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THEN AND NOW: Coffey’s store ground to a halt around 1971

Urban legend indicates keen interest in sporting events in the 1870s and 1880s … and apparently there was 'more life and more money in circulation in Barrie than any town in Canada'

This ongoing series from Barrie Historical Archive curator Deb Exel shows old photos from the collection and one from the present day, as well as the story behind them.

J.L. Coffey Hardware Store – 40 Bayfield St.

We apologize for hooking you with this fantastic photo of Barrie Taxi next to the Vespra House Hotel. The building and its people that this story is actually about, is just to the left of the hotel. You can just see a sliver of it – the building with the diamond-patterned brickwork just under its eaves: J.L. Coffey Hardware.\

John Loftus Coffey was born in Phelpston, just north of Barrie, in 1887 to John Joseph Coffey of Whitby and Ellen Loftus of Flos Township. They married in Phelpston in 1882 while J.J. was a country school master, teaching in Mount St. Louis, Apto and Phelpston before moving the family — Ellen, John Jr. and his sister Irene — to Barrie about 1888 to manage the Vespra Hotel.

The couple ran the comfortable hotel well, and it was one of the most popular of the downtown guest houses.

Coffey, teacher-turned-hotel-keeper, was one of several hoteliers and liquor store keepers who petitioned town council in 1896 for a reduction in licence fees “owing to hard times.”

Hard times indeed. Sadly, not long after, the likeable Mrs. Coffey – loving wife and mother, considerate mistress to her hotel employees – passed away a few years later at the age of 46.

In 1899, John remarried. Agnes Ann’s parents, Daniel McKernan of Tyrone, County Ireland and Agnes Cumming from Glasgow, Scotland, were early settlers of Barrie. Daniel had a shoe and leather business at the corner of Berczy and Collier streets from 1840 to 1845.

Their daughter Agnes had previously married John Joseph Stritch of Innisfil, in 1877, and was tragically widowed less than a year later.

Following the death of her husband, Agnes took up dressmaking and went on to be in charge of the dressmaking departments at Compton and Ryan, R. I. Fraser and Sarjeant and Smith, before marrying another John Joseph — J.J. Coffey – and becoming stepmother to his children John and Irene.

The Coffeys operated the Vespra House for 14 years; two of those John spent as the vice-president of the Ontario Victuallers Association.

Both he and his wife were extremely active in the Catholic church, each holding several offices. Agnes’s brother, Michael Stritch, gave up his grocery and liquor trade to spend nine years as a clerk at the Vespra House before taking over the management of the Simcoe Hotel.

In 1903, John went into the hardware business with his son John. The store next to the hotel was reported to have built up an excellent trade.

In 1907, he was elected alderman, followed by a seat on the county council as Barrie’s first deputy reeve.

During his annual November hunt, Coffey contracted a cold, aggravating his diabetes. In bed for a month, Coffey remarked over a cup of tea that he thought he might be up to a cutter ride when a strange feeling came over him and he suddenly passed away.

The Vespra House Hotel was under new management in 1909.

J.L. Coffey’s Bayfield Street hardware business continued to thrive and, in 1925, John married his own Agnes Ann. The Very Rev. Dean Sweeney of St. Mary’s church in Barrie travelled to London, Ont., to perform the ceremony at the pretty spring wedding of J.L. Coffey and Agnes Hartt.

After a short honeymoon in the Detroit area, the newlyweds returned to 40 Bayfield St. The Coffeys settled into community life – John had a successful business, later becoming chair of the Roman Catholic School Board.

In 1930, J.L. Coffey Hardware, along with Robinson’s HardwareSmith Kain Harness Makers, Hubbard’s Hardware, Armstrong and Rainford Hardware, and several other businesses, announced ‘Wednesday Half Holidays’. For the months of June, July, August and September, their stores and businesses would close at noon on Wednesdays.

The practice of ‘half day Wednesdays’ wasn’t unique to Barrie by any means, but Coffey and his fellow shopkeepers may have started the trend here.

Urban legend tells of a keen interest in sporting events in the 1870s and 1880s … and apparently there was "more life and more money in circulation in Barrie than any town in Canada."

Of the dozens of prominent citizens who would put these sports meets together, the long list included the Lounts, Dr. Bosanko, the Sewreys, Col. McKenzie, D. Murchison, William and Henry Boys, Geo. Monkman, John Bothwell, J.J. Brown, the Burtons, Joe AndertonArchie Thompson, Mike Stritch … and John J. Coffey.

So if his son, J.L. Coffey, had an interest in horse-racing, he may have come by it honestly.

The hardware merchant, using the pseudonym "Liftus," drew a ticket on the horse “Light Sussex” in the Irish Hospitals Sweepstake. Had Light Sussex won, Coffey would have enjoyed at least $125,000 in winnings. Placing seventh, the horse paid more than $7,000 and instructions for cashing the winning ticket were on their way from Dublin, Ireland.

Coffey considered himself fortunate and, even though his horse was not in the big money, he had no regrets.

Coffey’s store, Barrie Hardware, at 40 Bayfield St., operated until about 1971.