Age of the Auto in the Rockies and Jim Brewster

Design Concept for Age of the Auto and Jim Brewster

Listen to Michale Lang (Executive Director, Whyte Museum), discussing
the Brewster exhibition:

Age of the Auto and the story of Jim Brewster is just one of the several sections in the new Gateway to the Rockies exhibition being developed by the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. We want your input and feedback on this permanent (ten year life) exhibition that we are planning to open at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in the spring of 2012. Tell us what you think of this and the other concepts and stories featured here. Let us know how you think we could make this exhibition more interesting. Please keep in mind that this is a draft of the storyline, not the finished product. As the stories develop, information will be updated.

Jim Brewster had the vision to see the opportunities that the automobile could open to Canadian Rockies visitors, but he also cared about his community. He became “Canada’s Mountain King.” When King George VI came to visit Banff in 1939, it was into Jim Brewster’s home that he was welcomed.

Jim Brewster driving King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Brewster family fonds, (V91 / NA66-1488) Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

Jim Brewster
Jim Brewster’s father, John Brewster was an early pioneer who traveled to the mountain community of Banff in 1886 and established a dairy. As his business prospered, with the Banff Springs Hotel as a major customer, John, his sons and daughter all became prominent citizens of the growing town of Banff.Not fulfilled with their weekly duties of delivering milk Bill and Jim Brewster enlisted the help of William Twin, a Native family friend, to teach them the ins and outs of ex­ploring and hunting in the moun­tainous terrain that surrounded them. They got their first opportunity to demonstrate their guiding skills when the manager of the Banff Springs asked their father, John Brewster, if he knew someone who could lead a couple of his guests to the best trout fishing lakes in the area. John suggested his young sons be given the chance and, in the process, he unwittingly chose their future careers. By 1900 the Brewster boys were in business for themselves as "W. & J. Brewster, Experienced Guides and Packers."

The brothers struggled in the beginning because most of the guiding and outfitting work went to Tom Wilson, the first and best-established guide in the Rockies. However, the CPR gave them a needed boost in 1901 when it paid their way to New York to promote Rocky Mountain sport fishing and hunting at a sportsman's show in Madison Square Garden.

This brought more tourists to the Rockies and more business for the brothers. The CPR then gave them an additional boost by awarding them its coveted outfitting concession for Banff. With the money from that contract, and some investment capital from two hunting enthusiasts they had met in New York, the brothers were able to expand and diversify.

Through the early 1900s, the company was busy and successful, providing guiding, horse packing and livery services in the Banff area. In quick succession, the boys opened the Brewster Trading Store in Banff, started livery and outfitting services in Lake Louise and Field and purchased the original Mount Royal Hotel in Banff. As their business grew, the Brewster’s began promoting Banff and the Canadian Rockies throughout North America.

They built a livery stable, followed by a general store and small opera house on properties they leased in Banff, and ran a twice-daily stagecoach service between Banff and the nearby coal-mining town of Bankhead (closed in 1922 after a miners' strike).
The brothers scored a business coup in 1905 when the CPR sold its livery service to them and awarded them the contract to transport hotel guests between the railway station and the Banff Springs. They also hauled foodstuffs and heating fuel for the hotel and took the guests on sightseeing tours to Lake Minnewanka, Mount Norquay and other local points of interest.

Sometime around 1912, Bill moved with his family to Montana to develop the Pack Saddle Horse Company in Montana in conjunction with the new East Glacier Hotel being built in Glacier Park, Montana, leaving Jim in charge of the Banff endeavours. Bill also established a new venture, the Two Medicine Guest Ranch.

By the onset of the First World War, Jim was a wealthy man, with a personal net worth of $375,000. He was in the process of taking Brewster Transport into the automobile era. In 1916, it was Jim Brewster who took a far-sighted course of action: he acquired five overland motor coaches to replace the 70 horse drawn carriages, which Brewster was using to conduct sightseeing excursions at the time. The 1930s saw further expansion of the company, construction of the first lodge at Sunshine Village Ski Area and the Columbia Icefield Chalet, a starting point for tours on to the Athabasca Glacier.

However, the war was not good for the tourism business. After spending several years in Montana running a ranch, check this Bill returned to take managerial control of the company and Brewster Transport prospered and expanded during the 1920s, building up a 79-vehicle fleet of touring cars and buses.

The success prompted others in the tourism industry to note cynically, "Tourists come to the Rockies for a change and a rest. The CPR takes the change and the Brewsters take the rest."

Jim, who retained the positions of vice-president and treasurer, spent his time wheeling and dealing and scouting out new investment opportunities. In 1926, through a tip from a former manager of the Banff Springs Hotel, he secured the concession in Hawaii to provide transport services for the Matson Steamship Hotels on the island of Oahu. Two years later, Brewster Transport received Alberta government permission to provide a bus service between Banff, Calgary and Edmonton.

The Depression of the 1930s hit Brewster Transport particularly hard because of the decline in world tourism. The company was able to survive for a while with a loan from the CPR, but had to scale back its Hawaiian transport operation and terminate the bus service between Banff and Calgary.
Bill resigned from the company in 1933 and Jim continued to wheel and deal, despite the mounting financial troubles, and even went so far as to invest in a new ski development at what is now Sunshine Village, eight kilometers west of Banff.

During the postwar years, Brewster Transport continued to expand the number and diversity of scenic tours, and to upgrade the motor coach fleet. Brewster Transport was in better financial shape by the time the King and Queen visited in May 1939. Jim and his business manager Lou Crosby managed to bring down company debt, restore the Hawaiian operation to profitability, build the Columbia Icefield Chalet and establish a bus service from Waterton Lakes through Calgary and Banff to Revelstoke and Vancouver.

In the summer of 1939, King George VI, accompanied by Queen Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother, made the first visit by a reigning British monarch to Canada. Even though by this time, he was a local tour bus magnate, Jim Brewster offered to be the chauffeur for their two-day stop in Banff.
He could have asked one of his employees to do the driving, but Brewster wanted this assignment for himself. He planned to have the royal couple ride in a gleaming red Packard that he bought especially for the occasion.

The Queen, however, had other ideas. Her mother-in-law, Queen Mary, had visited Banff in 1901 when she was the Duchess of Cornwall and York, and had often reminisced about her ride in a horse-drawn Democrat wagon. Queen Elizabeth now wanted to do the same.

Brewster hunted high and low for a democrat and eventually found one on the Sarcee (now Tsuu T'ina) reserve near Calgary, a dilapidated model that he rented for five dollars. "The springs were sticking up through the seat covers, and the wheels were so loose they wobbled at every turn," he said afterward. "My mechanics worked on it for a week, but they couldn't do much about it. Finally, we ripped off the upholstery and used two buffalo robes for their majesties to sit on."

"Brewster, do you think this wheel's going to come off?" the Queen asked as the democrat wobbled around the perimeter of the recently opened Banff Springs Hotel golf course. Brewster had the same concern, but he hastened to assure Her Majesty that everything would be all right. "No, ma'am, this buggy's good for a thousand miles.” The Queen laughed: "I'm afraid we won't be with you quite that far." When they continued their tour later that evening, the royal couple decided to ride in Brewster's new car rather than in the creaky old democrat.

They took photographs of beaver, moose and mountain goats, and talked about hunting big game. "I understand you have some wonderful animal heads in your home," the Queen said. Brewster acknowledged that he had some record-winning trophies. "Would you mind if we saw your home?" the Queen asked. "I'd be delighted," Brewster said. He knew his wife, Dell, would also be delighted "even if she didn't know they were coming."

Brewster's wife was sitting alone in their eight-room brick bungalow when the royal couple dropped in. "I may forget a lot of things about the royal visit, but never my wife's face as we walked in the door," he said afterward.

"She was so excited she nearly fainted and her face was white as a sheet. However, it didn't take two minutes before the Queen and she were chatting away like old friends.” The royal couple stayed for more than 30 minutes, asking questions about the Native artifacts and other items that the Brewsters had on display in their living room.

Entertaining royal visitors was nothing new for Jim. He had been doing it for more than 35 years, and could boast of having played golf with Edward, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936 and became the Duke of Windsor), and his brother, the Duke of Kent. Neither Jim Brewster nor Edward, Prince of Wales ever failed to drink to an occasion. One evening after a few too many, the Prince asked if he could try on Jim’s grizzly bear chaps and Jim was happy to oblige.

He also hoped to get in a game with King George VI, but the monarch had injured his hand before arriving in Banff and was unable to play.
The King and Queen impressed Jim. "I've never met a couple who were so gentlemanly and ladylike and democratic as those two. When my wife was presented to their majesties, they both put out their hands to greet her at the same time, just as easy and friendly as you please. If they arrived back tomorrow, it wouldn't be too soon for me."

The Crag and Canyon newspaper said it was "both logical and fitting" that Jim should have been chosen to escort the royal couple because of his previous associations with royalty and because of his extensive knowledge of the national park's history and development.

For Brewster, the 1939 royal visit was the highlight of a 50-year career in the Rockies. In February 1947, just a few days after celebrating his 65th birthday, he fell victim to a stroke and died. Upon his death, control of the business was delegated to a group of appointed directors.

Brewster Transport Company White bus at Takawkkaw Falls, Yoho Park, Brewster Transport Company Ltd. fonds (V92 / NA66-1526), Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies
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