Twenty-five years ago last week, Bruce Macdonald got off a bus in Vanderhoof on his way to Fort St. James.
“It was just as cold,” he recalls of the frigid temperatures at the end of February in 1989.
Macdonald was picked up and taken the rest of the way by car, and arrived with only the clothes on his back.
Somewhere along the way from Lethbridge, Alberta, Macdonald’s luggage was lost, and he went to work the next day in blue jeans, mukluks and his red McLeod’s shirt, managing the McLeod’s hardware store on a temporary basis.
“And I didn’t feel uncomfortable,” he said. Instead, Macdonald seemed to fit right in.
The previous owners of McLeod’s had sold the store, and Macdonald had been called up to fill in, until the company could find a new owner.
Strangely enough, Macdonald was not even working for MacLeod’s at the time, he had worked for the company for 12 years, but had taken another job at Triple E Homes in Lethbridge for six months previously.
But when the company needed someone to fill in for the Fort St. James location, they looked him up and asked him to come back and run the store.
Funnily enough, back when he had been working for McLeod’s originally, he had been offered a transfer to Lethbridge or Williams Lake, and he had taken Lethbridge because when he looked at where Williams Lake was he said: “I don’t want to go that far north.”
But instead, many years later, he came over four hours further north and experienced a little town at the end of the road.
“I had no preconceived notions,” he said. “I had no idea where Fort St. James was.”
He said he saw a lot of potential in the store and thought it was a nice little community.
While Macdonald came temporarily, he left behind a wife and three daughters.
So when the company came to him a little while later with an offer for him to purchase the store, he brought his wife over to come and see it – and she liked it as well.
So on July 1 of 1989, the family arrived with all their possessions, having sold their home to purchase the store.
His daughters, nine, seven and five, were a little surprised at their new home.
His eldest daughter asked him: “Where’s the mall?”
To which he replied: “You’re looking at it.”
Macdonald said he doesn’t regret the decision to bring his family to Fort St. James those 25 years ago, and while he has since remarried and has another stepdaughter here now and his older daughters have moved on, this was a good place for them to grow up.
“People look out for each other in a small town,” he said, and recounts a story of when one of his daughters was hurt at the beach and a resident nearby called to tell him and made sure she got help.
Two of his daughters went on to joined the Canadian Armed Forces, and one works for a large mill in Williams Lake.
While he came with a five-year plan to build the business and move on, now Macdonald said he expects he will likely retire here.
“People travel a long way to get someplace like this,” he said. “We have it in our backyard.”
Everyday he enjoys getting to look out across Spirit Square from his storefront and see Stuart Lake.
The only thing Macdonald said he misses from living in a larger centre is a pool, so once in awhile he will go to Prince George to get a break and swim.
What has he learned from 25 years as a business owner in a small town?
“Don’t take your customers for granted, always make them your priority,” he said.