Clarenville entrepreneur honoured posthumously

Barbara
Barbara Dean-Simmons
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It would have been enough to make some people throw in the towel. Just a year shy of his 40th birthday, Ralph Mercer was enjoying modest prosperity. He had built a successful business in Clarenville — a general store in partnership with his brother-in-law, Gordon Green, and a wharf and warehouse on the Clarenville waterfront.

But in a matter of minutes, the business was gone.

One of the company’s five-tonne trucks was having its tank welded in the basement of the building. There was an explosion followed by a fire.

Ralph and his wife, Ruby, were lucky to get out of the building. The mechanic, Johnny Tulk, was even luckier — the explosion blew him through the warehouse door and he lived to tell the tale.

There was no insurance on the building, and the Mercers had personal guarantees with the bank.

With the business in ashes and a debt to the bank to pay off, Mercer took to the road.

He became a travelling salesman, picking up a few lines from firms in Montreal and trekking all over the island. Many areas had to be accessed by train or boat.

His son, Phillip, recalls how his father’s sheer determination brought him success.

“It took him 11 years to pay off that bank loan, but he paid it back, every penny,” said his son.

“And he tried his hand at everything.”

One of the products his father sold was Beef Iron Wine, a popular tonic to boost the immune system. In one area of the province, however, people drank it like alcohol.

“Dad used to order it by the crate load and the company in Montreal that supplied it started to wonder how many people lived in this province, they were going through the Beef Iron Wine so fast,” Phillip said, chuckling at the memory.

 

The early days

He and Ruby had come to Clarenville in 1947. For five years before that, they had owned and operated the Economy Cash Store, a grocery outlet on the corner of Prescott and New Gower streets in St. John’s.

After the Second World War, Mercer got interested in the wholesale grocery business. He sold his store and, with his brother-in-law, Gordon, formed Mercer and Green, a wholesale grocery distribution business.

Although they had no affiliation with Clarenville, they felt it would be a good place to build a future. At the time, the town was a busy railway terminus — the spot where the main rail line branched off towards Bonavista. A lot of goods were loaded and unloaded at the Clarenville depot.

The Mercer and Green premises on the waterfront, near what is now the Clarenville Drydock, was a large wharf with a fully covered shed for offloading schooners.

Mercer and Green was becoming a large employer in the area, operating a fleet of trucks, purchasing lumber and local products and supplying many stores in the Trinity and Bonavista Bay areas.

Mercer decided he needed a way to deliver products to places not accessible by road, as there were many such places in those days. He formed the Clarenville Shipping Co. and started to acquire a fleet of schooners. They were The Dauntless, Phillip Wayne, Mercer & Green, and the queen of the fleet, the Margaret B Tanner (sister ship to the Bluenose).

A year after the waterfront fire, the Margaret B Tanner sprung a leak 90 miles from St-Pierre-Miquelon and sank with a full load of coal.

 

Branching out again

After Mercer had spent several years on the road selling products, he decided to try agriculture.

He started with a few hens in his backyard, on the property where Mercer’s Marine warehouse is now, on Marine Drive.

Eventually, he had 5,000 hens, and many longtime residents recall the pungent aroma that wafted from the Mercers’ backyard, especially on hot summer days.

Mercer worked hard collecting eggs, shovelling manure and candling eggs — the process of testing them for freshness and fertility.

This was before the age of mechanization and it was a bit of a local joke that Mercer was the only man in the province who shovelled manure with a shirt and tie on.

His son, Phillip, was old enough to help out by then and he quipped that he’s never liked chickens much since those days.

Eventually, Mercer moved his chickens to another spot. He purchased a parcel of uncleared land on the highway between Clarenville and Deep Bight (the old highway at that time) and cleared it — the area now known as the Dump Road.  

Always willing to try something new, he imported hens from Peru that laid blue eggs. He raised chicks and also kept Cheviot sheep. He operated the poultry farm until the mid 1960s.  

In 1957, Ralph and Ruby decided to build a store onto their house to sell novelties, souvenirs, groceries and other small items. Mercer’s Variety Store would eventually grow to become Mercer’s Marine.

He started with a few hens in his backyard, on the property where Mercer’s Marine warehouse is now, on Marine Drive.

Eventually, he had 5,000 hens, and many longtime residents recall the pungent aroma that wafted from the Mercers’ backyard, especially on hot summer days.

Mercer worked hard collecting eggs, shovelling manure and candling eggs — the process of testing them for freshness and fertility.

This was before the age of mechanization and it was a bit of a local joke that Mercer was the only man in the province who shovelled manure with a shirt and tie on.

His son, Phillip, was old enough to help out by then and he quipped that he’s never liked chickens much since those days.

Eventually, Mercer moved his chickens to another spot. He purchased a parcel of uncleared land on the highway between Clarenville and Deep Bight (the old highway at that time) and cleared it — the area now known as the Dump Road.  

Always willing to try something new, he imported hens from Peru that laid blue eggs. He raised chicks and also kept Cheviot sheep. He operated the poultry farm until the mid 1960s.  

In 1957, Ralph and Ruby decided to build a store onto their house to sell novelties, souvenirs, groceries and other small items. Mercer’s Variety Store would eventually grow to become Mercer’s Marine.

At first it was mainly Ruby who ran the store, as Ralph was busy with the chickens. They started opening six days a week and every night — unheard of at that time.  After long hours and lots of hard work the store began to pay off and in the mid-’60s Ralph decided to shut down the poultry farm and concentrate on the store.

Phillip also went to work in the business then and stayed until 1969, when he opened his own business in the section of town known as the Station. He returned to the family’s store after Ralph decided to get busy with another new challenge.

A new enterprise

For year, the Clarenville Shipyard had played an important part in the economy of the town, but it  had been closed for a few years when Ralph and his business partner-to-be, Eleazer Hiscock, were offered the opportunity to take it over.  

 Mercer and Hiscock formed the Clarenville Drydock Ltd. With the assistance of a 10-year government loan — backed by Ralph’s and Eleazer’s personal guarantees — the company began operations. The loan was paid off in full within two years.

During the life of the company, more than 50 longliners were built at the site, numerous vessels repaired and the schooner Norma & Gladys given a complete refit. The operation employed 40 to 50 people.

The business partners eventually retired — Mercer at the age of 72 and Hiscock, 79. They sold their interests to the Burry Group.

Mercer suffered a serious stroke a couple of years later and spent five years at home in a hospital bed before he died in 1995 at the age of 79.  Ruby died two years later at the age of 74.  

Mercer was a true entrepreneur. Those who knew him best say hard work was second nature to him.

And though work kept him busy, he found time to devote to others. He had a great love of hockey and in his younger years was one of the people building the sport in Clarenville. He was also elected to council and served as mayor during the term that began in 1955.

At last week’s chamber of commerce dinner, family friend Alex Balsom paid tribute to Mercer, recalling his business challenges and successes.

Mercer’s family — son Phillip, daughter-in-law Roberta and grandchildren Scott and Joanne —accepted the Business Hall of Fame award on his behalf.

Phillip said his father worked many hard years to build his businesses and the award speaks to the kind of man he was.

“I’m sure he would be humbled and very proud to be honoured in this way; it makes me feel extremely proud,” he said.

 

With files from Adam Randell/The Packet and information supplied by the Clarenville Area Chamber of Commerce

Organizations: Economy Cash Store, Variety Store, Clarenville Shipping Co. The Packet Clarenville Area Chamber of Commerce

Geographic location: Clarenville, Montreal, Bonavista Bay Prescott Dump Road Peru

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  • Terry Balsom
    June 05, 2011 - 17:14

    I remember, Ralph and Ruby mercer Very well, As `a boy Growing up in Clarenville, Ralph and Ruby , were a very Humble couple , through their good times and Their not so good Times, Phillip was a few years younger then Myself and if I remember correctly my Sister Sandra would babysit for Him on Occasion. The whole family always treated me with respect, even when I would interupt their evening Meal when I would knock on their front Door ,(as the Store was closed at that Hour) to purchase a pack of smokes or mostly an Oldport Cigar to smoke while I walked to Aircadets on a Friday night. . i will alwasy have great respect for The mercer family, Whenever I would come home on Visits while I was in the Army Both Ruby and Ralph always had good words to say to me and say how good it was to see me. and even when I was home a couple of years ago to purchase a retirement Home in Old Bonaventure, I visited Phillip in His store, it took Him awhile to place me but when he did we had a good chat , and as always was very glad to see me.

  • Joe Soepr
    March 09, 2011 - 08:51

    Hi My father was on the Margaret B. Tanner. Stephen Soper. He was actually one of the crew when it sank. I am trying to dig up as much informatin as possible on this boat for our family. Any stories, pictures, anybody who knew my dad. etc.. Thanks so much.

  • Wanda Elliott Bateman
    March 06, 2011 - 21:57

    Love Mercers as does my family. My husband Garry can't wait to go to Mercers when we come home to visit. My daughter Meghan loves it too...all that sports equipment. It's a little piece of home. Thanks

  • Selina Parsons
    March 06, 2011 - 11:52

    I love this story! This is a lesson in faith, hard work and community spirit. Mercer's Store is by far one of the nicest stores I have ever visited. I have never had a bad experience there. The staff are excellent. They know the products, they are friendly and helpful. I could spend a whole day there just browsing over the abundant stock of everything you can name. And I know a lot of others who will agree with me.