THE GEEN’S FAMILY DREAM ON FRONT STREET
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.
Anyone strolling along present-day Front Street can’t help but be impressed by the number of amenities available in this historic neighbourhood. Let’s take a look all the way back to the beginnings of Geen’s Drug Store.
Dr. Rufus Holden opens Holden’s Drug Store at 297 Front Street (where Cogeco TV stands today) and operates it for seven years until he earns his medical degree in 1842. He serves as a member of council for five years and Mayor of Belleville in 1864. Dr. Holden goes on to practice medicine for 37 years but sadly he becomes ill while making a house call and dies two weeks later from a lung infection at the age of 67.
In 1850, a 17-year-old apothecary apprentice named Albert Loft Geen is hired by Dr Holden. Geen earns his license as a pharmaceutical chemist from the Ontario College of Pharmacy in 1871 and begins a lifelong career by establishing a retail as well as wholesale business. At the age of 22 he purchases the business from Dr Holden and soon becomes one of the most outstanding men in the community, well known for his business acumen, professional status and humanitarian services.
The original bill of sale was written on a scrap of scribble paper; no witness; no lawyer Just a statement accepted by two honest parties.
~ A. Geen Intelligencer 1935
He and his younger brother Samuel travel within a 100-mile radius of our town by horse and buggy picking up orders for their wholesale customers while providing his retail customers with prescriptions, patent medicines, lotions and pills. They do a brisk business supplying imported window glass, coal oil lamps and accessories, paints and oils. Rev. Albert Geen is an ordained minister and throughout the years he travels many miles by horse and buggy to conduct services in the Quinte area, especially to the Mohawks of Tyendinaga, who make him an honorary chieftain with the name of Sho-je-neh The Six Nation Reserve name him Ka-ji-je Yeshta Reverend Albert Geen is a member of the first city council of Belleville, serves on the school board and several fraternal organizations and sadly passes away in 1941.
Percival Wiles Geen is born in 1886 and begins working for his father, when he is 8 years old by running errands, grinding powder and filling capsules. Percival graduates from the Ontario College of Pharmacy in 1907, serves as a Captain in World War 1 and works in downtown Belleville as a pharmacist for 70 years. Percival’s memories of Geen’s include being allowed to sell narcotics without prescriptions, making their own pills, tinctures, essences and powder for laxatives. There is a ‘back shop’ of the dispensary that contained 333 safe storage drawers for bulk chemicals and botanicals and every drawer is labelled using latin names. In 1941 Percival becomes the sole proprietor of Geen’s Drug Store, working with his son Alwyn until his passing in 1972.
When I was married in 1914, I was making only $15 a week.
~Percival Geen Intelligencer June 17,1971
Alwyn Selby DeFornei Geen, born in 1919, follows in his father’s footsteps and starts working in the store when he is 12 years old. He graduates from the Ontario College of Pharmacy in 1941 with a Bachelor of Pharmacy degree, serves his country during WW2 as a bomb navigator with the Royal Canadian Air Force, returns from the war and incorporates the business under Geen’s Drugs Limited. Alwyn and his father Percival work in the store together until Percival passed away in 1972. Alwyn proves to be an astute businessman, developing Geen’s Brand Iron and Tonic Blood Pills as well as Holden’s Expectorant Cough Syrup, which is named after Albert Geen’s former partner, Dr. Rufus Holden. Alwyn, who has a love of the outdoors, stamp collecting and mathematics, lives well during the 1990’s then passes away in 2001.
In the old days the firm dealt largely in coal oil and lamp goods. We had a coal oil vault on Pinnacle Street with a capacity of 1,000 barrel.
~ Intelligencer 1933
Like his great grandfather, grandfather and father before him David Geen starts working in Geen’s Drug Store while he was still in school. After graduating from university, he joins the family business and becomes the fourth generation of the Geen family to manage this long- established company. With the help of his father and three sisters, David moves the business further into the community by opening a second store at 305 North Front Street in 1977 and a third store in 1987 at 150 Sidney Street. Although the Sidney Street and Front Street stores have since closed, the building at 276 Front Street is still occupied by Geen’s and is used as office and warehouse space.
This downtown drugstore has called at least seven Front Street addresses home. The first location was at 184 Front Street where Clarke and Miles Butcher was located; in 1859 the Victoria Building on the north-east corner of Front and Hotel Street (now Victoria Avenue), later 298-300 Front Street ( where Boretski Gallery is now located) and following a disastrous fire on December 16,1865, they moved to the Cronk Block on the south-east corner of Front and Victoria Avenue (where Studio 237 Hair Salon) currently sits.
A fire in 1887 destroys the Cronk Block once again and Albert Geen moves across to 300 Front Street. In October,1896, after that building is also damaged by fire, Albert moves to 280 Front Street where he remains until 1941 when Percival Geen purchases the current building at 276-278 Front Street.
After more than 185 years, our community continues to be served under the Geen’s Pharma Save name from their location at 305 North Front Street in Belleville. For over forty years Rita, the pharmacy manager, and the hundreds of staff who have worked in the North Front store, continue the fine tradition that was established by David Geen’s visionary predecessors Rufus, Albert, Percival and Alwyn.
We can stroll along the downtown Front Street district on a bright sunny day and envision the sights and sounds of yesteryear, pause to view the wonderful transformation of this timeless building at number 276 and know how very proud these fine gentlemen would be of the drugstore business and their legacy today.