James Stuart Mackie

Gunsmith, Merchant, Entrepreneurial, Builder, Politician
Submitted by James A.N. Mackie, Q.C.

James Stuart Mackie
James Stuart Mackie

James S. Mackie, a Calgary gunsmith. Born in 1860 in Westminster, London, England, Mackie was the son of parents who came from Ayrshire, Scotland. After attending the local school, he became a newspaper reporter in London, where George Bernard Shaw belonged to his circle of friends. An avid reader in this imperial environment, Mackie profited in a variety of ways from the work of numerous authors including Shaw and Charles Dickens, as well as those who had written histories of Great Britain and the British Empire. From this atmosphere of information came Mackie's dream of taking advantage of new business opportunities in the Canadian West.

Believing that his financial prospects were greater in Canada than in London, in 1882 James S. Mackie immigrated to Winnipeg to learn the gunsmithing trade at the Hingston Smith Arms Company. After three years of apprenticeship, during which time he acquired the necessary technical skills to turn out an assortment of guns, in 1885 Mackie returned to London to persuade his parents to immigrate to Calgary. He was not successful as they determined to go to Syracuse, New York, and subsequently San Francisco.

Grace MacMillan Forgan
Grace MacMillan Forgan

Planning to open a gun establishment in Calgary, in 1886, he boarded a ship for Canada. It was on board this ship that he met his future wife, Grace MacMillan Forgan, a native of Bo’ness, near Edinburgh, Scotland, who at 19 years of age was heading for Omaha, Nebraska, to join her family where her father, a prominent banker, had opened a bank. They agreed to write to each other, which they did for 5 years.

Upon his arrival in Calgary later that same year, Mackie set up a store on 8th Avenue under the name J.S. Mackie Gunsmith. Later that year Mackie joined Walter Mackay, a taxidermist, in setting up a gun, sporting goods, and fur shop on the corner of Stephen Avenue and Osler Street. The partnership of Mackie &. Mackay was short-lived. However, they remained the best of friends for the rest of their lives.

By early 1887, Mackie had taken a new partner, Joseph W. Cockle, a taxidermist who had started his own business in Calgary two years before. At the beginning of their Calgary careers, Mackie and Cockle were men of relatively few financial assets. A substantial loan eased these constraints. In July 1887, Mackie and Cockle borrowed $750 from the North British Canadian Investment Company at a 10 percent annual interest rate. Their Calgary lot secured the loan, with a two-year maturity. They turned these funds to good account, but by the early months of 1888 the partnership of Mackie & Cockle had been dissolved. As each went into business on his own, James Mackie established himself as an independent gunsmith while Joseph Cockle became an independent taxidermist in the town.

In his metalworking establishment, Mackie toiled long hours honing his skills to produce breach-loading guns, revolvers and ammunition. As a firearms manufacturer in the small-arms industry, he encouraged potential customers in Calgary and the Bow Valley to visit his shop and examine his products. Reluctant to tie his firm's future too close to a few goods, he expanded its scope of production by moving into manufacturing other items: fishing tackle, cutlery, and a wide range of sporting goods. The young entrepreneur's sales of firearms, as well as sporting goods; fishing tackle, and cutlery, rose steadily. George Henry Ham wrote of Mackie in 1888:

Being a thoroughly practical mechanic, perfectly conversant with his business and its details, being also energetic and enterprising, it cannot be wondered at that his trade has steadily increased. The reputation of his goods stands high, both for workmanship and reliability. Those who have occasion to deal with him will always be treated with courtesy and dealt with in the most upright manner. Mackie fills all orders entrusted to him promptly, giving each and every article turned out of his concern his personal attention and supervision. This is the largest gun establishment in the Northwest.
Mackie diversified his operation further by trying his hand at preparing, stuffing, and mounting the skins of birds. By 1890, the stuffed birds he made provided him with additional income and caught the attention of the reporter for The Dominion, "Mr. Mackie, who is a gunsmith, is also something of a native, enough, at least, to make him a respectable taxidermist".

Mackie found time to travel to Omaha, Nebraska in 1891 to visit Grace Forgan, and in February of the following year, he married her. As the daughter of a successful banker, Grace helped to solidify James's social and economic position in Calgary. In June 1893. Wesley F. Orr wrote to R. G. Dun &. Company, "J S Mackie, gunsmith and general ammunition and arms dealer is young married man. Very steady and industrious, he is no doubt making some money all the time. He owns the lot and shop in which he has business worth $3,000 to $4,000. He also has three very nice residence lots on which he has built a snug house, in which he lives, worth $1,500,"

Mackie's Book Store
Mackie's Book Store 112 8 Avenue East
(Stephen Avenue)

In his spare time, James Mackie was often drawn to the splendid library in his house. One of his most striking traits remained a pronounced interest in books written by great authors, not only Dickens and Shaw but also others such as William Shakespeare. From the beginning of his business career, intellectual curiosity had driven him to read. Besides deriving personal enjoyment from books, he loved to read to his children after dinner. To fulfill his dream of becoming a bookseller, in November 1899, Mackie sold his gun making establishment and purchased Thomson Bros.' bookstore on Stephen Avenue for $6,866. Mackie was able to pay $2,000 of the price in cash, because he borrowed this amount from the A. M. Austin estate at Pine Creek. A mortgage on the books in the store to Thomson Bros. allowed Mackie to pay them the balance of $4,866 in installments.

The early 1900s were prosperous years for Mackie’s Bookstore. Although books and stationery dominated the goods he offered to customers in Calgary he pursued a policy of diversified sales (much like a department store). For example, in addition to sporting goods, books and office supplies, he sold Kodak cameras and supplies, artists' materials, and Karn pianos and organs.

Mackie also came to play an increasingly important role in civic politics. In 1891, he became a Charter Member of the Calgary Board of Trade, now the Chamber of Commerce. In 1894-1886, 1897-1899 and in 1909-1910 he was elected an Alderman of the City Council. He ran successfully as Calgary Mayor in 1900-1901. In his term as Mayor, Mackie initiated several public improvements, including the extension of the city boundaries to include Victoria Park. Approved the purchase of the Calgary Exhibition Grounds (renamed it Victoria Park) and the lease of it to Inter-Western Pacific Exhibition Company (now the Calgary Exhibition & Stampede Company). As Mayor, he acted as Host and Master of Ceremonies when the Territorial Government and the Duke and Duchess of York (who later became King George V and Queen Mary) visited Calgary.

While In office he often, at considerable personal sacrifice, devoted much time to municipal affairs. Mackie's Bookstore nonetheless continued to flourish under his guidance. By 1903, a credit reporter (in R. G. Dun & Company noted that his firm was worth between $10,000 and $15,000.)

Lancaster Building, Calgary
Lancaster Building

In many respects, Mackie's approach to the bookstore business was a recipe of the best practices of modern management. His people skills had a profound impact on the shape of the management legacy that he passed on to the Calgary and Bow Valley business world. He understood that a great deal of the creative potential of a business rests on co-operation within the enterprise and on ties to informal economic and social networks.

His ideas found practical expression in the Mackie Block he built at 230 8th Avenue West during 1907-1808, as well as in the Lancaster Building he erected at the corner of 8th Avenue and 2nd Street West during 1910-1918. The shortage of steel during the War was a major factor in causing the delay. Mackie also recognized the historical importance of office blocks and buildings. For him, the history of these businesses was a most interesting chapter in the history of the city, and illustrated the force of entrepreneurs. They were symbols of entrepreneurial capitalism. The raising of each of these structures from the city's pavement became a great civic event. Both the Mackie Block and the Lancaster Building, with their surging commercial energy, encouraged young people to come to the city and take part in an effort to make it prosperous.