George Bartell started his pharmacy career as a teenager while living in Kansas. He relocated to Seattle in the summer of 1887, and in 1890 opened his first drugstore in the city. He took a breather in 1897 to join the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon, but after an adventurous year returned to Seattle and his drugstore. Bartell’s business grew, and by the 1920s had expanded from a single drugstore to a thriving chain of pharmacies scattered throughout Seattle. By the time of George Bartell's passing in 1956, the Bartell Drug Company had 23 stores operating in the greater Seattle area.
A Budding Pharmacist
George Henry Bartell was born on December 14, 1868, in Dickinson County, Kansas. His father, Augustus Bartell (1831-1917), had immigrated to the United States from Germany as an infant, initially settling in Wisconsin, and later moving to Iowa. He married Bartell’s mother, Mary Ann (1838-1905) in 1856 in Iowa, and within a few years they moved to Kansas, where George was born. He was the sixth of 10 children (seven sisters and two brothers). In the early 1870s the family moved one county east to a farm in Junction City, Kansas, and Bartell spent the rest of his childhood there. By 1880 Augustus Bartell co-owned a hotel in Junction City, and was also dealing in lumber. But evidently none of this interested George Bartell, and at the age of 14, he left the family farm.
But like many in the late nineteenth century, Bartell was lured by the call of the West. In the summer of 1887 Bartell caught a free ride to Washington Territory on a railroad boxcar in exchange for agreeing to feed 10 horses that were traveling in other boxcars on the train. It was a long trip, taking nearly a month, and the train only went as far as Ellensburg; the Stampede Pass Tunnel which allowed rail access to Seattle would not be finished until the following spring. From Ellensburg Bartell traveled by horseback over the Cascade Mountains, and arrived in Seattle with $15 in his pocket.
Early Seattle Days
Bartell, still 18 years old in the summer of 1887, wasted no time getting to work. He worked a series of odd jobs, occasionally filled in as a pharmacist, and before long joined forces with a local carpenter, William Carmode, to sell real estate in Seattle, Mercer Island, and Port Blakely. He also managed the books for two local realtors, C. C. Caulkins and George Moore. Gradually Bartell made contacts in his new home and became acclimated to Seattle.
Shortly before the Great Seattle Fire of June 1889, Bartell moved to Whidbey Island to recover from a bout of typhoid fever, which he believed he contracted from Seattle’s water system. But early in 1890 he returned to Seattle and in late March 1890 he began part-time work at the Lake Washington Pharmacy at 2911 Jackson Street (later renumbered 2711 Jackson Street) in a then lightly developed area that later became the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle. In June, he was hired full time. Opportunity knocked when he learned that the pharmacy owner, Horace Hall, was more interested in his medical practice than his drugstore. Two weeks after starting the full-time job at the Lake Washington Pharmacy, Bartell bought the store for $3,000, most of which he had to borrow. He was 21 years old.
Bartell worked long hours seven days a week, 12 to sometimes 15 hours a day, and eventually the long hours began to affect his health. He lived in the back of his store building, at least initially. But he found time for other activities. He studied pharmacy at the University of Washington during the first half of the 1890s, when the college was still located in downtown Seattle. (He had also attended Manhattan College in Kansas when he was a teenager.) And on June 27, 1892, Bartell married Mary Heaney in Seattle. The 1900 U.S. Census records George and Mary Bartell living in a rented house at 1117 31st Avenue S in Seattle, not far from his Lake Washington Pharmacy. They had no children, and apparently did not have any before the marriage ended by 1905.
At some point during these early years Augustus Bartell came to Seattle to visit his son, and asked how the store was doing financially. Young Bartell owned up that he had not worked on his books in awhile and couldn’t say precisely, although he was still carrying a significant debt load. His father sternly lectured him on the importance of keeping current on his finances and avoiding debt, a lesson that Bartell later suggested led to the company’s policy over the years of conservative financial management.
On July 17, 1897, the steamship Portland arrived in Seattle with news of a gold strike in the Canadian Yukon and a ton of gold to prove it. Bartell went down to the ship to see it for himself and once he did, he (and thousands of others) embarked on the Klondike Gold Rush. It was an adventure that Bartell would relish for the rest of his life, and underscores the drive that made him the success he became. Risk did not deter him; if anything, he thrived on it. He turned the management of the Lake Washington Pharmacy over to his assistant, A. E. Casey, gathered his supplies, and headed north on the steamer Queen, taking the then-tidy sum of $2,000 with him.
Arriving in Skagway, Alaska, he backpacked his supplies over the arduously steep Chilkoot Pass, crossed into Canada, and followed the trail down to Lake Bennett. On the banks of the lake he paired up with a fellow traveler, chopped down trees for a raft, and floated down the Yukon River to Dawson, Yukon Territory. He staked out a claim near Dawson on a tributary of the Yukon River, and, with others, built a small one-room cabin for the winter. The cabin had no floor and a makeshift door that did little to keep out the cold. Bartell worked odd jobs to bring in some cash, and in the spring was able to work his claim. Although he was actually quite close to some of the big gold strikes, he did not himself strike it rich. But he did find enough gold to cover most of the steep expenses required for his year-long trip, and his health improved as a result of all his hard physical work during his trip to the Yukon.
In an interesting aside, the Spanish-American War was fought and won while Bartell was in the Far North. He enjoyed telling the story of paying 50 cents -- roughly $10 in 2010 dollars -- to listen to a reading of a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article about the American naval victory over the Spanish in the Battle of Manila Bay (Philippines) while on a visit to Dawson in the spring or summer of 1898.
Fighting The Trust
After about a year in the Yukon, Bartell returned to Seattle with a plan -- to open several drugstores downtown. Later he explained: "When I was up in Alaska [actually the Yukon] I had lots of time to think and I thought 'well why should I work all the time in the suburbs, why didn’t I go down[town] where there was more business'" (Bartell Drugs: A Company History). He opened his first new store late in 1898 at 506 2nd Avenue, and named it "Bartell's Owl Drug Store"; the "owl" came from the all-night hours that the store stayed open. (The store remained open until 1911, when it was razed to make way for the Smith Tower.)
Bartell soon recognized that he could sell his merchandise at a lower price than the prices charged by his downtown competitors, but they responded quickly. By 1901 some 40 drugstores in the Seattle area had formed "The Seattle Drug Trust." One of Bartell’s competitors owned the only wholesale drug firm in Seattle, and Bartell was told that if he didn’t raise his prices to match those charged by the trust, his local supplier would stop selling supplies to him. Bartell refused, and the local wholesaler cut him off.
Bartell sought his merchandise elsewhere. His competitors notified suppliers up and down the Pacific Coast and even as far away as New York that they would stop purchasing from these suppliers if they learned that they were selling to Bartell. In response he found a couple of sympathetic suppliers who were willing to continue selling to him directly. He also ran ads in the Seattle papers in 1901 and 1902 telling the public of the trust and demonstrating that his prices were lower than those offered by the competing stores in Seattle. His strategy worked; the trust went bust, and his business jumped. By 1904 business had increased to the point that Bartell was able to open a second drugstore a block north of the owl drugstore. He also incorporated the Bartell Drug Company that year.
A Growing Family, A Growing Business
On October 18, 1905, Bartell married Beatrice Shaffer (1879-1969) They lived in a house built that same year by her father, Fisk Shaffer (a noted architect and builder in Helena, Montana, during the final three decades of the nineteenth century), in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle. The house, located at 1517 11th Avenue W, still stands today (2010). At least for a time, Beatrice’s parents remained in the house; the 1910 Census shows them living there, along with Beatrice’s younger brother Thomas and two other boarders. By the 1920 Census the Shaffers had moved on, and the Bartells had their own family: Daughter Amy Ellen (1906-1998) was born on November 30, 1906, and nearly 10 years later, on October 20, 1916, George H. Bartell Jr. (1916-2009) arrived.
About 1920, George and Beatrice Bartell amicably divorced. Beatrice and the children remained in the house on Queen Anne, and George soon remarried. The 1930 Census shows he and his wife, Virginia (more commonly known as Zedna), living in a house on 1st Avenue N in Seattle, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1934.
The 1920s were boom years for Bartell Drugs, with 10 new stores opened in Seattle. Bartell adopted a policy of buying as many products made or grown in the Northwest as he could in order to emphasize the local nature of his business. During the Great Depression of the 1930s Bartell’s stores sold Washington-grown apples at cost “just to boost the industry and help the orchard growers out during a pretty difficult period,” explained Bartell in a 1951 Seattle Times interview (“George Bartell, Pioneer Druggist, Still Active..."). This product loyalty was returned by Bartell’s customers, who helped make his drugstores into a thriving enterprise, one that actually flourished through the Great Depression.
Bartell also developed a habit in the earliest years of personally visiting each store on a regular basis and chatting with its employees in order to show his interest and appreciation in their work. He explained in a 1930 interview to Leo Lassen of the Seattle Star: “You have to learn to trust other people to succeed in business. I don’t do anything. I never interfere with my managers; each is responsible for his unit. I like to develop my own help.” This tradition of personal store visits by Bartell family members has been handed down over the years and is continued today by his grandson, George D. Bartell.
Lassen in his article went on to describe Bartell:
“Bartell, in middle life, prefers worsted business suits, wears quiet ties and glasses. He speaks rather hurriedly and is a ready conversationalist. He loves out-door life and prefers the company of young people. Bartell has just returned from a week’s fishing in the Cascades and is bronzed by the sun. He likes to pack into trackless streams ... . There is nothing fussy as an executive about Bartell. He had his fishing paraphernalia packed in his private office and spent half an hour demonstrating its various uses” (Lassen).
Fishing, Golfing, and Gardening
As Lassen pointed out, Bartell was not all work and no play. In addition to fishing Bartell enjoyed golfing, although that may have been as much for the opportunity to do a little business on the golf course as for recreation (a 1950 Seattle Times article explains that Bartell negotiated the purchase of his ninth drugstore from fellow drugstore owner Louis Swift over a friendly round of golf). He gave up golfing in the 1930s, but pursued his true passion, fishing, until the end of his life, favoring salmon and trout fishing. He took yearly tours of the United States during the 1920s and 1930s (one tour in 1930 lasted eight weeks) which were touted as business trips, but often included fishing as well.
One local article from the early 1930s says that Bartell carried a folding yardstick to measure the steelheads he caught, and had a collection of dry flies and phantom leaders at the ready should a fishing opportunity arise. Indeed -- at least according to this article -- he was not above slipping out of his office a bit early during his later years to cast a line. But even so, Bartell admitted in a 1932 Seattle Post-Intelligencer interview that the greatest sport of all was the thrill of business.
In September 1939 Bartell turned over the presidency of the Bartell Drug Company to his 22-year-old son, George Bartell Jr. In his later years he liked taking in a good game of baseball, but also enjoyed the card game of bridge. And he kept his hand in company affairs until shortly before his death in 1956. In 1954 he was serving as the company’s vice president, and told a Seattle Times reporter that spring “I’ll retire when I’m flat on my back and can’t get up. I think that’s quite a ways off yet” (“Bartell, Druggist, Not Standing Still”). But he did admit to living a quieter, simpler life. He maintained an apartment at the company headquarters on Boren Avenue until his passing, walking several miles a day to stay in shape. He also had a country home near Edmonds (Snohomish County) where he kept a large flower garden (the flowers themselves were often displayed at Bartell stores into the 1950s) and enjoyed doing the outdoor work necessary to maintain his property.
Bartell remained alert and in good health until the end of his life. Late in March 1956, almost precisely 66 years after he began work at the Lake Washington Pharmacy, he fell seriously ill, and died about a week later, on March 30, 1956. He was 87. At the time of his passing, Bartell Drugs had 23 stores in operation in the greater Seattle area.
Bartell also served as a director of the Pacific National Bank, and was a member of the Rainier Club, as were many Seattle gentlemen in the first half of the twentieth century. He was also one of the earliest members of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, which was founded in Seattle in 1898.