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Maureen Lytle Remembers Shea’s IGA, Bobcaygeon

March 4, 2023

Shea's IGA, 1955

In the 1940s, Edward and Allana Shea were operating a grocery store on Romaine Street in Peterborough. When the Second World War broke out, their three sons, Wilson, Ted and Wayne all enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and served in transport overseas. Just a few days before his tour of duty was over, and shortly after he had telegraphed home to say all was well, Wayne’s plane was shot down over Malta, where he presumably perished. His two brothers, who served in Burma, lived to tell the tale. After Wilson and Ted returned from their tour of duty, the family pooled their resources and purchased Clarence and Ken Read’s store in 1946, which by then was already one of the longest-serving and most popular stores in Bobcaygeon.

Like many other country merchants, Read’s Store sold many of the goods that local families would need to purchase—fresh meats, groceries, dry goods and china. Back then, few items came prepackaged and most goods were housed in bulk. Typically, the shopper would bring in a list, and the merchant would help assemble everything they needed—picking pickles out the barrel, measuring flour or oats into paper bags, or cutting meat from a carcass as desired. Merchandise was not beautifully arranged to encourage impulse buying, a lot of it was stored behind the counter. Much of the produce that was on display was out front, under the awning. Many farm families came into town on Friday or Saturday night to catch up with old friends, socialize and do their shopping for the week.

To the end of 1952, the store operated as Read’s Store, then the family put their own name on the shingle. At that time, much of the work of a grocer was sourcing all of the food that they were going to purchase. Locally, Lindsay’s La Mantia and Polito families were among the largest wholesalers, travelling far and wide to purchase produce, operating their own grocery stores, while also supplying many others. But even with these wholesalers, grocers spent countless hours, tracking down the goods their customers were looking for, and repackaging it. In early years, the store was closed on Wednesday (and of course Sunday), to facilitate resupply.

One of the province’s larger wholesalers at the time was the Ontario Produce Company, founded by Lithuanian Jewish immigrants Max and Maurice Wolfe in 1914. Their son, Ray, also served in the RCAF during the Second World War, and returned to find that the family produce business was struggling as the emerging grocery chains were starting to bypass wholesalers. He partnered with Chicago’s Independent Grocer’s Alliance, to bring the franchise model to Canada, founding Oshawa Wholesale Limited in 1957. As Ray set out across Ontario looking for franchisees, several of his first converts were located in the Upper Kawarthas—Dollo in Minden, Scott in Kinmount, Sobko in Fenelon Falls and Shea in Bobcaygeon. At the time the company’s motto was, “Every town’s a hometown for IGA.” 

In the 1950s, most small towns had an abundance of grocery stores, with each store offering very similar staple goods. Especially in produce, it would be a waste to bring in anything exotic, because most families would not be able to afford it anyway. Compared to the present, where today grocery stores are lucky to have a 10% margin on anything, and 3% is closer to the norm (“manufacturers and suppliers make all the money”) the stores of the 1950s sold relatively low volumes of goods, with a much more significant markup—albeit with far greater work to do to prepare the merchandise for sale.

Becoming an IGA was transformative for Shea’s. It vastly expanded the range of products they could stock, was more economical and vastly reduced the amount of work that went into keeping the shelves full. It also brought with it brand recognition, and colourful displays that conveyed post-war prosperity to all the Bobcaygeon families who patronized the store. With franchisees devoted to ensuring that their grocery business would succeed, the writing was on the wall for most unaffiliated grocery providers. At the time it became an IGA, Shea’s still sold Hudson Bay Coats, Viyella Shirts, many other dry goods and china, but these departments became ever smaller as the years passed.

Brothers Ted and Wilson Shea had very different personalities. Ted was the extroverted, public face of the business. He became a leader in the community, a member for the Kinsmen, Kiwanis and Curling Clubs, serving as Councillor, Reeve of Bobcaygeon and Warden of Victoria County, passing in 1979 at the age of 56. Wilson was a butcher by trade, and would be busy at the meat counter, preparing whatever cuts of beef or pork that his customers wanted. Whereas today customers go to the meat counter to get cold cuts prepared to order, in those days they were cutting up meat carcasses in a large refrigerator—as time went on, more customers preferred the convenience of a prepackaged, standard-sized cuts, rather than having the flexibility of cut-to-order meat. For many years, the store sold local meat, including venison. Deer were typically butchered after hours or on Sunday. If anyone came in and asked to talk to Mr. Shea, Wilson “would say he is not here right now, so it always seemed to be Ted who talked to people.”

With her parents often occupied with the constant work that came with the grocery business, Maureen had a lot of freedom growing up. She and her sister were often “gone all day, and as long as you were home when the street lights came on, you were good. My parents would say, be careful what you do, if you don’t want to destroy the trust your community has in you, keep your nose clean and try to keep your friends out of trouble.”

As a kid, Maureen spent a lot of time at the beach, which was located beside the village’s feed mill, and took swimming lessons at the Point (now Regency Point). It was not always the cleanest as it was common practice for boats to dump human waste into the river, often as they were leaving the locks. Maureen and her friends liked to jump off the bridge at Dar Kimble’s Bait Shop on Big Bob Channel, where the current would carry them down to Buckeye. There was only a rail on one side of the lock gates, so if pedestrians were not careful they would fall in. Maureen and her friends spent a lot of time on the east end of Bobcaygeon Island (now Port 32), which was then a forest.

Kids went skating or rollerskating at the Bobcaygeon Arena, where Byron Martin was a fixture of local life. In summer, hardball at Tommy Anderson Park was very popular. Practically all kids attended church, while Girl Guides and Brownies were popular. In summer, the ice pad was also converted into a movie theatre. The Givens’ Grill and Cone (Shaker’s/Daylight Diner) and Suzy Mah’s Ming’s Restaurant (Donattella/Wing House) were popular gathering places. This Chinese restaurant had a jukebox, where local kids would listen to the Supremes or the Beatles. In those days, DJ’s was popular, as a Pop Shoppe retailer. For Maureen and her childhood friends, “there was a lot of hanging out, doing not much of anything, when we weren’t working.”

When she was in high school in the 1970s, some of Bobcaygeon’s youth were becoming hippies—a culture that would scandalize some of the older village residents. The local hippies were not as much like the great crowds that gathered at Woodstock as they were laidback youth, hanging out at the beach or the park. Local hippies were into banning the bra, not doing their hair, walking around in bare feet or experimental drugs, though few were doing anything harder than cannabis.

Bobcaygeon was a dry town and it was not legal to serve alcohol even in a restaurant, though there was an LCBO. At the time, customers went in, filled out an order, and the clerk would assemble it into a paper bag. The nearest bars were the Pattie House in Coboconk, and several establishments in Lindsay. In those days, many youth would pile into a van (not worrying about seat belts) and head out to a party in the country. Underage kids wanting to drink could try to persuade someone to buy it for them at the LCBO, or patronize the local bootlegger, who had no problem selling to 15 or 16 year olds.  The Legion was the only establishment in town that had a bar, but only veterans and their guests could get in.

“Our parents were not handing out any money, so we had to find a source of income” and by the time she was 13, Maureen was working at Shea’s IGA. By 1971, the store had crank tills, so even if the power was out, the store would be open, and had expanded four years earlier to the south, encompassing the former site of Pogue’s Garage (now the entrance to Foodland). Because the store had been rebuilt and expanded so many times over the years, the floor plan was all chopped up. As they expanded, they could not remove the weight-bearing walls, so there were two passageways connecting the old and new parts of the store. Many customers will long remember the ramp that used to lead up to the dry goods section at the back.

When she first started working at the grocery store, smoking was socially acceptable, and many of the cashiers would be sitting and lighting up as they waited for the next customer. Cigarettes were prominently displayed and it seemed that they were advertised everywhere. Across the road, Ken Devitt felt perfectly comfortable pumping gas with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. “I can’t remember Ken ever working on a car without a cigarette in his mouth, and my Dad was just as bad.”

Before Bobcaygeon built a bypass in the 1970s, all traffic through town had to pass over the swing bridge. Though cars were larger than they are today, there was two-way traffic on the swing bridge—“it was terrifying to pass someone.” One of Shea’s delivery drivers was a little nervous, and occasionally scraped the side of the truck on the bridge when he had to pass someone. In summer, traffic lined up down the main street as boaters passed. Howard Arscott, the lockmaster, turned a hand crank to swing the bridge, and often allowed local kids to help. “It wasn’t that hard to push that wheel around, but it took a lot longer to open the bridge. …There were not nearly as many cars back then, now it seems every house has two cars in the driveway, farmers were lucky if they had a car. My mother’s first VW had a hole in the floor so you could see the street pass by underneath.” Because not everyone had a car, the store was expected to deliver groceries.

As a teenager, Maureen had an ink stamper that she went around the store marking prices on cans and packages. By the end of the day her fingers would be blue from rotating the dials. She also carried a bottle of solvent so she could erase erroneous prices. If something got missed, it seemed that Mary Lou Way had every price memorized, but if Ted didn’t remember, it seemed that everything was 99 cents. In the 1970s, the store featured bright colours, “all the signage was very art deco.” IGA employees wore uniforms that were complete with bow ties.

By the 1970s, the store could no longer butcher on site, as all meat had to be federally inspected. In later years, much of it was processed by Cargill. Pop came in glass bottles, which exploded when they were dropped. The selection of produce was much narrower than it is today, with few options beyond what was in season. Root vegetables like onions, carrots, beets and parsnips would store all winter. “We only got big oranges like Sevilles at Christmas. You would never see raspberries or strawberries out of season, and I don’t remember seeing romaine lettuce until the 1980s.” In the deli section, there was not much variety beyond baloney. Hot dogs were very popular, and many families enjoyed cutting a slit down the centre of the wieners that they would fill with (processed) cheese. In the 1970s, the store sold a lot of potatoes, and the staff still packaged their own potatoes, apples and oranges. Then as now, Bobcaygeon was a tourist town, and the store would be very busy in summer, including many visitors from Ohio. Even with all five tills open and five packers assisting, the checkout still often lined up to the meat counter.

In 1977 the store expanded again back towards Petticoat Lane, then four years later the old Read’s Store burned, thought to be started by an electrical fault. “Oshawa Foods really stepped up to help, and though we had lost half the building we were open again two weeks later. The reconstructed building would be an open-concept as customers expect today.

In 1985, Wilson stepped back from the business at age 65, and Maureen took over operating the store. At the time, there were very few other female operators in Oshawa Foods. Wilson helped plan another addition that was completed in 1989, including a new Bakery and Deli. Shea’s expanded again in 1997, with a new entrance facilitating access from both Bolton Street and the parking lot behind. The store was reorganized, with wider aisles, now running north and south. The next year, Sobeys purchased IGA, and new company would not pay licensing on the American IGA Brand, so the building would be rechristened as Foodland in 2007.

In 1992, Ontario introduced Sunday Shopping, which was a significant change for retailers. Many locals questioned what was the right thing to do. In one family, a husband would sit in the car not wanting to Sabbath break, while his wife went into shop. “For my mother it was a moral issue, because she went to church each Sunday. At first it was not a brisk day, but the company expected to make more money, though for individual retailers it would cost them money. It did not change how many there were in the village buying groceries, but the store would have to be staffed one extra day per week. It was a long time before Mom let us open on Sunday.” For a lot of local merchants, it was the end of Sunday being their family day.

The grocery business is one that requires constant reinvestment, every few years the parent company expects a costly overhaul of the store. Facing the prospect of spending millions of dollars to redesign a store, and struggling to see how they would ever get their money back, the family sold the business in 2010, and the new owners substantially renovated it two years later. Today, the experience of going to Foodland is very different than it was at Read’s in the 1940s. Few people would recognize that it is an old country store that has continued to evolve with its times.

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