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.”