Lifelong area resident wins fame as oldest IGA employee in Canada.
John L. Erskine – 27 Febuary 1897/26 December 1992 – 95 years.
By Joe Banks, Gazette Editor:
Johnny Erskine pulls another head of celery from the basket and, without losing rhythm, pitches a browning stalk in to the “old” pile.
“If I wasn’t at work I’d be dead,” he says with his trademark grin. “I get tired of sleeping, tired of eating and sitting around. I like to keep busy.”
And though the man works away on this day as if it were any other back in the produce preparation room at the Almonte IGA, he’s aware of the interviewer, and cocks his brow higher with each passing question.
“I think you’ve got more writing there than you know what to do with,” Johnny says, looking from the celery stalk to the interviewer’s face and back.
And then he flashes that grim that’s been with him for all of his years, which officially add up to 90 this Friday, Feb 27th, modestly waving off his celebrity status as the oldest IGA employee in Canada and likely North America, if anybody’s counting.
It’s an exciting day for John. A reporter from the Loeb Gazette, the company’s newsletter, and the local press were up to see him earlier in the day at his house on Union street.
There, he talked about all that he’d seen, all the changes to the store, the town and himself. He’s a walking advertisement against mandatory retirement, this remarkable man who still, as a valued member of the IGA staff working 20 hours a week, can still clearly remember dates, places and names as if they were written on a piece of paper in front of him.
His interviewers could only blink and shake their heads when he told them about the buck he shot this past fall while out deer hunting. And that he got a perfect score on the renewal test to update his driver’s license. And he only needs glasses to drive.
He tells his story hesitatingly, walking back and forth from his bedroom to dig out his collection of photographs that help to spur his memory,
Born in 1897 near Clayton, Johnny’s earliest memories in the service business go back to when he was a young teenager of 14. Hard, backbreaking labor was the name of the game, but for a Lanark County boy eager to work, it was a challenge.
With wagon and team of horses, the boy drew 40 – 100 pound bags of flour for Wylie’s Flour Mills to locations all around Almonte, and as a driver was expected to then, unload them.
“I could remember shoulder those and walk to the house for my dad,” John recollected. Other equally burdensome loads included boxes of cheese weighing 95 pounds each and coarse salt weighing 150 pounds per bag. And then there was the wood that John cut and delivered, about 4,000 face cord a year to locations all over the area.
When he wasn’t drawing for Wylie’s, John toiled on the family farm. His dad bought the Clayton General Store, now Gemmill’s Store, 1902.
From 1920 until his father died in 1932, young John made his keep in the winter too, cutting ice blocks with Harold Robertson. The men supplied all of Almonte’s homes as well as Louis Peterson’s ice cream plant, to the tune of 11,000 blocks a year.
Each block weighed about 250 pounds and took both men with ice tongs to lift.
“If you can work with the water, they just pop out,” says John, explaining that a delicate balance between the pressure of the water and the weight of the block had to be established to prevent the ice from flooding around the cutting site.
After his father died in the early depression years of 1932, John took over the ownership of the store. They were tough times. Little money was in circulation, but people bartered for what they had.
They were years when, as John’s own accounting books attest, customers could buy a gallon of coal oil for 25 cents and a “roll” of bread, seven cents. You could get six face cord of wood for $30. That was a very tradable commodity to be used, of course, for fuel. At the bottom of one of his account books a notation reads after a total of $109.90, “Credit on wood got from Lee – $20.”
“I took wood for groceries,” John remembers of his days as proprietor of the Clayton store.
“You just had to make a living then.” He reflects with a touch of emotion in his voice. “Nowadays they look after you if you’re not. I wish some of the younger people could see what we went through then, but I wouldn’t want to go back through it again.”
Despite the tough times, other business opportunities didn’t go by unnoticed. When the Almonte Fur Farmer’s Co-Op, out of which the IGA now operates, went bankrupt in 1947, he bought it. The stone building on the corner of the Heritage Mall parking lot and Mill Street was a cold storage plant, equipped with over 500 lockers in use for storage of meat and government butter supplies.
Asked why he decided to buy, John quips, “Well, when I went down the street, I didn’t have a counter to sit on so I decided something had to be done.”
He ran the business until 1952 when he converted it to a grocery operation. In 1954, he became affiliated with IGA through Loeb Inc., and ran the store with the help of Howard Boal and Norman Hutt until 1967 when he offered a partnership to the two. They jointly owned and operated the business until 1975 when John have up his partnership in the business.
In 1977, the store was sold to existing owner Gord Pike, who is marking his 10th anniversary as owner this year. At the time of the purchase, John planned to retire for the second time. The first was after running the general store in Clayton for the 15 years prior to his owning the IGA.
But here he is, still on staff and still putting in his 20 hours a week. In a world of job disgruntlement and early retirements, John says keeping active at work is one of the keys to his long and healthy life. Include in that list the fact that he never smoked or drank “a day in my life”, has a passion for Pepsi” (“I never drank a beer but I can’t get myself full of Pepsi”) and still revels in his once-a-year hobby; hunting.
“I never missed a fall” he says of the annual deer hunt, an activity he has routinely been engaged in for no less than 54 years.
“I have shot a lot of them over the years. When you’ve dogged for 60 years you have a lot of fun and see a lot of deer.”
John also still enjoys a good game of euchre and likes to read. But now many of the things he enjoyed are gone.
Among them is his wife, the former Essie Rath, who died six years ago this June. They were in their 64th year of marriage.
“She was a good wife.” John says quietly, emotions welling up.
And there’s been no regrets. “I’ve had a damned good life. God has been good to me. And I have no friends that I can’t say g’day to.”
The interviewer, seeing the man has work to do, closes off the final question asking John his impressions of turning 90 this Friday.
With another swipe of the knife and another fallen celery stalk in the back of the produce preparation department of the Almonte IGA, so long a part of his life, he puts it all in perspective.
“It’s only another year. And if I feel as good as I do now, I’ll live a long time yet.”