The Passing of the Port Washington General Store
There was an inevitable sadness when the Port Washington General Store was recently demolished. It was the final ending of our dream of building a business on Pender Island, and, more importantly, it was the end of the last physical reminder of Spencer Percival’s community spirit and largesse.
Spencer Percival built the store in 1910 to serve the local community, and along the way donated the property for St. Peters Church, the Port Washington Community Hall, and, in 1936 built a house for Dr. and Mrs. Mackay to ensure that islanders had adequate medical care.
A few years after building the store, he sectioned off a sliver of land the store stood on, and sold it to Buckerfields who built a shed for the sale of all of their products: seeds, fertilizer, and farm implements, which serviced the local farmers. The tiny portion of land and its shed are still in place.
In 1921 the Store passed from Percival to his son-in-law Jack Bridge who operated it until 1956. The new owner, Wally Cunliffe, ran the store until he sold it to Sid and Teddie Kent in 1965.
The next owners were Dietrich and Conroy Schultz who purchased it in 1974 and sold it to Dave and Martha Nance in 1977. During their tenure, Dave and Martha sold the ‘owner’s house’ behind the store (now the Brewin House) saying that they were tired of people interrupting them for a ‘quart of milk’ after store hours. In 1984 they sold the store to us.
In 1985 we celebrated the store’s 75th anniversary with live music, a huge cake (made by the ultimate cake baker-Maggie Mennie), and we and our staff were all decked out in period costumes.
By this time the store’s location was in a backwater as the bulk of the population was in Magic Lake, and the newly rebuilt Driftwood Centre was, and remains, in a convenient location to serve most of the island. We relocated the bulk of our business to the Grocery Store in the Driftwood Centre, and kept the General Store open as long as we could, but eventually, in 1988, we were forced to close it.
The General Store was a romantic dream, with oiled wooden floors, garden tools hanging from the ceiling, and an ambience from the early twentieth century.
I remember shortly after we had purchased the store, the CRD Health Inspector came in shaking his head. He dutifully inspected the food preparation area in the trailer (adjacent to the store) which contained the walk-in freezer and cooler, ensuring that the area was clean and that we followed accepted sanitary protocols. Every day we hauled in five gallons of Magic Lake water, as the well water on the property was non-potable.
Afterward, the inspector walked back into the store, looked at the oiled floor, looked at us and remarked with a smile “I’m not going to be the one who closes this store down.”
At that time the store really was a product of a bygone era. We stocked everything from stationery to bulk nails, giftware, housewares, garden tools, as well as fresh meat, poultry, fish, and vegetables. Our meat case also contained deli meats and cheeses, and there was always a line-up at the door on Friday morning-the islanders knew when the truck arrived!
There was a single gas pump out in the parking area; customers pumped their own gas, then came inside and told us what they owed us. We delivered groceries on Fridays to those who couldn’t get out, and there was a set of shelving on the porch which contained such things as rose powder, plant fertilizers and similar items.
People would help themselves, and then show us what they had taken from the shelves. At night the shelving was covered by a panel secured with a nail through a hasp. The honour system was very much evident, and it was comforting to know it was not abused by the Penderites who were our customers.
Running the store was very labour intensive, especially since there was no potable water and only an outhouse. Once every week or two, the floors were oiled, and near the end of our tenure, the company supplying the floor oil told us they were having trouble sourcing floor oil. Imagine that!
We sold the store to Captain (big Jim) Lane, who sold it to Frank and Jane Batchelor. Then it was purchased by Ghenia Bogun and finally, Murray Vasilev. Along the way it’s been an art centre, coffee shop, accounting office, and no doubt other things as well, but for many years it’s been sitting empty.
It’s sad to see it go, but it was an old wood frame building which had fallen into disrepair. The cost of repairing and maintaining it would have been horrendous. We appreciate the sense of nostalgia, and the pleasant memories, it invoked-they will never leave us-but all things end, even as Spencer Percival’s dream of Port Washington being the hub of the island died when the bulk of the island population moved to Magic Lake.
Farewell General Store.
By Russ and Shirley Searle
With notes from
More Tales From the Outer Gulf Islands (1993) ed. Douglas Harker. Article, The General Store at Port Washington, by Edmund Morrison. Also article by Cherie Thiessen, Heritage Buildings in the Salish Sea, Pacific Yachting, September 2015.