Jeff Green | Jul 30, 2015
The Trousdale family is known for the iconic Trousdale General Store, which is still operating as a gift store, as well as for the Home Hardware and Foodland stores in Sydenham.
However, it turns out that although the family has been in the retail business for a pretty long time - longer than either Frontenac County or Canada have been around - they actually started out in farming.
The family arrived in Canada from England sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century. They farmed near Holleford at first, and there are Trousdales who are still farming in that area to this day.
“One brother went to Tennessee and another moved to Holleford,” said John Trousdale when he and his wife Ginny were interviewed at their home in Sydenham.
The changeover from farming to running stores came as a result of a number of family members who were interested in getting into the baking business.
“There were six boys, and they all seemed to get into baking as a core business,” John Trousdale said, “and that involved buying eggs and cream from farmers. If you are buying flour from Lake of the Wood milling, you could also bring in middlings, bran, shorts, other grains. They got into selling grains to the farmer, and the store grew out of serving the farming community.”
The first Trousdale store, which was also a bake shop, was established around 1836, and for many years there were three Trousdale stores as the brothers competed with each other for customers.
Eventually, John's grandfather Percy outlasted his brothers and only his store survived into the 20th Century.
“They brought in everything that the farming families needed. There were 100 acre farms everywhere on the back roads around here, one after another, and the farmers wanted to get everything in one store so we brought it in - boots, bolts of cloth, hardware, dry goods; it all came in by train when the train came.”
In 1927, Percy Trousdale decided to do a major renovation on the family store.
“Once he got into it he realized that the store was pretty shaky. The renovation turned into a demolition and he built a brand new store. When you look at that building today you see that it was quite a lot of store for 1927.”
The store was built out of concrete, and that is maybe why it survived a fire that burned down a number of buildings across the street, where the Sydenham One Stop, the hair salon and bank are now located.
Percy Trousdale was also the last baker in the family. He used to take his son Nobel on the bread runs in a wagon. There is even a box under the seat of the wagon, where, according to family lore, Nobel used climb in to get out of the rain while his father drove the wagon. Percy also kept up a grain grinding business across the retail store until the 1950s.
After returning from World War 2, Nobel came into the family business and he ran the store until he died in 2004 at the age of 90.
A passionate supporter of the Conservative Party, and the Trousdale family connections to the party go back to its very beginnings when John A. Macdonald did business in Frontenac County, Nobel once credited Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien with helping him to recover from an illness. Chretien called an election and Nobel got himself out of bed to get to work trying to get Chretien out of office.
John, who was born in the early 50s, grew up working in the store.
“I remember when I was six or seven, with my older sister and brother, we used to work in the store all the time. It wasn't a hardship or anything, it was fun, I never wanted to go to school. Everything came in bulk. We used to bag the tea, split 50 pound bags of potatoes into 5 or 10 pound bags - all that kind of stuff. And when people came to shop they stood at the counter with their list and called out the items. We would run and get the items from the wooden shelves behind the counter and put them out for them, and after they paid or marked down what they owed to pay at the end of the month, we would carry their groceries and whatever else they bought out to their car. It was that kind of store.”
At some point, in the early or mid-60s, “farmers were no longer able to sell milk in cans, they had to sell it in bulk. That was a huge change and a lot of farmers went out of dairy. Farms were consolidated and got larger and they began to order grain in bulk, which changed our business and we eventually got out of grain.” John recalls.
In the 1970s and 80s when John came into the business with his father, he realized that Sydenham and the area around it had changed completely. It was no longer a farming community; the train was long gone, and more and more of its residents travelled to Kingston every day for work.
“I realized there was not enough business in the store to support two families, and I also realized that Sydenham was now a bedroom community and the shopping was different.”
In 1985, the property where the Foodland and Home Hardware stores are now located was up for sale. At one time it had been the location of a very large dairy and milk condensing factory where powdered milk was produced, but the factory had been torn down and a dance hall been put up. The dance hall was a free-standing structure, 60 by 100 feet, and John thought it would make an ideal store. So he bought it and opened an IGA store. Three additions later, the store is still selling groceries, under the Foodland banner.
In 1989, the Home Hardware building had been completed and had its grand opening, with a blue ribbon being cut instead of a red one, at Nobel Trousdale's insistence.
As the two stores were running at one end of town, Nobel Trousdale's store was still open, so the Trousdales were competing against each other again, but this time John was really competing against himself as he was still spending most of his time working for his father, and having managers run his own stores.
When his parents died, just three weeks apart, John's business focus shifted to the newer stores, and at that time Ginny became involved.
Although she had been married to John for 25 years at that point and the couple had raised a family, Ginny had never been involved in the family business. She had pursued a career in social work until then. She decided that, instead of letting the General Store go, she would reinvent it as a gift store.
A lot of creative work has gone into bringing in new products and displaying them in the confines of what still looks much like the store did 80 years ago. There are still products from bygone days around, now as display items, and in many of the back and side rooms the old bolts of cloth and crates of soap are still tucked away.
“I don't think they threw anything out,” said Ginny, “and now how can you, since much of what is there is so unusual today?”
John and Ginny's son, Will, has come into the Home Hardware business now, and as Sydenham continues to change, look for Trousdale's to follow suit.
Family businesses do not survive almost 200 years and five generations without seeing around a few corners to always end up in the right place at the right time.
In the Trousdales' case, however, the past is carried along as a reminder.
“One thing that has never changed - from delivering bread to delivering and fixing appliances, it's a service business,” said John Trousdale.