Dad over 35 years ago. It’s great giving a young man like Devin the chance for ownership in an independently owned insurance business.”
As for the younger Loeppky, his own reaction to the merger was similar. “It was a natural fit and very timely. I’m looking forward to the opportunity of working with such an established professional brokerage.”
Today W.W. Smith in addition to their travel services, offers their clients complete insurance coverage, including: home; vehicle; farm; business, commercial and oil industry property and casualty insurance; hail coverage; mutual funds; and even life insurance – where it all began for W.W. Smith, when he stepped off the train in Swift Current in 1913.
“The thing I’m most proud about the firm is the loyal community of staff we have and their true focus on the client and trying to do what is best for our customers,” says Gord Smith. “We continually invest in office systems and personal educational development and this keeps everyone energetic and interested in their job, which in turn makes it fun to work here – another critical element to providing true customer focused service. Our roots are here in Southwest Saskatchewan and our customers know they can rely on us for fair, consistent and competent solutions for their business & personal requirements …over the long term!”
For William Wensley Smith and the long line of family members and new business partners that bring the W.W. Smith Agency continued success, undertaking the prairie gamble was a gamble that paid off.
In his tribute speech to the house, after W.W. Smith’s death, Premier Tommy Douglas said it best when he thanked Smith and all the pioneers who set out to make Saskatchewan what it is today:
“It seems to me particularly appropriate during this Golden Jubilee year, when we are emphasizing the part which the pioneers had in laying the foundation of this province, that we should be pausing at this time to pay tribute to men who helped to lay the basis for government in Saskatchewan.
…It seems to me that is a fitting tribute for these men and for all the many pioneers who have passed away in recent times. They had a faith in this province and its future possibilities. Many of them did not live to see those possibilities realized, but they believed in them, they worked for them and they lived for them. To us has been give the privilege to carry on where they have left off, that we might make our contribution in theirs.”