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One of Newmarket's oldest shops built before Confederation

In this week's Remember This?, History Hound Richard MacLeod follows the story of a Main Street store that has withstood the test of time, the William N. Starr Building, and its many owners

One of the oldest stores on Newmarket’s Main Street is the William N. Starr Building, located just south of the old Central Hotel,  and later, the McCauley Block, which was destroyed by fire in 1968.

It is a pre-Confederation building, constructed in about 1863, replacing a frame structure on the site. You will remember in an earlier article that I talked about the buildings on the east side of Main being lost to fire quite frequently in those years.  

Why then did the Starr Building survive? The secret to its longevity was brick. The building was constructed of brick from the local Stickwood Brick Yard and it sits on a fieldstone rubble foundation. It has a frontage of more than 50 feet at 189 Main and, at one time, it reached south to a long-departed railway street that extended eastward, approximately where Civic Drive is located today.

In 1968, we had another in a series of fires on Main Street’s east side and I still remember the firefighter talking about its double fire wall as the reason it had survived the fire. Its exterior walls are 24 inches thick and about 45 feet in length, divided into two equal parts by three courses of brick, rising from the basement to the top of the parapet.  The joists supporting the two floors are 25 feet in length, 12 inches wide and three inches thick. Two storeys, it has tall, gothic windows facing the street on the upper floor and wide archways that provide easy access from one building to the next.

The first owner of the building operated a hardware store there, with a variety of general supplies in the north half and a showroom for cook stoves, box stoves and parlour stoves in the south half. A variety of pots, kettles and cauldrons were also on display as every household had need of these necessities, whether for general cooking, the making of apple butter or maple syrup or to cook livestock at butchering time.

William N. Starr purchased the building in approximately 1880, selling books and stationary in the north portion. He subsequently enlarged his selection over the years, selling all the popular magazines and Toronto and local newspapers. On the south side, he sold dishes, glassware and china, as well as a variety of kerosene lamps that every house in Newmarket would have before the advent of hydro.

A few years later, Starr purchased the baking business of the McCauley brothers. To accommodate this new enterprise, he extended the northern half by 15 feet and installed a huge baking oven that took up an additional 10 feet.  

Most interesting, this addition created four levels of additional space, the bakeshop was a floor below the basement and a dining room measuring 25 feet by 15 feet was constructed one floor above the bakeshop.  

At one time, Starr had 15 drivers delivering bread throughout the County, by bread wagon in the spring and summer and by sleigh in the winter. The third level was an extension to his store, while the fourth level was an extension to his living area.   

In 1910, he retired and sold his china and glass business to R. A. Smith, who also owned the China Hall on the northeast corner of Main and Timothy Street, where Stedman’s was located when I was young.

He rented the south side to the Bell Telephone Company and the exchange stayed there until 1919, when it moved north on Main across from the United Church.

Smith rented the northern part to a W. E. Lyons, who ran a confectionary store for a few years at both this location and at the current location of Stiver Vale.

Theodore Bolton, who had learned the baking business from both Starr and the McCauley brothers, sold his dairy at Cedar and Timothy street in 1919 and purchased the northern part of the Starr building and continued the baking and confectionery business at this location, a family enterprise. Bolton retired in 1945 and sold the northern half to Elman Campbell, soon to be a fixture on Main Street.

Campbell began to modernize the store, changing the façade and removing the bakeshop, and deepening the basement deepened, so the four levels became three.

Prior to 1900, Newmarket only had two wells as the source of its domestic drinking water, one behind the King George Hotel and the other behind the Starr Building.  It wasn’t until they were digging with the purpose of expanding the building in 1955 that the old well was re-discovered.

Lined with white brick, it was 3.5 feet in diameter and about 25-feet deep. It still had nearly 15 feet of water in it, according to a report from Mr. Campbell. It was 15 feet east of the building and centred between the property line of the two buildings. Interestingly, it was never filled in but was re-enforced with I-beams and capped by concrete.

A little about W. J. Patterson, who came to Newmarket in 1912 and was initially employed as a prescription druggist for Norman Rogers, who operated a drug store and ice cream parlour just south of the Old Bank of Montreal on the east side, across from the United Church.

However, after a few years, Rogers sold the business to Patterson, who remained until 1919 when he then purchased the south side of the Starr building. He added a 25-foot extension to the basement and main floor, leaving the third floor as an open balcony.  This balcony was eventually closed in to provide space for two apartments.

He moved his entire business to this location in 1920, selling a full range of pharmaceutical products with a dispensary in the rear. He also added a soda fountain and ice cream parlour on the north side, which became the place to go.

When he developed ill health, Patterson retired and sold his business in 1953 to Harvey Lane and, a few years later, the building was sold to Victor Giovanelli. William Robins purchased both the pharmacy and the building and his daughter, Anne, is still running the business, a Main Street fixture to this day.

Elman Campbell sat down with my uncle, George Luesby, and related a little bit about his purchase of the business from Bolton. It seems that Cedar Street, 19 feet wide in 1944, extended only 50 feet north of what was once Cassidy Flowers. All the property to the north and east belonged to Bolton.  

Some of this land was a cultivated garden, while most of it was occupied with sheds and buildings used to stable horses and as storage for old delivery trucks and sleighs. Since there was no entrance to Cedar for Campbell, he was left without access to the rear of his building. This was solved when the Town of Newmarket transferred title to the Cedar Street extension to Campbell, who, in exchange, granted access to all the property owners south and east of his store. This was permanently resolved in 1960 when the Town purchased the land so the Municipal Offices at 171 Main could have permanent access.

Campbell was in business there for more than 43 years. He rented his store to Jane’s Stationary on a 10-year lease. Eventually, he sold the building to Thomas Smyth, who established Blackthorn Menswear on the premises.

Over the years, there have been a series of businesses run from this premise but for my generation, it will always be Campbell’s Books and Stationary.

According to Campbell, there was one mystery about the building he never was able to solve. When he took possession in 1945, there was a small post office in a back corner of the store that had been used, it seems, as an office by Mrs. Bolton. It measured eight feet by eight feet and was constructed of solid walnut with solid brass wickets and drawers for stamps and stationary supplies.

Campbell, unable to find a use for it, sold it to a gentleman who dismantled it and used it in his house on Prospect Street.  The mystery is this, when was this miniature post office used in Newmarket and who had the franchise to operate it within the Starr store?

All old buildings generally have secrets that they guard. I hope that this article has shed a little light on a fascinating pre-Confederation building on our Main Street.  

Sources: Some Early Memories of Newmarket by Elman Campbell 1990; Oral History Interview with Elman Campbell by George Luesby 1989; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; The Newmarket Era and Express; The Memorable Merchants and Trades – The Main Street Story by Eugene McCaffrey; and George Luesby.

******* brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at [email protected].


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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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