This is the second in a series of retrospective articles on the 50th anniversary of the Town of Hay River, which was incorporated in 1963.
“Fifty years starts way before me, Les and Gayle came along,” said Larry Ring, as he reclines in his seat and goes back in time.
Ring’s Pharmacy is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. From its humble beginnings in Fort Smith to its present 6,000-square-foot location, Ring’s has always been a family affair.
In 1963, Larry’s father, Wally, took a gamble by moving his business and family to a relatively under-developed Hay River.
On Feb. 11 of that year, he set up shop in the old Hay River Hotel on Vale Island. In fact, a Dec. 1973 Hub article states that he opened “on a shoestring, a borrowed one at that.”
Almost immediately, he was confronted with a variety of obstacles, such as a basement fire and Hay River’s famous flood. Without any insurance, Wally considered moving back to Fort Smith, but fortunately the damage was minimal, so he stuck to his guns and stayed in town.
He would famously order a single item of a product at a time, and wait for it to be sold before re-ordering.
One of his sons, Larry, has been working at the family business since obtaining his
pharmacy degree in 1990.
“It’s a unique situation that a business can be under the same umbrella for so long,” he said, referring to multiple generations of Rings who have kept the business alive and healthy.
“A lot of business partnerships don’t last nearly as long. We all went to school elsewhere but we all came back,” he said, referring to his brother, Les, and his sister, Gayle, who also run the family business.
The Rings couldn’t put their finger on what drew them back to the North, or why they are so attached to Hay River, but they were in unanimous consent in regard to the benefits of living in a small community.
“I go out and I don’t want to spend a long time there before I’m itching to get back,” said mother Marlene.
The drugstore has evolved with time, and has expanded accordingly with Hay River’s development.
In 1966, Wally Ring doubled the size of his business – 1,200 square feet this time – when he decided to move to the newly-built Ptarmigan Inn.
While waiting for his new space to become available, Ring essentially had two stores on the go. Sandra Lester worked there for
two years during this time.
“It was quite the experience,” she said. “I would have been 18 or 19 then. We would receive prescriptions from people in New Town, and call them up when we had received them.”
She praised the way her old boss would appreciate his employees.
“Wally expected the best from people and you went out of your way to give him your best,” she said.
“He didn’t like people showing up late. He was so kind but no-nonsense at the same time. I couldn’t have asked for a better boss.”
Lester said her experience at Ring’s was made all the more interesting considering the old town store was located right next to the Hay River Hotel, more commonly known as “The Zoo” at the time.
“When the men got off work after 4 p.m. it was basically happy hour every single day. We had to make sure we had their newspapers ready because at the time, we would get the Edmonton Journal by bus and it had their names on it.”
In 1971, Ring formed a partnership with Bob Jameson and built the building in which the pharmacy is currently located.
True to his cautious nature, he waited until his merchandise and customer demand grew to fill the shelves, according to a June 1998 Hub article.
In 1974, Wally took a stand against pornographic material, saying “I was never a fan of that damn stuff.” A Hub article that year describes how bent he was to eradicate the so-called “skin books” from his shelves.
“I am only a minority of one but I would like to see some form of magazine censorship in the territories,” he said at the time.
Lester remembers it well, as she had to turn the “bad” magazines around so they would face the other direction.
The Ring family bond may just be as strong as the relationship the pharmacy has with the rest of Hay River.
As soon as Wally and Marlene began their new lives here, they became involved in community organizations, whether it was the legion, the Chamber of Commerce, the Square Dance Club, the health organization or other local groups.
Not only is Ring’s the only pharmacy in town, but it has also supported Hay River by continually employing its residents.
“Seems like we’ve employed half the town,” Les said.
“In a few cases we’ve employed every single member of a family at some time or another,” Larry said.
On Sundays, at the tail end of a very busy week, the Rings don’t disband like other families might: they congregate at Marlene’s house for supper, without fail.
– Myles Dolphin