James E. Bennett: Early Carleton Place Butcher
By Mary Cook
The Carleton Place Canadian, 1987
James E. Bennett had no way of knowing that the small butcher shop he opened in the late 1800’s would see four generations of Bennett’s in the business before the final chapter closed on one of the best known butcher shops in the Ottawa Valley.
Old photographs show a wiry, golden haired man of moderate stature. He was born in Ferguson’s Falls in 1860, and came to Carleton Place as a child of 9, supposedly to take over his father’s blacksmith shop when he was old enough. The shop was located in the empty lot between the Valleytown apartments and the first stone house going west on High Street, which is now a private parking lot.
But young James had no intention of becoming a blacksmith. In an era when it was expected a son would follow in his father’s footsteps, young Bennett went off to be a herdsman for a well known businessman G. Arthur Burgess.
Around 1884, James E. Bennett decided being in business for himself would offer much more reward than looking after someone else’s cattle. And so the first Bennett’s Meat Market opened its doors. The store was located where Goofy’s Ice Cream parlor now stands. The spot was considered a prime location. Here some of the main businesses of the day were neighbors and a steady stream of people passed the shop each day.
He hired Charlie Devlin to help out and the two of them did all the work…and it was all done by hand in those days. One side of the shop held a large plank anchored just down from the ceiling. Huge meat hooks held beef quarters, where the lady of the house could come, look over the selection and make her choice. Hand saws prepared the meat, because electricity was yet to come to Carleton Place.
A two wheel cart, hauled by horse, carried a box with a lid on the back, and a step for the driver; from the cart, deliveries were made all over town.
James E. Bennett soon outgrew the small shop next to the bridge. An opportunity came up to move across and down the street, and the young businessman jumped at the chance. He took his three sons, Harry, Gordon and Austin, “Onnie” into the business with him. It was a location that was to see almost 70 years of continuous business by the next two generations of Bennett’s.
The store was a massive stone structure (unchanged today) that stood on the corner of Bridge and Bell Street. It was distinguished by a huge tea pot that hung from the corner of the store between the first and second storeys. The pot advertised Salada Tea, and one day in the 20’s when the town was celebrating Old Home Week, Ted and Jack Voyce climbed a ladder and painted the massive tea pot red commemorating the event. No one knows where the tea pot is today.
In the very early days, before Bennett’s built their first abattoir, the shop had to close down in the afternoons so that the butchers could travel the countryside buying their meat. They would arrive at the farms, strike a deal, slaughter what they had bought, and head back to town. The first abattoir was on the 7th line of Ramsay near the old lead mines, and almost back to back with the Anglican Cemetery.
In the winter time, the store also closed in the afternoon, but then it was time to haul ice from the Mississippi River. The shop had an ice box, and two ice houses held the year’s supply. Each day, ice had to be hauled into the shop to fill the ice box. The Bennett’s didn’t have that problem in the winter. The butcher shop was so cold the meat froze overnight, and stayed frozen all day.
All the Bennett’s, right from that first James E. who started the business in the 1800’s possessed a wonderful sense of humor. James’ grandson Bill, remembers a woman coming into the store for a quarter’s worth of cooked ham. It was a blistering hot day. Bill’s grandfather James looked her square in the eye and said, “Hell, lady I wouldn’t open the fridge door for a quarter on a day like this.” Apparently, the ice would melt as quick as you would look at it, and Bill says if his father was going to open the ice box door, it was going to be worth his while.
James E. Bennett built three houses in the Flora Street area. One of them is occupied by his grandson Bill and his wife Lois. Behind the house were stables where up to five horses were housed. They were used as delivery horses for the meat market, and they knew the routes as well as the men who drove them. One old horse, the story goes was so familiar with the routine of the business that when Findlay’s Foundry whistle blew at 12 noon, the horse headed for Flora Street with or without the driver. “You better be on that cart when the whistle went, or the horse went home without you”, was the saying of the day. In the morning a delivery man went door to door picking up order for meat. There were no telephones, and this was the way the business ran. The lady ordered from the delivery man, he rushed back to the store, filled the order and rushed back out to deliver it so she could cook it for the noon meal.
Ledgers of the day reflected the simple way of life and how business was carried on. Some entries carried only the first name of the customer, or it might simply state the last name and beside it how much was owed. It could read “Bells…12 cents”. The amounts were small, and when the account was paid, there was no receipt given. A simple pencil line through the entry showed the debt was cleared.
There was co-operation between the shops too. Sometimes a ‘debtor’ would leave a shop in a huff…invariably it was over a bill. Bill says, “someone would rush over to the other butcher shops and say Mrs. So and So left us and she owes .40 cents.
Well, he’d send the message back…’she won’t get a cent of credit from us until she pays the .40 cents.’ That’s how business was done in those days.”
As stated in a previous story, much business was carried on in a reciprocal manner. Bennett’s had agreements with at least two other merchants in town. Cameron’s blacksmith kept their horse shod, and Bennetts supplied their meat.
Once a month a tally was made to settle the difference. The same system worked with Nichols Mill. The mill supplied all the lumber Bennett’s needed, and the meat market filled the Nichols meat needs. Once a year, the two businesses would have a reckoning. The tallies were usually just a few dollars apart. They’d say, just forget it.
Wipe the slate clean and let’s start over again, Bill Says. After James died, his three sons took over the business. By the time the second world war broke out, Onnie was on his own as everyone who worked for him joined up, leaving no staff to run the store. Young Bill was taken out of school in Grade 11. He was to remain working alongside his father for more than 40 years.
Bill remembers the store he did chores in when he was just a little boy, long before he knew he would eventually be taken into the business. “There were meat counters all along the back. The floors were covered with sawdust. Barrels of pickles, herring and sauerkraut lined the walls, and we built a little booth for Dorothy Malloch. She was our cashier, and when you got your meat from the counter you took up a little slip of paper and paid Dorothy. Later Isobel Wylie and Ruth Ferguson joined the staff. A big stove sat in the centre of the floor, and boy did it got cold at night. And in the daytime, when the fire died down, we’d throw in a roll of wrapping paper if we ran out of wood. It was cheaper than wood, too. It didn’t give off much heat, but it kept burning all day long.”
The first electricity the store had was purchased from Art Burgess who built a small power plant east of the present Medical Centre on Lake Avenue. Burgess sold power to several industries and businesses before the town was hooked up to outside power. For the first time Bennett’s were to have electric refrigerators. It was perhaps the biggest improvement ever seen in the business.
As a young boy Bill always had a pony to the envy of all his friends. “But Dad had an ulterior motive in buying me a pony and cart. It was his way of initiating me into the business at an early age, because while everyone else was out playing, I was expected to use the pony and cart to deliver meat,” he says.
The business grew during the war. But the workload of looking after the rationing books was enormous. That job had to be done when the store was closed and the place was quiet. There was never enough butter and bacon to go around, and it was a “first come, first served system.”
Prices went up during the 40’s. They were a far cry from what they were in the early days of James E. Bennett, according to early ledgers. Two pounds of beef sold for .14 cents; two and a half pounds of steak for .23 cents, and pork chops and sausages for .12 cents a pound.
As the seventies came to a close, the Bennett’s Meat Market was approaching almost 100 years of continuous operation. Onnie was ready to call it quits. And so was Bill. The business was sold in 1978 ending an era unmatched by any other retail business in the town’s history.
James E. Bennett had established a reputation for honesty and service early in the game. It was carried on for three generations. The businessman left his mark politically as well. Like almost every other merchant he took his turn in municipal politics, holding the office of mayor from 1904-06. He set a pattern for what he expected the business to be…a service industry that met the needs of the town honestly. He probably expected his sons, grandchildren, and great grandchildren to carry on as long as they were able to do so, and in the same fashion. Had he lived, he would not have been disappointed. Today, the old stone building still serves as a meat market, as Danny Joly continues to meet the same high standards set by that original butcher more than 100 years ago. James E. Bennett would be pleased.