THE END OF AN ERA
by Mel Robertson
By Mel Robertson
THE RECENT SALE OF Sprawl's store and the residence north of it marks the end of one of Burford's oldest and finest family businesses and a change in two of its most historic houses.
Sprawl's Store - was built in 1855 at the northeast corner of King Street and Maple Avenue in Bur-ford. It was not the first building to occupy the site for there are references to a blacksmith shop in the approximate area and it is possible that the little one-storey building that stood east of the store may have pre-dated it. There is also the possibility that the north part of the store that projects a few feet into Maple Avenue may be of earlier construction. Then to add to the problem is the fact that in the late 1800s my grandfather C.N. Woodin moved a number of buildings to the King St.-Maple Ave. area from other places in the township and these may have been older.
The builder cannot be determined with accuracy but the first proprietors were Capt. Joseph Loney and Lieut. Henry Kirkland two local militia officers. Unfortunately these men got their business off on the wrong foot for shortly after the store opened they were charged under By-Law 42 with selling liquor illegally. They were tried before local Justice-of-the-Peace Lawrence Daniels and were assessed, what was then, the staggering fine of $100 and costs. They appealed the case to the Quarter Sessions of Peace in Brantford but lost their appeal. This resulted in additional costs that forced them into bankruptcy.
However, all was not lost for in 1856 a meeting was held in the store which resulted in the formation of Burford's first militia cavalry unit. This squadron brought much fame to the area by being declared, at one time, to be Ontario's finest militia cavalry unit and being chosen on two occasions to provide Royal escorts.
On the demise of Loney & Kirkland ownership the store was taken over by Alfred Watt, a Brantford wholesaler of groceries who presumably took over to protect his interest in debts that had accumulated.
It is not known if Watt actually operated the business but in 1861 or 62 Henry Cox became owner and was noted in Brant County Gazetteers of the day as a "general merchant, dealer in dry goods, find medicines." Henry Cox was to become one of Burford's most distinguished citizens being active in most phases of local business, religious and fraternal life, who, as an official of the local Temperance Society, was not apt to violate By-Law 42. Later in life Cox became the local Justice of the Peace, Clerk of the Local Division Court, Assignee, Conveyancer and Issuer of Marriage Licenses. His store at the corner of King and Maple in Bur-ford was a large business which along with Francis T. Cox's "Cheap Cash Store" in Harley, were probably the two largest general stores in Burford Township in the late 1800s.
Cox was an aggressive and innovative storekeeper whose ads in the 1886 "Burford Times" were considerably different from those of other merchants. For example, on April 9,1886 the Cox ad consisted of a one-banner headline which announced in two inch letters "A GOOD CUP OF TEA" from Japanese spring tea. He was aided in his advertising by the editor of the "Times" who would insert little Cox notices among his personal news items such as "Henry Cox has just received 15 barrels of good sugar", or on April 9, 1886 "Henry Cox has received 25 chests of tea".
In addition to his storekeeping, Henry Cox operated the local post office in the store and on May 21, 1874 it became the terminus of Burford's first telegraph connection with Brantford. this was considered to be an adjunct to the postal service and was greeted with great enthusiasm. It also aroused the interest of Alexander Melville Bell (A.G.'s father) who was seeking a new telegraph line on which he could conduct experiments in the transmission of music via the telephone. Consequently, or Jan. 24, 1878 the store and Cox's house north' of it, became the scene of Bell's first at none as a medium for entertainment. This test employed about 30 telephones in the Cox residence that were attached to the telegraph line in the store. The other end of the line employed a similar number of phones at the Bell residence on Tutela Heights. Choirs were assembled at both points and choruses and solos were exchanged. The experiments continued over several years and my mother took part in some of the later tests. She said that the experiments were not a success for whereas the voices could be heard, they sounded as if the people were singing under water. The Brantford paper gave considerable coverage to these experiments including a picture of Henry Cox. Anyone seeking further information about these experiments should consult my story "TEL-E-PHONE STORY" that appeared in the "Advance" and the Bell Telephone magazine a few years ago. There is also a rumour, which cannot be verified, that the first long distance telephone call took place between Burford and Brantford and not between that city and Paris. However, despite the failure of A.M. Bell's experiments, the Bell Telephone Company maintained an association with the store and in 1899, when Tom Mclntee was store proprietor, Bell archives show that the first Burford toll office and switchboard were established in the store with one line reserved for long distance calls.
During the Cox occupancy the store was the scene of a mysterious death. The Cox family lived above the store and Mrs. Cox, like many other Burford women, employed a cleaning woman once a week. One day the woman brought her little daughter with her. At the end of the day the little girl could not be found and intensive searches did not locate her. Finally, next day her body was found in a cistern of Cox's downstairs summer kitchen. It was presumed that the cistern trap-door had been opened to draw cleaning water and in some way the child had fallen in. The fall had not been noticed and any cries would not have been heard by her mother or Mrs. Cox on the upper floor. The trap-door had been closed before anyone had noticed that the child was in the cistern. The Cox family was very upset not only by the accident but also by the fact that they had eaten their supper in the summer kitchen without knowing that the child's body was in the cistern right under their table.
Henry Cox sold the store in the late 1800s and was succeeded by Tom Mclntee whose chloroform-enduced death at his home west of Burford resulted in an inquest known as "The Sun-nymeade case". Following Mclntee's short tenure the store was owned by a Mr. Meredith and then by A.G. Ludlow one of the founders of Ludlow's Clothing Store in Brantford. Then around the turn of the century the store found a more permanent owner in Frank Miller and soon his cheery ads were adorning the "Advance". One such ad dated April 19,1904 reads as follows: "Mrs. Brown -Where did you get that good up of tea? Mrs. Mith - At F.A. Miller's. He sells the best of everything."
On the night of June 18, 1904 the store narrowly escaped destruction in the great fire that destroyed nine buildings east of it. The building was saved through the heroic efforts of Rory Johnson, my uncle Mel Woodin and other men who lay on the roof of the little building east of the store drenching the roof and themselves, with water passed to them by a hard-working bucket-brigade. All the men involved lost all their hair and eye-brows but were able to prevent the fire from moving westward.
In 1917 Percy Sprowl came from Norwich and purchased the business. In 1935 Mr. Sprowl demolished the little insurance office east of the store and expanded his business. Then in 1960 he purchased Silverthorne's general store and combined it with the rest of his property to form the present general store and Stedman's department store. On Percy Sprawl's death his son Bill took over the business and has operated it very successfully ever since.
During the late 1920s when the Great Depression was in full career and people were hard-up to make ends meet, Sprawl's store was the scene of a number of nocturnal robberies. My father owned the store east of Sprawl's and we lived in the upper apartment. My bedroom faced on the lane that ran between the two buildings. One summer night at about 3 a.m. I was awakened by a noise in the lane. Looking from my darkened bedroom known Burford men removing goods from Sprowl's warehouse. I knew the men well and had seen several at church. When the robbery was reported next day I told my father that I could identify the robbers. He told me to keep my mouth shut as no one would believe that the men were robbers and woujd not give much attention to what an 11 year old boy claimed to have seen at 3 a.m. I kept my mouth shut but always felt strange when I met these men in church or on the street. All are dead now and no relatives remain in the community. Looking back and remembering the trouble my father had experienced in the Depression when people he had known for years had no money to pay for the food they needed, I realize that the people concerned in the robbery may have been desperate for food and chose Sprawl's store as there was no one living over it at night.
Apart from general mer-chandising Sprowl's building has housed a number of other businesses. At one time Henry Cox maintained an office at the north end and later this was the site of C.F. Saunders' insurance office, travel bureau and Notary Public office. To the east the little building was used as a meat market an F.A. Miller's insurance office.
No. 3, Maple Avenue North - was built by Henry Cox as a residence after he sold the store. He was still local post master and established a little post office in a small building that stood where the road to the parking lot now exists. This building was the scene of Dr. Robert Harbottle's shooting of Herm Stuart, a man he thought was harassing him. The house itself was the site of most of A.M. Bell's experiments in transmitting music by telephone and the grounds were used in the early 1900s for the Burford Brass Band Promenade Concerts.
After the house was vacated by the Cox family it became the residence of Herb Hanmer, an internationally known breeder of Shropshire sheep and one of the sons of H.G. Hanmer of Mt. Vernon who was also known all over North America as a sheep breeder and as President of the Dominion Sheep Breeders Association. Mr. & Mrs. Hanmer were active in all phases of village life and their children Frances, Gladys, Lloyd and Arnold led many area musical and athletic groups.
After the Hanmers moved from the house it was occupied by a number of families including the Sutors and the Kellys and housed small businesses such as a beauty parlor and a furniture refinishing shop.
And so as Lord Tennyson wrote many years ago, "The old order chan-geth yielding place to new" and for the first
of "Sprawl1 will not be seen at the main corner of Bur-ford. Those of us who have known Chris and Bill Sprowl over the years will wish them good health and happiness in their retirement. We will also welcome new faces at the corner with the hope that the Sprowl tradition of friendly service will be maintained.
This article has been prepared from information obtained from the Public Archives, Ottawa, the Ontario Archives, the Bell Telephone Archives, old copies of the Burford "Times" and "Advance", the Brant County Gazetteer, old cemetery records, R.C. Muir's 'Military and Political History of Burford", old Brantford "Expositors", my mother's diaries and old local sale bills.
I would like to thank the following for bits of valuable information I have gathered over the years -Chris Sprowl, Bill Sprowl, Roy Miles, Clayton Barker, Muriel Miller, the late Glad Wedge, George Messecar, Jack Spicer and others.