Core of Community: Shelley & Chris Armstrong, Clayton

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In this series of articles, titled ‘Core of Community’, Millstone columnist Arnie Francis profiles citizens of Mississippi Mills who embody the spirit of community building.

As you travel north along the Tatlock Road in Mississippi Mills, from Union Hall, past the Clayton Road, manoeuvring the scenic curves around Clayton Lake and across the Indian River, the road turns sharply to the left at a junction with Bellamy Mills Road – an intersection dominated by the Clayton General Store.

The Clayton General Store’s old exterior today exudes an informal, mixed aesthetic, with a pop machine, lending library shelves, a post box, a variety of signs for ice cream, lottery and pizza, community notice boards and holiday lights hanging off the roofline. On the inside the store is warm, welcoming and unchanging. You are inevitably met with a valley greeting starting with “hey,” an endearing smile and an offer to help. The old screen door is something of a portal into a bygone age; the store, a celebration of tradition and community.  If you must rush your purchase, then do so, but neither Shelley nor Chris will pressure you.

Chris and Shelley Armstrong have owned and run this family business since 2005. Each from the Clayton area, Shelley and Chris both attended Almonte District High School and recall bicycling the 16 kilometres to and from Clayton.

Chris’s father owned the sawmill where Chris spend many hours working during his young adulthood. Shelley worked in Ottawa as an optician.  When marriage and family plans arose some 20 years ago, the couple decided that living and working in their home community far outweighed Shelley’s commute to Ottawa or Chris’ intense days at the sawmill.

The General Store offered them the promise of being able to stay in community, live above the store and be involved with their children’s upbringing.  As a result, their son Brett and daughter Taylor, now teenagers, have had the unique opportunity of being raised in the store, which has been their extended home and part of their everyday life. The children, like their parents, have become known and loved by the patrons, and pitch in whenever store duty calls.

Over the last dozen years Chris and Shelley have continued to maintain and upgrade the location, including architectural details like replacing the lower roofline and dormer running trim (gingerbread). There is the ongoing challenge in merchandising to keep product lines updated and regular goods re-stocked.

The Facebook Page for the store proudly lists the variety of products and services the Clayton General Store offers: Propane, Stove Oil, Diesel, Gas, Hunting & Fishing Licenses, Live Bait, Ice Cream, Hot Dogs, Subs, Groceries, Meats, Animal Feed, Hardware, Clothing, Footwear, Full Service Post Office and OLG Lottery.

The listing does not do justice to the care and effort involved in offering the large selection of goods and services in a relatively small village. For example, the pumps that once stood at the front of the store have been replace by modern Stinson Gas pumps at the east side of the store, a full-service feature that Chris Armstrong tends.

The Clayton Post Office, staffed by Shelley Armstrong, has now been incorporated into the back of the Clayton General Store and exists uniquely as a corporate outlet, not as a postal agency as in other retail chains. Across the street the Armstrongs operate the Animal Feed Shed. The legendary “Penny Candy”, continues from generation to generation as a popular seller despite prices keeping pace with the times!

A rural general store like The Clayton General Store keeps alive the traditions and values of tenacity, self-determination and independence so essential for the original settlers.

As the Armstrongs will freely admit, running a general store is not an easy career gig but a tough vocation. The General Store – a vital hub of activity –  seems to anchor the Clayton community, whether in its Easter Colouring Contest for the kids, Valentine’s Day for couples or Hallowe’en for little ghouls and goblins!

Perhaps that is why the village can sustain about a dozen young children and their families who add the vitality of youth and balance the village’s aging demographic. Happily, two popular campgrounds on Clayton Lake boost an active summer trade for boating, fishing and cottagers.  The Clayton Community Centre’s “Ham & Jam” fundraisers are a popular event that the Armstrongs vigourously support. In addition, Guthrie United Church and St. George’s Anglican Church both add a care and nurturing quality to the community that serve all residents, including the seniors at Linn Bower Lodge.

Home-based craftspeople host a stream of visitors looking for unique pottery, jewellery and millinery items. While the winter season is tough on retail earnings everywhere, especially in a small village, snowmobilers are a welcome sight!

There is pervasve brand competition for the “oldest general store in Canada”.

For example, the Pakenham General Store first opened in 1840, making it “the longest running general store to remain in the same location in all of Canada”.

The Frieze & Roy General Store, in Maitland, NS, which opened in 1839, has labelled itself as Canada’s “Oldest Continually Operating General Store”.

Trousdale’s General Store, since 1836, in Sydenham ON, is “one of Canada’s oldest continuously family run General Stores”.

And indeed, local history buff Dave Murdoch, in his 2015 booklet marking the store’s birth in 1839, tentatively claims that “…the Clayton General Store has been in continuous operation for more than 175 years, which we believe makes it the oldest in Canada.”

While it is certainly a punctuation of community pride to have a general store that can trace its roots back to the early 1800’s in Canada, the truth is what makes a general store truly a remarkable landmark in today’s merchandising environment is not its history but it’s very presence. As Clarence Gemmill – former long-time owner of the Clayton (then Gemmill’s) General Store – told the Millstone: “it is not so much a tourist attraction, as other general stores have become, but primarily serves the village.”

Service to community is what marks the contribution of the family-run Clayton General Store. It’s easy to see that the Armstrongs extend this sense of family to friends and neighbours of “greater” Clayton and the visitors to their store. Shelley and Chris share their welcoming nature, generous spirit and deep commitment. And that’s something worth celebrating!