The local Cabbagetown stores have provided superb insight into the people, times and traditions of this community. Often the strong driving forces behind such enterprises were women, who "assisted" their husbands but in reality ran the show. Two such extraordinary women came to light through our Cabbagetown/ Regent Park oral history project. One ran a store in the late 1800s and the other during the Great Depression of the 30s.
In the late 1800s "Aunt Polly" ran the Cabbagetown Store, which was situated on the east side of Parliament Street just north of the corner of St. David Street and near to Regent Park School and the former Gay Theatre. Her nephew, Vern McAree [Cabbagetown Store, 1953] wrote wonderful descriptions of Aunt Polly and her husband, John Verner. One can imagine them both quite clearly. "Uncle John's manners were courtly, and what success the grocery store had, owed much to the suavity with which he greeted customers, literally bowing and scraping and rubbing his hands as he waited on them." He blustered somewhat, but a kinder man never lived. At the bottom he was weak and leaned much on the quiet, almost demure, strength of Aunt Polly who was the real backbone of the business. It was she, not Uncle John, who took on the unpleasant duty of lying in wait for a customer considerably in default, and telling him in low tones, and using words that took the flesh from his bones, that he was a drunken scoundrel and had obviously planned to bring his family to disgrace and the store to bankruptcy. Oddly enough such outrageous charges never seemed to be resented and Aunt Polly could be depended upon to see that a growing debt was brought within bounds. I have turned white and shuddered when I have seen this little woman, in a voice not raised much beyond a whisper, talk to some hulking man in a way which to me seemed to place her life in jeopardy."
We learned a great deal about the store, the family and its customers from Catharine McKenty, Aunt Polly's great-niece. She explained, "My connection to Cabbagetown is through my great Aunt Polly and through the stories that I heard about her as a child from my mother, my grandmother and through the book that Vern McAree wrote. She was the heroine of that story."
Great-Aunt Polly was born in Ireland in 1837, the year that Queen Victoria came to the throne. Her family came to Canada during the great potato famine. At 17 she married John Verner, a promising young tailor and eventually they opened a grocery store. Aunt Polly had very little education. She could read but mostly read the Bible, which was her great source of strength. She and John had no children of their own but one after another almost a dozen arrived on their doorstep and Polly took them in. Vern McAree was one of them and he came to live with Aunt Polly in 1882 along with his brother Colin, and his little sister Rebecca.
Catharine relates, "The store offered credit to men who were working down at the gasworks at the bottom of Parliament Street and were two weeks away from losing everything. They'd come home and stop off at the grocery store "provided they weren't waylaid at the tavern three doors down! One time the tavern keeper was destitute and was earning his living digging in the winter and he came to her store with bleeding hands and she gave him a pair of leather gloves. You know there was a sense of people looking out for each other.
It is a privilege to record these oral histories. They paint a vivid picture of a world set in the same geography but so different from today. As Catharine describes, "It always seems to me that to be part of a larger story makes all the difference. You know I can stand outside 283 Parliament Street, and there is Bob Bowery, the gaslighter coming down the street and the horse-drawn fire engine with the bugler announcing it as it hurtles down the sidewalk because the road's so rough. And Polly's father William Fleming was a carter, so that meant he had to go down to the bay with the other carters to fetch the water for the fire. Parliament Street at that time was made up mostly of cedar planks and every once in awhile one of those would disappear for firewood. And when they rented out the house to somebody the staircase on occasion would disappear for firewood too!"
"Outside that grocery store there was a wooden awning and under it a barrel of oysters, a cask of herring and some fresh red apples. Inside the front door were a big tub of butter and the box of tea that Uncle John Verner would mix and he'd welcome everybody very graciously. And meanwhile Aunt Polly would make sure that people paid up their bill if they could."
The story of Aunt Polly exemplifies that breathtaking dimension off the human spirit, what people came through and yet were able to carry on with their lives. Catharine marveled, "that's what amazes me the most. When I see Aunt Polly in the 1914 photograph at her 60th wedding anniversary in her 77th year, and I think of everything that she went to through -- seeing a small child that she had adopted die of diphtheria die in front of her and her sisters, and just the sheer physical work, and to come through with that degree of serenity, to me that is life-giving."
There's a fierce pride of place for people who grew up in the Original Cabbagetown. Despite all the negative associations with the area their roots run strong and deep and there have been many success stories on every scale. As Vern McAree wrote in Cabbagetown Store, "From this store, and members of the clan whose headquarters is was, there came in later years a Minister of Finance of Canada, a mayor of Toronto, a Speaker of the Ontario Legislature and a director of the T. Eaton Company, besides others of lesser celebrity."
Catharine McKenty has donated many photographs of Aunt Polly and the family from this period, as well as some of Aunt Polly's personal items, such as a cranberry glass jug inscribed with her name and her Irish lace veil, which she wore at her 60th wedding anniversary. She has also arranged for us to publish the book CABBAGETOWN STORE online on our museum website with added commentary and photographs. We plan to have it available by the end of 2008.
Despite the dogged perseverance of Aunt Polly and John, the Cabbagetown Store eventually went bankrupt. As Vern observed, "But what was the breath of life to the small stores became, all too often, their death rattle. Credit made them and credit destroyed them. There was generally nobody in particular to blame. There was just the poverty that stalked most of the small stores' customers from the cradle to the grave."