A “Block” of Local History

In 1959, then-Sackville artist Alex Colville completed a painting entitled Milk Truck.

In the foreground, a half-ton Mercury is making a u-turn on West Main near the intersection with York Street. In back, cases of milk are guarded by a black dog. The dog stares intently at the viewer. Perched precariously on the running board, a young boy grips a bottle of milk in readiness for the next delivery.

Readers familiar with his art will say vintage Colville and they are right. People involved in everyday activities are often featured in his paintings.

Yet there is much more to Milk Truck than the action just described. An imposing building in the background forms a significant part of the picture. Colville was once quoted as saying: Everything exists within geometric lines and confinements; consequently, his spaces were always constructed with true mathematical precision. This is very evident in Milk Truck However, aside from its artistic merit, the painting is also an architectural artifact.

On a day in 1959, one part of Sackville’s streetscape was frozen in time.

Significantly, this painting is now part of the CIL Permanent Collection of Canadian Art.

Although by 2001, the exterior of the building painted by Colville, and known as the Ford Block, has been slightly changed, it’s easily recognizable. See the contemporary photograph.

The block will be the focus of attention as Sackville along with other Canadian communities, celebrates Heritage Week.

Part of the local observances, on Sat., Feb. 17, will be the unveiling of a plaque marking its long history.

George E. Ford (1846–1928) was born in Middle Sackville on Dec. 11, 1846.

Shortly afterward, the Ford family moved to a home on Bridge Street in Sackville. His father, Andrew, a house painter by trade, was forced for medical reasons, to change occupations. In 1861 he took over the operation of a small store located near his home. Fortunately, a word picture of this early business has survived.

Imagine a small dark room complete with a rough counter and a few rude shelves, upon which were placed a quantity of P-Y Soap. [This was Pale Yellow soap designed for the well-to-do, as most people made their own].

There was also a box of pipes, several pounds of tobacco, saleratus [baking powder], ginger, pepper etc., and a few pieces of factory cotton and calico. Add to these a barrel of molasses and a box of candles and you will have some idea of the stock in trade. Such was a small mid-nineteenth century convenience store. Upon his fathers death in 1871, the business was taken over by George E. Ford.

As it expanded, a move was made to larger quarters located near Cranes Corner. [The present day Main/York Street intersection]. Eventually in 1894, a new building, later known as the Ford Block, was constructed on West Main. Here the business grew beyond the wildest dreams of its founder.

Upon opening in 1894, George E. Ford’s new department store called Lion House, was billed as having the largest stock of any business in town. When fully operational, there were three main sections. One housed groceries, fruit and provisions; a second clothing and dry goods and a third hardware and furniture.

There was also a tailor, an exclusive millinery shop, along with several specialty display rooms. By 1902 there were 25 full time employees.

The upper floors contained additional storage space, several office suites and a public hall with two anterooms and a separate entrance. Fords Hall was the setting for two historic town meetings. The first in 1902 rejected incorporation; while a second on Jan. 12, 1903 approved the concept.

For a number of years following, the regular Town Council meetings were also held in this building.

A full basement was used for storing heavy items. It also contained a stone tank to supply water for the store. In addition, at the rear of Lion House there was a small building containing a reserve tank that held 20,000 gallons of water. In case of fire, force pumps and hose reached all parts of the structure. The building was heated by hot water and lighted by electricity. Other amenities included hardwood floors and handsome ash counters with polished oak tops.

By coincidence, while researching this topic, a Flashback reader loaned me a copy of the Chignecto Post dated Jan. 23, 1903. What immediately caught my eye was an advertisement for George E. Fords Lion House. It announced a sale of mens clothing featuring ulsters, reefers and jumpers. Since these words have dramatically different meanings in 2001, translation is in order. An ulster was a long belted overcoat; a reefer a short jacket, while a jumper was a loose jacket or smock much favored by workmen. For examples of 1903 prices see the copy of this advertisement.

One mystery remains. Why did George E. Ford name his new store Lion House? In historical terms the lion has always symbolized courage, strength and excellence all good reasons for the name. However, an additional clue is provided by examining early photographs. These show a square object, conspicuously located, just above the double window on the second floor. It turns out that this was a 12x 12 block casting of a stylized lion. Such fanciful ornaments or grotesques, as they were called, were often placed on buildings for good luck. Whatever the reason, for a number of years, the block was referred to as Lion House.

We now fast forward to more recent times, when the Ford Blocks exterior was undergoing renovation. The late Harvey Mesheau, well known to many readers as one keenly interested in local history, was watching the work in progress. He noticed the grotesque in a dumpster and upon inquiry was told that it was destined for the landfill site. Ater being assured that it was no longer wanted, Harvey rescued the object. Eventually, it was passed on to his son, Hon. Peter Mesheau MLA, who gave me the information concerning the salvaging of the historic grotesque.

For well over a century, the Ford Block has been a Sackville landmark.

Known later as George E. Ford and Sons, the department store fell victim to the economic decline associated with the depression of the 1930s. Following its closure a succession of other merchants occupied the premises.

By 1959, the year of the Colville painting, the chief tenants were Stedmans Stores Ltd., and Simpsons order office.

Today it houses a bakery, tavern, restaurant, barber shop and a laundromat.

From the historical and architectural standpoint, the Ford Block is an important part of Sackville’s civic heritage.

One testament to the skill of its builders and later renovators is that the exterior is essentially the same as that depicted in a photograph taken in 1894. Further, the classic architectural lines that attracted Alex Colville in 1959 have not been unduly desecrated by modernization. There is an important lesson here for all who may be interested in architectural preservation.

It is quite possible for structurally sound buildings to retain the essentials of their external facade while permitting interior remodeling to meet contemporary needs.

George E. Ford died Dec. 4, 1928, just a few days short of his 83rd birthday.

Although handicapped by failing eyesight in later life, he remained active until the very end.

On his death the Sackville Tribune commented: The story of the growth of the Ford business, is the story of Sackville… George E. Fords life was interwoven and intermingled with the history of this community. Since 1894, Lion House has stood as a silent memorial to his enterprise.

Sackvilles streetscape is all the more interesting and vital for its presence.

Thanks are extended to the following for their assistance in writing this column: Donna Beal, Cheryl Ennals, Eunice McCormack, Peter Mesheau, Charles Scobie, Marcelene Sears, Phyllis Stopps and Fran Smith.