The Cowichan Merchants Building is a landmark structure at the intersection of Station Street and Craig Street in downtown Duncan, B.C.
The Cowichan Merchants Building was built by Cowichan Merchants Ltd., a partnership between pioneer Cowichan Valley merchant William Penn Jaynes and Tzouhalem Chapter, No. 26 members Thomas Pitt and Andrew Hans Petersen.
The present Cowichan Merchants Building was built in 1912 to replace an earlier structure which burned down during a major fire in downtown Duncan in 1911.
Beginning in 1902, Thomas Pitt and Andrew Peterson had operated a retail general merchandise business under the name Pitt & Peterson in the Duncan Emporium Building (demolished in 2015), across the street from the Cowichan Merchants Building on the north-east corner of the Station St./Craig St. intersection. In 1910, Pitt and Peterson joined William Jaynes to form the Cowichan Merchants Ltd. The firm built a new three storey premises on this site in 1910.
The first Cowichan Merchants building burned down on 25 November 1911. It was replaced by the current Cowichan Merchants Building, which opened in September 1912.
The Cowichan Merchants Building has undergone several exterior renovations over the years. In the 1950s, the T. Eaton Company completed a very unsympathetic exterior renovation by covering the entire exterior in stucco and concrete and reducing the size of the exterior windows.
Following the T. Eaton Company’s bankruptcy in 1995, the building was renovated to its current appearance, which is based on the building’s original 1912 exterior.
Here is some historical background to this building taken from various sources in the Cowichan Valley Museum & Archives collections:
“Business House In New Home
This morning [8 December 1910] at 9:30 when the doors of the new home of Cowichan Merchants, Ltd. are thrown open to the public, one of the finest buildings of its kind west of Winnipeg will be in use as a general store.
The actual commencement of the mercantile business in Cowichan district dates back to 1879, when Mr. W.H. Jaynes first opened a business house here. On July 1st, 1899 the house which was destined to become the strongest mercantile firm in the district was founded by Mr. Harry Smith, who carried on business in the I.O.O.F. block until 1901, when he removed to the corner of Station and Craig Streets now being vacated by the Cowichan Merchants Ltd.
In February 1902, Mr. A. Peterson, who had been with Mr. Smith from the inception of the ‘Duncan Emporium’ formed a partnership with Mr. Thomas Pitt, purchased the business from its originator and by foresight and good management this firm has built up what is conceded to be the most extensive general merchandise business on Vancouver Island.
Last year the business which Mr. W.P. Jaynes had carried on successfully for many years was amalgamated with that of the Duncan Emporium, and the two houses, when the merger was complete, became known as the Cowichan Merchants, Limited, with Mr. A. Peterson as managing director……..”
Source: Cowichan Leader, 8 December 1910
“Big Building for Cowichan Merchants
The work of preparation for the Cowichan Merchants, Ltd., on the site of their old building is being pushed forward with all possible speed.
The building is to be considerably larger than the former structure. The full length will be 190 feet by a width of 60 feet. The front will face on Station Street and the rear will face on Government Street. The basement will be extended under the new addition. There will be two entrances on Craig Street and one on Station Street and the height will be the same as in the former structure.
The space occupied by the old store will be divided into four departments. The Grocery Department and shipping room will be located in the rear portion of the building, and a gallery will be built round the interior within the former building. The building will be faced with white silica brick.
When completed the new store will be the largest and most up to date store in the Province outside of Victoria and Vancouver.”
Source: Cowichan Leader, 1 February 1912, page 1
“The Cowichan Merchants are now engaged in moving into their magnificent new premises. Three departments – Dry Goods, Boots and Shoes, and Furniture – have already been transferred and it is expected that the official opening will take place shortly.”
Source: Cowichan Leader, 29 June 1912
“AFTER SEVENTEEN YEARS
Mr. Thomas Pitt Severs Connection With Well Known Firm
Mr. T. Pitt has severed his connection with the Cowichan Merchants Ltd., having disposed of his interests to Mr. A.H. Peterson. Thus the associations of some seventeen years are broken.
Mr. Pitt started business in partnership with Mr. Peterson, trading under both names in the building at the corner of Craig and Station Streets, Duncan. It boards still show the old sign under certain weather conditions.
Subsequently the firm of Pitt and Peterson amalgamated with Mr. W.P. Jaynes and thus the Cowichan Merchants Ltd was brought into being.
Mr. Pitt was the recipient of a handsome case of pipes on New Year’s eve at the store, presented on behalf of the employees by Mr. T.J. Reeves. For the patronage extended to him by the public during the past seventeen years Mr. Pitt proffers his sincere thanks and appreciation.”
Source: Cowichan Leader, 9 January 1919, page 1
“To our many friends in Duncan and surrounding district we wish to announce that the name under which this Store has been known for so many years – Cowichan Merchants Limited – will from this date be changed to David Spencer (Duncan) Limited.”
Source: Cowichan Leader, 27 March 1947, advertisement
“T. Eaton Co. takes over David Spencer Stores…..[this building thus became an Eaton’s department store]”
Source: Cowichan Leader, 2 December 1948
“Complete Modernizing of Eaton Building, In And Out, Is Under Way
Complete modernization of the large store building of the T. Eaton Co. Ltd. at Duncan, both inside and out, is under way and is expected to be completed within three months. ……
With a complete new face, new canopies, and extensive alterations to windows and entrance doors, the former “merchants” building will present an entirely new and up-to-date appearance outside….
Change in the appearance of the exterior face of the building will be effected by the application of sand-finish stucco. Second and third floor windows are to be of fluted glass.
The old cornices on the building will be removed and replaced by cornices of a more modern design…..”
Source: Cowichan Leader, 7 September 1949
Eaton’s closing Duncan store due to…”a conclusion that it would cost too much to renovate the building to modern construction and retail standards.”
Source: Times Colonist, 10 February 1995
[Note: above excerpts taken from various sources in the Cowichan Valley Museum & Archives collections]