The Steadman Story
By Alun Hughes

My previous columns on Thorold's past have proceeded chronologically as far as the late eighteenth century, but the article in last week's Thorold News about Roy Steadman selling his jewellery store requires a change in plan. This is a significant milestone in Thorold commercial history, for the business of O. R. Steadman & Son has been in family hands for over 90 years and has its origins even earlier.

O.R. Steadman
Join me, therefore, on a quick leap forward in time to the early twentieth century, specifically to 1912, when Roy's father arrived in Thorold. The elder Steadman - his initials O. R. stood for Olver Roy, and the spelling IS correct - was born in Wyoming near Sarnia in 1886. Resisting the temptation to become an undertaker like three of his five brothers, he first worked with the Royal Bank in Thessalon. A year later he returned home to apprentice with a watchmaker in Petrolia, and then attended the Canadian Horological School in Toronto, graduating in 1911.

He worked as a watchmaker in Sudbury before moving to Thorold in September 1912 to become store manager for Wendell W. Walton, a jeweller and watchmaker on Front Street. With the opening of the Ontario Paper Company and construction of the Fourth Welland Canal, Thorold appeared set to boom, and Steadman bought out Walton in May 1913 (though canny fellow that he was, he made sure Walton signed an agreement not to open a competing store in Thorold for at least five years, subject to a penalty if he reneged).

The Steadman store did much more than sell and repair jewellery and timepieces. Like others of its kind, it also handled gramophones, records, giftware and cameras, developed film and, before government got in on the act, issued marriage licenses. In addition, Olver himself, having taken a course in optometry from F. W. Mayor of the Toronto College of Opthalmology, carried out eye testing and prescribed glasses. Later, Al Swayze from Niagara Falls did testing on a weekly basis.

Advertisement which appeared in The Thorold Post, 1916.
Two other store employees were Railton Turner and Steadman's brother-in-law Norval Bye (Olver had married Hazel Bye in 1915). When the Depression hit, Bye left to become Tax Collector for the Town of Thorold and eventually attained the position of Clerk. One hopes he was not too tough on his former boss the yearSteadman's fell into arrears, for the Depression era was hard on everybody. During the thirties, Olver's son Blake also worked for him.

Olver Steadman had many interests. He served as School Board Trustee for almost 40 years, he was an active member of the Masonic Order and Trinity Methodist Church (and often played bowls on the greens behind the building), and was made a Life Member of the Thorold Board of Trade.

In the thirties, he and four partners established the Niagara District Forwarding Company in a canal warehouse across from the McCleary Dock, dealing mainly in canned fruit. The Company also commenced motor tours of the canal for visitors, but the venture was not successful, possibly because it was ahead of its time.

Steadman's has not always been in its present location at 29 Front Street South. The original store was probably across the road at 24B where Cricket's Cupboard used to be. In 1915, it moved to the O'Donnell Block, a single-storey building on the site of the old Bank of Commerce at Front and Albert, and in 1919, following a year in temporary accommodation at 27 Front, it settled in at number 29. The building formerly housed the Imperial Bank (and possibly the Bank of Commerce too), and the original walk-in vault , built by the Featherstone Safe Co. of Hamilton, is still there in the back room.

Roy Steadman
In 1922, Steadman installed a new facade with Vermont marble and leaded windows, and purchased the beautiful display cases that still grace the interior. Like other jewellery stores of the period, it was provided with two show windows, one to display merchandise, and one for the watchmaker to work in by daylight.

When Olver Steadman bought out Walton in 1913, he became part of a continuous thread of jewellers/watchmakers extending back half a century. The business was first operated by John Schaaf in the 1860s, and went through a dozen owners before acquiring the mantle of Steadman. There were other jewellers in town also, and sometimes the competition between them was little short of cutthroat.

Many were newsworthy in their own right. Culverhouse called his store the "Palace de Jewels," Price ran afoul of the law with a misguided promotional scheme, Hansell left Thorold to become a medium in California, Smith owned the first motor car in Niagara, Jones ("the restless and sleepless") established the Cannon Ball Bicycle Factory, McGeachie exhorted his male customers to "get the ring first, and then hunt up a to fit it,"and Parkes shot an unarmed intruder in broad daylight. Interestingly enough, Olver Steadman kept a shotgun and revolver behind the counter, but though he was robbed more than once, never used them.

In 1944, Olver suffered a heart attack, and his son Roy (who kindly provided many personal details for this column) started working full-time at the store. He later became a partner, and following his father's in 1965, the sole owner.

Throughout the twentieth century, the business was challenged by many local competitors - the names Armbrust, Cowles, Neale, Spetko and Wood come to mind - but it has outlasted them all and provided exemplary service to the Thorold community. I wish the new owner, Ken Atmekjian, every success in perpetuating the honorable tradition of O. R. Steadman & Son.

© Alun Hughes 2003

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