Paul Wilson: A Sign Past Its Time – February was hell at House of Al

The Alfred U. Oakie Building on Main Street East has been empty for five years. It used to house the oldest car club in the land. The Mormons own it now and hope some other enterprise will step forward.
The building they named after Al Oakie, head of the Hamilton Automobile Club, awaits a new life. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

The yellow-brick building on Main just east of Victoria is empty. But at this time of year, it used to be the busiest, most chaotic place in town.

"We had to have police on duty for crowd control," says Betty Fallis. She’s 84 and worked at 393 Main Street East for 40 years, when it was the home of the Hamilton Automobile Club.

It used to be the only licence bureau in the city. In those days, you had to get a new licence plate every year. And you had to do it in the first two months of the year.

Naturally, everyone procrastinated. So come the final weeks of February, it was chaos inside and outside the auto club. The Spectator loved to run pictures of the line-ups.

But in 1973, someone had a brainwave. When you bought your plate that year, you could hold onto it. All you needed to do was put a little sticker in the corner in 1974, and for each year thereafter.

No more stampede

And they tamed the February stampede by tying licence renewals to your birthday, nicely spreading it out across the year.

It doesn’t say Hamilton Automobile Club at the front of that building any more. The gold letters over the door do spell out A Sign Past Its Time: "Alfred U. Oakie Building." There will be some who don’t know his story.

It begins before he was born. Canada’s first car hit the streets in Hamilton in 1898 when John Moodie piloted a snorting one-cylinder Winton down King Street.

Many didn’t like the contraptions. They were noisy, clogged narrow roadways, scared horses. Farmers buried old rakes, teeth up, in dusty rural roads.

Into this war zone, the Hamilton Automobile Club was born in 1903, first car club in the country. They started with 19 members. In 1924 they introduced emergency road service. By 1951, they hit 10,000 members.

Used to be in Shakespeare's building

And that year they moved from modest offices at Main and Ferguson, where Shakespeare’s steakhouse is today, to the big new building down the street.

And just a few years later, in 1955, Al Oakie was hired to run the place.

He was born Alfredo Umberto Occhiocupo, but he and his brothers apparently got tired of everyone mispronouncing that name, and they cut it short.

Al Oakie never made it to university. But through night studies, he became a chartered management accountant. He got a reputation for being a guy who could do things.

When he started at the auto club, there were 13,000 members. By the time he retired in 1989, that was up to 214,000.

Betty saw it all

His secretary, Betty Fallis, was there for it all. She remembers when the building bustled. The executive offices were upstairs, along with accounting, public relations, switchboard. On the main floor, the licence counter and club counter for travel advice, guides, TripTiks.

And in the basement, offices for driver training and road assistance. The big parking lot out back was crowded with HAC vehicles.

Nearly 25 years ago, Oakie retired. Then his name went up on the building.

But in 1996, a low blow. The parent organization stripped the city’s historic club of its name and called it CAA South Central Ontario. "I wouldn’t let them do that when I was there," Oakie said at the time.

And a worse development yet in 2002, when they moved the headquarters out to the edge of the city, a building on Centennial – a congested strip of road that features the automobile at its worst.

Club pulled out of downtown

There were still some services offered downtown. But five years ago this month, those too were pulled out and moved to the strip mall at Dundurn and King.

The Al Oakie building, 8,000 square feet per floor, has been in the hands of the Mormons ever since. They tore down Gibson’s restaurant on the corner and put up a new church.

They originally thought they might turn the Oakie building into the Bishop’s Storehouse, with canning and food storage facilities. (Mormons like to keep a several-months supply of food, in preparation for the bad times ahead.)

But Bill Hardt, manager of Mormon facilities for this area, says the plan now is to lease or sell the building. Asking price, about $2 million. There have been two interested parties – one with plans for a commercial development, the other residential.

If the building was sold, would the Oakie name stay up? "Probably not," Hardt says.

Al Oakie died peacefully, age 88, four years ago. Denise Oakie is one of his five children. She drives down that stretch of Main East every couple of weeks. She always looks.

"You understand the passage of time, but it’s sad," she says. "My father was so proud of that building."

A Sign Past Its Time pops up every now and then on CBC Hamilton. If you’ve spotted an old sign that needs its story told, do let me know.

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.