BASHAW — For 100 years folk around here have been able to turn to a Holt for their hardware essentials.
It started out with scrub boards, wash tubs and coal stoves in the old days.
But over the years, it became machinery parts, tools, farm equipment — whatever hardware people needed.
Today, Holt’s is a treasure trove of all things mechanical.
Opening the door, you are greeted by the kind of eau de hardware store scent — that mix of rubber, oil and metal — that would have been instantly recognized by the family firm’s customers a century ago.
Drawer after drawer is filled with washers, nuts, bolts, gaskets. Motor belts of every size hang from walls, and shelves are piled high with every conceivable gadget or tool that a farmer or handyman could want.
It is a feat that the business has survived this long. Even more remarkable is that it is still run by the same family that first set down roots in the area in 1905.
Jeanette Holt, 94, still comes in six days a week. She became a Holt in 1938 when she married Norman Stillman Holt, the son of the first Holt to set up shop, Norman Joseph.
Holt’s is spelled in big red letters on the sign out front, but she has never dropped the official name R.N. Holt and Sons.
Norman Joseph was orphaned at a young age and raised by an aunt in a small community near Ottawa. There wasn’t much for him there, so the aunt bought him a train ticket so he could make a start of it out West.
Finding his way to the Bashaw area, he set up a small general store in a log building just east of what would become the town.
“He used to go to Wetaskiwin to get groceries,” says Jeanette. “It took him a day to go over, a day to go shopping and day to come back. He just followed the Indian trails. There were no roads then.”
The three big sellers were flour, sugar and coal oil.
When the enterprising Norman heard the railway was coming and the nearby community was being surveyed, he quickly bought four lots and the business that became N.J. Holt and Sons was born.
Bashaw will mark its 100th anniversary next year and a big party is planned for August.
By 1912, Norman Joseph was married and soon had three sons. As his family grew, so did the business.
The Holts branched out into trucking and the firm has claim as the oldest trucking firm in Alberta and established the first line from Bashaw to Edmonton. Holt trucks hauled wholesale food from 1932 until a couple of years ago.
Holt trucks are still on the road, now hauling grain.
The Holt boys loved to hang around the store. But when a customer came in, their dad would bark out “23 skidoo!” to send them packing.
Jeanette was a girl of 19 when she moved from Camrose to Bashaw in 1935 and found work at a dry grocer on the main street. Her future husband worked in the store across the way.
“When I first came to Bashaw, the cars were parked in the middle of the street and we had wooden sidewalks.
“The stores weren’t busy during the week, but on Saturday night you couldn’t walk on the sidewalk there were so many people.”
Jeanette remembers that their store had to stay open until the early hours of Sunday morning because farm wives would come into town, buy what they needed and leave it at the store while they went out to the theatre or the local hotel.
Only when they were done socializing would they come back to the store to pick up their goods and head back to their farms in the surrounding area.
Beginning in the war years, the Holts embarked on a new adventure, building airports across Alberta and into B.C. Jeanette recalls moving 13 times in one year.
An avid softball player with the Calgary Chinooks, the young wife and mother caught the eye of a scout for a professional women’s baseball team out of Chicago. She still has the offer letter.
Her manager said this was her big chance but Jeanette would have none of it.
“I said, ‘I don’t care, I’m not going. I have a husband and a little girl and I said I love them more than I love ball — and I love ball,’ ” she says, still smiling at the memory.
“I never regretted it.”
By 1956, the couple had finished their airport building and were back in Bashaw to help with the family business.
Son Jim, 67, who still works next to his mother at the store most days, remembers that was the year the original store burned down, a coal furnace the culprit.
The family rebuilt on the same spot and that is the store that still sits on the main street of Bashaw.
A garage was built out back and later, a small 1920s-era grocery store was added to it in the 1970s and a hole cut between the two buildings to form one. The newer half now holds their army surplus clothing and gear selection.
Growing up, Jim remembers pulling shifts at the store. “I used to work here and got $4 a week.”
It’s tough to say how the business has outlasted so many others.
“It’s nothing really special,” he says. “It just keeps on going all the time.
“I’ve got two boys involved so it might keep on going for another 100 years.”
The Holts haven’t been standing still. Jim has branched out with a vacuum truck and has a business thawing out compressors and other oilfield equipment. “In a small town, you’ve got to branch out and do whatever you can to make a dollar,” he says.
Jeanette says in their 67 years of marriage, she and her late-husband Norm “never had a cross word between us.
“We had a wonderful life.”
When times were tough, Norm would shrug it off. “He’d say, ‘Never mind, we’ll just put our shoulder to the wheel and we’ll push a little harder.’ ”
There’s a good indication of the way the Holts do business in the Borrowing Books she keeps in a slot at the end of the counter. In there, she records the tools or parts loaned out to locals. No charge, of course. When it comes back, their name is crossed off.
“That’s the way we advertise,” she says.