Howard McNeely, Carleton Place Auctioneer

“Will somebody make it twenty?”

Howard McNeely has been seeking bids for 40 years

By Mary Cook

Carleton Place Canadian, 1987

 

Forty years ago a large broad axe fetched a quarter.  Today, if it’s really old it could command a lofty $60.  The crowds were smaller back then, and Howard McNeely, the newest auctioneer in the valley knew just about everyone by his first name.  But times have changed since that day almost 40 years ago when Howard thought he could do what he had been watching other auctioneers do for years.  He thought…..”there’s nothing to this.  All I have to do is stand up on the platform or the back of a truck and ask for bids.”  Well, it turned out not to be quite that simple.

A young Howard McNeely had been following the local auctions for years.  He never paid too much attention to the “stuff” being sold, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the auctioneer.  He was fascinated with the fast talking, the rapport with the crowd, and the obvious delight when a bid was over.

Actually, Howard had had plenty of experience on the stage by the time he first tried his hand at auctioneering, so he wasn’t walking into the job cold.  For years he had an orchestra that toured the Ottawa Valley, and he was well acquainted with standing up before people.  He is probably one of the few people who had an orchestra but never mastered a musical instrument.  But that didn’t stop him from enjoying the toe tapping valley music everyone loved.  He really had two orchestras.  One was a rag tag group who got together for the sheer love of valley music.  It included Ab Duncan, Stewart Comba, Les Neild.  When he wanted to fancy things up a bit he added Jack Peckett and Les’ daughter Elsie on the piano.  Howie kept up a steady patter between songs and dances and found it pretty easy to entertain the crowd, so that the first time he took to the platform at an auction sale, he wasn’t even nervous.  “I had been so used to being in front of people, that I never gave it a thought.  And besides, in those days you knew everyone…everyone!” he said.

Not so today.  Even if the faces of the collectors and dealers are familiar, Howard often doesn’t get to meet them personally.  For that reason, and because the crowds are so much bigger now, Howard finally had to go to a number system like the big auctioneers in the city.  The crowd didn’t like it when he first introduced numbers about 15 years ago, but as he said, times had changed.

Howard’s first sale was on Park Avenue, “just across the fence from where I was born and raised”, and Burnett Montgomery was the auctioneer who set out to show Howard the ropes.  Burnett had been auctioneering for a long time, and the partnership was to last for 30 years.  “All that time we never had a disagreement.  It was a great relationship.  We got along well, and I learned a lot from Burnett” he admits.

The biggest sale Howard ever held was when he sold the Mississippi Hotel by public auction.  All the furnishings went too, and then the big stone heritage building was put on the block.  Howard lives by the adage that discretion is the better part of valor, and insists he cannot honestly remember what the landmark building sold for.

One of the longest running auctions was on a farm on the old Ashton road that took three days to complete.  “It was loaded with antiques, and the dealers were there from all over.  The prices held up for the full three days too” he remembers.

There are items today that couldn’t be given away 40 years ago.  Old milk cans command a good price now, and Gingerbread clocks which sold for $10 in the 50’s would be considered a good buy today if you paid a mere $100.

Although he won’t say from which sale it sold, Howard recently got the bidding up to $6,800 on an old corner cupboard.  “Forty years ago, you’d consider it a pretty good sale if you got that for a whole house full of furniture.”

Over the years Howard has always tried to keep a good sense of humor.  Early in the game he learned if one person in the crowd was entering into the spirit of the sale by bantering back and forth with the auctioneer, you capitalized on that.  Just last week one woman seemed to be in perfect sync with Howard.  They both ended up cracking jokes throughout the entire sale much to the delight of the crowd.

In the early years Howard has sometimes inadvertently sold the same item twice.  It can happen.  Two different helpers will hand Howard the same item after it has been sold….but as a rule the crowd is astute, and there is always someone there to holler, “Hey, McNeely, you’ve already sold that once today.”

Howard remembers an incident from years ago that still makes him chuckle today.  “It was a large sale, with two or three people in on it.  Someone handed me up a baby carriage.  It was in pretty good condition too.  It was one of those old fashioned jobs.  You don’t see them around anymore.  Anyway, I asked for a bid and got one right away.  The bidding went pretty high too.  And it sold to someone.  Then this woman came to me in an awful sweat.  It seems she brought her baby to the sale in the carriage, and was just off looking at something else when I sold it.  Everyone thought it was very funny, because I had to get the carriage back.  The people who bought it were just loading it into their car.  I was a bit embarrassed, but those things happen.”

Right from the day Howard started auctioneering 40 years ago, he has always been on the lookout for stealers.  He remembers one sale where two women were busy loading their shopping bags with small things at a sale.  “But unknown to them Herb Cornell, the Chief of Police was watching them.  It was his day off, and of course they didn’t know he was a policeman.  When he showed his badge they put everything back in a hurry.”

At another sale many years ago, he was aware of a big jackknife that was in the auction.  “It was a beauty..very old, and huge, with a handmade wooden handle.  During the sale I remembered it and asked my helper to hand me the jackknife.  Well, it was gone.  It vanished in a couple of seconds.  That’s all i

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Robert Reynolds Powell, Carleton Place Grocer circa 1920

We Remember Poppa:  Robert Reynolds Powell, Grocer

By Mary Cook

Carleton Place Canadian, 1987

 

Just before  the turn of the century, a young Valley man earned his living by working in the grocery section of the old Bryson-Graham Department store on the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Street in Ottawa.  He probably missed his home town, because around 1901, Robert Reynolds Powell came back to Carleton Place to clerk in Tom Steven’s store which was situated where the laundry portion of Carleton Place Cleaners is today.  This was where his family and friends and fiancé Elsie Lever lived, and it was good to be home, doing what he liked to do best:  serving the public.

Robert was a devoted employee of Mr. Stevens for 19 years, and then without warning, his boss sold the store without giving young Powell a chance to even make a bid for the business.  It was a cruel blow for an honest young man who had devoted so much of his life to his employer.

There weren’t too many options opened to a young man in Carleton Place in those days, but Robert Powell decided it was now or never.  If he didn’t’ open his own store then, he probably never would.  And so the first of two Powell Grocery locations opened.  He chose the Leslie Building, which now houses the Karate School next to Comba’s furniture store.

It was obvious that many of his customers from his Steven’s days like the young Powell, because his store flourished, and they moved their business to Powell’s Grocery without hesitation.  By this time, Robert was married and the father of four children.  Gladys Lashley, a daughter, remembers that her father bought some stock from an Almonte store when he first opened his doors.  “It was whale meat.  We have no idea why he would stock that, but I remember these cans of whale meat” she recalls. 

The store was right across the street from Central School (the site of the present Post Office), and the young Powell children were expected to go to the store at recesses and noon hours to wait on customers.  Many of them were school mates who came in to spend their money on penny candy, Fern remembers.  The grocery business in the 20s was not like it is today.  Few people had cars, fewer had phones.  So Robert and his young son Bert would go through the town early in the morning to pick up orders from the houses.  They would scurry back to the store to fill the orders, and then Bert would deliver them…free of charge, of course.

Just dropping the groceries off at the back door would be simple enough, but Bert occasionally was asked by the customers to perform other services as well.  Services much above and beyond the call of duty.  He remembers one time being asked by a young bride to step inside and tell her if the cream in the pitcher was sour.  A job the young man remembers with disdain.

Very few items came in packages back in the 20s.  Everything had to be weighed and measured in the store.  Sugar and flour sat in huge bins under the counter, and was weighed out in brown paper bags to meet the customer’s demand.  Molasses came in bulk containers and poured into jars which the customer brought in.  Coal-oil for the lamps was sold in the same fashion.  Dry goods like flour and sugar were weighed out on the old tin scoop scales that sat at one end of the counter.  Christie’s biscuits came in big square tins and sat together in a cluster on a special rack.  Olive Powell remembers her favorite.  “They were pineapple cookies.  Made in the exact shape of a pineapple.  I thought they were delicious.”

Most supplies came in by train and were then delivered by the express wagon from the station.  Every so often, a fruit truck came up from Ottawa to deliver fresh produce.  A hand grinder prepared fresh ground coffee, and bread arrived from Ottawa in huge hampers.  Boxes of berries also arrived by train in season from Western Ontario.  Bananas hung in huge bunches in the front window to attest to the fact that at Powell’s Grocery the customer could get fresh produce daily.

Those bananas caused a bit of concern one day when a huge tarantula spider escaped from a hanging bunch in the front of the store.  “An employee finally caught it in a big open mouthed jar and it was the full bottom of the jar.  It was taken to high school for the science class”, Fern recalls.  Before it made its final trip, it was put on display in the store window, where it attracted much attention from the local people walking past the store.

It was an era when a businessman was honest and gave full value to the customer for his dollar.  Robert Powell believed in honest service, and would not sell as much as a banana if it had a bruise on it.  “Those went home for the family.  We got all the produce which wasn’t up to scratch, or if a box was damaged, it ended up at our house too.”

Mrs. Powell helped augment the store’s profit by doing home baking.  Pies and cakes baked in the Sarah street kitchen of the Powell home ended up in the Bridge street store.  Cakes sold for 30 cents, and pies for a quarter. 

The store was closed on Wednesday afternoons.  That gave the staff a break and Robert time to fill shelves and do the countless other jobs necessary to keep the business running smoothly.  However, Saturday evenings often saw the workers at the store until after 11 o’clock.  Because the farmers would come in early to place their orders, and then go off for a few hours, while the grocery clerks worked frantically to fill the orders before the farmers came back at closing time.

The merchants got along well with each other.  If someone couldn’t fill an order, he could borrow it, or buy it at a discount from his competitor.  And there was a law of ethics amongst the businessmen too.  One time Robert was asked to stock ice cream.  But his friend and neighbour Mr. Keayes sold ice cream and candy just a few doors down.  He knew ice cream would do well in his grocery store, but he wouldn’t put it in, because it would hurt Mr. Keayes business.

Malago grapes were a great treat in those days.  Fern recalls her father one time was asked to measure out a bunch of grapes for a particular customer.  The customer doubted they weighed as much as Robert said they did.  However, after a bit of debate, she decided she’d buy them anyway.  “Not my grapes, madam” Mr. Powell retorted.  “She had questioned his integrity” Fern said.  And that was a cruel blow to Robert, and he put the grapes right back on display.

Robert Powell never took holidays, but often in the summertime, he would take off early on a Saturday and go up to the ball park to watch the local team play.  He had three main interests in life:  his business, his family, and the Methodist Church, which he attended regularly and for which he was a lay preacher.  Every Monday morning, the minister, Donald Munro, would walk down to the store, and the two men would discuss Sunday’s sermon.

The depression hit almost every household in Carleton Place, just as it did all over the country.  Many customers had to be carried on Robert’s books during this bad time.  Some were often unable to pay their grocery bill, explaining that unfortunately they first had to pay their rent, or the installments on the new washing machine, and there just wasn’t enough left to pay Powell’s Grocery.  But Robert continued to carry these receivables, aware that if he didn’t, little children would probably go hungry.

The Powell children remember many happenings while their father was in business, which bring a smile and a chuckle at family gatherings:

Mrs. Mel MacRae delivering fresh eggs to the store, the bride who ordered a pound of pepper (Robert explained he doubted she needed a full pound), Keith Nolan who ordered a loaf of butter, and the customer who wanted straw pillows (shredded wheat), the young girl who would rush into the store and blurt out “Ma wants a pound of butter, a loaf, and ‘thebillofit’”, running the last four words all together.

During the 30s, Robert Powell moved his store up the street to where the “Eating Place” is now located.  Gordon Lancaster was one of his most dedicated and valued employees.  Buddy Bennett was the conscientious delivery boy, who saw that the orders got to the customers in perfect condition.  Dave Bradley, who stood over 6’ tall, was called “Stepladder” because he could just about reach anything in the store on the upper shelves.  He was with the store for years.  Old Nell was the horse that was used to deliver the orders.  She was housed behind the Powell home on Sarah street, and produced three foals for the children to play with.  Robert Powell loved Old Nell, and treated her as a member of the family.

In 1941, after more than a half century in the grocery business, Robert Powell decided to call it quits.  He sold the business to his long time employee and good friend Gordon Lancaster, whom he knew would carry on in the honorable fashion which had become a tradition.

Within a few years, Robert Reynolds Powell was dead.  He died under circumstances which would have pleased him greatly had he had anything to do with the event.  At the close of Sunday Service at Memorial Park United Church one Sunday, Robert collapsed.  All his family except his son Bert was there when he died.  Upstairs, the choir was singing one of his favorite hymns…”Oh, Master, let me walk with Thee.”