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The Funny Pharmacist
by Jeff Jewell
George E. Finnegan, the cigar-chomping, sharp-witted pharmacist, was considered the funniest man in Bellingham, though it was his tireless devotion to Fairhaven for which he is best remembered.
John "Gaff" McGlinn, Pacific American Fisheries secretary and Finnegan’s long-time friend, observed that George’s "every public act or endeavor was predicated on its possible benefits or effect on his beloved South Side—not from personal selfish motive so much as his intense interest in, and sympathy and helpfulness for, his old time friends and neighbors."
Born in July 1883, in Minneapolis, George Finnegan came to Fairhaven at the age of 13. He immediately found employment as a delivery boy for the Fairhaven Pharmacy, run by David Alverson, in the Mason Block (now Sycamore Square).
George stayed with the drugstore after pharmacist Fred Offerman bought the business from Alverson in April 1900. Finnegan graduated from Fairhaven High School in 1902 and attended the State Normal School (now WWU), but it was his in-store education that proved most valuable.
Fred Offerman, moving on to operate the Red Cross Pharmacy on Holly Street, sold the Fairhaven Pharmacy to Finnegan and Elmer Morrison on July 17, 1906. Morrison had been in George’s high school class and was a graduate of the UW School of Pharmacy, but having contracted tuberculosis, the promising young pharmacist sold his interest in the drugstore to Finnegan in June 1910.
George moved the pharmacy to the Monahan Building in 1915. The new location at 1209 11th St. was centrally located and on the main north-south trolley line, but rather small for Finnegan’s brisk business.
By 1924, the lack of space drove George to open another store, known as "The Busy Corner," in the Terminal Building at 11th and Harris. The Busy Corner sold toiletries, school supplies, confections, magazines and other sundries that one generally associates with a drugstore, but it wasn’t an apothecary. It was the place to sell everything that simply wouldn’t fit in the Fairhaven Pharmacy’s cramped quarters! And the Busy Corner had room for a soda fountain, which quickly became the favored hangout for Fairhaven High students and those waiting for a trolley downtown or to Happy Valley.
John Finnegan, George’s older brother, ran the Busy Corner. For many years, John had been a foreman at the Earles-Cleary shingle mill on Padden Lagoon, though by 1918 he’d become the proprietor of a small cigar store on Harris Ave. The Finnegan brothers both enjoyed their stogies and the Busy Corner had a fine selection.
George was most in his element during community picnics at Fairhaven Park. There, as McGlinn described it, George was easily spotted, his "homely countenance crowned with the famous, historic Wardner fire department cap" as he mingled with the "friendly throng leaving laughter and enjoyment behind him as he passes through the crowd."
Finnegan helped organize the notorious Washington Club, founded on George Washington’s birthday, in 1924. Members were a cross-section of Bellingham merchants and professionals that met for merrymaking over Friday lunch in the Fairhaven Hotel. They championed the underdog and roasted the pompous, often by assuming exaggerated personas like Sir Percival Ferdinand Algernon and The Honorable Von Rafferty.
Surrealistic businessmen: Washington Club members pose for a group portrait in alter-ego attire on June 28, 1927.
George Finnegan is in the back row, fourth from left, as Duke de Bunk.
Though he wasn’t a politician, George was bestowed with the honorary title "Mayor of Fairhaven." In 1926, when the South Side desperately needed a new fire station, Finnegan made the community’s case to City Council and Mayor (of Bellingham) John Kellogg. Fairhaven got its new fire station (at 14th and Harris in 1927). Equally influential would be George’s campaign for the fishing fleet’s South Bellingham boat haven, which won voter approval in 1936.
Throughout the 1920s, following completion of the Pacific Highway, Bellingham was advertised as a "Convention City." Finnegan’s humorous, philosophical discourses made him a popular guest speaker. According to McGlinn, "There was never a convention that George addressed: bankers, service club, druggists and undertakers, ministers and doctors, that men of national renown did not ask, Where has this extraordinary personality been keeping himself?" As president of the Washington State Pharmaceutical Association in 1928, Finnegan brought the group’s July convention to Bellingham.
In early 1929, George prepared for construction of his new "Shopping Tower" at 12th and Harris. For the commercial building’s cornerstone, he obtained an "original Aztec horned toad" that was found at an archaeological site "near the Texas border." An exceptionally lethargic metabolism made the toad perfect for placement in the tower’s foundation. Its heart beat at five minute intervals and it only needed to eat once every 50 years.
News got out about Finnegan’s plan to entomb the rare toad and outraged members of the Humane Society gave George a thorough scolding. Finnegan was not beyond compromise and altered the building’s design so that "the Horned Toad was placed on the roof instead of in the cornerstone" to afford the ancient amphibian "a better view of beautiful Bellingham Bay, Mt. Baker and the Islands." Of course, the only Aztec toad was the one in George’s imagination.
The grand opening of the Shopping Tower was celebrated on July 20, 1929. The new building was, as George put it, "the result of many, many years of planning by brainy men of artistic temperature." Finnegan publicized the one-story building as "the shortest Shopping Tower south of Alaska" and being "50 feet high, 50 feet wide and 50 feet deep, if it ever blows over it will still be straight up."
The new building had three storefronts with the Fairhaven Pharmacy on the corner at 1115 Harris, Nels "Strand’s" dry goods store at 1113 Harris, and Richard Ebeling’s Washington [Meat] Market sharing 1111 Harris with Easton "Jacobson’s Grocery.” Congratulatory ads were taken out in the newspaper by many South Bellingham firms, including Chip Groom’s Adams & Co., which had done the tower’s plumbing, and H. M. Thiel, who supplied the hardware.
| The Fairhaven Pharmacy in the Mason Block, 12th and Harris, with druggist Fred Offerman (at left) and George Finnegan (center) in 1905. || |
But the celebratory mood was short lived. The stock market crashed that fall and the Great Depression began. On July 20, 1930, exactly one year after the Shopping Tower’s grand opening, John Finnegan died.
George juggled both the Busy Corner and the drugstore, while business turned bleak. Finnegan had always carried the accounts of families who relied on credit. They paid when and what they could, but many customers were now unable to pay anything on their bill.
Clarence Milne, a delivery boy for Finnegan in the early 1930s, remembered being sent out every Saturday to collect from customers. "I never came back with a penny," Milne recalled. "Nobody had any money in those days. Old George would complain like the dickens and blew smoke from his cigar, but he never turned anyone down." People still needed medicine.
Milne never forgot how Finnegan "bought many a load of wood and had it delivered to folks who never knew where it came from. He kept people who were hungry supplied with food."
However, George was having his own financial troubles. He had fallen behind on his payments for the Shopping Tower and faced foreclosure.
At this dark hour, Charlie Larrabee came to see Finnegan at the pharmacy. Son of C.X. and Frances Larrabee, Charlie inherited both wealth and a strong sense of community from his philanthropic parents. Larrabee took Finnegan aside: "Let me buy the building from you, George, and I’ll charge you a reasonable rent to allow you to stay open."
Larrabee wasn’t looking for real estate. He bought the building simply to keep the pharmacist in business. It was a George Bailey-moment for George Finnegan. Larrabee’s generosity, which enabled Finnegan to survive the Depression, was not made public.
In 1934, George sold the Busy Corner to Wilfred Berthiaume. No stranger to the job, Will had been working as a clerk in the Fairhaven Pharmacy for a decade. Berthiaume renamed the business the Terminal Store, though it retained the Busy Corner’s complementary role with George’s drugstore.
George Finnegan died on Nov. 6, 1939. He was 56.
The pharmacy was bought by Rene LaCasse, who had been employed by George for 27 years. Having started as a delivery boy in 1912, LaCasse worked his way up to become a pharmacist just as Finnegan had done under Alverson and Offerman. It was Finnegan’s wish that Rene continue the drugstore and, as an incentive, he’d left 5-percent of the business to him.
LaCasse bought back 1115 Harris Ave. from Charlie Larrabee in 1942.
In 1944, the short road linking 11th and 12th streets, created in 1935 with WPA funds, was named "Finnegan Way" in George’s honor by City Council Ordinance No. 6263.
|A memorial plaque to Finnegan was placed in Fairhaven Park by his many friends on June 7, 1946. |