The Store at Bedford Mills

For many of us, a store means a place to pick up a few groceries, hardware items, or clothing. In small rural communities, the general store is all of that and more; it is also a hub of the community. In early and mid-nineteenth century in Upper Canada, the store was actually a lifeline for local settlers. This segment will describe the evolution of the store from its earliest days to the modern era.

Benjamin Tett Sr. established his sawmill at Bedford Mills in 1831, and opened a store there a year later. It was located at the top of the hill, close to the sawmill, and supplied provisions mainly to workers in the mill and in the forest shanties. At the time, Tett was living at Chaffey’s Mills, where he was employed as paymaster for the civilian contractors working on the Rideau Canal Lock there. Tett also operated a small satellite store at Chaffeys, supplied by the Bedford Mills store, for the civilian workers at Chaffey’s. Following the completion of the construction of the lock at Chaffey’s in 1832, Tett moved to the Isthmus (later named Newboro), where he built a primitive log home. In 1836, he built a two-story frame home there, in which he also provided space for a store and post office (he was appointed Newboro’s first Postmaster in 1836). After that, the store at Bedford Mills was operated as a satellite of the one in Newboro, with supplies brought across the lakes by barge. Tett also arranged for mail to be brought to the store twice a week, allowing settlers close to Bedford Mills to receive their mail at a nearby location.

At this point it is necessary to describe how a store such as Tett’s operated, and how it was a lifeline. Cash in those years was hard to come by, and local banks were a rare commodity. Settlers in Bedford Township were especially affected because the rugged, rocky terrain made it very difficult to establish a workable farm in a short time. It took years to clear the land, burn the brush, and cultivate crops in sufficient quantities to finally provide for their families. Trade at Tett’s store, like others in the area, operated under a financial model much like a barter system, granting credit for purchases made at the store on a promise of future repayment. It usually took a year or longer for Tett to be reimbursed for the sales made each season, and payment was often in the form of staple goods, which he was compelled to accept to prevent his customers from doing business elsewhere. Most of them purchased goods from the Bedford Mills store between November and February, at which time they brought in marketable staples, such as eggs, butter, oats, and hay. The most important commodities were potash and wheat. Tett himself produced potash at his sawmill and, together with the portions provided by settlers, shipped several full barrels each year. Often settlers would provide repayment in the form of labour, working in the forest shanties during winter, in the sawmill, or in the transportation of lumber through the Rideau Canal. For Indigenous people who frequented the store, a pure barter system was the norm. Tett kept meticulous records of all transactions at the store, including the names of the individuals buying or selling. The records show Indigenous families trading items such as fish, venison, furs, turnips, buckskin mittens, moccasins, and paddles in exchange for items such as fabrics, spoons, thread, eyes and hooks, needles, tea, knives, tobacco, fish hooks, flour, soap, and other household items. For settlers and workers at Bedford Mills, the store inventory included all of this and many other items you might expect in a general store, including hardware items (such as nails, glass panes, putty, cupboard locks, as well as paints, linseed oil, and staining pigments), and tools (both for home and agricultural use). A variety of tableware (such as kettles, pots, pans, cutlery, cups and saucers, glassware, and ironware and transfer-printed earthenware dishes) was available. Other dry goods which appeared in the store’s inventory included tobacco products (tobacco, snuff, and clay pipes), lighting supplies (matches, lamps, candles, and candlesticks), writing supplies (such as pencils, wafers [erasers], paper, ink powder and pens, and slates), drugs, and alcohol (notably whiskey and brandy). Since most clothing and household linens were sewn at home, textiles and dyes were an important part of the store’s stock. Several varieties of clothing materials (including cotton and homespun wool for shirts), ready-made garments, and hats were available. Shoe and bootmaking was an important part of the store’s operations, and there was always a resident bootmaker.

When Tett decided to end his involvement in his various businesses in 1850, he closed the store in Newboro, keeping the post office open. The Chaffeys assumed the lease for Bedford Mills, and the stock of goods in the Bedford Mills store was included in the transfer of items included in the lease. Unfortunately, the Chaffeys, while innovative engineers and businessmen, kept few records of their enterprises at Bedford Mills, including the store. They introduced many improvements, and established new industries during their tenure there, including modernisation of the sawmill, building a grist mill, and establishing a robust shipbuilding and forwarding business. There are a few hints of changes made in the store’s operations, including the use of suppliers in Kingston (as opposed to in Montreal, which Tett relied on almost exclusively), and the use of their own tugs and barges to bring supplies to Bedford Mills through the Rideau Canal.

In January 1872 Benjamin Tett’s sons, John Poole and Benjamin Tett Jr., assumed the lease for the enterprises at Bedford Mills, including the merchant store and an office for the business, operating all of the enterprises under the name J. P. Tett & Bro. During the time of their operation, spanning almost 50 years, the store continued to operate, albeit using quite a different business model than had been employed by the Tett brothers’ father. Benjamin Tett Sr. had tackled the problems of a credit and barter system economy and, despite numerous challenges, ultimately succeeded. During the depression years of the 1870s, his sons occasionally relied on mercantile credit by briefly postponing their payment to major wholesalers, but in their business model, they tended to pay for goods directly with cash in order to receive a 5% discount offered by the larger firms. The store’s customers were expected to pay with cash as well, rather than engage in the system of credit and barter used during Tett Sr.’s time. By that time, cash was more readily available to local residents as well. By 1877, the Tetts began to ship their products and bring in provisions for the store using their own tug and barges. With the improvement in local roads, as well as the completion of the Perth Road in the latter part of the Tett brothers’ tenure, transport of goods by that route provided an alternative to the previous near-total dependence on transport by water. In addition to changes to the Tetts’ business model, there were changes to Bedford Mills itself. The milling complex itself began to resemble a small community, with several workers employed by the Tetts taking up residence with their families nearby. Community services began to be added, including two at the store. In 1877, a telegraph office was established, and in 1879, an “official” Bedford Mills post office opened. Prior to 1879, the post office in Bedford Mills had operated as a satellite of the Newboro Post Office, and Benjamin Tett Jr. was appointed by the Postmaster General as the first postmaster. During the spring of 1884, the store was expanded, including the addition of a two-storey wing, which incorporated a set of wooden stairs from its front porch to the roadway, part-way down the steep Saw Mill Hill road leading to the grist mill. The store was a true general store, offering goods to not only residents of the community and nearby but also increasingly to those who arrived by car. Gasoline was sold at a pump set up at the bottom of the hill below the store. 

In about 1924, the store and post office were relocated from the original location on the top of Saw Mill Hill, to the second floor of the former grist mill. Clients apparently found it difficult to climb the steep hill and steps to reach the old store; furthermore, they could now easily travel to Westport or Newboro by road. After Benjamin Tett Jr. died in 1915, the postmaster also managed the store, and was offered an apartment above the Victorian wing of the old store. The first postmasters (shop keepers) following Benjamin’s death were C. E. Chapman (for 6 months in 1916) and Benjamin Jr.’s son, George Poole Tett, from December 1916 to January 1928. At that time, George resigned and relocated to Tett farm. Joh Poole Tett died in 1928. After George Tett resigned, postmaster and shop keeper duties were assumed by Kenneth Gorsline, who held the office of postmaster until 1940. That year, the Bedford Mills post office was closed, and mail was received from the office in Perth Road Village. Gorsline continued to manage the store for a few more years, then in 1944 his sister-in-law, Ruby Botsford, took over. Ruby was a native of Bedford Mills and long-time resident of the area. After the estate of John P. and Benjamin Tett was finalised in 1947, their jointly-held company’s remaining assets were sold, including the grist mill, which Ruby purchased in 1948.

Ruby Botsford continued to operate a general store, which she called Ruby’s Store, by herself in the old grist mill until the early 1960s. After purchasing the mill, she set about renovating the building almost immediately. Ruby had five feet of rock fill laid inside the building at ground level, which was then topped by a cement floor. Additional fill was deposited in the grounds surrounding the building. She converted the ground floor to include a small private residence for herself, with the store occupying most of the remaining space. She also renovated the second floor, with rooms made available for rent to tourists who liked to fish in the area, and she rented boats and sold fishing licenses. Existing gas pumps were updated, supplying fuel to both cars and watercraft. It was a true country general store in every sense, offering everything from groceries to African violets. Ruby seldom took a vacation, and the business remained open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. In later years, Ruby did close the store during the winter, taking some vacation time in Florida. During the years since Ruby sold the store in 1964, it has been occupied by a series of owners as a private residence only. Long time residents of Bedford Mills will have their own memories of Ruby’s Store. One of my own is as a young boy walking to our mailbox (located close to the store) to collect the mail on hot summer days, with a nickel in my pocket to purchase a Fudgesicle or Dreamsicle from Ruby. Occasionally I would splurge a dime on an ice-cold Fanta Orange or Pure Spring Ginger Ale. On rare occasions, Ruby would even waive payment, for being a loyal customer I guess. 

John Gray