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REMEMBER THIS: Many recall hot cross buns from Riddell's Bakery

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights two well-loved local businesses, Geer and Byers, and Riddell’s Bakery

I always enjoy stepping back in time and looking at local businesses that were prominent, and the personalities who ran these beloved enterprises.

Many of you may remember Geer and Byers, which was located on Botsford Street from 1933 to 1955. W.J. Geer purchased the building and the taxi business from Edward Boyd, who was our own Ted Boyd’s grandfather. He had operated a livery across from the Old Town Hall, next door to the Metropolitan Railroad station, for years before purchasing the building where Ted Boyd Insurance is now located.

When Geer purchased the business, he took possession of the building, an old car and a couple of horses. The building was a two-story red brick building that had served as a livery and garage for years. Sadly, that building was removed years ago.

Ever the entrepreneur, Geer branched out into the coal, wood, ice and gravel business. He was also involved in a transport business, as well as serving as a sales agent for Cockshutt Farm Machinery, Tudhope Farm Equipment, Frost and Woods milking machines and a variety of other farm products.

As if that was not enough, he would pick up and deliver the mail from the arriving trains several times a day. When I look at old photos, I see gasoline tanks in a row in front of the garage. Since this was the boom period for the car, to be a car mechanic and own a petrol business was a shrewd business decision.

In 1938, a young 19-year-old George Byers began to work for Geer. In 1943, the firm was renamed Newmarket Motors after it acquired a Dodge DeSoto dealership. This new business was added to the taxi business, which at that time had two 1938 Fords in its fleet.

In 1951, the dealership moved from Dodge DeSoto to Chev-Olds. They also added a Frigidaire Appliance outlet. The arrangement between Geer and Byers was formalized, and the firm became Geer and Byers. At this time, a new car body and repair shop was built at the back of the building.

A curling club was once located on Park Avenue, across from the United Church. Geer secured the old steel sheds (barns) from Mr. Bosworth and began to store coal there. In the coming years, the old barns were torn down, and Geer sold his coal interests.

In the intervening years, Bob Bunn operated a barbershop there, the Bray Chick Hatchery was located on the ground floor, and the Department of Agriculture occupied the second floor.

The business experienced a measure of growth over the years. It had started with four employees and had expanded to 25 employees by the time the business was sold to Mr. Winder. After the sale, Geer retired, and Byers moved on to a new position with Golden Mile Motors.

Both the names Geer and Byer became synonymous with Newmarket business and excellence of service for more than 20 years.

The second business that I would like to profile is Riddell’s Bakery.

I am sure that many of you will remember Riddell’s Bakery as it operated for more than 29 years, selling its delicious bread, rolls, cakes and pastries both retail and wholesale from their store and on a delivery basis.

Riddell’s Bakery had its beginnings on Prospect Street in May 1927, when Leslie, Dan and David Riddell began baking in a building built and owned by George Baker. In need of a warmer location in which to operate, they moved to the southwest corner of Queen and Main streets in January 1928.

In March 1929, they would again relocate, this time to 241 Main St., the previous location of a bakery established by A.M. Scott and operated between 1915 and 1922. This location would later host the Broadbent Bakery and the Fine Cake Shop.

For over 25 years, the building would also serve as the home of some of the Riddell family members, until the three brothers eventually married and set up homes of their own.

The family would suffer some early tragedies, with Leslie Riddell losing an arm in a work-related accident in 1931, and in 1938, their father passed.

You may recall that the family lived on the second floor, the bakery was in the basement, and the retail business operated on the ground floor.

My grandmother remembered that the deliveries were made by horse and wagon in the beginning, while country orders were delivered by one truck. As their business grew, so did the delivery capacity, with 22 trucks covering the town and two trucks servicing their country's clients.

Their client territory was, for the time, quite expansive. They delivered as far north as Keswick, east to Mount Albert, south as far as Vandorf and west as far as Kettleby. They also enjoyed a huge clientele within Newmarket proper. Their schedule was as follows: within the town, it was daily, while six country routes were covered twice a week. At that time, country roads were still unpaved, making delivery difficult, particularly in the winter and spring.

Some of you may recall that bread at that time was sold unwrapped, but in the 1930s, wrapped bread was introduced along with sliced bread. This, of course, necessitated a degree of mechanization that would prove expensive. During the Depression, a one-and-a-half pound loaf of bread was sold for six cents, but by 1956, the price had risen to 10 cents per loaf.

Their store hours in the 1930s and 1940s had them open for business from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Tuesdays and Thursdays, they were open until 8 p.m. They were open until 11 p.m. on Saturdays. These were merely their retail hours. You can imagine how early they would need to rise and begin baking if their shop opened at 8 a.m.

In many of my oral history interviews, people spoke of their hot cross buns, which were available at Easter time and were delivered fresh to one’s door before breakfast on Good Friday morning.

By 1933, it was clear that they needed more room for expansion, and the old Metropolitan Railway Powerhouse on Queen Street was purchased and converted into a bakery. Many will remember this building as Arrow Auto Body, but it started its life as the powerhouse for the Metropolitan Railway, a fact that we were reminded of when the building was converted into condos a few years ago, and the huge power generators were removed.

This would allow Riddell’s more space for the storage of ingredients, for the machinery and a garage for their trucks. It was at this location where the bread and rolls were produced, with the cakes and pastries still being produced at the Main Street location.

Riddell’s was a large employer at that time. Along with the family, they employed 10 full-time and four part-time employees. In 1939, Leslie left the business to become a farmer near Belhaven.

In April 1954, the Main Street store was sold to Russel Broadbent, while the Queen Street operation was to continue until October 1956, when it to was sold to Brown’s Bread from Toronto. David Riddell passed in September 1956.

Note that great local businesses from our past are still easy to identify. If people are still talking about them, if their name comes up in my oral history interviews and the interviewees still glow at the memory of the business, then it was a business still embedded in our collective local history. Think how many people smile when recalling Campbell's Books and China after all these years.

Sources: Newmarket – The Heart of York Region by Robert Terence Carter; Accounts of M. Riddell and Audrey (Geer) Hilliard which appeared in the November 1982 issue of the Newmarket Historical Society Newsletter

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with NewmarketToday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.