Have you ever strolled down First Avenue and suddenly become aware of the irresistible aroma of cinnamon buns? If so, you are probably passing by the Main Street Building, the present day location of the Old Town Bakery.
In the 1930’s, if you were on the same outing, it would be the yeasty fragrance of freshly baked Peerless Bread from the City Bakery that stopped you in your tracks. For the writer, during the 1950’s and 60’s, it was the delicious smell from the endless stream of doughnuts pouring out of a fascinating machine in the window of Alexander’s Bakery.
The cake doughnuts produced by this machine were smaller and could be enhanced to a new level of gastronomical ecstasy by careful immersion in a mixture of powdered sugar and cinnamon.
All of these delightful smells emanated from the first floor of the Main Street Building located at 510-14 First Avenue, where a family owned bakery has served Ladysmith residents since the early 1930’s.
If you passed by this location in the early 1900’s, however, you would be treated to an entirely different factory experience. The original wood building, constructed in 1909, was purchased a few years later by Dave Johnson from Simon Leiser for $1600 and used as a livery stable.
This continued until 1922 when George Hillier tore it down and constructed the Hillier Block – now known as the Main Street Building.
The two-storey building was built in ‘Edwardian Classical Revival Commercial Style’ similar to the nearby Nicholson Block.
Business owners in downtown Ladysmith had learned a painful lesson from the disastrous fire on Gatacre Street in 1912: the building material of choice was now brick, not wood.
During the 1920’s, the south side of the first floor of the Hillier block was occupied by Walters and Akenhead, a clothing and dry goods store. Thus the pungent smell of horses and leather harness was now replaced by an equally bucolic essence of gumboots and jeans.
However, for many residents, the truly memorable smell at this location was that peculiar amalgam of oil of cloves, anesthetic and ‘tooth dust’ widely known as “dentist office”. Doughnuts were quickly forgotten as the patient made a perilous journey to the second floor for an appointment with Dr. A. T. Verchere, a prominent citizens who served as a dentist in Ladysmith for more than 40 years.
For a time, he owned the Hillier Block – which we now refer to as the Main Street Building.
Several of the bakery owners rented apartments from Dr Verchere, and according to one, “the entire upper floor “smelled like a dentist’s office”.
Previous and present owners all recall the long and unusual hours involved in this business. Dave Alexander, who as a young boy had to get up early in the morning to help his father make doughnuts.
Bill Alexander had purchased the bakery in May 1951 from Don and Spencer McKay, the sons of Peter McKay. Peter McKay had moved his City Bakery operation to the Hillier Block in 1932. After taking over in May of 1951, Alexander had replaced the cantankerous doughnut machine with deep fat fryers used to produce the more common bread doughnut.
“My dad would mix the dough, then we would wait until it was ‘proofed’,” recalled Dave. “My job was to cut out the shape and the holes , put the doughnuts in the deep fryer, flip them over and then take them out and glaze them.” Then it was off to school.
Walter Freitag bought the business in 1974 but maintained the well known Alexander’s Bakery name before selling it to the Van Reeuwyk family in 1978, retaining the Alexander’s label.
John Van Reeuwyk remembers in particular the difficult job of replacing the original bake oven, a 20 x 16 foot brick monstrosity which took all night to heat up. It was initially wood fired and then converted to oil during the McKay era.
“I would fire it up just as the last customer was leaving at 6 p.m., and it would be ready about 2 a.m. in the morning.” Van Reeuwyk told me.
After 12 years he converted the oven to gas, thereby reducing his monthly fuel bill from $350 to a more reasonable $90.
John Van Reeuwyk is the present owner of the Main Street Building but sold his bakery business in 2002 to members of the Hutchins and Cram families. The Old Town Bakery, under Kate Ballard’s leadership, began a new bakery tradition with her unique version of large cinnamon buns and soon received recognition for producing the “Island’s Best”.
The owners have recently completed a significant expansion by taking over the entire first floor of the building creating a larger area for customers to enjoy a coffee and a sweet treat, or lunch from the deli.
Rob Hutchins, the former mayor has decades of memories associated with the Main Street location, but he is perhaps most pleased to have watched the Old Town Bakery develop into a well-known and highly respected business while remaining an integral part of the historical downtown.
A bakery on First Avenue is now serving a fifth generation of Ladysmith residents and our visitors.
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