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Myrna (Wannamaker) Thurston Remembers Thurston’s Store, Dunsford

September 22, 2023

Myrna Thurston at the Door of Thurston's General Store, Dunsford, 1983

Myrna was in Grade 6 when her parents H.C. “Mike” and Isobel Wannamaker bought Dunsford’s General Store from Max Kennedy in March 1948. Her family already had much experience operating a store. Mike was born and raised in Lakefield, where he would subsequently operate the Porter Company with his partner Judson Hull, selling groceries, baked goods and fresh fruit. When Mike had started in this business there were five partners, but three had already left by then. Mike was interested in going into the meat trade, which was not so appealing to his partner, so when he saw the Dunsford store advertised in the paper after the Second World War, he purchased it, and his family moved to Dunsford. Mike and Isobel had two girls, Joyce, the oldest was 14, while Myrna was 12.

There had been a store in Dunsford for years. Earlier on, the Graham family had operated a general store, which was later demolished, though the house was saved and moved to a different lot.  The Red brick store that the Wannamaker family purchased, had been operated by the Woollard Family, who sold it and moved to Bobcaygeon. When Max Kennedy sold the store to Mike and Isobel, it was the only store in town.

In a village like Dunsford, the store was a social centre for the community. At the time, the highway still ran through Dunsford, turning in front of the family’s store. By then, Dunsford was a farming community, with many long-standing families—Sheriff (the settlement had once been called Sheriff’s Corners), Bell, Kennedy, Arnott, Willocks, Mitchell, Bell, Robertson, and of course Thurston. Among the old families that immigrated to Dunsford, five Thurstons brothers moved into the community (a sixth immigrated to Lindsay), and over the years a lot of Thurstons lived in Dunsford. Because there were so many Thurstons, many people referred to members of that family by their first and middle name, rather than using their surname, to avoid confusion.

As a youngster, Myrna recalls how “life in Dunsford centered around the store, churches, rink and school.” Local kids would gather in the village, where they would play together. Many of the games required a little imagination, “because we had next to no sporting equipment. We liked to play baseball, and the school gave us a new ball every year, and we sewed it together so many times.” The kids in town gathered to skate on Dunsford’s Creek. “It was a wonderful place to skate. There were bulrushes there, and we would put an oil rag on them and light them. They would burn the whole evening.” Dunsford did not have street lights, so her Dad left the lights on at the store, as did the BA and Shell service stations which lit up the downtown for any kids who might be playing in the evening. Street lights were installed in the 1970s.

Dunsford also had an indoor, natural ice rink that was set up for skating, and on Wednesday nights it was converted for curling. It was built before Bobcaygeon had a rink, and visitors would come from Lindsay and Bobcaygeon by train to skate there. While many young men curled, there was a social expectation that “women could not curl on natural ice, so they shortened the rink for women.” Lorne Thurston, who grew up on a farm north of the village, stopped skating as a young man, and then looked after the rink for many years. “When he retired, Eddie Thurston made ice at the rink, but a few years later it closed, so we would have to go to Bobcaygeon or Omemee.” Bingleman’s garage sponsored a boy’s hockey team, with its mechanic as coach.

For teenagers in Dunsford, there was not a lot in the way of organized activities, so local youth often made their own fun. They would play a hide and go seek game around the village. Local youths often gathered for corn roasts, which “were a lot of fun. Willie M. Thurston’s farm was near the village and he grew corn for his cattle. His farm backed up to Bill Thurston’s where we had the corn roast. Once my dad asked him how his crop was and he replied that he had planted so many rows for the cows, and also put in a few rows for the kids to steal. Every winter we would have the corn and wiener roast. Not once did I see alcohol there. They would bring two cases of Coca Cola, which would come in wooden cases, and just put them in the creek to keep them cold.” The corn roast was an event that a lot of kids looked forward to. One winter, “we all went up to the Thurston farm. Lorne and Jack got the teams out and we went all through their woods and had a great sleigh ride.”

In the summer, Thurstonia Park, Greenhurst Pavillion and Earnscliffe Lodge were great attractions for locals and tourists alike.  “We loved to swim there and we would go down to the pavilion to play with their pinball machines. It was a going concern, very popular, a very well kept park. There were a lot of small lots and cottages. It was a great place to go on Saturday night. A lot of the girls in Dunsford went to work there in the summer, and would be boarded there, even if they lived in Dunsford. They would work seven days a week and were hired on for the full two months. A lot of young couples met when they were working there. Because my parents had the store, I never got the chance because I had to help them.”

Greenhurst Pavillion “was a rocking place, and sometimes it would get pretty wild down there. The township was dry, so some of the people who came would bring their own alcohol and drink it in the back of their cars. There would be people from all over—many from Toronto, some from as far away as London, some Americans—enjoying the live bands playing the popular music of the era. When I first went there, everyone would dress up, but it became more casual as the years went on, and kids just came in their jeans. The pavilion was so crowded. The dance floor was upstairs, while the soda fountain and food service was downstairs. When the live bands were there it was wonderful—they were well known, some brought in from Toronto. If people weren’t dancing they would walk along the road in front of the cottages and just hang out. Later on, it was just local bands, then it went to disc jockeys.”

Both Earnscliffe Lodge and Thurstonia Lodge had a small store which sold a limited number of groceries and confectionary. They would sell chocolate bars, ice cream sandwiches, pop and milkshakes. Since the township was dry, they could not serve alcohol. In later years, Thurstonia was sold and was converted into a dance hall. Gil-Mar Lodge also had a dance hall.  At Thurstonia, the music was often banjo or violin, and there would be a caller for square dancing. Later on, “there were jukeboxes downstairs, as disc jockeys replaced the bands upstairs, and alcohol came in. By then, the attraction lost its lustre. At the end of the night, there were often people who should not have been driving home. A lot of people came on motorcycles.”

After attending public school in Dunsford, Myrna went on to attend LCI (now LCVI) in Lindsay. “Then it was just the old front section of the school, which is gone now. But I thought it was huge, because I was coming from a one room school. It gave me the chance to try out for basketball and volleyball and I was selected for the basketball team. For someone living in the country it was hard to do after school activities, because parents would not have the time to come and pick their kids up. I was fortunate that there was a passenger bus from Lindsay to Dunsford, so I could take that to get home. They would just let you on if you were in school. … There was quite a divide between the kids from Lindsay and those that farmed. The kids who farmed were put to work as soon as they got home.”

As the village kids were waiting for the school bus that would take them to LCI, if it was stormy out they would gather in Wannamaker’s Store and the garages. While the kids were waiting, some cigarettes would go missing, if Mike got distracted.

While she was in high school, Myrna became close friends with Bill Thurston, whom she had known as a child. “We were just teenagers from the same village. We first went out when I was 14—he took me to the Lindsay Fair. We would go to the show in Lindsay or go to dances together. Neither one of us ever went out with anyone else. I really had a crush on him ever since I saw him. We were married in 1958 and it would last 52 years. When he had cancer and we found out there was no use doing any more treatment, I remember he was sitting in the leather chair and I asked him if he had ever wished that he had gone out with anyone else, and he said no.”

In the 1950s, the wrestling matches in the arena were one of the great local attractions, taking place in the Lindsay arena (Valu Mart is there today). On a typical night there would be two matches, with some entertainment to fill in the intermission, and a lot of country music. A ring would be set up where the ice surface would have been, and it was often quite busy. “I hated going to the wrestling matches.”

In spring time, fishing for suckers on the creek was one of the big attractions. “We would take them home and cook them that day with French fries.” One spring there were many carp in the creek, and the boys from town went with bows and arrows to shoot them. A lot of the men hunted, and the Women’s Institute had programs for girls where they could learn domestic skills, like sewing. “One year the Institute put on a travelling minstrel show and we all dressed up in Victorian costume—I was included in the show as a public school student because one of the ladies could not attend. I had an old frying pan, which I was playing with a flipper like it was my violin.” In the 1920s and 1930s, Dunsford had a fall fair at the rink, put on by the children from the one room schools in the vicinity. There would be no midway or games, just displays and the animal shows at the rink. “Each school would have a banner and would march in a parade. All the girls wore white shirts and skirts.”

“The cadets were a big thing at LCI. They trained at the armouries. Some cadets just went into the army after they quit school. During the Second World War, there was a real chance that cadets would be drafted, and in peace time they kept it going. When I went to school there, only five years had passed since the conflict and the armed forces were still very strong, and they were keeping all these kids trained.”

Bill only made it to Grade 10. One day, when he was on his way home after cadets on the bus, “it was blistering hot in those wool uniforms. He put the window down, and rested his arm on it. When they were going across the bridge beside the Academy Theatre, there were two vehicles passing each other on the narrow bridge, and as the bus moved to the edge, his arm hit the girders. It didn’t break his arm, but there was a large bump, so he could not write his exams. There were no exceptions, so he would have had to repeat the year. Instead he did not go back.”

For a young man like Bill, once schooling was over, it was time to join the working world. Bill worked for Victoria County on the roads crew. He drove the snowplow, “and there had to be two people in the truck, because they had to be able to do repairs on the road. At that time, if a farmer wanted his lane plowed out they did that too.” The roads crew spent many hours putting up snow fence in farm fields before winter. “They quit doing it because they raised the road beds, so they figured it was not needed anymore. But there are still stretches where it really blows in.”

In the mid twentieth century, the township roads were sprayed with tar to keep the dust down, but they were still dusty to drive on. “When we were travelling, we were just like snowmen. My parents had a wooden station wagon—their first car—so the dust just blew in. As we were driving up County Road 7 (Sturgeon Road) to move to Dunsford, we all piled in there, the dog would be on my knee, and you couldn’t go very fast, because there would be so much dust in the car that you couldn’t breathe—we were white by the time we got to Dunsford. All the gravel roads were like that.”

Bill bought into the Wannamaker’s business in 1955, then married Myrna three years later. When her parents retired in 1961, it became Thurston’s Store. It was a general store, that met the needs of local residents and the multitude of cottagers that came up for the summer. “A lot of our customers were women who spent the summers at their cottage, many with kids. Often their husbands would have to work, so they would be back and forth to the city. Most did not have any means of transportation, so we had a regular delivery schedule, that covered an area right up to Bobcaygeon.” Their delivery expanded to the point where they had four routes that they ran on different days.

When they started out in business, a lot of families had just one car, while many locals would also have lots of farm machinery. Whether at the farm or cottage, a lot of wives stayed at home, baked, looked after the kids and tended the garden. As they were making their deliveries, they would also buy eggs that they would then take the grading station in Omemee. “It was a good thing to have them graded. Sometimes the hens would go off, make a nest somewhere that was hidden, and once the eggs were found they might be too old.” While delivery was a large part of their business at the start, “once women had a car of their own, they would go out and shop, so our delivery business petered out. The customers that were left tended to be older, but there was no longer enough business to fill the truck.”

In 1948, when Mike and Isobel began operating the store, they were selling milk from Silverwoods Dairy. “I can remember in the 1950s when Jack Crowe operated his own dairy in Bobcaygeon, but he was not yet delivering milk to Dunsford. It was a nice little dairy, with the milk in glass bottles. Because I had my own store to look after, I seldom made it up to Kawartha Dairy until I had kids. By then they had a cow for the kids to sit on.” In later years, Thurston’s switched to selling Kawartha Dairy. “The dairy put a cooler in the store. We agreed to reduce the price we were selling milk for, and the dairy gave us a rebate at the end of the month.”

“We sold household hardware, shovels, rakes and stove pipes, while Kennedy’s Grist Mill next door sold fencing and other farm supplies. Our hardware was at the back of the store, but originally it was not self-serve. You would come in and give your order, and the clerk would pick up all the stuff and give it to the customers. We carried credit for many of our customers, and often farmers traded in a steer to be butchered as a way of paying off their balance.

Before most families had television, many would visit their neighbours and play cards. Many farmers would look forward to coming to town on Saturday night. Once the chores were finished for the day, they would congregate at Thurston’s Store and the garage in town. Some of the men would come down most evenings, once they had their supper and finished their chores—Bill’s Dad, Vern Thurston, was one of the regulars. In winter, they would come in and sit around our pot-bellied stove, with their feet up on the stove to feel the warmth. “I remember Dad telling them to get their boots off the stove because he could smell their soles burning. One evening they decided to pull a prank on him, so they put an elastic in his cigarette. They all found it quite funny as he was smoking and telling them off about having their boots on the stove.”

In 1948, when Mike and Isobel started into business, they had a small refrigerator, but not the walk in boxes that would be added later. They had an ice house to serve their customers’ needs. In winter, “Big Jack Thurston worked as part of a crew that would go out and cut ice to fill the ice houses. The blocks they brought in were large, and each layer was covered in sawdust. We would cut them into smaller blocks before we sold them. Big Jack was the strongest kid I ever knew. Usually, two men would get on the clamps that they used to lift the blocks of ice, but when he was 16 he would grab the clamp himself and toss the heavy block of ice into the ice house on his own, with one hand. He was as strong as an ox—and he still is for his age. Selling ice was a convenience thing, we never made any money on the ice house, and it all ended once household refrigerators and freezers came.”

While Mike and Isobel originally had an electric refrigerated display counter, once Bill became a partner, they bought a small, second-hand walk-in refrigerator box that would hold eight quarters of beef. Before the larger boxes were on site, Myrna’s parents just went to Langdon’s butcher shop in Lindsay, and brought home meat from there to sell. Once they had refrigeration, meat became a specialty. Originally, Bill would go around and kill animals on their gangway and take it to be processed in Omemee. Then Bill operated a slaughterhouse at their farm north of Omemee. By then, there were regulations that requiring that all meat sold had to come from a government inspected facility, so they just processed animals for local farmers and hunters. The meat for the store came from Canada Packers, Canadian Dressed Meats, and Schnieders. Thurston’s had an associate at the large processing facilities to ensure that they received the cuts of meat that they wanted. “It was the meat that kept people coming back.”

Being located right on the corner of town, “our loading dock was on Sturgeon Road. When the big transports would come to the loading dock it would cut off the traffic on the highway. At that time, when the Coke truck came, you would have to buy half a load, so we would store the bottles in the cellar—there were a lot of things that had to be bought in bulk in order to be able to resell at a competitive price. In spring we would buy just short of a full load, because the service stations would buy a bit. The load would last all summer.” Politos were our first produce suppliers, but when they built a bigger store, they took their trucks off the road. Then Lamantia’s delivered them fruit and vegetables twice a week, which carried on until Thurston’s sold their store.

In the early 1970s, Highway 36 was resurveyed so that it no longer ran through Dunsford. “At the time we thought that we would have to close the doors. But it turned out to be good for the village not to have all the motorists rushing through town. We had two accidents at the store. Once a car took our front verandah right off, and cars would end up in the park. There were kids playing in the park and it was always a worry that someone would get hit.”

Though Dunsford had a post office (located in one of the garages… it seemed like the location switched based on who was elected to public office), and its own telephone company, it did not have a fire department. Mabel Patrick who operated the switchboard for the Dunsford Telephone Company, was typically responsible for coordinating responses to an emergency. One lady in town had a bad case of asthma, and picked up the phone when she could not breathe. Though she could not talk Mabel recognized her breathing, and called an ambulance for her. If there was a fire Mabel, would put all the keys open, with an unusually long ring. All the company’s phones would ring and she would let everyone know where the fire was.

“Everyone would drop everything and run to the fire, taking their buckets with them. They would take water from wherever they could find it,” as they worked desperately to extinguish the fire. “On one farm there was not a good source of water and two boys were burned to death. They had two boys, who thought that the old log barn full of hay was a great place to make trails or a fort. The oldest boy decided to try smoking, and they got caught in the fire. The two boys did not make it out, though their little sister did.”

At the time that Max Kennedy sold the store to Myrna’s parents, he had a grist mill beside the railway station (now the location of the Dunsford Community Centre), so farmers could use the iron horse to transport the grain. When that one burned in 1956, he built a new mill behind the store. “The mill was a very dusty place, and a lot of them who worked there cleaning the grain ended up with bad coughs. When my grandfather worked at a mill in Lakefield, he always had white dust all over him.” There was an old barn on his lot that Max moved over to accommodate the second mill, only to have it later burn, suspected to be as a result of kids smoking in the building. Dunsford did not have its own fire department, until a fatal fire at Barb and Darwin Germyn’s garage. Then a group of local citizens, including a man at Thurstonia who had been a fireman in Toronto, started a campaign that led to the founding of the village’s fire department.

In the 1970s, a Lions club was organized in the village. “The Lions raised a lot of money to build the community centre and started a lot of community programs. They were very supportive of the winter carnival, and helped expand it over the years. The carnival did a lot to put Dunsford on the map. When the carnival was on, there would be people from Toronto at curling.”                                  

By the 1980s, the community of Dunsford was noticeably changing. A lot of the generations-old family farms carried on, but it seemed to be more of a struggle relative to other lines of work. Many local youths made a career elsewhere, rather than going into farm life like their parents had. Many families still came to the community for the summer, but they seemed to have busier schedules, as both parents had a car.

In 1985, having had the business in her family for 37 years, Myrna and Bill decided that the time had come to retire, as they moved to their farm, just north of Omemee. They sold the business to Wayne Shea, whose family operated the IGA in Bobcaygeon, “and we thought he would do well with it,” given his background. But the grocery business was changing. While there were 7 staff in the summer as Thurston’s Store, it did not take long before there was just one person on staff on the weekend. Then the general store become a variety and today, it is a decorating store.

Dunsford has really changed since the days when Mike and Isobel Wannamaker set up shop on the village’s main intersection. Practically every family has multiple vehicles, and merchants no longer buy eggs as they travel around the countryside delivering groceries. While the village once had a Presbyterian and a Methodist Church, they merged many years ago. At one point, there were three cheese factories near Dunsford, and Myrna remembers visiting two of them. The old, stable farming community, where families tend the same acreage for generations is much smaller than it once was. Since the advent of television, families no longer gather in the village on Saturday night at the general store—today everyone drives to a larger centre to shop. The crowds no longer gather in the thousands to hear the band play at Greenhurst Pavillion, and local couples no longer frequent the dance halls. But even in an age when people enjoy Netflix and social media from the comfort of their homes, Dunsford carries on as a quiet little rural town on the banks of a creek.

This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you:

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