By Sue Bryant,
As soon as any settlement begins, a need for supplies develops. Surrey was no different, and stories of the early days — from the trading posts of the late 1800s to the general stores of the 1960s — tell of local ingenuity, entrepreneurship and community bonding.
When Surrey was drawing its first settlers, roads were far and few between, and those that were available were often difficult to navigate, especially in inclement weather. So it fell upon the early shopkeepers to supply the local neighbourhood.
In the late 1800s, Civil War veteran Abraham Huck and his wife Nancy started one of the first trading posts in the area, built in Surrey Centre. The store served as the post office, as well as the local blacksmith.
Nancy was an avid gardener and could often be found tending her wild roses in front of the store in her bare feet. She was a strong woman who had a commanding presence, showing the fortitude that brought them through their travels up to the burgeoning hamlet of what would become Surrey.
After the railroad came to Cloverdale, and a larger population with it, the need for more general stores became known. An ingenious, business-minded person would set up a general store on their property and begin to sell or barter their wares.
Henry Parr owned the H.V. Parr General Store, located where the Cloverdale Scotiabank is today on 176 Street. The building was a long rectangular room where people could find a variety of fresh produce, dry goods, fabric and hardware. Parr prided himself on being the central location for his customers’ needs and made it his priority to know his customers on a personal basis so he could serve them better.
Hop Lee’s Corner could be found at Pacific Highway and Old McLellan Road, which is the intersection of 176 Street and 60 Avenue today. Lee immigrated from China in 1881 to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway, later settling in Cloverdale. His store became the place to go for Chinese goods and fireworks. He also became an intermediary for the Chinese community and assisted with organizing labour for the local farmers. After he sold his general store in 1929, he moved back to his village in China to retire.
Down a little farther south, one could find the Burrows General Store. It could be found roughly where the Clydesdale Inn sits now, just south of Highway 10. The store would give credit to customers, which was a bit of a financial burden to shopkeeper A.J. Burrows, but he did so in the spirit of community building.
During the Depression years, this became difficult, but he found that his customers were loyal and would pay whatever they could. The store became a local meeting place, with a big pot-bellied stove in the back warming up the building. A lot of people would come in, order groceries, and sit around the stove to talk until their groceries were ready.
In Clayton, at the top of Clayton Hill, lay the aptly named Clayton General Store. It was first built by the Cameron family around 1900. In 1923, Bob Curnew took over the store after moving to the area.
A near tragedy struck on July 17, 1923 when the store burned down in a spectacular blaze. All of the Curnews’ household effects, with the exception of their piano and a Chevrolet truck, were destroyed. A fire had broken out in the garage during the supper break, and quickly spread over the oil-soaked floor.
Neighbours came to their aid but, without any firefighting equipment available in the remote Clayton area, it was to no avail. Thankfully, the large gas tank buried underground at the site did not catch fire — although there would be a terrible gas smell in the area for a long time after.
The Curnews moved on, and the Calkins rebuilt the store that one can still see when driving by 184 Street and Fraser Highway. It was originally built where the gas station sits today and a hand-cranked gas pump was installed to the west of the store in 1926. Eventually, the store would be moved over to its current location.
Aside from providing goods, general stores offered important services as well.
They were, for instance, often the only private telephone service available in the local area. Private telephones weren’t common, and if a family did have one at home it was a party line, meaning several households had access to the same line. It was often quicker to run to the local general store to use their telephone, especially in the case of emergency.
Deliveries were another common service most general stores provided. Local routes were organized to each of the town centres, and, in the early days, these were often done by horse and buggy. Later on, buses or trucks rebuilt with shelving to hold groceries were used throughout the growing city.
Despite holding valuable merchandise and hosting invaluable services, general stores did not find security to be a paramount concern. The community was small and most families knew each other. However, a shopkeeper had to be aware of the isolation and risk.
Ted Goudsward’s father owned and operated Hillcrest Service & Store in Fleetwood. He recalled that his father was careful to set bells on all the windows, including one in the roof, to defy any would-be robbers.
However, one night, someone decided to test it out and clearly had done their homework. The Goudswards kept a guard dog behind the store. When the robbers came by in the night, the first thing they did was grab a box of hot dogs and throw them to the dog, who was happy to receive a treat and completely forgot to guard the store.
They never caught who did the deed, but it made for a great story to tell for years to come.
By the 1960s, the general store was fading away in favour of a new way of commerce. Shopping malls, strip malls and corner stores were becoming all the rage. However, the quaint nature of a local neighbourhood general store would bring fond memories to many who grew up with their steadfast service to their community.
Sue Bryant is a local historian and a member of the Surrey Historical Society. She is also a digital photo restoration artist, genealogist, and volunteer for the Surrey Museum and Surrey Archives.