A Story To Celebrate Vankleek Hill’s Mechanical Past
The recent closure of Martin Tire Shop & Shell Station prompted this re-look at the early history of Vankleek Hill service stations and mechanic services, and the services we have today.
In a 1902 pamphlet listing businesses and trades in Prescott County, we find that Vankleek Hill still has numerous blacksmiths: Philip Biggins, W.H. Blackwell, Hermas Labrosse, D. McCrimmon, A. McInnes, N. Matte, N. Mercier.
By the 1980s, Hermas Seguin was the last of the blacksmiths in Vankleek Hill. In his shop behind what was once the Grand Central Hotel, he did metal repair work and had seating for familiar oldtimers to confab around his stove.
In the early 1900s, blacksmithing gave way to mechanics as vehicles replaced horses, trucks replaced horse-drawn carters, and tractors took over from the horse-drawn plows. The late Lionel Mercier, a longtime town councillor, was a member of the Mercier family that owned the Mercier Carriage Works on High Street from 1876.
Lionel related his experience when, as a teen in the 1930s, he was encouraged by his father Nelson to become a blacksmith. He did learn blacksmithing and he capably worked for the family business on equipment and farm horses; however, he could see the use of horses dwindling and the trade coming to an end. He left blacksmithing for a career in hardware and construction supplies.
Lionel was forward thinking. As can be seen in this listing of garages, the business of vehicle sales and maintenance arrived during WWI, and just kept growing.
In 1917, Walter Crooks was selling the Dodge Grey Dart on Main Street East just east of the post office, and by the 1920s, John Wilson had a Chevrolet dealership at 76 Main Street East, today The Review office.
This list of garages is from the 1978 centennial publication of ‘St-Grégoire – St. Gregory Vankleek Hill 1878-1978‘
Competition and pricing were fierce: not only Ford and Chevrolet dealers, there was Maxwell, Overland, and Studebaker. And W.F.G. Barton sold the Star model.
It is near impossible anywhere today to locate a full-service gas station that offers towing, repairs and vehicle supplies together with a jockey at the pump to serve your fuel needs. While fuel remains the mainstay, more often than not, today the added service is a convenience store attached to the self-serve pumps with no mechanic in sight. Electric-charge pumps are also making their appearance; in Vankleek Hill, there is card-activated electric charger at the rear of the Scotiabank. The last century has seen a lot of change to vehicles and to servicing vehicles.
Martin Tire Shop & Shell Station
In 2020, Martin Tire Shop & Shell Station on Highway 34, the last garage in Vankleek Hill to offer a combination of gas pumps, lubricant sales and tire changing service – retired and closed after 62 years of business. The longevity is reflective of loyal customers.
In a 1993 interview with The Review, Denis Martin explained that his father Roland “Rolly” Martin first worked as a mechanic at the auto sales room of Art Wilson in Vankleek Hill.
In the 1950s, Rolly Martin decided to develop his own business. He first rented the Fina Station near the north-east corner of Highway 34 and Higginson Street. Business went well, and Rolly was about to purchase the station when Euclide Turpin decided to sell his tire shop. According to Denis, his father turned to the tire shop as a better investment for him, and in 1958 Rolly Martin purchased Euclide’s business.
Wilmer Desjardins next to Euclide Turpin’s gas pump, Queen Street (today Highway 34), 1938. (Andrea Martel Family Archives)
Denis Martin, who began working at his father’s tire shop in 1969, purchased the business from his father in 1986. His brother Michel Martin focused on the towing service, at one time operating five tow trucks. In 1993, Denis explained, “We used to cover an area that went as far as Rockland. But there are more towing services around now.”
In Vankleek Hill, the service stations offered students after-school and summer employment. Seen here is Martin Tire Shop gas jockey & then VCI student Mark Landriault with Kip. In the background St. John Anglican Church and Higginson Tower, 2009.
(Photo: Michelle Landriault)
In 1993, Martin’s Tire Shop had sales of about 2.2 million litres of gasoline and diesel in a year. At the time, according to Denis Martin, “There is a lot of traffic on Highway 34 because people are using the 417. And after Rigaud, apart from Herb’s on the 417, there are no other gas stations for quite a distance. So, a lot of people from the cities are stopping in Vankleek Hill to buy gas.”
Fina Station, Vankleek Hill
The Fina Station was built about 1951 with its signature Fina rotund office and a two-bay garage. After Rolly Martin purchased Euclide Turpin’s tire shop in 1958, the Fina location remained idle for about six months.
Delbert Barton was working on the St. Lawrence Seaway construction and could see that the work was nearing an end. The Seaway opened to navigation in 1959. Delbert needed a new way to bring in income to support his family. He heard about the vacant Fina station.
Servicing vehicles was not new to Delbert. His father, W.F.G. Barton – William George Fleming Barton – owned a service station as early as 1924 in the same locale as Nicko’s Restaurant. Delbert’s father relocated his service station to where Anne’s Chip Stand is next to the TransCanada Trail. At the time of the Barton garage, the railway station across the road was busy everyday with passengers and products coming into town – vehicles of every kind coming and going, and in need of fuel and service.
W.F.G. Barton’s son, Gary Barton, explains that his father sold Durant Star cars, an independent competitor of the Ford and Chevrolet brands, that ended production in Canada in 1932. W.F.G. Barton also had the International Harvester dealership. Gary said, “Ian Higginson (Higginson Farm Equipment) has a tractor with steel wheels sitting in his yard which my Dad sold to Gordon McNie in 1939.”
In 1958, Gary’s oldest brother Delbert met with the Fina representative and made the investment to purchase. Delbert then successfully operated his Fina business for 20 years.
Jean Barton, Delbert’s wife, recalled that it wasn’t all about business all of the time. There was a card table, and regular games of euchre in the office. The two gas stations, so near to each other, had a cooperative approach for many years – in rotation, they each closed every second Sunday.
Denis Martin explained, “When we were closed on Sunday, Delbert would be open. It was a good arrangement. That way, people could always buy gas, and each of us would have a second Sunday off.”
In about 1977, after 20 years in the petroleum retail business, Delbert decided it was time to sell.
Rod St. Denis Fina
Rod St. Denis was at a local restaurant having breakfast when he was approached by a fellow looking to find the funds to buy Delbert’s business. The fact that it was up for sale was news to Rod.
He knew Delbert wanted to find the right person to bring his customers the same high quality of dependable service. Rod quietly went to Delbert to express his own interest in purchasing the business. They met at Delbert’s home after supper and Delbert explained that there was no stock as he had returned everything to Fina. There was no equipment except for a small tire changer. Delbert had a new air gun which he kept in the office under a bench.
To move ahead, Rod contacted Fina, then met with the Fina representative at the restaurant. He was asked if he had $20,000. Surprised, Rod asked, “In cash?” Yes, replied the Fina rep. Rod said he would have to check with his banker, and if he did not have it, he would raise it. Determined, Rod wondered to himself how it was all going to work out.
Rod had a good relationship with the bank manager, and he openly explained the situation. The bank manager proposed that the bank would loan Rod $20,000 to be used to stock the garage.
Rod St. Denis agreed. Fina approved. Rod had the garage business.
Jack Denis joined him and the garage became the RodJack Fina. In 1981, Petro-Canada purchased PetroFina, and the station changed brand. Although now covered with PetroCan logos and colours, the distinct Fina look was still there.
Full service pumps, mechanics, lubricant sales, towing were the combined mainstay of the service station business. The local news of the day was available for free.
Rod later sold the business to Mike Lamoureux. Under Petro-Canada, the garage and office were converted to meet the new trend of offering a convenience store. Soon, the Vankleek Hill business caught the eye of the independent MacEwen Petroleum family business based in Maxville, Ontario. Once Fina, then PetroCan, the location is a successful MacEwen outlet today.
Loyal Customers Support Trusted Independent Mechanics
Mechanics no longer need a service station to survive. Cars of the 21st century have less fuel consumption and are lower maintenance mechanically. Where once a gas station was supplemented by vehicle repairs, today the gas pumps pull customers into the attached convenience store.
There is no doubt that independent mechanics face fierce competition from corporate entities such as Canadian Tire, dealerships, and franchises. Loyal customers are at the heart of the success of an independent mechanic.
In 1957, Armand Paquette saw an opportunity and opened his mechanic garage on Wall Street. According to a 1996 interview by The Review reporter Ronald Zajac, Armand’s son Lucien began helping in the garage at age 15. When the time was right, Lucien assumed ownership in 1971.
The pattern of father to son was repeated in 2000, when Lucien confidently handed the business reins to Jean-Luc who worked alongside his father. Today, Jean-Luc continues to provide mechanic services together with employee and mechanic Marc Duval.
Three generations of Paquette Family mechanics have seen cars change and so has the work to go into them. For Lucien, the key ingredient in successful car management was the regular tune-up, winterizing and oil changes. Don’t forget the spark plugs. In Lucien’s experience, too many owners skipped oil changes only to later find themselves in need of more expensive repairs.
Jean-Luc agrees with his Dad’s advice. He adds that cars today are far less mechanical and much more computerized. Due to so many computer operating systems within a car, owners have less knowledge about what makes their car work.
“It is so important for car owners to get services from a mechanic they trust,” he said. “Someone who will tell them what work is immediately necessary, and what work can wait or be scheduled later. The cars are much more expensive partly because of the computer systems, so both repairs and maintenance are more expensive. It is all about budgets today. I agree with that, and we work with that.”
Marc Duval mentions the introduction of hybrid cars to their service roster. Jean-Luc adds, “This a business where we learn and adapt all the time.”
Tradition of vehicle repairs continues
In 1938, the Willis Garage was a full service garage owned by Bill Willis. It was located next to the Creative Centre in the locale of Nicko’s restaurant and in the same location as where W.F.G. Barton had started out in the 1920s.
In the 1970s, it became L&M Automotive operated by Don MacCallum. Garage services at this location are gone; however, the specialty work of Don MacCallum continues at the eastern edge of Main Street East.
“MacCallum Performance offers a wide variety Automotive services. With a background in professional drag racing we know how to do it right the first time. We offer: Street and Race engine building; Modification and customization on transmissions, differentials, chassis, frame kits, and exhaust systems; Cylinder head porting; Custom fabrication of valve covers, intake manifolds and oil pans; General Mechanics on your everyday vehicle; We also work on diesels too!”
At the south end of town on High Street was the Texaco station operated by Erwin Bond. His business had staying power, open from the late 1920s into the early 1970s. Erwin and Isabel lived in the house on the west side of the Post Office on Main Street East.
Erwin was responsible for testing drivers who wanted their driver’s license. In the early 1950s, Jeannine Duval Seguin recalls going to the Bond garage to take the driving test. On her arrival, she was told by Erwin that he had already seen her driving about town, and he said, she seemed like a good driver. He gave her the driver’s test approval to bring to Andrew Boyer at The Review office, where she paid for her first driver’s license. It’s not so simple today!
Lucien Paquette recalled driving his father’s late 1920s Model A Ford to get his licence from Erwin Bond at the Texaco station. It was the mid-1950s and Lucien was only 12. Lucien laughs when he says he was able to get his license at age 16.
Pascal Cadieux opened Xtra Mile garage in 2019. He began his career as a co-op student at Vankleek Hill Collegiate Institute. As part of his school programme, he worked for the late Shorty Milcovik.
Shorty’s repair shop was just north of Xtra Mile, on Highway 34, where it was well-known that anything could be fixed.
(Feature photo of Martin Tire Shop & Shell Station at night by Gabriel Landriault)