Christmas Past on Front
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.
AN OLD FASHIONED CHRISTMAS SEASON ON FRONT STREET
Christmas on Front Street was the very best time of year when I was growing up. The sights, sounds, hustle and bustle of holiday shoppers, the Christmas bells ringing, snow falling gently and the fragrant smells of this magical wonderland will live in our hearts forever!
Let’s stroll along Front Street one more time during this Christmas holiday season and visit a few shops
It’s been over 100 years since this multi-generational family business first opened its welcoming doors on Front Street. The Christmas season has long been a magical time for a downtown destination shopping experience at Stephen Licence.
The brightly lit shop window displays the miniature train set and tiny skaters that sometimes run around the track all night, just for passers-by to enjoy. Whether having skates sharpened, picking out a new bike or browsing the models on display, there’s something for everyone!
The spirit of Christmas fills the quirky building with kindness, humour, music and good cheer.
THE FIVE AND DIMES
A few weeks before Christmas, the storefronts are festively decorated; the streets are teeming with shoppers, and all the downtown stores are open for business. Santa is waving from the double doors of Woolworths, and freshly baked cookie aromas escape from the open doors at Kresge’s.
Mrs. Dawson is playing Christmas carols on the organ in the front windows of Zellers, and the Christmas toy train is travelling in circles inside the Metropolitan store. The much anticipated Santa Claus parade is over, and the fragrant smell of delicious hot chocolate lingers.
The excited kids sit on Santa’s knee and whisper their secret wishes to him while their parents finish their last-minute shopping.
A favourite police officer is known to sneak a cookie or two as he strolls past the store on his daily beat. Every year at Christmas, he drops a sizeable donation off to the store Santa Claus with a note reading, ‘thanks for the cookies Santa.’
THE GRAND DAME OF DEPARTMENT STORES
In 1863 Mr. Holton purchased a lot in downtown Belleville to construct a one-of-a-kind building. It was four stories tall, with heavy stone sides and rear walls, a large skylight, and contained over 16,000 square feet of space.
This imposing brick building at 270 -274 Front Street has had many stores call it home, from Holtons, George Ritchie Building, Eatons, Walkers Department Store, Marks and Spencer and S&R Department Store.Christmas is unique and special because of memories of elevator rides to different levels with Christmas displays everywhere! Much to the children’s delight, a trolley system carried the customer’s money in little mini cars to the cashier’s desk and returned the change.
WEESE’S CANDY STORE 392 Front
Ralph Weese is a true-life candy man who LOVES making candy…especially at Christmas time! It’s the only time of year he makes his famous Clove Apple Candy, which consists of a big hard striped, very hot-tasting candy shaped like a ball and looked like an apple with a clove stem.
The giant two-foot-tall candy canes, red cinnamon and green spearmint humbugs were also favourite items at Christmas. Shoppers joked about the candy canes saying, ‘you could use them to walk with, but they’re kinda sticky.’
THE NUT HOUSE 285 Front Street
The pretty little store is very narrow and only about 30 ft deep. It is beautifully decorated for the Christmas season with evergreen boughs and sprigs of holly and mistletoe everywhere. It is a favourite spot for carollers to gather, and the owners welcome them with open arms. The sweet smell of warm apple cider and the sound of Christmas carols through the open doorway had customers lined up to enter. The smell of freshly roasted nuts and newly popped, stirred, and still sticky caramel corn is irresistible. Let’s grab a big white bag of hot buttered popcorn to take to the movies!
ACROBAT CHOCOLATIER 215 Front Street
Christmas time is heaven at this fascinating storefront in the downtown area: fairy lights twinkle from the tree, the scent of pine wood mixed with rich chocolate greets customers at the shop entrance, and Christmas melodies float throughout the interior. It is indeed an elegant indulgence to browse this magical shop.
JOE LEGAULT’S Candy Store 4 Bridge StWest
Picture the scene at Christmas time in 1909, being greeted at the front of the store by a row of huge suckers on wooden sticks, four-foot candy canes sticking out of a giant wooden barrel candy stand and the sweet smells of taffy wafting through the shop. The store is gaily decorated for the holiday season and full of Christmas cheer and goodwill. The Toronto Dominion Bank is presently located here.
DICKENS TEA ROOM AND BAKERY 215 Front Street
The female employees wear starched white dresses with white collars and little white lace hats, while the male employees sport dapper black suits and jaunty black caps.
The 110-seat Restaurant, 50-seat Tea Room and mouth-watering Bakery are most memorable due to the impressive ornate brick fireplace and spacious Meeting Room. From 1887 to 1953, Dicken’s was the central hub for the daily dessert and gossip group that crowded the streets in downtown Belleville, especially during the holiday season.
In 1939 Helen and Doug Reddick open Reddicks Bakery at 304 Front Street and later move across the road to 291 Front. Ladyfingers and Rum Balls sell during Christmas and hot cross buns in the Easter season.
Specialties include their fabulous sticky taffy tarts, plump jelly donuts, melt in your mouth date cookies, butterscotch cake, and fragrant breads and buns. Reddick’s famous fruit bread at Christmas time is said to have approximately a pound of fruit in each loaf. The signature bakery box is carefully wrapped with string and handed with care to the customer. The personal service and superior product keep the customers returning year after year. Other wonderful bakeries we often stop at are Burkholders, Family Bakery andAudrey’s.
LESLIES SHOES AND THE SKI DEN
In 1919 Thomas Wills opened a shoe store at 255 Front Street. The red brick building with a white facade was constructed to look like a 3-story building, but it was actually only two stories. Little did he know the building was destined for downtown greatness.It was much more than just a shoe store.
There were separate upstairs lounge rooms for the wives to relax while Christmas shopping and the kids got to choose a gift from the toy box. They also supplied baby carriages, walkers, and umbrellas for shoppers to borrow. This hard-working, kind and compassionate family wove a thread through the fabric of our downtown area for 78 years. The magical little store may be gone, but the legend lives on.
Other great downtown shoe stores include; Reward Shoe Stores, Agnew-Surpass, Pollock Shoes, Bata, Lincoln, Leslie’s, Vermilyea and Maher’s, where Red Mavety is our fan favourite.
MacIntosh Brothers, Singer Sewing Machine, and Rolufs display a dizzying array of Christmas gifts in the brightly lit windows.
The Front Street Christmas decor at Ashley Fur, Delaney Fur and Woodley Furriers are magnets that draw attention to the beautiful fur hats and coats displayed on the smartly dressed mannequins.
Jewellery Stores sparkle brightly at Bert Lewis, Ronald Keel, Wonnacott’s, Elite, Mercier Jewellers, Angus McFee, Strouds and Gerry O’Connor’s Jewel Box.There is a distinct sense of excitement and wonder as we browse all eight stores searching for that special piece of jewellery.
Mom’s go to bed on Christmas Eve with visions of fabulous dresses from Marianne’s, Milady Shop,Rachael’s, Artistic Ladies’ Wear, Lipsons, Simpson Sears Catalog Shop and The Sally Shop.
Let’s not forget to stop by Walker Hardware and admire the big Santa Claus in the window who also commands the picture window at Wrays Furniture, and continue down the street with Dad and our cousin’s to Whites, Will’s. Seymours and Smiths Hardware stores.
Shopping for Christmas dinner is not complete until we drop by
all four large stores: Loblaw’s grocery on Front Street, A & P on North Pinnacle, Loblaw’s south on Pinnacle and Dominion Store on Victoria Avenue to pick up our Christmas extras and spend our ‘green stamps’.
The drug stores on Front; Duff’s, McKeown’s, Schryver’s, Lattimer’s, Dolan’s, Tamblyn , Seldon’s andGeens are packed with last minute shoppers looking for stocking stuffers.
There are lots of spots for dad to drop in for a quick beer; The Crystal Hotel, Hotel Belvedere, City Hotel, Queens Hotel and Hotel Quinte are welcoming stops to raise a glass to toast the holiday season.
Restaurants abound on Front Street including the Capitol Grill, Diana Grill, Paragon Café, The Penguin, Moe’s Coffee Bar, Belmont, Seaway, New Perfect, Mike’ s, Silver Restaurant, Marks, Joe’s Lunch and Hong’s Café.
Every Christmas shopping trip for me ends with a visit to The Cosy Grill in the heart of downtown. A comfortable, homey feeling comes over us as we enter the diner, put a dime in the tabletop jukebox, hum along to a song, take a sip of the freshly brewed coffee and yummy hot chocolate. We visit with Lou, Mano, Len, Stamos, Spiro, George, Clara, Hazel, Mary and a host of other quirky familiar characters.
Thank you for joining me on this rambling adventure thru the Downtown District during the Christmas season of decades past. This story was inspired by my own memories as well as memories from my friend Vern Whalen who began this story way back in 1959.