Reflecting on the once-thriving community of Douglas

·13 min read

Douglas doesn't look the same anymore. It hasn’t looked the same in a long time.

Yes, like untold, small communities across Canada, the once spry hamlet is a figment of its former self.

The memories abound, though.

In its heyday, Douglas was a bustling municipality with CPR and CNR stations in daily use for either freight or passengers and no shortage of businesses to purchase products from and to partake of services.

Nowadays, Douglas has been reduced to only a few remnants of commerce: Bromley Farm Supply and Douglas Grocery, known mostly in yesteryear as Breen's.

For over 60 years, the Douglas Hotel/Tavern was operated by the McHale family, and it was sold earlier this year with the building slated to be converted into a mattress warehouse, leaving drinkers a tad disappointed, especially on St. Patrick's Day. The pandemic was devastating for business at the hotel.

In early May, Douglas Grocery, owned and operated by Donna Brisbin and Bob Antcil, announced it was selling after 18 years of service. The store has been in business under different hands going back to 1889. The Breen family, namely Harold and Margaret, ran the business for a stellar 75 years until 1973.

For more than 40 years, Bromley Farm Supply has been a pillar of success under the reins of brothers Terry and Jim McHale but there were times when it wasn't so rosy, shortly after they purchased the business from Arnold O'Neill in 1979.

"We struggled lots,'' Jim McHale said. "Very much so. At the outset, it could have gone the other way for us. It was extremely bad. The interest rates were astronomical like 21.2% in the early 1980s.''

Remarkably, McHale's business survived and in the last 18 months before and during the pandemic, sales have been booming.

"It's been unbelievable, which is unusual for the economy right now,'' Mr. McHale said. "We can hardly do what we do. It's hard to get help and get product. We have a helluva time to get product. We're extremely busy.

“There’s backlog everywhere, shipping containers, to actual product. The price of steel is phenomenal. Anyone in our business is extremely busy and unable to keep up. The same for the car and truck industry or recreational industry.''

Douglas Grocery, like Bromley Farm Supply, didn't fare too badly during the pandemic. With many local residents deciding not to venture into some of the big-box stores, they have come to Douglas Grocery and “getting their stuff instead,’’ Ms. Brisbin said. “The local people were really good. We had steady clientele from people in the area and in the summer, cottagers and tourists.’’

Ms. Brisbin is getting close to 65 and Mr. Antcil is approaching 75 so they want to take it easy and are selling their property with a list price of $365,000. In close to 20 years of running the store, the couple took maybe "two weeks and two days'' holidays.

"We made a pretty decent living. We're not millionaires. We were able to cover the bills and I paid off my loan in 10 years,'' said Ms. Brisbin, who had a valve replacement and brain tumour problems a few years ago.

A Once Vibrant Community

Back in the day, Douglas was vibrant. There were shoe repair shops side by side on the main street, officially called Queen St.: one operated by Ernie Eve, who was also known for his second job of delivering mail to rural residences. Frank Naudette's shop offered up something similar to what Mr. Eve was doing: he sold boots and shoes, harness, saddlery and luggage.

Orville Lynch and Terry Neville ran a B/A gas station just as you turn east from Douglas toward Renfrew. Jim Russett and Jim Thrasher ran auto-repair shops. So did Florien and Leonard Buch.

People remember Frank Cull and Bill Dunn for their blacksmith shop. Victor White and Duncan McLeod were barbers. There were several post offices, one of them operated by Gordon and Ethel Crogie.

Jim and Dorothy Purdie's grocery store also supplied farmers with oyster shells and cattle feed from a back shed. For a number of years, Jim and Bernice Gilchrist ran a store a few blocks east of Breen’s. Jim even taught scuba diving.

“Beside Dot Purdy’s store was a Shell station operated by Gerard McEachen with a lunch bar and the only pinball machine I think Douglas had ever seen,’’ Harold Breen’s son, Barry pointed out the other day. “Dan McEachen’s store was right where the post office is located now. It was operated later by Clifford Kallies and he also added a restaurant which he advertised as the home of milk-fed hamburgers. It was quite the place after the Douglas Hotel closed at 10:30. There were always some interesting characters solving problems!’’

Andy Andrews and Cameron Stokes operated a hardware store just north of Douglas Grocery. Austin Legree's handyman store did business on Mary St. east of Queen St. near Zion United Church, which is still in existence.

The Campbell & McNab grist mill flourished for decades down in the valley on the banks of the Bonnechere River, supplying farmers with dehydrated alfalfa meal, grains, insecticides, salt and fertilizer, among other items.

A.J. O'Neill & Sons store was a landmark for years on main street and the McHale brothers have been preserving Arnold's legacy for the last 42 years. Next door, to where Arnold’s store operated, his son, Tony pumped gas at the Supertest service station for decades. When Arnold stepped away from the business, his son Mac took over.

“To the best of my knowledge Grandpa O’Neill started the business in 1946,’’ said his grand-daughter Valerie Swift, who is the daughter of Mac and Thea O’Neill. “I’m not sure if the store opened first as a hardware store and the farm machinery business started afterward -- or if it was simultaneous.

“As a young girl, it was always my understanding that dad ran the store/farm machinery business and Tony the garage and gas pumps. At 12 or 13, I was definitely assisting after school and in the summer pumping gas and checking oil!’’

Who can forget Tommy Neville’s Douglas Creamery?

"No more can we see and hear the summertime goings-on at the Douglas Creamery, its doors and windows open, the characteristic sharp dairy smell issuing forth, steam hissing from frothing containers, stainless-steel lids and cream cans clanging, and men shouting,'' my brother Jim Gallagher wrote in his book about the Gallaghers called It All Began at the Upper Place.

Talking of churches, long gone is the Presbyterian Church, which former Douglas Grocery proprietor Bob Holmes nicknamed the High English Church that was located just south of Douglas beyond the bridge. St. Michael's Catholic Church maintains its remarkable beauty after so many years.

Gone is the Orange Hall which catered to the Protestant community.

The Bank of Montreal had served Douglas customers for 60 years until it was closed in 1982 when clients were advised to transfer their accounts to the branch in nearby Renfrew. BMO had purchased the Douglas branch from the Merchants Bank of Canada in 1922, according to BMO publicist James DeCosimo.

Despite the departure of many stores and establishments, Douglas Grocery is in the same spot as it was more than 130 years ago. For many years, just south of the store was a smaller enterprise operated by Harold's brother, Joe and Dennis Lynch.

Joe was born with polio and will be remembered for wrapping his disabled leg around a crutch. Joe advertised on his annual calendar that he sold “quality meats and groceries.’’ In the late 1960s, Joe divested himself of the store and moved to Toronto where he worked for the Ministry of Transportation and Communications.

Breens Took Over Store In 1894

According to documents given the Leader by Barry Breen, the building housing the general store was initially owned by Dave Collins and when the Breens took over in 1894, Agnes Ringrose of Renfrew sold it to Mick and Mary Breen, Harold's parents. The transaction was spelled out in what was called an "indenture'', a phrase I'd never heard of but it's defined as a legal, binding document.

For a few years in the 1950s, Breen’s store fell under the National Grocers Red & White umbrella, which involved a group of independent stores that operated in small towns. Remember Bimm’s Red & White in Eganville, Kitts Red & White in Barry’s Bay and Brisco’s Red & White in Renfrew?

I remember all those bubblegum packs of baseball cards I purchased in the 1950s and 1960s at Breen's.

“We had six shopping carts which was a big deal in those days,’’ Barry Breen said in an interview. “We operated on a charge billing system which necessitated a counter check book system. The catchphrase was ‘Put it on the bill.’ My dad asked Frank Naudette years ago, ‘How is business going?’ Frank replied, ‘No good, Harold. Three customers today and they all put it on the bill’.”

Advertising was a big deal in the days of Red & White with National Grocers supplying some money if the local franchisee put a big ad in a local paper.

"I have detailed, funny memories,'' said Anita Agnew, one of Harold Breen’s daughters. "How much room do you have (in the story)? One memory that comes to mind, I really enjoyed. My dad was doing some renovating in the store to modernize it.

“He put in a lot of new shelves in the middle of the store and took some stock out of the store and decided to have a square dance. He brought in a band. I was 12-14 and it was my first square dance. I remember the big band. I remember it was so exciting. He had to close down the store to have this dance. We couldn't do business. We just had it closed for one day.''

Anita remembers when a new addition was made to the store and it meant going up a flight of stairs outside to go upstairs to the living quarters.

“It was a fun family to grow up in, I mean Douglas and our store,’’ said Harold’s daughter, Ruth. “I just remember Dad’s work ethic and all the jobs everybody had. We helped Mother fill up the shelves and sweep the store.

“I remember when my grandfather Mick was still alive. I was eight when he passed away. I remember him very clearly. He would be at the front of the store in a big armchair.’’

Ruth remembers the store selling bread by the pound with four loaves coming in a pan of bread. She recalls her father often saying, “I can’t believe all the stuff you kids eat.’’

“I remember in my childhood people coming in to get milk and ice cream and perishables to take to their cottages at Mink Lake, Lake Dore, Lake Clear and Golden Lake,’’ Ruth said. “I became friends with a lot of those people.’’

Bonnie Shean, another one of Harold’s daughters, recalls the store being “so big’’, that she “scrubbed the floors and filled up the shelves’’ and helped Michael McHale paint the outside of the store one year.

Remember the meat counter at the back at Breen’s? It’s still there. Above the meat counter was a sign Serve Yourself or be Served. Often, as Bonnie said, “the kids would help themselves.’’

When National Grocers would deliver a big order, Breen’s had a large floor door, just behind the meat counter and Harold would place a big, long plank about two inches by 10 feet down the stairs and his kids would carry cases of canned goods and common items down the plank to stock shelves in the basement for storage.

“When White Rain shampoo first came out in plastic bottles, Daddy opened the case and noticed it was plastic, picked one out and, as a joke he threw one to Mother,’’ Bonnie recalled. “Saying, ‘Here, Babe, look at this’ and Mother missed and it hit the floor and shattered. Now, imagine trying to clean a lot of shampoo off the floor. Took a while.’’

Bonnie said her father was very strict when it came to curfew and he devised a way of finding out when his kids came home. At the time, Bonnie’s parents had made their bedroom downstairs.

“The door opened at the side of the store, so Daddy hooked up a rig that when we got home, we had to pull on a string outside to open the door and, of course, Daddy would hear us and therefore knew what time we got home,’’ Bonnie said, chuckling. “Mostly we were okay, but sometimes I had to do some fancy talk with embellishment.

“Because (sister) Cathy and I had a nice big bedroom just above the living room, Daddy got some teddy bears on a promotion, so when the older grandchildren were visiting, Daddy would go up to the bedroom, put a long string on the teddy bear and drop it down in front of the big window and the children would watch from inside while the bear danced, flipped and moved. Kept the kids amused for a long time.’’

Always a jokester and entertainer, Harold would often hide quarters in the store under cans or a box of crackers or any number of places. Then in the living room, he would do a magic trick.

“He would hide the quarter I guess between his fingers and show his hands were empty then pretend to say where the quarter was, i.e. under the soda biscuit box. We were amazed that he was right 100 per cent of the time,’’ Bonnie said.

Harold and Margaret Breen sold their store to Jack Crogie for $75,000 in 1973 and at the same time, they purchased a mobile home, installed it next door to their former store and lived in it for a number of years.

Breen’s store changed hands a few more times before Ms. Brisbin and Mr. Antcil took over in 2003. When Bob Holmes took over from the Crogies in the late 1970s, he had been living in Ottawa. Mr. Holmes’ late wife, Mary, hailed from nearby Northcote and when he heard the store was for sale, the electrician stopped in after church one day to talk with Mr. Crogie.

“I wanted to get the kids out of the city. Drugs were rampant in schools then,’’ Mr. Holmes, 91, said in an interview.

While operating the store “wasn’t a real money maker,’’ he said it “kept body and soul together.’’

The listing of Douglas Grocery for sale has prompted some interest with listing agent Teri Leech of Maple Real Estate Company in Cobden but no offers have been made. The store has a listing price of $365,000 and includes a separate three-bedroom apartment currently rented out. As in the days of the Breens, there is a one-bedroom apartment on the same level as the store.

Hopefully, someone will take it over and keep a store operating so that customers will avail themselves of those delicious homemade, baked goods.

“We sell a lot of cinnamon buns and we sell a lot of cookies,’’ Ms. Brisbin said.

Danny Gallagher, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting