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REMEMBER THIS: The life of a travelling shoe salesman (4 photos)

For several generations of the Griffiths family, their sole occupation was selling footwear

W.A. Griffiths would have covered many miles on the road, but perhaps not quite as many as his father.

Based in Toronto, John Griffiths had started out as a saddler, but adopted the life of a commercial traveler around 1865.

The Northern Advance of July 27, 1922 described his working conditions.

“He covered the territory north to North Bay, west to Shelburne and Owen Sound, the country around Midland as well as the Midland division. In those early days, trips were made by driving (horse and carriage), averaged 125 miles and lasted 12 to 15 weeks with no getting home for the week-end.”

John Griffiths’ route likely included travelling by foot as well as the occasional use of a boat or canoe over several portages.

The Griffiths family moved to Barrie in 1870. In 1880, as John continued his nomadic career, he suffered a broken leg while leaving a shop in Kleinburg, Ont. His son, William Alexander (known as W.A.), took over his route. W.A. had started off as a teen messenger boy for W.B. Hamilton Co., the same shoe company that employed his father

William Brown Hamilton, the founder of that company, arrived in Toronto in 1848. By 1860, he was manufacturing shoes at 15-17 Front St., in Toronto, the site of the present-day Meridian Hall. Eventually, the W.B. Hamilton Co. was involved in manufacturing, wholesale, retail and the door-to-door sales of their footwear.

When W.A. Griffiths retired from travelling life in 1917, at the age of 60, he had been selling for the Hamilton Co. for 37 years, but had been employed with them for a decade longer than that. His replacement was none other than his own son, William Durham (W.D.) Griffiths.

The once-popular, bi-monthly industry publication Shoe & Leather Journal showcased the Griffiths' story that year as three generations of a family covering the same route for 52 years was considered an amazing feat.

W.A. Griffiths had married a Barrie girl, Adelia Durham, the daughter of lumberman John Durham, who ran a saw mill at the head of the bay during the town’s earliest days. The Griffiths family spent a number of years in Toronto, but returned to Barrie around 1900 and resided at 72 Maple Ave.

W.D., the third generation of travelling shoe salesmen, stopped wandering in 1932 and opened, not surprisingly, a shoe store. The venture was short-lived as Mr. Griffiths began to suffer health problems. He gave up the shop in 1936 and retired to sell insurance from home. In 1940, he died from a sudden heart attack. He was 44 years old.

During the 1930s, the economic effects of the Depression caused a great variety of retailers to struggle to pay their suppliers. One of those in difficulty was W.D. Griffiths’ former shop at 58 Dunlop St. E., which had only recently been taken over by the M.W. Locke Shoe Company.

One of the shoe outfits that was not suffering was the W.B. Hamilton Co. They were finding success by buying up other shoe companies and retailers who had defaulted on payments, and one of them was what had briefly been W.D. Griffiths’ shop.

The W.B. Hamilton Co. created a new brand to encompass all of their new acquisitions – Walkwel Shoes. This shoe shop was a fixture of downtown Barrie for decades and is well remembered.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.

Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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