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THE THOMSON FAMILY STORE: 150 YEARS OF THURSO HISTORY

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The first brick store, 1879-1898.For over 150 years, a general store was operated by the Thomson family at the corner of Victoria and Galipeau Streets, the main east-west and north-south crossroads in the very centre of the village of Thurso. History passed by its doorstep and the news of its inhabitants could be heard within its doors.

It all started with James Thompson, who was born in Ballymena, Ireland, in 1803. By 1826, James and his father, were sailing as traders or travelling merchants along the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Shortly thereafter James Thompson sailed to Canada, arriving in Montreal. He resumed his trading occupation, as shown by his marriage registration at St. Gabriel’s Presbyterian Church, where in 1833 he married Agnes Kyle.

William Thomson (1844-1913).James and Agnes’ first son, James, was born in Montreal in 1834, after which the family moved about in the area of the St. Lawrence River and the American border. By 1844, while they were living in Cornwall, Ontario, the couple’s second son, William, was born. The birth of the youngest son, John Dempsey, in 1852, indicated that the family was by then living in Chatham, Quebec. By 1857, the Thompson family was firmly a part of the fabric of Thurso life. At some point the spelling of the family name became Thomson due to postal mix-ups with other Thompson families.

Agnes Kyle Thomson (1815-1902).Listed as a peddler in the 1861 census, James’ wife, Agnes, operated the first Thomson store in Thurso in a log house, possibly on Galipeau Street. John Dempsey remembered helping his mother in the store at the age of nine, along with anyone else who could be pressed into service. James acquired a farm at the eastern end of the town and from here he engaged in both farming and the lumber business, which included a sawmill at St. Louis, north of Thurso.

In 1866, Lot 63 at the corner of Victoria and Galipeau Streets was purchased from Donald McLean by James’ son William. Further property to the west was added in 1871. As early as 1863, a building already on the corner property was used by William as his store until 1879, when he built a two-storey brick store with two large show windows. In 1897, however, a fire beginning in the McLean property destroyed the Thomson store along with several other businesses. By 1898, William had rebuilt the store on its original foundations. This building survived until it was sold and then demolished in 2003, following the death of the fifth-generation owner, Alexander Thomson.

William Henry Thomson (1873-1952)William did not confine himself to his store but became a lumberman as well. Always looking for business opportunities, he used the construction of the railway in 1873 to add the cutting of railroad ties to his business ventures. In earlier years, another sideline was the trading of potash. After William’s marriage in 1869, he added a bake shop to his enterprises. A small building was built at the rear of his home on Galipeau Street where bread was produced for the village for many years.

Travel to Montreal was necessary since there was no bank in the area. Once, en route to Montreal by sleigh, with a load of dressed turkeys for market and money to be deposited in the bank for his merchandise suppliers, William ran into a problem. Stopping overnight at Carillon, he found the hotel full of noisy and rough-looking men. Instead of carrying the money into the hotel, he went out in the darkness to tend his horses and stuffed the bags of money inside the dressed turkeys and covered them with a buffalo robe.

In addition to managing his various business ventures, William was active in the community. He was mayor for 17 years, serving from 1890 to 1907, and councillor for another 20. He also served for a time as warden of Labelle County.

Painting of the brick store by Loyal A. Thomson.By 1900, William’s sons, William Henry and Lyman James Thomson, long involved in the family business, were now given a financial interest, which was reflected in the new name, W. Thomson and Sons. Lyman managed the store while his brother was involved in the lumber business. Their father was free to pursue other interests -- lumbering on the Lièvre River, shipping horses to the West, and dealing in real estate -- until his death in 1913. His sons made renovations to the store.

In the 1920s, the arrival of the Singer Manufacturing Company in Thurso created a building boom. William Henry added an automobile business to his endeavours by building a garage on the northeast corner of the intersection. Due to the Great Depression, however, Thomson Motor Sales, as it was called, was short-lived. It was the general store which held the various interests together.

Lyman James Thomson (1879-1964).In 1940, William’s grandson, Loyal A. Thomson, took over the business which was by then known as Thomson & Company Reg’d and which focused on groceries and dry goods. The challenge of building up the family business while facing increased competition in the town was an all-consuming effort. In the 1970s, Loyal was forced by illness to consider a change of pace. In 1978, management of the store passed to Loyal’s son, Alexander James, a great, great grandson of James, its founder. Alexander’s untimely death in 2000 brought an end to the family business.

James Thompson’s other two sons James and John (J. D.) Dempsey also inherited his trading genes. James, the eldest, operated stores in Hemmingford, Grenville, and Buckingham, Quebec, as well as in Arnprior, Ontario. John Dempsey Thompson, the youngest son, carried on his mercantile activities in Papineauville, Holland Mills, East Templeton, and Buckingham, Quebec, and Almonte, Arnprior, and Toronto, Ontario. In their turn, the sons of both these men were involved in the storekeeping business. It was in their blood!

References:
The family history writings of Loyal A. Thomson on his father Lyman, grandfather William and great grandfather James Thomson. The author is the granddaughter of Lyman Thomson.

(Photos: Courtesy of the Thomson family)