Reflections On Growing Up….Remembering Matier’s

Barbara Rockburn

A thick slice of life in Old Ottawa East in the 50s & 60s

It was a simpler time back then, and for young Barbara Rockburn, life was an unending cavalcade of adventures. In her first installment in our February issue, she told readers about some of her adventures as a child growing up in Old Ottawa East. In this second and final installment, she paints a vivid picture of the bustling commercial scene in the community in the 50s and 60s. ” Almost everything we needed could be found in the few square blocks bordered by Main and Drummond streets, and Hazel and Herridge streets…”

In the 1950s and 60s, [Old] Ottawa East residents didn’t need to go to anonymous chain store grocers or franchised eateries; almost everything we needed could be found in the few square blocks bordered by Main and Drummond streets, and Hazel and Herridge streets, and supplied by our friends and neighbours.

When we lived at 172 Glenora Street, my sister and I were too young to be sent to Main Street on our own, but half a block down Glenora, at the corner of Herridge, there was a convenience store with a grill. In my earliest recollections it was called Maria’s, later it was Fred’s or maybe vice versa. There you could get hotdogs, hamburgers or BLTs, or pick up a Jos Louis or an Eskimo Pie. Because the door was a good three or four feet higher than the sidewalk and facing neither Glenora nor Herridge but the corner itself, the biggest attraction for me was the steep rounded concrete steps rising up to the front door. Just to scale this work of art was an achievement for a four-year old, and the prize was whatever I could buy for a nickel.

For special occasions when we craved something a little more exotic than cheeseburgers, we had to walk a bit farther – to the Main Garden Restaurant at the corner of Main and Evelyn Avenue. Their Canadianized Cantonese food was popular with the whole family – except for my Grandpa who always insisted rice wasn’t meant for supper – it was for dessert (Grandma’s rice pudding couldn’t be beat). The Main Garden later became a favourite with the teenagers of the 70s when the proprietor offered a dozen egg rolls for a dollar. In later years, the restaurant was taken over by the former owner’s relatives and renamed Peach Garden. When they eventually built a new restaurant in New Edinburgh, my family, and many other OOE residents, moved with them.

Des Matier and his wife, Betty, ran the "hot spot" shop of the Main Street strip in the 1950s and 60s. Photo Supplied

Des Matier and his wife, Betty, ran the “hot spot” shop of the Main Street strip in the 1950s and 60s. Photo Supplied

The Main Street strip of family-owned and operated shops between Hazel and Herridge streets was the source for most of our retail needs. As I recall, from South to North, there was Matier’s Confectionery; a barber shop complete with the spinning red, white and blue pole (this little girl was given a booster board straddled across the arms of the huge barbers’ chair when I was brought there for my bowl cuts); the alley way (a great short cut for kids racing to Matier’s); Noffke Press – a family-run printing shop; Mike’s Luncheonette; and finally, Nelson Drugs, at the South West corner of Hazel and Main.

Des and Betty Matier (often fondly known as Bes and Detty), along with Des’ folks, Jerry and Mabel, ran the shop that was the hub of the community (the current site of Singing Pebble Books). A popular meeting spot for young and old alike, local children came for the candies, teenagers came for their Tiger Beat and Seventeen magazines, smokers came for their cigars, cigarettes and Certs (“with a golden drop of Retsyn”), shutterbugs dropped off their film for processing, and everybody stopped by for their daily gossip. No lottery tickets though – gambling of any kind was illegal until the federal government okayed the sale of Olympic Lottery Tickets to help raise funds for the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. That opened the gambling floodgates that have led to today’s legalized sports betting – not an activity that would have been condoned in Des Matier’s day.

Game Day at Matier’s

The Ottawa Rough Riders (predecessors to the Redblacks et al.) were entering their most successful years then – they would take three Grey Cups in the 60s. Des and Jerry were huge fans and aficionados of all things Riders, so before heading over to Lansdowne Park (now TD Place Stadium), they would hold court as the local lads gathered at Matier’s to discuss the chances of their boys winning the Cup. It got so that Des had no time on a game day to deal with a paying customer looking for their Export “A”s or half a pound of baloney and was forced to hire someone to help mind the store. That someone was my Mom. She would go on to hold more demanding jobs with more professional titles, but to my mind, she never held a cooler gig.

For the Ottawa Rough Riders, the 60s were a golden decade, and for the locals of Old Ottawa East across the Canal from Lansdowne Park, game day was a time to "tailgate" over at Matier's on Main Street. Photo by Forgotten Ottawa Website

For the Ottawa Rough Riders, the 60s were a golden decade, and for the locals of Old Ottawa East across the Canal from Lansdowne Park, game day was a time to “tailgate” over at Matier’s on Main Street. Photo by Forgotten Ottawa Website

In the 60s, Matier’s was the hot spot for the neighbourhood kids; it carried all the latest issues of all our favourite comic books from Superman to Archie to Millie the Model. To snack on while browsing we could choose from Cracker Jacks, penny candies, brightly coloured sugar dots on paper strips, sponge toffee, wax lips, licorice pipes, Cornets (mini cones filled with maple syrup and topped with a thick layer of maple sugar – delicious and sticky whether you started from the bottom or the top), Koo Koo bars, Popsicles, five- or ten-cent chocolate bars, or chips that came in nickel or dime bags. No doubt by the 70s a few of those same kids were purchasing other treats in nickel and dime bags from much less reliable sources.

Matier’s served up just about everything you might need on short notice: fresh cut deli meats; frosty cold bottled Cokes from the ice water chiller (ten cents each plus two cents deposit); flints for your Zippo lighter; the morning, afternoon, and evening editions of all three local papers (the Ottawa Journal, Ottawa Citizen, and Le Droit); and best of all —MelOrol ice cream cones.

MelOrols were a tasty bargain at ten cents apiece. They came in paper wrapped tube-shaped portions that Mom would peel and fit into the wafer cones specially designed for them. As I recall, they were fun to eat and almost drip proof by design, but they could never compare with the messy but “real” hand scooped ice cream served up at Mike’s.

Mike and Sarah Makhoul were the proprietors of Mike’s at 198 Main Street (now The Green Door restaurant), a combination luncheonette/convenience store a few doors down from Matier’s. I have yet to taste a hamburger as good as Sarah’s. Or sipped a better milkshake. Mike and Sarah’s kids were around the same age as my sister, and she would often hang out with them after school while they were doing their homework at the lunch counter.

Aside from their grilled delights, in the 60s, Mike’s carried handy grocery items, their offerings often duplicating Matier’s, as each shop had their regulars. So you could find at either store staples like Kraft Dinner (11 cents a box), SPAM, KLIK and KAM, tinned vegetables, Hamburger Helper, boxed cake and pancake mixes, along with the usual necessities of the time – newspapers, smokes, soft drinks, chocolate bars, chips, and those newfangled ball point pens in their space-age dispensers. By the time the 70s rolled around and we were living at 55 Hazel, our parents would sometimes send us over to Mike’s to pick up burgers and fries for a Friday night treat. Our hands were as greasy as the waxed paper bags by the time we got home, but you couldn’t ask for better — or fresher — fast food.

Among the favoured treats of the time were MelOrols, a packaged tube of ice cream that sat in specially designed "flatbed" cones. Photo Supplied

Among the favoured treats of the time were MelOrols, a packaged tube of ice cream that sat in specially designed “flatbed” cones. Photo Supplied

Of course, Morrison Lamothe’s 24 cent loaf of Donald Duck sliced white bread was always a big seller at both stores. My aunt tells the story of the day the delivery man stayed too long chatting in the shop for his horse’s patience, so the horse turned around and headed back to the bakery on his own. Morrison Lamothe was a favourite for its specialty products too, and every time one of our birthdays rolled around, Mom would walk up to the bakery at 95 Echo Drive to pick up a couple of their sandwich loaves, which were thinly sliced lengthwise to order.

This was the secret behind Mom’s “fancy sandwiches” – tiny crustless dainties spread with peanut butter and rolled around a banana, maraschino cherries wrapped in pink cream cheese, or minced baloney and gherkins (handground by Mom with a huge meat grinder clamped to the kitchen table) rolled around the straightest gherkins she could find in the Bick’s jar. Fancy spiral sandwiches were the perfect appetizers before birthday party Miracle Whip Cake.

Dueling butcher shops

There were a couple of other stores in the neighbourhood that offered the fresh produce and protein the Main Street stores could not.

Pete Sinclair and Jimmy Craig had dueling greengrocer/butcher shops on Herridge Street at opposite corners of Drummond. Jimmy had moved his flourishing business from Ottawa South and offered Pete some stiff competition. I distinctly recall a crisp, sunny Fall day in the 60s wading through the crunchy brown fallen leaves along Drummond Street, when both shops had pyramids of pumpkins, bushels of perfect apples, dozens of brown paper bags overflowing with peanuts in the shell, and a tidy collection of witch’s’ brooms standing out in the sunshine; their doors open wide, welcoming me in. Witch’s brooms (spirals of twigs, corn husks or straw) were still used by some homemakers to sweep their stoops, but this collection probably represented more of a nod to Halloween festivities than to actual domestic chores

Pete’s shop was a magical transplant straight from Avonlea. The slick pine floors seemed to be specially designed for children to slide across, and their heavy blanket of sawdust gave the whole place the comforting aroma of freshly cut lumber. At the front end of the store were open crates of every fresh fruit and vegetable in season. Pint and quart sized wooden baskets were provided by the hanging weigh-scale, so you could buy just enough apples or peaches for tonight’s pie.

At the back there was a side entrance off Herridge, which opened to the butchershop, although it was all one large store. A huge wall-to-wall glass-fronted cooler held a collection of freshly trimmed roasts, steaks and chops; whole poultry and cured meats; a variety of organ meats (and that dastardly blood pudding); chicken breasts and thighs; and flats of fresh eggs.

Behind the case was Pete, always happy to see you, and always asking after the health of your granny or auntie. He had a massive butcher-block table to his right and a cavernous walk-in meat locker to his left. Whenever he opened the locker door to get a slab of beef, from which he’d grind your hamburger to order, you’d feel the chill waft over you, and for a brief moment you could see the sides of beef hanging there, waiting to be trimmed for the next customer.

The sales outlet at the Morrison Lamothe bakery building on Echo Drive was the place to go to purchase fresh bread and cake products. Photo Supplied

The sales outlet at the Morrison Lamothe bakery building on Echo Drive was the place to go to purchase fresh bread and cake products. Photo Supplied

Beyond the counter, but in clear view of the customer, was a large white fan shaped scale, which he’d first line with brown butcher’s paper before weighing your pound of ground beef. He’d then pull on the loose end of twine that ran from the far end of the butchery through a series of steel loops screwed into the ceilings to where it dangled over the scale. A few quick folds, a few taut twists of twine, a loud snap as his calloused fingers broke it at just the right length, the price jotted down on the paper in grease pencil, and you were off to the check-out for another friendly chat while you counted out your cash.

By 1963, we had moved to 121 Glenora, and Mom had moved on to a new job with Nelson Drugs. Knowing her to be a reliable employee and popular with customers from her years at Matier’s, Cecil Shinder, the proprietor and pharmacist of Nelson Drugs, hired her on to work in his establishment at 196 Main Street.

Nelson Drugs was a mainstay in Ottawa East. Mr. Shinder offered a full service pharmacy in just two short aisles, selection of fancy boxed chocolates (in heart-shaped boxes come Valentine’s), greeting cards, home perms and hair dyes (“Does she, or doesn’t she?”), hot water bottles, and giant blue boxes of Kotex sanitary napkins that were secreted behind the counter and discreetly wrapped in brown paper and twine when purchased. All this and free delivery to boot.

In later years, Mr. Shinder took on a partner, another pharmacist named Seymour Klein, and together they purchased the long-vacant lot across Hazel and built the new structure at 192 Main that housed a huge new Nelson Drugs (now the home of Watson’s Pharmacy). The drug store was on the ground floor and there were doctor’s offices on the second floor and basementlevel. Mom, of course, stayed on, and now that we were living at 55 Hazel her walk to work was even shorter.

My parents lived on Hazel for over 30 years. My sister and I moved out and on with our own lives in the 70s, but 55 Hazel was always the place we called home. Over the years, Dad went on to own his own business and Mom studied hard and became a Medical Secretary. Just after the turn of the century they bought a place of their own, the last of the Rockburns to leave Ottawa East.

Although I have not lived in good Old Ottawa East – or good Old Ontario for that matter – for over 20 years, I still carry the memories of its people, streets, schools and stores with me wherever I go. And I always will.

Filed in: Community Links, Front Page

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