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THEN & NOW: The Boys Block

Businesses that have occupied this downtown Barrie block over the decades include everything from seed stores to printers and hobby shops to billiard halls

This ongoing series from Barrie Historical Archive curator Deb Exel shows old photos from the collection and one from the present day.

Dunlop Street East – The Boys Block

Let’s take a little virtual stroll down the south side of Dunlop Street East, starting in the late 1870s, and try to recall some of the many, many tenants, stores, offices and apartments that have populated the east end of the Boys Block over the past 140-plus years.

The 1877 photo appears to be taken from the balcony of the Barrie Hotel (now the Queen’s Hotel) looking across at the stretch known as the Boys Block, named for Henry R.A. Boys, owner of Midhurst mills, one-time Simcoe County treasurer and a backer of the newspaper Spirit of the Age, which was founded to promote Conservative and Orange Order teachings.

Boys owned a row of commercial properties on this block until a fire on Jan. 30, 1873, forced him to sell due to losses. The new co-operative of owners constructed a block of nine stores (all but the three stores closest to Mulcaster Street were built to a mostly identical plan) which are still standing today.

Our starting point is 119 Dunlop St. E., about halfway down the block from Memorial Square on the south side, and at the time of the photo, it was the A.W. Johnston Hardware store.

By 1907, this building and its extension to the rear facing the bay was a seed warehouse, known as Brown and Co. Seeds into the 1960s when it then became Parson’s Seed Company.

In the early '70s it was the J.H. Willson Realty offices for more than 20 years before the Andrews Group took over in the early 1990s.

Today, heritage features have been restored to the Dunlop Street entrance while the old seed warehouse at the back now gives Bliss Yoga’s studio a stunning view of the bay.

Heading east, next door was the Cheap Boot and Shoe Store which, by the turn of the century, had become the Advance Printing Office and the Northern Advance Publishers in the 1930s. Between 1950 and the mid-1990s, this building went from being used for furniture storage, to Geoff Glenn and then Anders Men’s Wear, to the kid-favourite hangout Garnet’s Hobbies (they had an enormous slot-car track in the basement) to the Rainbow Makers Stain Glass/Artifact Craft Gallery. Its stylish exterior brickwork and warm historic vibe can still be appreciated at the J’Adore Fine Cheese and Speakcheesy these days.

Our next stop has at times been a single store and at other times, two shops. In the late 1870s, 125 Dunlop St. E. was home to Alex Scott’s Northern Book Depository, which we know eventually moved across the road to the new Bothwell Block by 1895.

Other plans from 1888 to 1904 show that there was a restaurant in the space.

By 1907, the west side of the shop was a tailor, but it’s not clear who was in the other half of the building.

In the late 1930s and into the '50s, Gribble’s Radio and Electric Service, then Reid’s Television in the 1960s, were located at 125 Dunlop East. Records show that Walter Scott Books (1937), Sani Wash Laundrette (1950) and Fry’s Textile Shop (1963) were all located in the 127 Dunlop half of the store.

After these businesses came Modern Carpet and Draperies in the 1970s, followed by the Simcoe Hearing Aid Centre in the '80s and '90s, until Artifact moved out of the Rainbow Makers space into its own store at 125 Dunlop.

These days, the charming and whimsical Bohemia café is the perfect occupant to complement and highlight the beautiful architectural features in this building. Like J’Adore next door, the striking exterior brickwork can still be admired.

As we continue our stroll, we come to the largest business that was in this part of the 1870s block: Otton’s. They carried just about everything: home furnishings, stoves, furnaces, plumbing supplies and all types of hardware, house and farm items, including harnesses and implements which were sold here into the early 1900s.

They were also known for manufacturing tin, copperware, sheet iron as well as gas-fitting, plumbing services and bell hanging!

By the mid-1930s and into the 1950s, A.E. Smith Furniture was in residence until the early 1960s when Mortgage Funding took over this large space. Many, many companies had offices at 129-131 Dunlop Street over the years in what has sometimes been referred to as the Miller Building. But the one constant for approximately 60 years has been Mortgage Funding — they are still there today, with Dr. Stauber and Balance at the Spa on the upper level.  

From the late 1870s until about 1907, W.B. Capon Paints was tucked between the large Otton store and a smaller Otton store front. Capon and Co. was a well-respected business with a large stock of all types of painting supplies. A sign in the doorway to the east advertised Penton’s Oyster Parlour. Sgt. Major W.C. Penton, besides have many credentials to his name, also managed a resort, Penton Villa, on Kempenfeldt Bay during the summers in addition to owning a shaving parlour, boat houses and other oyster parlours.

In the late 1930s, this shop was the Thos. McDonald Restaurant, J.E. Parker’s barbershop (1950), Western Tire Service (1952), Marge’s Fish and Chips (1961), Roberto’s Pizza (1974), Electrolux Canada (1982-92), Fancy That (1999) and now Bell, Book and Candle book store is at 133 Dunlop Street.

We now find ourselves at another Otton and Bro. store, which sold hardware and implements. Robert Gamble Agricultural Implements occupied this building at 137 Dunlop Street in the 1930s followed by Smith and Rutter furniture in the 1960s through to at least the mid-1990s. Today, highly elaborate millwork and original decorative brickwork welcomes guests to The Works.

Next stop was Lafranier’s Groceries, which became the Examiner Printing Office by 1877. In the early 1900s, there was reported to be an auto show room on the main floor! In the 1930s, the space was used for furniture storage and by the 1950s, Eplett’s Appliances then Ernie’s Bargain Centre in the 1960s were the occupants. In the 70’s, The Gallery  was the place to get your posters. Fast-forward to the early ‘80s when Rainbow Wood Stoves operated from this address until CC Pant Shop moved in during the early '90s, followed by Cheryl’s Bridal Boutique (1999). Today, the John Linkert Salon’s elegant entrance and original exterior brick present a gracious heritage store front at 139 Dunlop St. E.

Moving along we come to the James Ross Billiard Parlour. By about 1905, records show implements and hardware being sold in this location. It’s unclear if pool hall James Ross is also the J.A. Ross that in 1888 was advertising farm machinery in at a Dunlop Street store.

This spot has had some vacancies over the years, but in the late 1930s, Blue Taxi operated out of this location as did Ace Taxi and the A.E. Smith Trade In Store in 1950. Two  years later, Adam’s Meat Market was the tenant (1952). In the 1960s until the mid-'90s, longtime hair salon Giovanni and Perri worked their magic here until Gage Marketing and Printing moved in. At this store today, you can see what appears to be two of the original iron columns that were used in the storefronts when the Boys Block was rebuilt after the fire of 1873. This location at 143 Dunlop is currently vacant. The upper floor is numbered 145 Dunlop St. E.

The last building in the 1870s Boys Block was S. Caldwell’s large and well-established grocery store. The ghost of their painted sign on the side of the building could still be seen about 80 years later. By the 1900s, there is a record of carriages in this location, then furniture storage by the mid-1930s. In 1950, National Employee Services were located at 147 Dunlop Street, then Eplett’s Electric at this address in the 1950s and '60s.

By the early '70s Robertson’s Fabrics was in this store and Tony’s Appliances and TV Service was located on the lower level, which was accessed from Mulcaster Street. By the early '80s, Roberto’s Pizzeria had moved into the main street level and Tony’s Appliance and Vacuum Service was in the lower level until the late 1980s. In the mid-'90s, Roberto’s was still in the ground-level store, and bars such as Looney’s and the Nutty Irishman had the lower level.

By the end of the 1990’s Graydon’s Spirit and Grill and Fitzy’s Oyster Bar were operating up and down in the old grocery store.

These days, the 147 Restaurant occupies the end unit of the historic Boys Block.