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Would You Enjoy a Soda a Northey’s Restaurant?

May 19, 2022

Jill Northey with a 1960s Coke Bottle, like her grandfather Alec enjoyed

Jill Northey remembers this popular Colborne Street, Fenelon Falls business, opened by Washington Northey around 1893

“I fondly remember coming up to visit my Grandfather’s ice cream parlour when I was a girl. We lived in Oshawa and drove up many times to see him. We were always impatient to get there, and made a game of being the first to shout out ‘I See the Tower’” as the remains of the old pulp-mill chimney at Garnet Graham Park came into focus. For many local kids a visit to Northey’s was hard to forget.

Alexander Washington “Alec” Northey, loved it when his five granddaughters came to his shop and always treated them to a lovely little bag of sweets. When Alec’s father opened the business in the late nineteenth century, having confections was something special indeed. In those days, seniors would have remembered the days when most families survived on what they could scratch out on backwoods farms. Refined sugar and everything that it made possible, was a very new and special treat, when practically everyone ate meat and potatoes and carrots, day after day after day.

By 1904 Washington Northey could advertise having a restaurant and ice cream parlour that even served sodas. It offered oysters, cigars “and every kind of fresh fruit in season.” In many ways Northey’s restaurant embodied the opulence of the Edwardian Era in Fenelon Falls—making all these luxuries that would have been fit for royalty a generation earlier, available to practically everyone in town. Above all he was famous for the ice cream that he made on site.

When the First World War broke out, Washington’s son Alec, did his duty and enlisted. After serving for eight months, he was shot in the hip, which spared him from combat for the rest of the war. Unable to march, he was assigned to the Quartermaster’s Office. Looking after military supplies fit right in with his business upbringing.

After the war he returned to Fenelon Falls and helped his aging father with the family business. When Washington passed in 1924, he took over, and married Cleopatra (Cleo), a very fashionable lady who worked at a Simpson’s store in Toronto. She always dressed elegantly, with a penchant for silvers and greys. She was a very thin lady, who did not need a corset to keep up with the styles of the period. Back then, workers in hospitality businesses dressed very properly. Alec was a rotund and jolly fellow, who served his customers wearing a good shirt and trousers.

“When I walked into the store, I really noticed the smell coming from the lovely old wood floors. Along the right side of this narrow store, there were a few magazines and newspapers. A long counter stretched along the left side, with a beautiful soda fountain… I remember having Orange Crush there.”

Back then having candy, ice cream or soda was a special treat—it was not something people would indulge in every day. A generation later, when the shop operated as J’n B’s, people would buy pop and chips and might enjoy it in the car on the way home, in the days of Northey’s restaurant, it was a special outing to go for a soda. It was furnished with round tables, with ornate cast legs, where customers would sit on a stool and enjoy their sweet treat.

“We would sit at the tall stools at the counter. There were many tall glass candy jars all lined up.” The Northey girls sat together there, starting at all the candies their grandfather might share with them—like black balls and licorice pipes. “Our eyes were always bigger than our stomachs.”

It was a unique occupation being the gentleman around town who sold indulgences. Every day, Alec enjoyed a Coca-Cola in a glass bottle from the coolers at the back of the shop. The rear of the store featured a wide open space, much like a dance parlour with two pinball machines complete with the flashing lights that characterized 1960s family fun. Having grown up in a cigar store, both Alec and Cleo were heavy smokers—back then it seemed like everyone lit up in the hazy shops and restaurants of the day. For everything he indulged in over the years, Alec lived hale and hearty to 87, but Cleo was not so fortunate.

“I never saw him making the ice cream, but he really took pride in it. I remember my dad saying there is only one good way to make ice cream and this is it.” With his milkshake machine conveniently placed behind the counter, he had something wonderful to share with the community. Ice cream came in vanilla, chocolate and butterscotch, but none of the elaborate flavours we take for granted today. Many couples came in to sit together and enjoy the experience of sharing a milkshake together.

But as Alec aged, times were changing. As people indulged in ever more sugary treats, the experience lost some of its charm and fewer people would think to go to a restaurant to sit and savour the joys of having a soda or milkshake. For most people it became something to enjoy every day on the go. In 1962, the business sold to Bob & Lorraine Reid who transformed it into Reid’s Variety Store. Ten years later Judi and Bob Adamson rechristened it as J’n B’s.

Even as J’n B’s, the store sold many of the things that had made Northey’s famous. Many people came to buy their daily paper, and the counter was still lined with candies that made countless kids salivate over the years. There was still the pop at the back of the store, and a soft serve ice cream machine. The days of handmade ice cream were over, but the Adamsons wanted to maintain the atmosphere of this old country store.

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