We live in a very transitory society. People and families move around a lot, depending on work, education, or even the seasons for those fortunate enough to follow the sun. In the history of North Grenville, there were families that arrived very early on and stayed for generations, where others didn’t stay long enough to be recorded in the census returns, every ten years. Every now and then, there’s a hint, a document or a letter, that lets us know of someone who passed through here on their way to somewhere else. But others left their mark in a very significant way, and one of those is the Barnes family.
Many people will remember the W. A. Barnes store on Prescott Street. It stood for many decades as a reminder of the family. It all started some time before 1840, when William James Barnes arrived in Kemptville from Quebec and set up in business on Clothier Street as a carriage maker. This was a valued and practical profession in an age when everyone used carriages and wagons to get about and to transport goods and produce.
W. J. Barnes was born around 1810 and was married to Maryann, seven years his junior. They had a large family after they settled in Kemptville, with four or five sons and four daughters. He must have been prospering in his business, as the 1851 census lists a servant living in the house, Almira Mat, aged 14. The sons entered into their father’s business for a time, but three or four eventually moved to California. The daughters, as they say, married well, becoming linked to some of the leading families in the area.
Alexander, the youngest son, spent some time “out west”, which may have been California, as when he returned to Kemptville in 1878 he opened the California Tin Shop, operating as a stove and tinware merchant on Prescott Street. But in 1888, Alexander and his wife, Lily Shaver returned to California with their four children because of Alex’s poor health. There he died in 1901 at the age of just 49. It was most likely tuberculosis that afflicted him, as it did so many in the Nineteenth Century.
His store on Prescott Street was taken over by his brother, William A. Barnes, who gave his name to the store which remained in business until it burned down in November, 1973. That is a remarkable record: over 100 years in business, aside from a short period after the Great Fire of May, 1872, which destroyed all of Prescott Street. By the time W. A. Barnes had taken over the business, his father was dead. The patriarch, William James Barnes, died in 1887, aged 76, and is buried in St. James cemetery in Kemptville. His widow moved in with W. A., and died in 1892, also aged 76, and is buried beside her husband.
Mary Jane Ballance, William A.’s wife, was ten years younger than her husband, and at the age of 19 already had a son, also called William. They eventually had six children, and when he retired in 1923, the business was taken over by his sons, John Leslie and Harvey, who continued in partnership until Harvey bought out his brother in 1948. W. A. Barnes served on the Kemptville Village Council and played a prominent role in the business and social life of the community. He died in 1943, and Mary Jane followed him five years later. They lived on Clothier Street, and the family business remained on the site first purchased by Alexander in 1878, where they provided heating, plumbing and electrical service, as well as selling hardware and electronic goods. There was also a warehouse located on Water Street. In all, W. A. Barnes & Sons employed fourteen local residents.
The fire was noticed by a neighbouring businessman who alerted the authorities and managed to evacuate tenants living above the store. The blaze took more than eight hours to get under control, but the firefighters prevented it spreading to the neighbouring buildings. The building was completely destroyed, but, most tragic, a firefighter from the Edwardsburg Fire Department, Bert Montgomery, took ill and died after being taken to the Kemptville Hospital. The Edwardsburg men had arrived to help fight the fire, as did an off-duty firefighter from Ottawa, in town visiting friends, who borrowed a coat and helmet and joined the battle for three hours.
It was the end of a business that had been a landmark on Prescott Street for so long. But the family remained and are one of the pioneers of North Grenville who laid the foundations for the community in which we live today.