Steele Bros. store: a Fergus institution for 84 years

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

During the interval between 1880 and the First World War, Fergus enjoyed considerably more success as a retailing and commercial centre than its nearby rival, Elora.

Part of the reason was its importance as an agricultural market. The farmers in a large part of West Garafraxa, as well as a good portion of Nichol, found Fergus to be their most convenient town.

Major buyers in Fergus, particularly Monkland Mills and John Black, the grain and cattle dealer, pumped large quantities of cash into farmers’ pockets.

Farmers’ purchases sustained most of the commercial activity on St. Andrew Street during the decades before the war.

In 1876, there was a modest addition to the ranks of these retailers when the Steele family opened a small dry goods and grocery store in the Garrett Moore block, at the comer of St. Andrew and St. David Streets.

The store began in the name of Mrs. Robert Steele Sr.; she was assisted by her son Robert Jr. The elder Steele had come to Fergus in the 1860s as a millwright at Monkland Mills. During the 1870s, he was a grain buyer, both for Monkland Mills and on his own account. He does not seem to have been involved with the store operated by his wife and son.

After a couple of years, Robert Jr. developed a dislike for retailing, and left Fergus to train as a dentist. His two younger brothers, Andrew and James, took over the business. From this time, the store was known as Steele Bros.

Unlike their brother, Andy and Jim Steele enjoyed storekeeping, and soon built up a solid business. In 1881, five years after it opened, they moved their store to larger quarters in the McQueen block, next door to the post-office, one of the best locations in town. At this time, the business concentrated on groceries.

The economy of central Wellington stagnated through the 1880s, but the Steele Brothers continued to build their business, largely at the expense of their less-alert competitors.

In 1892, they added a gas-lighting system to their store. This proved to be a major factor in attracting Saturday-night crowds of farmers.

The Steele brothers moved a second time in 1895, this time to the building where they would remain for 65 years.

It soon became known as the Steele block. The building had been constructed for two stores. James and Andrew remodelled the building completely. It provided them with about three times the space they had formerly occupied, and it enabled them to offer full lines of dry goods, clothing, shoes and groceries.

In their new quarters, Steele Bros., enhanced their reputation and cultivated a regional market. They advertised regularly in the Elora and Fergus papers, and on occasion in other area newspapers. At the time, no other store in the area had the range and variety of goods found at Steele Bros.

By 1900, Steele Bros. was unquestionably the most important store in Fergus. In addition to the two owners, the store provided employment to five full-time clerks, a bookkeeper, and two delivery boys.

James Steele retired from the business in 1911. Andrew Steele carried on until 1931; his 53-year career as a storekeeper may be a record in Fergus.

Both of the Steele brothers actively supported their community, but Andrew seems to have been the more dynamic of the two. He had been an outstanding lacrosse player in his youth, and later was a key figure in lawn bowling and curling circles. He also became involved in public life, culminating in two terms as reeve in 1910 and 1911.

Andrew’s three sons, Lawson, Harry and Robert, took over the business on his retirement in 1931.

The three brothers carried on the business much as their father and uncle had, boasting that they offered everything that could be found in a big-city department store. Customer loyalty sustained them through the depression of the 1930s. When their store house, located behind the store, was destroyed by fire early in 1935, they quickly rebuilt it, using stone.

Lawson Steele died in 1941 and Harry retired in 1947. Robert, the surviving brother, retained the name Steele Bros., for the store until he retired in 1960.

Although conditions generally were prosperous during the 1950s, the times were hard for full-range independent stores such as Steele Bros. Competition from chain stores, in clothing and groceries, was becoming intense. Some customers deserted for flashier, more modern stores in Guelph.

Keeping an adequate stock also became difficult. Some suppliers could not be bothered filling the relatively small orders from stores such as Steele Bros., and the ranks of wholesalers shrank drastically during the 1950s because large-volume buyers dealt directly with manufacturers and importers.

In this economic climate, it was not surprising that Steele Bros., were succeeded by one of the chain stores — Stedman’s.

The Steele Block remains as one of the significant structures of St. Andrew Street. Though the paint is badly faded, the words STEELE BROS, on the second storey still proclaim the proud 84-year heritage of this Fergus business.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on March 16, 1993.

Thorning Revisited