Kaz’s General Store closing
Looking back through 135 years and five generations of family ownership
By Emily Hsueh
A small, single-storey brick building along Hwy 105 has stood the test of time. Since the 1800s it has undergone changes in staff and stock and has on two occasions been rebuilt from ashes. Nevertheless, it has continued to serve the people of Kazabazua and many more for miles around. But after 135 years and five generations, the historic Irwin’s General Store is closing its doors one last time.
For 47 years James “Jim” Irwin III came in six days a week to run his hardware store. During his time as the owner, he changed the business from an old general store to a modern grocery store to a full lumber and hardware store.
“I started when I was 23 years old and now I’m 70. This is the only thing I’ve done all my life,” Jim said. “But I’m looking forward to trying some other things. I have hobbies and things that I never had time to pursue. When you work six days a week, it’s hard to get some of your other interests in line.”
Jim is the fourth generation of the Irwin family to work at the store and his two children, Melanie and Josh will be the fifth and the last. They each have families of their own – including a James Irwin IV – and wish to go down different paths. As for Jim, he just felt it was the right time to put his working days behind him.
It all started with Jim’s great, great-grandfather. In 1827 a young Irishman named Joseph Irwin travelled to North America. Shortly after arriving, he began working on the Rideau Canal for Colonel John By, who gave him a piece of land, which is now where Parliament Hill sits.
When he saved up enough money, Joseph sent for passage for his wife, Mary Pritchard, and their two-year-old son, James. When they arrived, Joseph decided to sell his land in Bytown, which would become Ottawa. They purchased a canoe and headed up the Gatineau River until it opened up and split off into the La Pêche River, where they pulled ashore.
“He established a 128-acre section along the riverfront,” Jim said. Joseph spent 38 pounds – around $8,000 in Canadian dollars today – on this property. “As time went along and other people came along, he sold little chunks off along the river and that’s how the village of Wakefield started.”
In this time, the Irwins added 13 more children to their family, all born in Wakefield. As the sons came of age, there was a struggle to split up the farm evenly between them. Communities north of Wakefield, like Kazabazua, Low and Aylwin, were established in the 1860s, to which many of the Irwin children migrated. And it was the fifth child, John Irwin, who set up shop in Kazabazua.
John sold the store to the eldest son, James, in 1885, who wanted some work that was less intense than life on the farm. When James died in 1902, his son, also named James, and his son’s wife, Fannie Obre, took over the store. Then it was passed to James Jr.’s son, Donald, and his wife, Ellen. Finally, Jim took on running the store.
He hasn’t always been just the shop owner though. He’s been the delivery man, driven the forklift and was even the butcher back when the store sold groceries.
“The grocery store down the road had burnt and I was supplying the lumber to him to rebuild. Just before he finished, I went down and told him, ‘Hey, I got a deal for ya. I’ll sell you all my groceries, half price. Not only will you have stock, but you won’t have me as a competitor,’” said Jim.
The grocer agreed and in just one weekend, Irwin’s went from a grocery store to a hardware store. He recalled opening up the freezer, which is now his office, grabbing a ham and selling it for $5.
“We had some very loyal customers for the groceries... Yeah, I got heck from many people. It just happened that people were here buying groceries on Saturday and they came back Monday morning and there was nothing there,” he recalled with a laugh. Irwin’s has remained a hardware store ever since.
Recently, after much thought, Jim made the hard decision and called a meeting with his staff on Aug. 6 to discuss the closure. The following day they put up signs and reduced the prices on all of their stock. While there is no confirmed date, Irwin’s General Store could close its doors as early as the end of September. It joins several other businesses that will close down in Kazabazua this year, according to Jim.
“The first three days of sales were extremely emotional. There were all sorts of people coming in saying, ‘What are we going to do without you? I’ve been coming here all my life, my mother and father came here.’ It was very emotional,” Jim said. “It’s the end of a lineage.”
After he retires, Jim said he is looking forward to working on his passion for restoring antique cars. He explained that he has a countryside property he wants to focus on and is eager to spend more time with his four grandchildren. He would like to thank everyone for their patronage over the years.
“I built up the business ... and enjoyed it. I was usually the first one in and the last to leave. It’s been my life,” he reminisced. “I enjoy meeting the people. That’s the thing I will miss — talking to people. Our customers get to be like friends after a while.
“When you hit a certain age, life’s not infinite anymore; it’s time for me to go off and try some other things while I’m still healthy,” he added.
Emily Hsueh is a reporter for the Shawville Equity. The Low Down collaborated with the Equity on this assignment.