Iconic Ward’s General Store in centennial year

Ward’s General Store has been the go-to place for many Island residents over the past 100 years. Giving rise to the saying, if Ward’s don’t have it—you don’t need it.

Third generation of family operates landmark Tehkummah business

TEHKUMMAH – The country general store has become something of a trope these days, but R. A. Ward and Son General Store in Tehkummah, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in its present location, is definitely the real deal. With an eye to supplying everything needed by the Island’s farmers through all four seasons it was a given that “if Ward’s don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

Ward’s actually came into existence in 1906, when farmer Joe Ward decided to explore a different vocation set up a mercantile operation in White’s Lake, about 10 minutes away from where the present store is located. The store operated in that location until the canny Mr. Ward decided a move was in order.

“He picked Tehkummah because he learned that was where five roads were to be meeting,” said great granddaughter Lisa LePage who is now working in the store. Mr. Ward and his wife Mary (Williamson) moved their base of operations to Tehkummah and it proved to be an inspired decision. The late Rex Ward is probably the most familiar proprietor of the general store, working behind the counter since 1960 up until his passing in May of 2013. Now it is Ross Ward, the third generation, who has taken up the role and is maintaining the family tradition.

“It’s pretty amazing that for a century, Ward’s General Store has been a landmark in the Town of Tehkummah where locals and tourists alike have benefited from having this mainstay in the community,” said Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes. “It is evident that generations of the Ward family dedicated themselves to recognizing the needs of their customers and providing exceptional service. What an impressive milestone that this store has been in business for 100 years. The Ward family and their staff are truly deserving of all the good wishes they are receiving and I wish them many more years of success! Congratulations and happy centennial.”

In 1922 Ward’s took on the role of post office for the area and Joe Ward became the first postmaster. His son Rex took on that role in 1960 until 1984.

Today, bulletin boards in the store still assist locals and visitors alike navigate local events and happening and often provide opportunities to reengage with friends and neighbours (and perhaps make new ones). The historical image of the hardware store is often one of farmers and other country folk, always men, clustered about a pot-bellied stove. In Ward’s the gatherings were over the hot air grates.

“The men would gather on one side of the store and the women on the other,” said Ms. LePage. “Ward’s has always been a meeting place. They would sip apple cider and chat.”

Between 1906 and 1921, coal oil came to the store in barrels, travelling from the docks in Little Current, but by 1922 when the store was established in Tehkummah, gasoline was coming from Little Current to the new gravity fed pumps. In 1950, those pumps were converted to electricity.

The first hardware supplies included nails, horseshoe nails, horseshoes, stove pipes, dampers and a host of items required for stoves. Nails were packed in kegs and Wards sold Findley Oval stoves that travelled from Carleton Place to Owen Sound before being placed on boats for the trip to Manitoulin Island. By the 1930s Ward’s carried harnesses, boots, shoeing tools, chains, clevises, Fury horse drawn plows, Noble bobsleighs from Shallow Lake, shovels, forks, rakes, hoes, ropes, pulleys and, in a nod to the changing times, Model T parts. There were guns from Wood Alexander in Hamilton and beds sets from Simmons Co.

These days the store’s hardware supplies are ordered from Orgill Canada, itself an operation based on independence since 1847.

Ward’s was the go-to place for dry goods as well, and until 1950 they sold broadcloth, flannelette, wool pants, shirts, mackinaw pants, overalls, wool capes and coats, mainly for men and boys. Safety pins, needles, thread and yarn graced the shelves. In 1950 the repertoire included sweatshirts, jackets, hats, socks, boots, shoes and rubbers. Paints, stains and varnish, electrical appliances, dishes, brooms, pots and pans, along with wheel barrels, lawnmowers and in later years, satellite dish systems.

By the 1960s, Ward’s was also selling timber and had its own sawmill. A 2X4 sold for 50 cents each. Unfortunately considering today’s prices, Wards no longer sells lumber.

It’s hard for the modern mind to comprehend the challenges faced by those early mercantile pioneers. “Pretty much everything came in by boat,” said Ms. LePage. “Supplies had to last all winter. Salesmen would come to the store and stay up all night taking the orders for the winter.”

Those items would include barrels of apples and vinegar and wooden caddies of tobacco plugs. Just about everything came in bulk, cookies, sugar, flour, candy, raisons and corn syrup, all stored in the basement along with a host of canned goods, soaps, pop and paint before being hauled up to be stocked on the shelves.

Bulk was the name of the game in those earlier days, with prunes coming in 30-pound boxes and raisins in 60-pound boxes. There were 150 sacks of flour to store away before the Island was iced in, with brands like Robin Hood, Keynote, Harvest Queen and Purity—all headed out the door at $3 a bag.

The days from 1920 to the 1950s were true shop local days, with eggs and butter coming from local farmers, bread travelling in from Mac’s Bakery in Gore Bay—with 40 unwrapped loaves to a box. Milk came from Waggs of Mindemoya and arrived in quart glass jars—10 cents a quart. But there wasn’t much fresh meat going over the counter. “Farmers had their own source of meat,” said Ms. LePage. Preserved meats such as bologna, wieners and salt pork would be stocked, however. As a special treat, BC salmon might be ordered in. Cheese came in six-inch high rounds, two feet across, tea arrives in a three-foot high chest.

From 1950 to 1959, all these groceries, feed and hardware were shipped by boat to Manitowaning and Rex Ward would travel by truck to the dockside to pick up his orders. By 1960 the items would be delivered to the store by Smith’s Brothers trucks, twice a week, then by National Grocers—bread was still coming in from Mac’s Bakery in Gore Bay.

A revolutionary change came in 1975, when the traditional over-the-counter service became more self-serve. These days bread arrives from Weston Bakery in Sudbury, but Farquhar’s milk and cream can still be found in the fridge.

Joe Ward helped set up another iconic Island business, J. F. McDermid and Sons Co. Ltd. of Providence Bay. 

Keeping a ready stock for over 100 years means that sometimes the mark was overshot when ordering in supplies, but to this day Ward’s has held to the policy of never increasing the sticker price of an item.

“The price that was marked on it when it came in is the same price we sell it at today,” confirmed Ms. LePage. 

The Ward family tradition of hard work and dedication to serving their customers has also been maintained over the century. Rex Ward was famed for always being found in the store; he was its most reliable fixture. Ms. LePage recalled working in the store as a teenager. “He came in every day,” she said. The family still hold to that tradition of hard work and dedication to the communities they serve.

R.A. Ward and Son General Store is a survivor from a nearly forgotten age and well worth a visit. To this day chances are that you will find whatever it is that you need in the store, and if you can’t, you probably don’t need it.

Congratulations to the Ward family and their staff for maintaining the tradition of service to their community that has sustained their operations for over 100 years.