George Kelly Hill was born in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba on March 5th, 1904 and passed away on January 21st, 1978 at the age of 76. George’s father John Kelly Hill was a pioneer druggist and established the everlasting “Hill’s” drug store on Saskatchewan Ave here in Portage La Prairie.
Growing up George lived with his parents J.K. Hill and Jenny Hill in a house located at the northeast corner of Royal Road and Dufferin Ave. He grew up alongside his brother Frank and sister Edith. He had had another sister named Clara, who sadly passed at the young age of six due to Scarlet Fever. As a young man, Hill was greatly interested in the sports of hockey, baseball and golf. George was a team member of the Knights of Knox who were the runner’s up in the Manitoba Juvenile Championships in Poland in 1934. While competing in the 1931 Olympics as a hockey player representing Canada, Hill had his passport signed by Adolf Hitler.
Hill’s East drugstore was established in 1901. Along with his brother Frank and Uncle Andy, George continued the tradition and was a licensed pharmacist. It was not until years later that George became manager of Hill’s West when it was established in 1927.
Later in 1938, Hill’s true colors as an architect, decorator, designer and all around entrepreneur began to shine. Adjacent to Hill’s drugstore, at the corner of Tupper and Saskatchewan Ave was where the hotel formerly stood. The Merchants hotel burnt down in the 1930’s and had left a vacant lot since. Hill bought the space from the city for one dollar with the promise that he would use the lot to build a hotel. His personal motivation for this task lay in the reality that Portage only had lackluster hotels to its name. The hotels front faced Saskatchewan Ave and contained 26 guest rooms, Hill’s Drug Store, the Mayfair Coffee Shoppe (with soda fountain), Cole’s Jewelry, a beer parlor and vendor, the Rose Room Ballroom, Earl George’s Optometry and eventually the Mauna Loa Lounge. This hotel was the first new hotel built in many years, explaining the buzz it brought around town. Hill’s “Mayfair Hotel” was considered ultra modern and gave hope for the local economy to finally evolve. It was built in an era when a trip to Winnipeg was a grand outing.
Most Hotels in Portage were remnants of the 1880’s and had only small cubicle style rooms that had shared bathrooms and dark hallways. The rooms in the Mayfair were well decorated and heated with their own washrooms.
George had a great appreciation for color and it showed in his hotel. His token colors were Aquamarine, Peacock Blue, Flamingo Pink and Navajo Red. These hues were custom mixed by Wally Cochlan and Sherwin Williams and were exclusive to George. The face of the building, along with the complete street frontage was covered in a skin of glazed Japanese tile. These tiles were poured into Portage by a large number of crates. Later he would apply “Hill’s West Drugstore” in glimmering red, blue and gold tiles. With this beautiful success, he went on to use these and other variations of ceramics to decorate the interior of the hotel, including the restrooms and restaurant. He had discovered these ceramics on a trip to Japan, a country whose culture proved to be a major inspiration to George.
This consideration of his showed through the many extra features of the hotel including the cantilevered hangings on the sides of the building to protect shoppers and guests from snow, sun and rain.
The next great novelty of the hotel to be mentioned is the restaurant. One of its main attractions was their T-bone steaks, cooked expertly by chef Dave Gabble. Tourists came from all over the USA to experience the famed steakhouse. All of the waitresses of the hotel were uniformed and very friendly to the customers. Hill made sure everything was running smoothly daily as he inspected every inch of the restaurant to make sure it met his standards of excellence. Apparently a real soda fountain had a mystical appeal back in the early days, and the Mayfair claimed to have one of the longest in the west. The bar, from which you could order a variety of frozen treats, was composed from a beautiful brown Romanian tile. The frozen menu yielded such items with names like “Mint Tulips” and “Fools Delight”. Banana splits and enormous chocolate malts were served daily. After picking up the “Sweda Freezer” franchise, there were lineups running outside of the Mayfair doors for the popular soft ice cream. The soda fountain was one of a kind; sadly it is unlikely that we will ever see one like it again. Its top was made of thick travertine marble with white and black streaks running through it. Past the fountain was an assembly of brass seltzer and soda spigots with ice cream toppings in tubs of stainless steel in a long row. The hotel also had a men’s beer parlor with patterns of warm pine and fixtures of iron light fashion.
In the basement of the hotel there was a fine dining hall and the “Rose Room Ballroom”. New Year’s Eve, St. Patrick’s Day and many other events were celebrated through dance in the ballroom. It was Portage’s version of the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria. The room was right next to a kitchen for entertaining needs. Eleanor Giffin can remember selling textbooks to scholars a few days in the fall for the following school year. It was a versatile room, easily adapted for different uses.
Through out the high times of the hotel, guests included hundreds of air men and their families during WWII. Cars parked outside the Mayfair had license plates from all over, including Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania. The Americans usually stopped in for several hours to appreciate the Mayfair with its reputation for great food and its gift shop. George played off of American love for English China and colorful items from Mexico and Japan.
The Mayfair Hotel was prominent in a time when the world and Portage itself swept away in a sequence of good times and optimism for the future. The Mayfair contributed to Portages new age of sophistication and most people who lived during its time could tell you a story or two of their experiences there. The hotel was civilized because it was clean and efficient and ran by a daily routine seen to by Hill.
Mayfair Enterprises sold the hotel in 1966; it later burnt down in 1978.
The Mauna Loa Lounge
The early sixties brought the creation of the chic and lavish Mauna Loa Lounge. This business venue of Hill’s seemed to be a great escape for Portager’s. The project was executed on the eastern part of the hotel as renovations brought together an authentic Polynesian cocktail lounge. This theme lounge was extraordinary in its setting and design. The walls and ceilings were of grass matting sewn on the large bamboo poles. The room resembled a large Polynesian hut with colored globes that glimmered as they were suspended by fishnets in between lighted king turtle shells. Painted leather and gilded tiles made the walls glow. There were gurgling fountains, hoTai (the god of good luck), lighted blowfish, peacock chairs, hand carved wooden tables, all on exotic theatre carpeting. The servers’ sporting flowered shirts and leis, brought drinks served in brightly colored glasses.
While listening to Hawaiian surf music, you could enjoy tall Singapore Slings and other crazy concoctions in which grenadine often had a role. When George first suggested the idea of the lounge he was told that it would not be successful. However, he would not let others restrict him and so he continued on with his vision. He sought the help of Edith Holden (a talented artist), along with Daryl Giffin and Don Pelechaty who both hand carved and painted the tiki pole Gods to create the perfect look. It turned out to be a grand moneymaker and Hill had his loan paid off within a year.
The drugstore, which was the beginning of it all, was where Hill initially worked as a druggist. Pharmacy was definitely in his blood, but in truth he seemed to be more of an entrepreneur at heart. In 1927, he became manager of Hill’s West Drugs, formerly Caniff Drugs.
With knowledge that Christmas brought half of merchant’s sales, he invented his own Christmas extravaganza with bands, dancers, singers, and performers in costume. Santa Claus would even appear in his sleigh and toss out oranges and candy for all the kids; this event all started with a five hour viewing of cartoons at the drill hall. So it seems that Hill was a genius when it came to entertainment whether it be for the young or the old.
Moving back to downtown Portage, there was the Gift shop located near the hotel that was called Mayfair Glassware, it opened in 1951 and later moved to the Mayfair Motors building in 1958. George adored traveling and had the freedom to go where he wished. He received much inspiration on his trips and recorded his ideas with his notebook and camera. Mayfair Glassware offered that there was always something new among the unique objects such as Japanese fans, kimonos, maracas, silk screens, paper lanterns, red gourds and “Seetusee” glassware. The glassware’s main product was Seetusee,
which means –from sea to sea. This began when a family member saw this glassware in Mexico.
Later George went down there to determine how to make the product. George had Mexican artisans come back with him to train workers in his new factory at the back of the hotel. Soon dishes and even clocks of all shapes and sizes were quick sellers out of the gift shop. Artistic management was provided by Foss, Daryl, and Kelly Giffin who eventually saw the seetusee be sold from coast to coast in Canada through the Hudson Bay Company. Jewelry from Japan, Mexico and Toronto was all sold from the Glassware.
To make the seetusee, glass was molded in an oven on metal molds, the paint was dripped and dribbled onto the glass and then pigskin leather backing that was painted gold was assembled to the back. When eventually the pigskin became too expensive they changed to a similar product.
Hill had other notable business endeavors as well. After the war, Hill renovated the former “Moe’s Garage” into the appropriately named ford dealership, “Mayfair Motors”. It was at 233 Tupper Street, just across the alley from the hotel, and actually provided the hotel with heated water through a pipe. Hill serviced and sold Ford vehicles and helped to promote the franchise by cruising around town in his coral Ford convertible. Mayfair Motors was in business from 1949 to 1955. Before he established this business, which did not last for quite as long as others did, he used the building to service the Mayfair Turkey Farm as a hatchery run by Ken Hall.
Mayfair Farm and Mayfair Hotel began at the same time, 1940. They raised turkeys at this time and built shelters for the turkeys on the farm.
Potatoes, cattle and mixed farming also took place on the farm at this time. Compared to what it is now the farm situated on Island Park seems minuscule. It was owned by Hill but managed by Basil Bonnett, Arnold Fawcett and Peter Jordanson. These men resided in the farmhouses that are currently inhabited by Hill’s great nephew and his family and the other home by some of the migrant employees that come to reside on our farm for a good portion of the year.
As the farm developed, John Kelly Giffin became involved in the seeding, planting and harvesting, all the while working at the drugstore. At an early age, three of Kelly’s sons; Scott, Mike and Todd Giffin had assumed great responsibility on the farm. Kelly’s forth son Mitch chose a career in medicine, being an anesthesiologist in Vancouver, which he very much enjoys and has great success.
Though the sons all do an enormous amount of work to keep the farm running, Kelly’s contribution in management is beyond replacement. Since about 1980 the farm has expanded considerably and boasts mainly fresh produce and small fruit. The farm that had been started by Hill has over the years grown; carrots, cauliflower, onions, radishes, cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, pumpkins, strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, potatoes, light red kidney beans, green & yellow beans, romaine & leaf lettuce, wheat and many others. Since about 1997 the Giffin grandchildren have spent their summers working on the farm, being the forth generation. The farm is the only business started by Hill that is still in existence, for Hill’s East was established by George’s father, and the Mayfair Print Shoppe was created by Karen Giffin, Todd’s wife in 1994.
When the farm began growing produce in the 1970’s, it was a mere 20 acres of green peppers and strawberries.
Presently we continue to grow Quality Vegetables and Small fruits and also beans and some wheat for rotation purposes on over 700 acres.
Pictured above is the old “Mayfair Motel” which was situated on Royal Road South. It opened its doors in 1954.
Mayfair Print Shoppe
Mayfair Print Shoppe was established in 1994 by Karen Giffin, Who is married to Todd. She is a member of the Guild Stations Group.