When I was a kid, anything we needed could be purchased on Main Street.
As I remember, there were two greengrocers, two butchers, a grocery store, two banks, three hardware stores, two jewellery stores, a china, silverware, crystal shop, a watchmaker, a hand engraver, two men’s wear shops, a tailor, a seamstress, one boys’ wear shop, one children and teens’ wear shop, three department stores, a plumber, a shoemaker, two shoe stores, two barber shops, a couple of hairdressing salons, three car dealerships, three pharmacies, three dentists, five doctors’ offices, a photography store, a photographer, a music shop, two insurance brokers, a Simpsons-Sears catalogue store, a smoke shop, four restaurants, a sewing store, two bakeries, two hotels and, best of all…TRICKY’s candy shop!
And these are merely the ones that come to mind right now. I know many readers of my vintage will come up with lots more, and many memories of their own!
There was much camaraderie amongst the local merchants. Some memories are still so very vivid to me.
I must start with my own father. He was a master at jewellery making, repair, and hand engraving. He was of the “old school”, where the customer was always right, and service meant GOOD service.
He shared his shop, called Briggs Jewellers, with my Uncle Ted, who was a watchmaker par excellence…no Timex watches for him! The very best quality of jewellery, watches (Gruen, Bulova, etc.), clocks, china (Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Spode and so on), silverware (no stainless steel), and crystal (the likes of Waterford) were what Briggs Jewellers dealt with. My dad used to jokingly say that his shop provided competition for Birks and Peoples Credit Jewellers!
I still meet people who tell me they bought things at Briggs, and they invariably remark what a handsome and gracious gentleman my dad was. They were always treated with respect and dignity by him. They sold that shop in 1971. My dad would be very pleased indeed to know that Muskoka Jewellery Design now occupies that space.
Right beside my dad’s shop (to the east) was the Huntsville Forester. The owner and editor since 1930, Paul Rice, was a great friend of my dad’s. Mr. Rice was a very kind man, with a red face and big belly, who always took an interest in what I was doing.
One day, the health inspector came round to make sure all the washrooms in the shops had proper ventilating pipes. Of course, none of them did, and they were given a period of time to have them installed. Dad and Paul went across the street to Huntsville Hardware (the former Florence’s Flowers) and purchased enough pipe to fit tightly from floor to ceiling, lodged it in and were ready for the health inspector when he came back. Both passed inspection! Also, it was a well-kept secret that Paul himself would write a letter to the editor, under a pseudonym, just to stir up controversy or draw attention to a particular issue. That’s the sort of fun these characters had on the Main Street.
On the west side, was MacDonald’s Restaurant, run by brothers Jack and Ken MacDonald. I remember one Ash Wednesday, as Anglicans, we were allowed to be late for school in order to go to the 9:00 service. One year when we were in high school, we decided to go to MacDonald’s for a cherry coke instead, arriving at school in our own time. Of course, by the time we got home from school that afternoon, our parents had heard about our misdemeanour and there was hell to pay! That’s the sort of thing that happened on the Main Street of Huntsville!
Mr. Jimmy Armstrong was the local butcher. I remember his jolly, round, moustached smiling face, his white apron spotted with blood, and a missing finger from his left hand. There was sawdust on the floor of his shop, just right for piling up and playing with. I was fascinated that, after he wrapped the meat with brown butchers’ paper and tied it up, he could snap and break that heavy string with his bare fingers! Often he would throw a soup bone in as well…no charge for that in Huntsville in those days.
Stephenson’s fruit and vegetable store was right next to Armstrong’s. There was a plethora of that sort of thing in the spring, summer and fall, but not the exotic kinds that we have now, most grown locally, or at least in Ontario. Things were pretty sparse in the winter, so my mother would stock up in season in order to preserve this produce for winter consumption. All this produce was in bins each with a sign with the price (per pound, NOT kilogram!).
I don’t remember Mr. Stephenson particularly, but I do remember that one day when my mom and I were there, there were coconuts. How exciting was that! A town character, whose name was Charlie Church, entered the store and asked Mr. Stephenson, “How much for the haairrry potatoes?” He was one of the many wonderful fascinating characters who roamed the Main Street in those days!
Up the street from there was the Muskoka Trading Company (now Sharpley Source for Sports). It was one of the more posh department stores. What I remember about that was a moose head hanging at the back of the store.
Where Pharmasave is now, there was Eaton’s, another department store. What I remember most about Eaton’s is that Santa Claus was downstairs around Christmas time! You could find almost anything at Eaton’s—wool and fabric on the second floor, clothing on the main floor, and who can forget dear John West in the basement appliance department!
The clock, atop the Town Hall, kept meticulous time in those days. It had been installed in 1927 by my grandfather Briggs, dad and Uncle Ted. It was brought in pieces from the second Union Station in Toronto, which was being demolished to make way for the newer Union Station. To balance the pendulum perfectly, my grandfather used old car parts…ingenious!
Below the clock, on the upper floor, was the library. I expect the only reference books would have been a dictionary and a set of encyclopaedias. There were very few shelves in the library, holding some novels and a small section of children’s books. It was kind of a spooky place, the wooden floors creaked, and it was eerily silent. Any people that were there were reminiscent of the walking dead.
My friend, Susan Kellock, and I, both voracious readers, visited the library every Tuesday evening after Brownies. Mrs. Winifred Lowe, the librarian, was a very tall, willowy, daunting character. Her grey-brown hair was braided and wrapped around the top of her head. She glared at us through her thick rimless glasses, and her favourite word was “Sh-h-h-h”!
One evening, Susan was drawn to the book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She was furious when Mrs. Lowe wouldn’t let her sign it out because she said Susan wasn’t old enough. Susan took her concern home to her mother, who told Mrs. Lowe in no uncertain terms that SHE would determine what her daughter could and couldn’t read. After that, I think we detected an even sterner glare and a louder “S-H-H-H-H” from Mrs. Lowe! Under that façade was a very kind gentle woman. She just had to put on her stern librarian demeanor to keep us rowdy kids in line!
Also in the Town Hall was the post office, with banks of clear glass boxes with gold numbers outlined in black. Everyone in town had a box, or else their mail came general delivery. Mr. Tebby, the jolly, smiling postmaster, dressed in his white shirt, vest, and bowtie, sat behind a cage and it was he who sold the stamps that cost three cents for delivery in Canada, only two cents if the letter or card wasn’t sealed. And no tax!
Just down the street was Alfie Harper’s Men’s Wear, a store of high-end men’s clothing and he himself did the alterations. Alfie was a short, stocky man, with wispy, white hair, rosy cheeks, and he spoke in a very high squeaky sort of voice. I was fascinated by this, and, at age four, I once asked my mother in a very loud voice if he was a man or a woman. I remember clearly being whisked out of there in a flash to be scolded royally for that! How embarrassing for my mom, but Alfie was the sort of character that made a child wonder back then in Huntsville.
How lucky was I to have a friend whose mom owned a clothing store called Knight’s Tot to Teen. My friend Patsy Westnutt and I could try on any clothing we wanted to—we even helped her mom order clothing that we thought the other kids would like. Her mom looked so much like my mom that they were often mistaken for each other, so Patsy and I adopted each other’s mother as our own!
In those days, if people had a refrigerator, there was usually a small freezer space at the top. But there were not home freezers like we have these days. My mother rented a freezer compartment at Mr. Harold Bray’s place on Brunel Road. Beyond the front area was a heavy metal door, and behind that, sitting in a corner, was a bear…a real bear, stuffed by a taxidermist! Beyond the bear were banks of compartments, each with a lock, where the frozen foods were kept. I loved to go in there with my mom, for two reasons: to see the bear, and also to experience the cold air, especially in the heat of the summer.
My dad delighted in the story about him and his good friend Dr. Frank Rogers borrowing this bear from Mr. Bray and taking it to their hunt camp, where they placed the bear on the seat in the outhouse. The first guy to go out there, Mr. Percy Byers, a local pharmacist, got the shock of his life when he opened the door to see this huge bear sitting there! That’s the kind of practical joke these Main Street characters of Huntsville played on each other in those days.
Across the street, where Pizza Pizza is now, was Boyd’s Grocery Store. Mrs. Boyd was the proprietor after her husband died very tragically at a young age. Her daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Galbraith, worked there as well. There was a wonderful meat department manned by a Mr. Ivan Knight, a jolly, plump butcher with a lovely smile. They had all sorts of canned goods as well as fresh vegetables and fruit. My mother would often ask me to pick something up for her on my way home from school. I didn’t have to pay: the cost was just put on my mother’s account. Sometimes Jerry Jennings, a wonderful gentleman with an infectious smile, would deliver groceries to our home. If no one was there, he would just come in (no one locked their doors then), put the groceries on the kitchen table, and place the perishable items in the refrigerator. That was the kind of service we received in Huntsville in those days!
Where the Wooden Penny is, there was a women’s clothing store owned and operated by a couple of Scottish descent, Mr. and Mrs. Ewing. They sold beautiful tartan as well as other very high-quality clothing. As a high school student, some of my friends and I used to go in to try on some clothes. Mrs. Ewing was very good at determining what size we would take, what would suit us, and allow us to take clothes home. If our parents would let us keep them, we could just pay whenever we could. They were the kind of very generous and trusting people of Huntsville in those days!
Mrs. Jenny Kelly had a hairdressing salon, upstairs from where Up North Games is now. That’s where I was taken to have my hair cut. It always smelled of ammonia, from perms. I hated that place, partly because of the smell, but mostly because I had no choice whatsoever about my hair style. I longed to have long hair, and to have a perm, but my hair was always cut so short because my mother liked it like that, that I spent two weeks after each haircut wearing a hat to cover my hair. Jenny was a very nice person, but I hated what she did to my hair. I vowed then and there that if I ever had kids of my own, their hair styles would be of THEIR choosing.
My dad’s best friend, Willy Ralston, was the owner of an Esso gas station and GM car dealership. My father always bought his cars from him…always an Oldsmobile. If the oil needed changing, Bill Ralston would do it; if a room in our house needed painting, Donny Chantler was the guy to do it; if a faucet sprung a leak, Mr. Parrot came to fix it; if the chimney needed cleaning, the chimney sweep was hired to do the job. My dad did not do any home or car repairs or maintenance himself. He believed that each tradesperson had his specialty (and it was always a “him” in those days) and he would hire him to do the work—as he served the community as a jeweller. Sometimes he would barter—a job for some jewellery, china, silverware, whatever. That’s the way the tradespeople of Huntsville were in those days.
These are but a few of the many sketches of this small town of Huntsville. More to follow!
I feel so very fortunate to have spent my young years here up to 1963, and then, after 25 years, to be able to return and stay. It is a very different Huntsville now, but a town that I cherish because of its beauty, its opportunities and the many wonderful people I have gotten to know and love over the years.
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