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Henderson’s Pharmacy celebrates 80 years

Eighty years ago today, the Henderson family opened the iconic Henderson's Pharmacy on Front Street. They are celebrating their 80th anniversary in the store until the end of May.

(with historical files from Alun Hughes)

Intertwined with Thorold’s history, and growth from town to city, is the story of the Henderson family in Thorold. It would be difficult to find another that has contributed more to the rich fabric of the community than the Hendersons during their 80 years of operating a pharmacy at 15 Front Street South.

The health hub has become well-known for dispensing compassion, knowledge and premium care, along with prescribed medicines and an array of health and beauty products that have evolved over time. Potions and elixirs, such as packages of opium, Dr. Charles Liver Medicine and Gin Pills, delivered by boys on bicycles in its earliest days, have been replaced by drugs that combat mood disorders and a host of other illnesses, compiled in blister packs, delivered by a fleet of vans.

Much more than a mere store, it’s remained a community downtown hub; the Henderson family at its core, beloved by its loyal customers for eight decades.

Situated on land originally owned by Thorold founder and Maplehurst Mansion owner George Keefer, the pharmacy was opened in 1872 by druggist William Macartney, one of the first graduates of the Ontario College of Pharmacy in 1871. In the late 19th century, the store also sold Stearns bicycles, toys, steamship tickets, and served as an agency for the Dominion Telegraph Company.

In 1882, the St. Catharines, Merritton and Thorold Street Railway operated along Front Street; originally horse-drawn, it became Canada’s first electrified street railway in 1887.

A year later, the Niagara Central Railway (later the NS&T) began a regular service to St. Catharines on tracks elevated on a trestle directly behind the pharmacy building where the Henderson family eventually worked and lived.

Macartney prospered, building an elegant home at the corner of Ormond and Albert Street in 1885. A leading citizen, he was founding president of the Thorold Board of Trade, and in addition to being a pharmacist, Macartney was a property developer, owning nearly 30 Thorold residences by the time of his death in 1911. According to his obituary in the Thorold Post, “He was possessed of an abiding faith in the future of his adopted town, and did more to provide homes for its people than any other man.”

His son Charles, who in 1898 graduated from the Ontario College of Pharmacy and later graduated with a MD degree from the Detroit College of Medicine, then went abroad to do post-graduate work in London and Edinburgh and returned to Canada, attending Queen's University and receiving a M.D.C.M. degree. After his father''s death in 1911, he returned to Thorold to manage the large family real estate business and operated the pharmacy until his death in 1938.

In 1939, Charles’s three unmarried sisters sold the pharmacy to Edward Henderson, grandson to Scottish-born John and Elizabeth Henderson, who had settled in Wainfleet Township in 1833. Henderson also became a prominent local citizen, serving on Thorold town council for 25 years. He and his wife Edna met on a blind date and were married in 1934. Both were active in the community, as members of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, and he was instrumental in the construction of the new fire hall on Towpath Sreet. Edna worked in the store, organizing the successful Rexall one-cent sales, and provided lunch for the staff on Sundays. Along with Mrs. Marie McMillan and Mrs. Noble Crowe, Edna introduced the first "Daffodil Cancer Tea," an annual tradition that continues in Thorold to this day.

Upon Edward’s death in 1984, his son, John, who had been working at the store since graduating from the University of Toronto in 1965, took the reins.

Under the Hendersons’ ownership, the store has been renovated extensively. In 1950, Edward expanded the store back into what had formerly been living quarters, and in 1987, John added a large extension at the rear across the land formerly occupied by the High Line (which ran directly above the present location of the pharmacy counter). At the same time, the front façade was redesigned by noted restoration architect Peter Stokes, as well as the new rear entrance. The store was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, and according to Derek R. Miller from the Heritage Thorold committee of 2006, “The restoration (more than a renovation) of the building has maintained the architectural and historical integrity of the building, which makes it an outstanding piece to Thorold’s collection of heritage buildings, and it has been a wonderful catalyst for downtown renewal in the city of Thorold.”

Three iconic features have remained intact, including the classic Toledo weight scale at the front entrance—installed by Charles Macartney in 1924, which several generations of customers have stepped on to weigh themselves at no charge; William Macartney’s painted safe, formerly in the rear office, is now in public view behind the scales at the front of the store; and the wealth of historical black and white photos that line the store’s walls.

Since its inception, the store has been family-owned, and a family member, whether a Macartney or a Henderson, has always lived in the building, either at the rear or upstairs.

“I’ve never really not been there,” John told ThoroldNews. “I grew up upstairs.”

At the time of the Henderson purchase, it was affiliated with Rexall, followed by Guardian and Rx Central, and finally, by Pharmasave.

Many prominent Thorold citizens—and sometimes generations of families—have worked at the store throughout the years, including Charlie Thompson, who started with the Macartneys and stayed on with the Hendersons until the 1960s; Walt Grenville, Helen Robinson, Wilfred Slater, and several members of the Slater family. Doreen White (Lett) and Peggy Cochrane brought Elizabeth Arden cosmetics into the store, a “big deal” at the time.

In the 1950s, bulk candy was packaged in two-ounce lots in cellophane bags, according to Slater, and condoms stored in a drawer behind a counter.

Another constant has been the family’s generous yet frequently inconspicuous contributions to countless community projects throughout the decades, from a $25,000 donation to the Thorold Seniors Centre in 2012 to sponsoring numerous sports teams to supplying free swim passes to anyone, regardless of income.

“There are people there that I used to work with their grandparents, so we’ve been very blessed,” stated John.

While continuing to run the store, John and Cathy have maintained solid support toward restoring Beaverdams Church, and Cathy her year-long role of organizing the two annual Thorold Arts & Crafts shows.

The couple is celebrating 80 years of the Hendersons serving Thorold with special 80 cent and $80 pricing, plus prize giveaways throughout the month of May. Customers can fill out ballots to win a prize, with draws every Friday and the final grand prize--of a weekend getaway to Niagara-on-the-Lake--drawn on Friday, May 31 at 11 a.m., followed by cake for all in attendance.

Cathy Pelletier

About the Author: Cathy Pelletier

Cathy Pelletier is an award-winning newspaper journalist/editor who writes for
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