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The Marine Grocery

Back to The Alf Bowles Story, The Stanley Bowles Story or The Clarence Bowles Story
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The Marine Grocery company actually existed in Fort William before the Bowles arrived there as references to it can be found in The Canadian Grocer issues in 1906 and 1909 but it found its place under the Bowles brothers who ran it from 1919 until 1961.
The three Bowles brothers, Alf, Stanley and Clarence were the sons of a carpenter and carriage builder, George Gilley Bowles of Lindsay, Ontario but their grandfather, Robert Bowles of Quebec City, had been a grocer with a shop in the old city within the walls of the Citadel for many years so the occupation came to them naturally.   
The early years are hard to sort out but the 1911 census shows Stanley, a salesman, and Clarence, a machinist, living with their mother in Midland, Ontario.  Their elder sister, Georgina, had married in 1909 and settled in Sault Ste Marie where I also found the eldest brother, Alf.  The 1911 census shows him lodging at the Grandview Hotel and lists his occupation as Grocer.  According to Jack Snider in his Shipping column in the June 26, 1963 Fort William Daily Times when Alf Bowles 'came to Fort William in 1913 he was already a man versed in Great Lakes lore. Before going into business for himself here he had been an employee of other men in the marine grocery trade along the St Mary River.' 
Alf's first business was a grocery store at 138 Finlayson Street which he opened in 1913 where he was soon joined by his mother and brothers who arrived from Midland, Ontario.  The photo shows his brother Clarence and their mother Jane Gilmour Bowles with Molly in front of Alf's store.  In 1914 the three brothers formed a partnership and opened a second store at 136 Marks Street North (Marks at Miles) in 1915 and a third store at 325 Simpson (at Cameron) by 1916.
The Henderson's Directory for 1914/15 shows that they all lived over the store on Finlayson.  In October 1915 Alf married Ethel Jackson and settled at 120 Cameron Street.  That was just a few doors down from the third store so I'm just guessing that Alf probably took lead on that location. 
This picture with Alf and his children although taken a little later, about 1928, shows them still living at 120 Cameron Street and the corner store way in the left middle background is the former Bowles Bros. store at 325 Simpson.  That building is still standing today housing a bathroom renovation store.
Clarence and their mother moved to 1202 Victoria Avenue (East) which is not too far from their Marks Street store.  If there's a pattern here possibly Stanley remained at their Finlayson store. 
In June 1916 Clarence enlisted to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War.  We don't know the sequence of events during this period, whether Clarence's enlistment was a cause or an effect of their business' decline or if the stores were just not viable but by the end of 1918 all three Bowles Brothers stores had closed.  The Times Journal's Soldiers Letters column commented in June 1917 that Clarence Bowles of the Bowles Brothers, grocers, had two stores, on Marks and Simpson Street.  The Canadian Grocer paper reported in April 1918 that the Bowles Bros., grocers of Fort William, had sold out to D. A. Gordon. 
In June 1919 Clarence returned from the war and, with no store to run, he returned to his machinist occupation working for the Great Lakes Dredging Company.  
The 1920 Henderson's Directory shows Clarence working at the dredging company and living at 1202 Victoria with mother Jane and brother Stanley, a clerk for James F Moore and Sons, and Alf operating the Marine Grocery and living at 120 Cameron.  The directory was printed in 1920 based on information gathered throughout 1919.  Just how the Marine Grocery was started about then is still a mystery.  My grandmother, Alf's widow Ethel Bowles, told me many years ago that Alf started the business with financing from a Duncan Gordon, likely the same D. A. Gordon who bought out the Bowles Bros.  The only Duncan Gordon I can find in Fort William then died in early 1920 so if that was true the Bowles family must have bought the business back from Gordon's widow or other heir.
A somewhat unlikely answer to that is found in the Canadian Grocer issue of November 26, 1920 which stated 'The Marine Grocery, Fort William, Ont., has sold to G. M. Lee'.  I've searched the 1921 Census for that area and the only G. M. Lee I could find is the Bowles' sister, Georgina May Lee, who had moved to Fort William from Sault Ste Marie with her husband, Lewis William Lee, and their family around 1918.  The most likely explanation I can think of is that the Alf and Clarence Bowles and Mr. Lee pooled their money to acquire the business and placed it under Georgina's name as the one family member they all had in common.  A better explanation may yet be found in the Thunder Bay city archives.
The third brother, Stanley, joined them in the business in 1923 until his death in 1934.  Alf and Clarence would carry on until Clarence's sudden death of a heart attack just as he arrived at work on March 3, 1955.  Alf retired in 1961, passing the business on to his son Harold, and died in 1963.
Alf touching up the sign on the store at the corner of May and Violet and Clarence on their delivery boat, both photos from the 1930's.  The staff of the Marine Grocery around 1950: Alf Bowles, Kay Saunderson, Sophie Hill, Clarence Bowles, Dorothy Berglund, their bookkeeper Zoe Copeland and Joyce Rowe.
Alf's son Harold and employees Charlie Ollikkola and ? in about 1940 with the company's 1936 Dodge pickup.  Clarence with daughter Ellen Anne in about 1950 with the Marine Grocery's 1949 Pontiac Chieftain.
In 1958, the launch of the new boat, formerly the 'Ajace', a 1941 Russel Brothers of Owen Sound 'Steelcraft' boat which they purchased in 1956 and had refitted.  Then in 1959 'The Marine Grocery' all dressed up to join the welcoming flotilla on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth's Royal Visit.  Cousins Ed Bowles and Paul LaPorte in the bow and Alf just boarding.
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This site was last updated 01/28/21