Travelling salesmen in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days
James Montgomery was known as the 'candy man'
Reginald "Dutch" Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every second weekend CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns.
t one time men travelled around the countryside lugging trunks or suitcases full of samples such as bolts of cloth, pots and pans and tobacco. Sometimes known as peddlers, or tinkers, they were different from the doorstep delivery that often came by Island homes with loads of vegetables or fresh fish.
One such travelling salesman was known across Prince Edward Island as "the candy man."
James Montgomery was born in Long River in 1902. When Dutch interviewed him, he was 100 and living in Charlottetown.
In 1918 when Montgomery was 16 years old, he went on the road selling candy for Charlottetown businessman Sidney T. Green, who had a wholesale warehouse and office on Lower Queen Street.
Montgomery would travel by train to towns such as Montague, he said.
"I'd get to Montague and I'd hire a horse and sleigh and I'd drive a whole circle around there — Lower Montague, Sturgeon, Gaspereaux, Murray Harbour North, Murray River, and Murray Harbour — and I'd drive up along the shore through White Sands, to Wood Islands and cross over from Eldon out to Iona, Grandview, and back to Montague."
That trip would take him a whole week, he said and he'd stay at homes along the way that would to take in travellers for a dollar or two a night.
15 cents a pound for chocolate
Montgomery said he had a huge expanding sample case loaded with candy and chocolate to take on his travels.
"It had trays with all the samples of candy on them," he said. "You could show all your different samples."
Bulk chocolate by the pound was the best seller, Montgomery recalled — it came in wooden buckets with the chocolate-maker's name stencilled on the side — Moirs, Ganong, or Lowneys from Montreal. The shopkeepers would then sell the wooden buckets to local farmers, who used them as water buckets on farms. The hard candy wholesaled in 20-pound buckets for 15 cents a pound. The toffees and bridge mixtures cost a bit more.
Montgomery earned $30 a week. Then the Great Depression hit and his boss said Montgomery would have to take a 20 per cent pay cut.
"My wife-to-be encouraged me to get in it for myself," he said — so he did. In 1929 he married Jenny Hardy, a nurse from Alberton, borrowed $1,000 from a well-off neighbour and bought a second-hand Dodge car from Mellish's in Montague for around $500. He used it for his sales trips, and the couple also drove it on their honeymoon to Montreal and down through Vermont toward his sister's near Boston.
In those days, you could get the train from Charlottetown to Montreal for $10 return, Montgomery recalled, and he went to see some candy manufacturers to see about making distribution deals. Walking down the street, he spotted the sign for the MacDonald Tobacco Co. That company was founded by Sir William MacDonald from Tracadie, P.E.I. Montgomery marched right into the tobacco company's office and asked for a meeting with the manager, a man named Stewart who agreed to see Montgomery because he was from P.E.I.
"He was very nice and asked me certain things about the Island," Montgomery recalled. He ended up making a deal to distribute MacDonald's tobacco to wholesalers on P.E.I., earning $100 a month and increasing sales for Export cigarettes.
"That looked like a fortune to me ... right in the Depression," he said with a chuckle. "It was a great help to me, it was kind of a life saver."
They say it helps if you like the work you do — and James Montgomery did love the products he sold.
"I always liked candy, I still do," he said, noting coconut bonbons were his favourite, and admitting to eating some of his profits.
Lloyd and Donald MacLeod took over their father's general store in Vernon River and ran it for many years. They knew Montgomery well, and loved to reminisce about all the tasty candy he'd bring to the store when they were kids.
"French creams and haystack chocolates — we had a little cabinet up there. One of the fellas I remember he loved the French creams, and he'd stay late. He was a little on the shy side, he worked for one of the farmers. He'd always ask for French creams and haystacks," Donald MacLeod remembered.
One of his first jobs as a child was refilling the candy and tobacco jars every day after school, since those items were sold in bulk.
Selling tires was good business
Dutch Thompson's own father was also a travelling salesman, or a "commercial traveller" as they were called back then.
He sold tires for the Goodyear Tire Co., coming home on Friday nights to do his paperwork.
"I'd read him the invoices of the tires he'd sold to service stations that week, he'd bang away on an old manual adding machine," Dutch said.
"He was one of Goodyear's top five salesman in Canada for many years. He liked his job meeting people, making deals, and he always kept his word," Dutch said.
The senior Thompson made a lot of friends in his travels, and got to know every little trout stream that no one else knows about from Yarmouth to Shediac to Summerside, Dutch said.