By Joe Banks, Gazette editor — read Mr. Mississippi Beauty Pageant 1982 Joe Banks
Johnny Erskine pulls another head of celery from the basket and, without losing rhythm, pitches a browning stalk into the “o u t” pile. ‘ If I wasn’t at work I’d be dead,” he says with his trademark grin. “ I get tired o f sleeping, tired o f eating and sitting around, I like to keep busy,” And though the man works away on this day as if ii were any other back in the produce preparation room at the Almonte IGA , he’s aware of ihe 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 grin 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, il 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 ihe 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 lo 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 tea 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, unloaded them.
“I could 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 ihe area. When he wasn’t drawing lor Wylie’s, John toiled on the family farm. His dad bought the Clayton General Store in 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 ownership of the store. They were tough limes, 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 alter 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 alter 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. read-Cold Storage Plant in Almonte- Meat Locker Trivia
Brenda Craig Shewchukfrom left, Ilene, John, Ruth, Eldon, Mr. Symington, (owned the house) Brian Fumerton, Uncle Johnny, Aunt Essie, Elsie, Ray,
Clipping thanks to the Trotman family.
He ran the busmens until he converted it to a grocery operation In 1954, he became affiliated with IGA through Loeb Inc and in the store with the help ol Howard Boal and Norman Him until 1967 when he offered a partnership to the two. They jointly owned and operated the business until 1975 when John gave up his partnership in the business.
Bui between the years of his original purchase and the time his two partners took over, the Almonte IGA had been expanded and renowned seven times. But here he is, still on stall and still pulling in his 20 hours a week. In a world of job disagreements and early retirements, John says keeping active at work is one 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 lull ol Pepsi”) and still revels in his once-a-year hobby; hunting. “ I never missed a fall” he says of the annual deer hunt.
Still likes a good game ole euchre and likes to lead Bill. His wife was the former Issie Rath, who died a few years ago this June. They were in their 64th year of marriage.’She was a good wife,” John said quietly, emotions welling up. And there has been no regrets. ‘I’ve had a damned good hie God has been good to me. Feb 1987 Almonte Gazette
Other stories to read
Things You Didn’t Know About Johnny Erskine
Uncle Johnnie Erskine and Stewart Ferguson by Tom Edwards