In the fall of 1950, my grandfather, Grove MacMillan, bought a grocery store in his home community of West Covehead, P.E.I. Up until then, Grampa had been operating the family farm with his brother, Leith. But then Leith got married.
Before long, the stress of two families living in one house (and two brothers who may have had different ideas about running a farm) took its toll, so Grampa, and my grandmother, Helen, decided it was time to move on.
When my grandparents bought the store, it was painted with red ochre and cod liver oil, a favourite in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s because it was cheap. The store sat on stone pillars, and during periods of high winds, it would sway so much that the people inside feared it would blow over. To remedy this, Grampa installed a cement foundation.
In 1969, two years after I was born, Grampa undertook major renovations. A new section was added to the side of the store and the warehouse was enlarged. The selling space was now four times larger than in 1950 (Ka-ching!).
In the early days, a cast iron pot-bellied stove at the west end of the store served as the guardian of local history. During the winter, local men warmed themselves by its side, drank pop(?), and gossiped.
I remember Grampa saying that on Friday and Saturday nights, as many as twelve men would talk, argue, and even fight about politics, business, and community affairs. Election time always brought a buzz of activity around the stove, and from time to time, Grampa had to escort people out the door if they became too disorderly.
In 1955, Grampa replaced the pot-bellied stove with a modern, oil-burning space heater. Many of the older folks said that he had ruined the store, and even the regular tourists were disappointed to see such a local curiosity disappear. Sadly, when the pot-bellied stove was removed, the store gradually ceased to be a community meeting place.
I remember speaking with a local lady by the name of Bea Marshall who passed away a long time ago. She worked in the store many years, both for my grandfather and the previous owner. Bea told me that she used to prepare customers’ orders for them because in those days, people didn’t just walk in and pick up their stuff.
She weighed sugar, oatmeal and oats in one to ten-pound bags as well as raisins, cookies and candy. Bea told me that she also measured molasses and vinegar from kegs, in the quantities customers wanted. Eggs were washed and counted. Cheese was cut from blocks, and cigarettes sold for ten cents a carton.
The store was also a local supplier of feed and fertilizer which were brought into the nearby community of York by rail car. Then someone from the store, usually Grampa, would pick it up. Barley meal, cornmeal, fishmeal, shorts, and bran were just some of the other bulk items for sale.
Grampa also sold farm-related products like feed, kerosene, and potato baskets. Additionally, he sold some meat. Ice cream was hand-dipped into small containers, and an ice cream cone sold for five cents. In the early days, bartering was common, a popular exchange being eggs for groceries.
With the expansion of the store in 1969, self-service gradually came into play. People took what they wanted from the shelves. Now, the store was able to offer more variety: frozen and pre-packaged meats, and a wide variety of grocery, hardware, drug and dry good items.
In 1955, DeBlois Brothers, the wholesaler for MacMillan’s General Store, organized a Clover Farm group to address growing competition from the Lucky Dollar group. No store was obliged to join, but the offer of competitive advertising, supervision by experienced people, and better wholesale prices was attractive. So Grampa jumped on the bandwagon, and MacMillan’s General Store became MacMillan’s Clover Farm Market.
When Grampa purchased the store in 1950, his store hours were Monday to Saturday from 8:00 a.m. until as late as 11:00 p.m. to accommodate the locals who liked to congregate. However, after he joined the Clover Farm group, the store operated on more structured hours, closing at 9:00 p.m. Eventually, winter and summer hours took effect and some nights, the store closed at 7:00 p.m.
In the early days, the store closed on Wednesday afternoons so that Grampa could pick up supplies in Charlottetown. It never opened on Sundays or holidays with the exception of Canada Day.
Originally, Grampa closed the store when there was a funeral in the community, but eventually, he discontinued that practice. The only other times the store closed were at the time of my grandmother’s death in 1959 and when Grampa married his second wife, Freda, in 1970. He also closed shop the afternoons of his childrens’ weddings.
When Grampa bought the store in 1950, he continued to farm part-time, so my grandmother, Helen, was in charge a lot of the time. My mother, Myrna, and my uncle, Blair, worked in the business as well. Blair did odd jobs as a small child, and when he was twelve, he started waiting on customers. My mom started helping out when she was around eleven, and both she and Blair worked in the afternoons or in the evenings when their homework was finished.
When Mom was sixteen and Blair, fourteen (their younger sister Lynn was five), their mother became seriously ill. She was in the hospital for two months before her death from cancer, and during this time, both Mom and Blair looked after the store by themselves in the evenings and often on Saturday afternoons so that Grampa could visit my grandmother.
My mother stopped working in the store a few months after she was married in 1961. In 1969, Blair returned to the family business full-time. The business was becoming too big for Grampa to handle himself, and eventually, Blair became a partner in T. Grove MacMillan and son Ltd. Many of Grampa’s grandchildren, including me, my brothers, and my sister worked in the store. In fact, I started working there part-time when I was twelve years old.
For many years, Grampa travelled to Charlottetown twice a week and usually, he had someone with him who needed a ride. A lot of people didn’t have transportation, particularly in the winter, so Grampa ran errands for them and picked up their parcels and prescriptions. Ironically, some of the people he took to town would buy their groceries there. Grampa also delivered groceries to people who couldn’t get to the store, and I can remember that even when I worked there, certain people called in their orders for delivery.
I also remember a popular service that Grampa and my uncle Blair offered to their customers: charging. Because the community was one where much of the clientele was involved in seasonal occupations (fishing and farming), charging was a service that kept food on their tables and kept the store in business. In 1987, Grampa told me that the store probably lost about a thousand dollars per year through charging, but the practice created an incentive for people to shop there.
Generally, people were good to pay off their accounts, but in a few instances, Grampa relied on a collection agency when he felt he was being taken. Over the years, however, he never attempted to collect from people he felt were in dire circumstances. Instead, he wrote their accounts off the book. That said, with the advent of social assistance and employment insurance, he expected people to pay their bills.
Grampa and Blair also played the role of local banker by cashing cheques for people. There were only a few times that there were forgery cases but for sure, these were a blow to a small business as the losses generally weren’t recovered.
In 1981, DeBlois Brothers, the Clover Farm wholesaler, opened Basics Foods Warehouse. At that time, Grampa and Blair considered leaving the Clover Farm chain. They decided against it when the wholesale competitor wouldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t open a discount store. Indeed, it later did.
In 1992, Grampa died. He was in his early seventies and suffered with congestive heart failure. Up until a few days before his death, he worked in the store.
Blair continued on with the store for several years after Grampa’s death, but eventually, it was too difficult to compete with the large grocery chains in Charlottetown, only a few minutes’ drive away. Blair sold the business, and if I’m not mistaken, the building now hosts a taxidermy shop and archery business.
I’m proud that my grandfather and uncle ran a small, rural business for so many years, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to work there for a few of them. It’s unfortunate that so many family businesses on P.E.I., including MacMillan’s Clover Farm, folded under the pressure of big competitors, but I’m proud to say that in its day, the store was a thriving community landmark.
(Stay tuned for a future blog post of stories from MacMillan’s Clover Farm. Some are sad, some are scary, and some are hilarious.)