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History doc showscases Irwins' 150-year-old store
By Courtney Merchand
The back office where James Irwin sits is reminiscent of the 1900s - from the solid wood antique desk and matching receipt filing cabinet, to the dusty typewriter sitting on a desk by his side and a bookshelf stuffed with catalogues behind him.
"Do you notice anything missing?" he asks amusingly.
There was no desktop computer or common office electronics cluttering his workspace. But with a grin, he points to an iPad that was otherwise camouflaged and pulls out a trusty iPod from his pocket.
The Irwin General Store in Kazabazua may still be the very same one that was erected over a hundred years ago - both on the outside and on the inside, where retro gas lanterns are the first thing to catch your eye - but James likes his small touches of modernity.
The general store, first acquired by the family in 1885, and the Irwin's themselves have a deep-rooted history throughout Western Quebec, so deep, in fact, that it celebrated its 150 anniversary last year.
The Back Story
Joseph Irwin travelled to Ottawa's Bytown from Ireland to work on the Rideau Canal to earn enough money for his wife, Mary Prichard, and their son, James Irwin, to come to Canada. During that time, Joseph was living on a small piece of land he received for his labour. Today, that land is more commonly known as Parliament Hill.
When his family finally joined him in Ottawa in 1829, they canoed up the Gatineau River and became the first settlers on what soon came to be Wakefield Village. His farm encompassed 128 acres of the main strip, but that acreage quickly diminished as more settlers, particularly tradesmen, came to the area.
After settling down, Joseph and Mary had 14 children, but by the time the children had grown up, Joseph's land had been all but taken up by new settlers. So the children went further into the Gatineau Hills to make their homes.
The community of Kazabazua was founded in early 1859. It was where one of Joseph's sons, John, started up the Irwin General Store. The store was then sold to the eldest son, James, in 1885.
From then on, the store remained in the Irwin family, where James's son, James II, took over the general store before retiring and leaving it to his son, Donald.
Somewhere within these two generations - as the details of the exact year are unknown at this point - a fire gutted the store to an estimated loss of $10,000 in the early 1900s. It was rebuilt on the original foundation, which can still be noticed today in spots where the floor is uneven.
Current owner, James III, took over the store from his father, Donald, in 1973, and is the fourth generation of Irwins to continue the family business. Under him, the stock has become less 'general' and more focused on hardware, with a fully equipped lumberyard in the back.
"It's hard to believe it's been 40 years already," said James III, but he remarked that those passing of years has allowed him to get to know his customers. He said he's noticed the slight influx of people moving to the area, who are either building houses or repairing old ones.
James III's two grown children, Melanie and Josh, also work in different areas of the Irwin General Store and said they plan on continuing the family's legacy into the fifth generation after their father retires.
"I still work six days a week, 12 hour shifts. I'm the first guy here and the last one to leave," said James III. He said he knows retiring would be nice, but won't be an easy feat.
Historia, a French history television channel, conducted a series of episodes based on old general stores in Quebec for a documentary. They found nine stores in the province - seven of them were in the Eastern Townships, south-east of Montreal.
In order to qualify for the series, the stores had to appear more or less in their original condition and of course, not be part of a chain. The Irwin General Store was the only one Historia found that traced back four generations.
The film crew spent three days at the end of October interviewing and videotaping footage for their broadcast.
The documentary is set to air in January 2015.