ST. ANTHONY, NL – Closing the Grenfell Memorial Co-Op means not only the loss of a century-old business, but also a community’s legacy.
Membership passed the motion on Jan. 23 to close one of the oldest consumer Co-Ops still in use, and the only remaining co-operative started by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell.
Grenfell’s pictures are still plastered throughout the building. It was a way to remind shoppers that it was more than a just grocery store – it was a foundation of St. Anthony’s history.
Though he never knew the man personally, John Budgell, current president of the store’s board of directors, has a fond connection to Grenfell.
Like many of his generation who grew up attending the old Grenfell school in St. Anthony, he can recall proudly singing “Grenfell school, Grenfell school, best in Newfoundland” every weekend.
Budgell says Grenfell’s portrait and mottos like “Life is a field of honour” were a common sight along the school walls.
“Everywhere you went in that school, there was a picture of Dr. Grenfell,” Budgell recalled. “When you walked down the corridor, he was there staring at you. You’d dare not misbehave because his spirit was there to chastise you.”
Budgell’s grandmother was a maid for Grenfell in his St. Anthony home, now a museum.
“My grandmother talked so much about him and the experiences of the house it felt like I knew the man,” said Budgell. “He was a childhood hero.”
According to Budgell, it was this sense of Grenfell’s legacy that kept many shoppers at the Co-Op.
Some loyal customers were reared in the Grenfell orphanage, or influenced by other organizations related to Grenfell.
Unfortunately, this loyal customer base wasn’t enough to keep the store economically feasible.
“For a lot of my generation, his memory is really embedded in us, but it hasn’t been replaced by younger people,” Budgell said. “I’m not sure if we’ve done a great job as a community and education system to make the young people know just how incredibly important this history is. How much we hold to Grenfell and the people who came after him and all that they contributed to this community.
“It’s a big part of our history.”
The store’s early days – Grenfell vs. the merchants
The first St. Anthony Co-operative was established in 1908. It was incorporated in 1913 as the “Spot Cash Co-Operative Ltd.” though it was known as the “Candy Shop” up until Grenfell’s death.
According to the 100th anniversary magazine released by the St. Anthony Grenfell Memorial Consumers Co-operative Society, which detailed the store’s history, when the British doctor arrived on the northern coast of Newfoundland he took notice of an abusive economic system that was particularly unfair to the fishermen of the area.
The merchants had created a credit system where physical money was almost never seen. When harvesters needed clothes, food or fishing supplies for their livelihood and families, merchants would give it to them as a debt to be paid off.
When summer came, and fishermen brought their catch to merchants to sell on the international market, they would simply take the fish as a reimbursement for the items given to the harvesters earlier that year.
It was a system the merchants could easily exploit to their advantage. Merchants could set the price of goods they gave out on credit at the end of the fishing season, keeping their own profits high while the fisherman was unaware of the real value of his labour and what he was actually owed.
Grenfell was set on challenging this exploitative system. He began organizing co-operatives along the coast of the Northern Peninsula and Southern Labrador. St. Anthony’s was first set up at the town’s harbour, now commonly called Co-Op Point. The harvesters now had an outlet to sell their salmon and get actual money in return, taking the merchants to task on their own turf. The Co-Op would also purchase ice the fishers gathered from icebergs.
“It got Grenfell into quite a bit of disfavour with the merchants of St. John’s,” said Budgell. “He essentially undermined that barter system they had going, and it really annoyed them. It gave the people of the area an opportunity to have cash and manage their own financial destiny.”
As he was clearly enraging the wealthy people of St. John’s by sabotaging the merchants’ system, Budgell says Grenfell utilized his connections in Great Britain and the United States to donate to and support the co-operatives.
A growing business
In 1936, the Grenfell Association built a new spot for the Co-Op, now known as the West St. Clock Shop. The store was selling, manufacturing and transporting a variety of goods, such as cod oil. A clock donated from a school in Europe was placed at the towering top of the two-story building.
When economic troubles hit the area in the 1930s, the store began to use a credit system as well, establishing itself as the first credit union in the area.
Ted Patey, 92, became a member in 1945. As well as using it for all his shopping needs, he also opened a bank account within the store. He says it was the centre of activity for St. Anthony
“We lived out of it,” Patey reminisced. “There were other shops, but they couldn’t compete with the Co-Op.
“When you wanted to know the time, you didn’t look to your arm, you looked to the town clock.”
Patey says whenever he had money to spare at the end of the month, he deposited it into his account at the Co-Op. With dividends added to his investment, his money grew over time.
But as the town progressed and banks came to the area, Patey said he no longer deposited his money at the Co-Op.
In the late 30s, Patey’s father was a carpenter who worked on the Clock Shop building. Patey can also recall Grenfell’s last trip to St. Anthony before he passed in 1940.
Bruce Pilgrim, 74, worked at the Co-Op from 1965 to 1974. Pilgrim says he took part in every task on the job, from the shelves to the cash register to making deliveries as far as St. Anthony Bight and St. Carols.
He took home $120 a month for his work.
In terms of what was sold, Pilgrim says it was a much larger operation in those days.
“They sold everything from groceries, meats, dry goods, fishing supplies, twine, ropes, shell and bullets, knick-knack stuff like cameras and watches too,” said Pilgrim.
Kerosene oil was also sold. Pilgrim says it was pumped out from barrels by the gallon. Coal was sold by the tub. Meats were shipped in from Corner Brook and cut in the store. Many items were also stored in the nearby two-story warehouse.
Pilgrim says prices were quite different in those days.
“Bacon was only 75 cents a pound, and $100 of groceries would be enough to fill a pick-up,” Pilgrim recalled.
Many items were shipped in by large coastal boat through St. Anthony’s harbour. Pilgrim says the coastal boat often contained 4,000 cases of different items, with vegetables and coal coming from North Sydney on the Nellie A. Cluett.
When Dr. Charles Curtis took over as superintendent of the International Grenfell Association, Patey says he played a key role in making the item-filled store successful.
“When Curtis took it over after Grenfell, he was the man, he made the Co-Op what it was,” said Patey. “Grenfell was the founder, but Curtis made it. That’s what I always say.”
In 1978, the Co-Op moved to its current location, next to its former occupancy at the Clock Shop. Budgell was on the Co-Op’s board in the 1980s and recalls that the store was given the opportunity to move its operation to the Viking Mall. But a matter of principle overshadowed the business prospects, and the opportunity was rejected by most board members.
“The thinking was different back then, people were not use to the idea of renting space,” said Budgell. “Their thinking was why should we put money into a building month after month that we would never own.”
While the Foodland that did take root in the Viking Mall has been competition for the Co-Op, Budgell maintains that dwindling community support was the determining factor in the store’s closure.
“Competition was a factor, but there was and is enough room for two supermarkets in this area,” said Budgell. “Our numbers show that our members just didn’t support the store enough.”
Store manager Boyd Manuel says the Co-Op is temporarily closed to work out particulars about its inventory, but he says the store may soon reopen one final time to clear the last of the shelves.
Looking back on the legacy and his own family’s involvement with the Co-Op – including his father who was a board member in the 1970s – Budgell says it is a sad fate for a community store that lost the community’s support.
“When the store was being built, Grenfell was always coming around and seeing how things were going,” Budgell said. “He had tremendous interest in all things that would improve the lives of the people of northern Newfoundland.
“We tried hard to promote the legacy of Grenfell, to keep his memory alive and in the minds of people – to show that the Co-Op still has value in today’s society, to help people save money and control their own affairs by having their own community store.”
Timeline of the Grenfell Memorial Co-Op
1908 – The St. Anthony Co-operative is established, originally located at St. Anthony harbour. The store is commonly called the Candy Store.
1913 – The St. Anthony Co-operative society is incorporated under the Newfoundland Companies Act of 1894, listing the store as the “Spot Cash Co-operative Ltd.”
1936 – A new building is financed and built by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell and the Grenfell Association. The building is now known as the Clock Shop.
1930s – Due to many financial problems, the manger and directors decided to establish a credit union within the store, despite the fact the Co-Op had originally been established to eliminate credit.
1942-1957 – Co-Op charters a vessel shipping salmon directly to the Boston market. This service continued until 1957.
1978 – The Co-Op moves to its new location next to the Clock Shop, and transitions to selling mainly groceries.
2018 – Due to several years of declining sales and increasing losses, the board of directors hold a special meeting on Jan. 23. They pass a motion to begin the process of closing down the Co-Op.