That little red building at the corner of East and Gouin Streets displaying the neon Mrs. B’s sign above the entrance has had a varied and distinguished history. But, for me, it was the source of countless memories of living within those walls and growing up downtown in the early 1950’s.
In 1856, the pie-shaped, four acre parcel of Crown Land, part of the Gouin Subdivision south of Queen Street and east of East Street was purchased by George Johnston and subdivided and sold as lots over the year to Samuel Whitney, George Desbarats, James A. Gouin, Francis Clemore, Chas. McColl and Joachim Biron.
In 1899, Uriah McFadden sold the apex of that triangular piece of land to George W. Shotts for $400. There, a stone block building was constructed to be used as the United States Customs House and Consulate.
The 1901 telephone book lists the location as ‘se East 1s Queen.’ The civic address of 76 East Street wasn’t designated until 1910. This is the original building as the site has been in nearly continuous occupancy since 1901. During its 112 years of existence, it has served many occupants and purposes.
From 1901 - 1928, it was the home of Clifford Marshal who worked as a lineman for Bell Telephone. During 1928 - 1930, it served as a base for a Taxi Service and the home of Earl J. McEwan. Collins Tire and Battery Service occupied the building from 1930 -1934. Between 1935 -1936, the building continued its garage use as the Soo Service Station owned by Albert D. Nott. He resided on St. Thomas Street only a short walk down the lane. With little change from 1936 - 1937, Darcy Best Realty Co. & Packard Sales and Service took over the building.
A major renovation for its first use as a restaurant and home location was carried out by Albert Antafy who served the public home cooked meals until 1939.
During the second World War years, 1939 -1941, Mrs. Karterine Spreng ran the restaurant and lived there with her husband Gerald who worked for Greenwood Electric. In 1942, it completes its life as a restaurant and was renovated to be the home of Victor and Margaret Hewett. Victor worked as a waiter for the American Hotel. They remained there until 1944. During 1944 -1945, it fell vacant for the second time.
Fast forward to 1958 -1986 when Sykes and McCullough Ltd. Real Estate and Insurance, and Doug Sykes Insurance and Real Estate Inc. established their offices there. In 1986, it was sold to Aurora Butkovich and Cecilia Mihelic and to the present it remains as “Mrs. B’s.”
Flashback to the fall of 1946, my father, Robert (Bob) and mother, Elsie Metcalfe purchased the “shop.” Having worked as a vulcanizer for Collins Brothers and as a mechanic for Ray Brothers, dad opened his dream in 1947 as the EAST STREET GARAGE AND TIRE SHOP.
Bob Metcalfe was the consummate mechanic having worked in a blacksmith shop/garage in Saskatchewan cutting his teeth on Model As and Ts and farm equipment. He knew engines inside and out. With his ear to his long squared stick used like a doctor’s stethoscope, he could analyze the ailment of a car or truck engine then determine its needs, calculate repair times and costs. With the dexterity of a surgeon, he could have the patient up and running out the door in the allotted time at a fair rate. Many times bills were left on credit, trusting customers “to pay the next pay cheque” which at times never came and were settled in exchange for other goods and services. His work in that little one bay garage was in high demand and scheduled appointments were handled on time. However, he could always find room for emergencies, out calls to stranded motorists and to repair flat tires. Early morning, between jobs and into the night, he operated his Vulcanizing machine to retread, recap and patch worn tires to provide them with new life. Since tires were still scarce and expensive after the war years, his work afforded his customers many more miles of motoring for little monetary outlay.
The popping of inflatable “boots,” the hissing of the air compressor and the pungent scent of hot rubber one could never forget. It always seemed a miracle to watch an old tire enter the machine and exit rejuvenated for another 20,000 miles of life. In its down time, the Vulcanizer with its wheels and gauges serves as my rocket ship long before Star Trek and another “Vulcan” made the scene.
Elsie handled the books, took calls, held down the garage when Bob was out on service calls or away for parts, kept the office spick and span and always had a smile and conversation to share with customers. Since home was at hand, meals and great pies and baking were always ready. Family life was only occasionally interrupted with a midnight “stalled car emergency.”
76 East Street could have been called the first “Centre Of It All.” Located downtown in the commercial and entertainment centre of the Soo between Bay and Queen and Pim and Brock, it became the centre of my universe.
Now from my perspective some fifty-five years later looking back on those formative years, this city was not just a great place to “come from” as Morley Torgov conveys but was the best place to BE.
Those years were characterized by redevelopment and revitalization following the Second World War with the beginning of the baby boom. Growing up with a merging of the world upheaval of the past, with the excitement of the present and the promise of the future meant that every day was an adventure. It was a time to explore, to question, to discover, to put down roots and to reach for the stars.
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Growing Up Downtown at 76 East Street (Part 1 of 3)
Richard Metcalfe for local2 sault ste. marie
April 23rd, 2012 at 2:03pm