Building a Dream…and a Legacy
Author: Connie Carson
Connie is a well-known local story-teller and professional who has a passion for the history of the City of Belleville, in particular, the downtown streets.
In 1863 an enterprising gentleman named Mr. W.E. Holton purchased a piece of land (lot 46) in downtown Belleville and commissioned an architect named Mr. John Forin and a mason named Mr. Woodley to construct a one of a kind building for him. It was 4 stories tall, with heavy stone sides and rear walls, a large skylight, and contained over 16,000 square feet of space. At the rear of the building, and on the Moira River, Mr. Holton had a 46 ft by 70 ft slate-covered stone storehouse built at a total cost of $16,500.
THE GEORGE RITCHIE COMPANY
In 1900 the property was acquired by the George Ritchie Company (lot 47) and fitted for selling dry goods, millinery, mantles, merchant tailoring, men’s furnishings, carpets, and dressmaking.
Mr. Ritchie crossed the Atlantic over 60 times on buying trips while visiting the world’s biggest and best markets to furnish his store. He installed a modern hydraulic passenger elevator and a cash carrier system. There were up to 90 people employed in the busy season and all three upper levels were used for merchandise display. The basement area was designated for storage. It later sold to his son, Thomas, and the 2 lots were joined together as 270-274 Front Street.
THE CANADIAN DEPARTMENT STORE
The Canadian Department Store opened in 1927 and closed in 1949 when T. Eaton branch took over. It carried on the same business practices as the Ritchie Company had.
The building was purchased in 1949 and completely renovated before the grand opening. Their business motto was all about the very best service to their customers.
Eaton’s had a great return policy and people took advantage of it. John Tolaso, the sales manager would always have a good story to tell of Belleville’s elite returning dresses the day after the company’s Christmas party. I suspect it created juicy gossip for employees around the coffee room the next morning!
Televisions were a hot commodity in the 1950s and only the wealthier customers could afford them. Eaton’s allowed customers to take a tv home and try it out for a week. If they liked it they paid for it or returned it to the store.
During this time Mildred Matthews worked at Eaton’s and told friends that management was always at the door to greet her in the morning and show her out at night. She felt they were all one big family. She was making the grand sum of 50 cents an hour at the time.
I personally recall the day I heard the announcement on the radio that Eaton’s had been sold. So many thoughts crowded my mind regarding my favourite store; concern for the fate of our cool elevator operator that always looked so professional in his uniform and hat; worry over the employees losing their jobs and fear for the demise of my beloved downtown area. The Eaton’s store closed in 1966 and reopened as Walkers Department Store the same year.
WALKERS DEPARTMENT STORE
Walker’s Department Stores opened in 1965 and offered a new line of clothing at ‘The Young Man’s Shop’ as well as a new candy department and a budget-minded sports and lingerie department. I was a frequent visitor at the candy department; deciding between the humbugs and chocolate-coated pretzel balls.
Dress sizes at the time ranged from 5 to 13 and cloth coats with dyed raccoon collars were all the rage! There was a custom dressmaking and millinery department on the second floor designed for upscale shoppers but they also held a famous dollar day shopping spree event every year. This store was a shoppers paradise with literally something for everyone!
A trolley system carried the customer’s money in little mini cars to the cashier’s desk and returned the change. It was the same, but the improved model from the Ritchie Company system used in1900.! The store closed in 1977 following news of the expansion of the Quinte Mall.
MARKS AND SPENCER
Marks and Spencer bought Walkers Department Store under St Michaels label where it’s operations were similar to Walker’s but it was closed within four years after opening.
S AND R DEPARTMENT STORE
S and R opened their doors in Belleville in the fall of 1981
The 35,000 sq ft store located in Belleville had a full line of discount retail clothing, footwear, and accessories similar to their parent store in Kingston.
They occupied three floors of space which included the basement plus a newly created footbridge entrance to Footbridge Alley. They also installed a new elevator and designed a new wider stairway to the basement level.
Well-known locals Mary Jane Empson and Bill Belnap were hired as well as a full-time elevator operator. S and R Department Store had 40 full and part-time staff employed and operated from 1981 to 1991 in downtown Belleville
‘The little ones love brightly coloured necklace and chunky rings for their moms,” Many of them bring just one dollar to buy their presents forgetting about the seven cents tax I keep a little fund of pennies here to help them out’. Quote from sales lady at S and R.
This grand old building in the heart of the downtown district has withstood the true testament of time by reinventing itself many times over the past 160 years. Cheers to another 160 years!
270-274 Front Street is currently home to Capers Restaurant and Maxwell Paper Canada.