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Family-owned business established before Confederation closes after 154 years

A family-owned hardware store is closing after 154 years in business.

The Town of Petrolia supplied 90 per cent of Canada's oil needs up to the 1900s

Petrolia's oldest business, VanTuyl and Fairbank Heavy Hardware, is closing this week after 154 years in business, closing a significant chapter on North America's oil field history. 1:26

Petrolia's oldest business, VanTuyl and Fairbank Heavy Hardware, is closing this week after 154 years in business, closing a significant chapter on North America's oil field history.

The Town of Petrolia supplied 90 per cent of Canada's oil needs up to the 1900s, and the store was founded by John Henry Fairbank, who was among the earliest people to dig an oil well in North America.

"The oil business was starting up in Petrolia and my great grandfather started a hardware store, which of course sold booze and the rest of it — I mean, it was full-on," said Charlie Fairbank, who now runs the store.

The first oil field in North America was dug in Oil Springs, Ont., about 12 kilometres from Petrolia. That was in 1858 and the well still produces oil to this day.

"My great grandfather was the largest oil producer in Canada, before Turner Valley of course, and he was a Member of Parliament ... He was a man who looked ahead," said Fairbank.

Charlie Fairbank looks out the front door of the hardware store. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

The oil fields near Petrolia produced expert workers who were sent around the world to replicate the technology.

"If you went to Poland, you would find the structure of the jerker lines that we had in Petrolia, Oil Springs and Bothwell. If you go to Iran, the first well in 1908 was drilled by a crew of six from Petrolia. You can go anywhere in the world where oil is important and somebody from Petrolia has been there," Fairbank said.

The store is so old, it was established before Canadian Confederation. The store is even older than the town in which it stands. It has been through war, several generations of ownership and even a few fires.

Charlie Fairbank is the fourth-generation owner of VanTuyl and Fairbank Heavy Hardware store in Petrolia, Ont. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

"You can see the beams are scorched up here over here at the back. You can find there's been little fires and it meant that we had a rather good fire department because we put them out. This thing should have gone up like tinder," said Fairbank.

The store still supplies farmers and the oil fields to this day, and Fairbank himself still manufactures packers in the store as a supply for the oil fields.

Fairbank Oil Field is still in production in Oil Springs, Ont. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

"[Packers] are a plug that goes down into a casing to keep the external environment out of the well environment. They each take about three hours to make,"  he said.

Fairbank said he won't stop making packers or end his work in the oil field any time soon. But for now, he made the tough decision to close the doors to the hardware store,  following the retirement of his long-time manager.

"There comes a time when you pass things on," Fairbank said.

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      Theresa MacDonald has been the manager for the past 18 years. She was the first female manager the store ever had.

      Fairbank has owned the store since the death of his father in 1982.

      Clarifications

      • An earlier version of this story said, "The family-owned business supplied 90 per cent of Canada’s oil needs." In fact, it was the Town of Petrolia that supplied 90 per cent of Canada's oil needs.
        Oct 31, 2019 11:03 AM ET

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