I wanted to write an obituary for a dying Main Street, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I continue to hold out hope that some miracle will happen for our small town–I really do. Was our Main Street ever what it seemed? In reality, it has always been much more complex than it appears. As I hold the pages of the names of businesses that used to flourish on Carleton Place I wonder what happened to once was.
I try not to be nostalgic, but the town once had many features that helped define sustainable, smart growth: men’s and women’s clothing stores, shoe stores, hardware stores, a movie theater, drug stores, and the like. There was a constant flow of pedestrians like Joe Breard who once lived on Bell Street. He paid a daily visit to Garranat’s Barber Shop decked out in his spats, cane, and a pipe full of Tabac Francaise to chat and hear an earful of gossip.
Often, offices or apartments were located on the second or third floors, and all the Carleton Place druggists had two glass globes in their windows. One was filled with red liquid and the other green. No one knew why, and drugstore employee Billy Hughes never told anyone when asked many times.
Later in years Will Taber stopped riding his bicycle down Bridge Street with the wooden frame embellishments with nickle trimmings. Strip shopping centers slowly opened here and there, but for the most part, the town still thrived. But everyone had forgotten about Harry Schwerdtfeger’s Wooden Indian that once stood at the entrance to his store, and no one ever did find that sign that was stolen from his store. Things happened in the late 60s that changed things, spinning small downtowns everywhere into decline.
Highway 7 was completed. No longer did people need to travel through the downtown of Carleton Place to get somewhere else. So open land was where the newest thing landed– like Men from Mars. It was called the mall. Bayshore was better for shopping with air-conditioning, and you could find national chain stores like Eatons and The Bay. Better yet, there was tons of free parking and a food court.
In many small towns like ours there began an exodus of better educated baby boomers looking for higher paying jobs, leaving an aging population behind. No longer did professional men have their clothes made by the main street tailors like William Shaw. Those merchants once took your measurements and their many seamstresses made your suit. Baby boomers didn’t remember Shake McDiarmind offering a free pair of suspenders with a new suit–nor did they care.
Suburbia was exploding everywhere, even in a small town like Carleton Place. Why live in an older red brick home with your neighbors just a few feet away, when you could buy a nice new home on a bigger new lot near the edge of town? Now it was easier to drive to the mall rather than go into town and deal with parking and less choice. No longer were there dishes of ice cream and cold root beers sold on the Bridge Street–but the Dairy Queen on the highway satisfied all your needs.
Local economies were changing as the industries they had once counted on for tax resources were closing. The Hawthorne Mill, like the other mills in our town once employed many townsfolk, and the Hawthorne Mill was also the largest user of water and electricity in the town. Then big banks began swallowing up one another. No longer were the local financial relationships they once had with customers the same. Junior Clerks were no longer sleeping in their offices like they once did at the Union Bank--and full time employment became part time once ATMS came into play. People stopped shopping downtown, and the small grocers disappeared along with the bananas they used to hoist in the windows for ripening and display purposes.
Nothing will ever be the same as yesterday, and small towns like ours now find themselves in pretty rough shape. It takes good planning, vision, and excellent leadership by local leaders to begin to solve the problem. The public needs to support and encourage local business also. Not just once a month, but on a regular basis.
The days are gone when it was almost a daily occurrence to see a runway horse on Bridge Street. Now we need to pull the reigns in before the whole downtown runs away. The town also needs good old fashioned salesmanship and marketing with some luck on the side. Carleton Place business have been up and down before due to fires, wars and economy- but nothing like this.
Can it all come back? Some main streets do revitalize -but some downtowns may be just too far gone. Is it time to write the obituary for Carleton Place? An obituary can be a compelling story of a life as Carleton Place once had, and still can be. Instead, I write a short life story today as it is an alternative to writing an obituary in advance. When the obituary is needed, all the facts of the Carleton Place are already at hand– and I hope things change so I never have to write it.
It’s not time to say goodbye yet, but being very cautionary is now obviously in order. But when anyone’s in trouble small towns all help each other. We are that very little community that has that spirit to get in and do what’s got to be done. That’s one of the facts that make small town living so good. I know it’s easier said than done, but I would like to think we can put this downtown back on the map. Let’s at least try.