Thousands of vehicles pass through the intersection of 176th Street and Fraser Highway in Cloverdale every day. As you drive by, a sign for Fry’s Corner “Beestro” invites you to stop for awhile and enjoy the treats inside.
But who was Fry and why did this become his corner?
Bill Fry emigrated from England to the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century. He was a restless spirit searching for more than what life in his hometown would have offered. He married Lilian, a young girl who shared his dreams, and together they made the trek from Oregon to Alaska, chasing the gold rush around 1912.
While mining didn’t grab Bill’s interest in the way it did of so many young men, his entrepreneurial mind saw a need for selling gasoline for the ever-increasing number of automobiles and street lamps popping up as the area progressed.
After a few years, the Fry family decided the winters were too difficult, so they moved down to California where they opened up a service station near the town of Ojai. Lilian was an excellent businesswoman, with charisma that drew customers from miles around. Bill knew his way around the mechanics of the station and developed a strong reputation for getting things done right.
| Fry’s Corner was the site of Surrey’s first traffic light. It’s pictured here hanging from an overhead wire, inscribed with the words ‘FULL STOP THEN GO,’ ca. 1930s.
Courtesy of the City of Surrey Archives / 180.1.57
But the restless spirit rose again. They decided the weather was too hot in the summer so they were off again looking for the perfect spot. They packed up all their belongings and drove off in their Model-T Ford with their two children.
As they drove through Surrey on the way to Vancouver, Bill Fry saw his vision. At the corner of Old Yale Road and Pacific Highway, he saw an empty spot on the southwest corner — the perfect location for a general store and service station.
Old Yale Road was still gravel and the area was bare, but he had made up his mind. He leased the land, and soon found out he may have bitten off more than he could chew. The field was prone to severe flooding with the locals using row boats to cross to each other’s homes. As well, there was no land at road level to build. This was no deterrent for his dream, and he made plans with local carpenters to build a parking area and one room store on top of heavy pilings and stilts. Automobiles were still cutting-edge technology, so the earth-moving construction equipment was almost unheard of in the small town.
One hiccup he encountered was the utilities; there were none. He contacted the power company, but they asked for an extraordinary sum to bring electricity to the area, so again Bill relied on ingenuity, building himself a small power plant running on kerosene. He made deals with his new Clayton neighbours to use the artesian wells that dotted the area and let them use his power plant. Soon, they were in business.
| The Livingston Barn, at Fry’s Corner during the floods of 1935. A note on the back of the photo reads ‘year our house almost caved in with snow.’
Courtesy of the City of Surrey Archives / 180.9.05
After years of wandering, they had found their perfect life. Fry’s Corner became the stop for one and all as they passed along down to the U.S. Border or through to the other areas in the Fraser Valley.
Bill Fry, ever on the lookout for the next best thing, no longer wanted to wander but turned his interests to the commercial side of things. As Prohibition was still in effect in the States, the traffic into Canada was very heavy on the weekends when Americans travelled up to Vancouver where they could have a drink or two. Bill saw this as a great opportunity for adding an iconic Canadian item to the merchandise in his inventory. He became the exclusive dealer in Surrey to handle Hudson Bay blankets and took it one step further by cutting them in half to increase his profits. He also contracted a local Clayton woman to sew the blankets into jackets, adding the exclusivity of his products.
| The fields around Fry’s Corner were a popular skating destination during the winter months, when they froze over. December 1961.
Courtesy of the City of Surrey Archives / 1784a
Cold drinks and ice cream were always kept in the icebox out in front of the store, further ensuring travelers would stop for refreshments while looking at the other products on sale.
Late one night in 1929, there was a loud knock at the door. As the store was so isolated, it was always a concern when someone came by after closing, as there had been robberies in the past. The door creaked open and a young sailor jumped inside, clearly agitated. He reached into his coat pocket and began to pull something out — the family held their breath, terrified of what would happen next.
They were quickly relieved, and surprised, when the item under the sailor’s coat was revealed to be a baby monkey. The man explained he had come from Java on a ship and was travelling to the U.S. but knew that he would never get clearance to bring the monkey with him. He was at a loss of what to do. The Fry family agreed to take the monkey in until the sailor could return. The sailor, however, never did return.
| Mr. Mervyn meets with a painful accident at Fry’s Corner.
The monkey became a main attraction to the customers of the store, with its cute antics and exotic nature. Bill saw an opportunity to highlight this attraction and people would come from miles around to see it. Eventually, however, it became clear the store was not the best place for a monkey to live out it’s life and it was taken away to a better place.
The Fry family left their mark on the area. The store on the corner would go on to be owned by a few other families over the years, before the building was torn down in the 1960s. But a century later, it is still known as Fry’s Corner by one and all.
Sue Bryant is an oral historian and a member of the Surrey Historical Society. She is also a digital photo restoration artist, genealogist and volunteers at the Surrey Museum and Surrey Archives.