Glen Allan native A.B. Stewart achieved fame and fortune in Seattle

This column in recent months has outlined the lives of several Wellington County natives who did well elsewhere. There is one more who should be added to that list: Alexander Stewart, who was born 160 years ago – on Concession 4 of Peel Township, near Glen Allan, on Feb. 20, 1854.

Stewart’s father George came to Canada from Ireland. It was his claim, perhaps apocryphal, that he was descended from the Stuart royal family of Scotland. Before emigrating he married Jane Bruce, reputedly in the direct line of that historically important family.

The family, with their two children, came to North America in 1840, and eventually settled in Peel when that township opened for settlement. George Stewart soon achieved a position of prominence in his neighbourhood. He established a successful farm, and the family grew in size with the arrival of five more children.

Alexander Stewart was a bright and ambitious boy. His father decided to send him to Toronto for advanced education. He enrolled at Victoria College, and graduated in pharmacy in the early 1870s.

After graduation he returned to Wellington County, accepting a position with Charlie Perry, who had recently moved from Fergus and had set up a drug store in Elora. Initially the business was a success, but soon Perry and Stewart began to disagree. Stewart left Perry’s employ in 1874, and left Wellington County forever in favour of the western United States.

In the summer of 1874 he landed in Silver City, Nevada, where he opened a drug store. A short time later he opened a branch store at Gold Hill. Both towns were, at that time, in the later stages as booming and boisterous gold mining towns, part of the fabled Comstock Lode. By 1879 the writing was on the wall for both towns, which today are virtually ghost towns.

Alex Stewart moved to Bodie, California, which, in the mid-1870s experienced a gold boom, and a population that swelled from a couple of hundred to 7,000. The boom did not last. In 1882 Stewart packed up his stock and moved to Seattle.

There he reopened his retail drug business, and enjoyed modest success and prosperity. After four years he opened the first in a series of branch pharmacies with a partner, a man named Henry E. Holmes, a San Francisco native, who Stewart had known as the owner of a drug store in Walla Walla, Washington.

In 1884 Alex Stewart married, to May Elia Martin originally of Rockford, Illinois, but most recently of California, where her father was a university professor. The couple had only one child, a daughter. Stewart, though raised as a Methodist, joined the Congregational Church, where he and his wife cultivated a wide circle of friends. Later he left that denomination and joined the First Presbyterian Church of Seattle.

 Stewart’s example prompted two of his brothers to move to the Seattle area. One, A. Morley Stewart, took over management of one of the Stewart-Holmes drug stores, and was later vice-president of the company. He had followed his brother to Victoria College for training as a pharmacist. The other brother, George M., became involved with several businesses, and eventually was appointed the postmaster of Seattle.

To supply their own stores, which included outlets in Tacoma and Walla Walla, Stewart & Holmes began to operate a wholesale division, which soon became the principle supplier for dozens of other drug stores across the northwestern United States.

Within a few years theirs was the dominant wholesale drug firm in the northwest, in Idaho and Oregon as well as Washington State, and was doing a good business with a couple of stores in Alaska.

Unlike Bodie, Gold Hill, and Silver City, where Stewart was interested solely in advancing his own fortunes, Seattle became his adopted home town. He took an active part in any improvement that would boost the city. Among other things, he was a founder of the company that operated the city’s first two streetcar lines in the 1890s.

Stewart joined the Masonic Order, and that put him in regular contact with many of Seattle’s movers and shakers. He advanced to be a Knight Templar in the order. His Masonic activities led naturally to active work in politics.

Like many American businessmen and civic boosters of the period, he was a card-carrying Republican. He served for four years on the party’s state central committee, and for years took a leading part in state-wide Republican conventions. He never, though, sought public office himself, preferring to act and exercise his influence behind the scenes.

Stewart and Holmes eventually moved their head office to Tacoma, which was then Seattle’s bitter rival for dominance as the major northwest shipping point. A wholesale distribution warehouse, half a block in size and six stories high, remained in Seattle, and there was another in Walla Walla.

The partners were always ready to extend their business by going into new lines. Their stores had an assaying department, to evaluate ore samples. They operated soda fountains, and later acted as installers and suppliers of soda fountain equipment. They made and distributed store fixtures. They also did a lucrative trade in their own brands of patent medicines, and other lines such as their Optimus deodorant.

Aside from the drug business and his other activities, Alex Stewart took a major interest in agriculture. He was impressed with the excellent farming potential of Washington State, and operated a large farm where he experimented with livestock raising and grain crops.

During his last three decades, Stewart cemented his place as one of the leading citizens of Seattle. He gladly, and often silently, supported many of the charities in the city, and always willingly offered a hand to a man at the start of his career and to those who had fallen on hard times.

In return, he became a respected and admired figure, known to most residents of the city. He was known for his ceaseless optimism and his readiness to do whatever he could to promote Seattle.

In December of 1929 Alex Stewart caught a cold, which soon turned into pneumonia. Doctors were called in, but did not succeed in reversing the illness. Stewart died two days before Christmas. He was 75, and had spent his last 47 years in Seattle.

The funeral took place at Seattle’s First Presbyterian Church. The minister styled his address “The End of a Perfect Life,” stating that “A.B. Stewart was a friend who stood in others stead – who shielded others and overlooked their shortcomings. His courage and optimism are responsible for the position many prominent men hold in Seattle.”

The mayor ordered all streetcars in the city to stop for a minute, and many stores closed while the funeral was underway. The company was broken up with the death of Stewart, but the buildings in Seattle still stand. The wholesale building is today a bustling restaurant, in a city that has changed so much that it would be unrecognizable to Alexander B. Stewart.

And like so many Wellington County expatriates, it does not appear that Stewart ever returned to his youthful stomping grounds.


Stephen Thorning