Oct. 16, the Red Deer Chamber of Commerce will be holding its annual Business of the Year Awards ceremony. The evening will also include a celebration of the 125 anniversary of the creation of the Chamber (Red Deer Board of Trade) in 1894.
The organizational meeting of the Board of Trade was held March 17, 1894, (St. Patrick’s Day) in the offices of the Red Deer Review, the community’s first newspaper. There were 12 business and professional people present. Ray Gaetz, a local merchant, was elected as the first president.
Raymond Leonard Gaetz was born April 8, 1866, in Nova Scotia, the eldest of 11 children of Rev. Leonard and Caroline Gaetz. Unlike many young men of the time, he successfully completed his high school education.
In 1884, he moved with his family to Red Deer, where his parents started a farm in what was now downtown Red Deer.
Shortly after the Gaetzs’ arrival, Leonard Gaetz purchased the store and post office at the Red Deer Crossing settlement (upstream from the Gaetz farm) from G.C. King. Although Ray was only 18 years old, he became the operator of the store.
Ray was bright and energetic, but was completely inexperienced when it came to running a frontier store and fur trading post. In his first transaction, he offered a Metis trapper 25¢ per skin. The trapper accepted the offer so quickly that Ray realized he had done something wrong.
He went across the road to Mary Lennie’s stopping house. Mary told him that the most he should have offered was 5¢ a skin. She offered to help teach Ray the skills of the trade and also to teach him Cree. Ray was a quick learner, and he was soon running a modest, but successful, business.
Ray also took out a homestead, east of the Crossing. However, although he had been raised on a farm, his major interests were in business, not farming. In 1891, when the townsite of Red Deer was created along the Calgary-Edmonton Railway, Ray moved to the new townsite and opened a dry goods and menswear store on Ross Street.
He then went into partnership with his cousin and brother-in-law, George Wilbert Smith. They started a general store and later a hardware business. They were also involved in a thriving real estate and land development venture, known as the Smith Land Company.
The business thrived as Red Deer began to grow rapidly. In 1905, the impressive brick Smith and Gaetz (later Central) Block was built on the northwest corner of Ross Street and Gaetz Avenue. Another major initiative was the development of the West Park subdivision. Ray and his wife Mary built a very large house, which still stands today, on the west end of 56 Street.
Meanwhile, Ray became an investor in a number of business ventures including: the Western General Electric Company, the Red Deer Brick Co., the Red Deer Mill and Elevator Co., and the Laurentia Milk Co.
Ray also became very active in public affairs. He was elected as the first mayor of the Town of Red Deer in 1901. He also served on the Red Deer Public School Board for many years, and he was on the first Red Deer Hospital Board. In 1913, the year Red Deer became a city, he served as president of the Board of Trade again.
In 1915, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, the Smith and Gaetz business was sold. Ray went into partnership with R.C. Brumpton, another pioneer merchant. Ray later owned and operated other stores, either by himself or with partners.
Unfortunately, the War years and post-War period were very tough economically. Ray particularly struggled as he had always been generous in the granting of credit and now had a hard time collecting on those debts.
In 1934, the Red Deer Board of Trade and City of Red Deer held a special banquet to celebrate Ray Gaetz’s 50 years of residence in Red Deer and leadership in the community. With his health starting to fail, in 1937, Ray and Mary moved to Victoria, B.C.
Ray died in 1939. Mary died in 1954. They were survived by six children – two daughters and four sons. Ray and Mary are both buried in the Red Deer Cemetery.
Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears every Wednesday.