Historic family-owned business closes its doors

John Reeves Ltd. served White Bay communities for past century

Published on March 4, 2014

A White Bay fixture for the past 100 years has closed its doors. John Reeves Ltd., once operating with its main store in Englee, and seven branch stores, rode the ups and downs of the fishery, employing hundreds of people over the years.

At its peak, the Englee location had a fish plant and salmon cannery, its own schooners, saw mill, hardware and a grocery store.

But the 1992 cod moratorium would rapidly bring change to the fishery-dependent business, eventually reducing the company to just one store in Englee.

But the business managed to secure its place in the struggling community.

The current location, now 66 years old, has no one to take over.

Because of this development, third-generation manager Bernard McDonald said it’s time to move on.

In the beginning

Going back through the years, McDonald said founder John Reeves set up shop in Canada Harbour in late 1914.

“My understanding is he had some merchandise which he started selling that winter, and he had to wait until spring to restock when navigation opened,” he said.

“I guess people, the fishermen especially, wanted somewhere they could buy supplies rather than having to get them from outside.”

His grandfather, also Bernard McDonald, who was teaching along the coast, went into partnership with John Reeves and in the early 1920s the business was moved to Englee.

Incorporated in 1936, the growing business was expanded and, over time, seven branch stores were introduced — Canada Harbour, Hooping Harbour, Williamsport, Harbour Deep, Conche, Roddickton and Bear Cove — to better service the White Bay region.

With the passing of Reeves in 1949, McDonald’s grandfather bought out the remaining shares and it was owned solely by the McDonalds.

Tragedy would strike eight years later when a fire burned down the store’s three buildings in Englee.

But this didn’t deter operations.

The business was moved to the second floor of the fish plant. Within six months it was rebuilt and reopened in the same location of the fire.

Downward trends

Resettlement played a big role in the branch store closures, as the majority of them were isolated communities.

“We lost a lot of them in the late ’60s,” said McDonald.

But the cod moratorium had the biggest effect on John Reeves Ltd.

“That’s when she started to falter,” he said. “Simply, because everything revolved around the fishery. When the fishery went so did our business.”

The final branch store in Conche closed in 1996, just as McDonald was returning to take over the business from his brother Jim.

Eventually, business stabilized, and 12 years ago McDonald made the move to get involved with Sobeys Clover Farm.

“That has helped us immensely,” he said.

Looking back, he called the McDonalds years with the business exciting times.

“I certainly took no joy in handing over the keys of the store to another business owner on Jan. 31,” McDonald said.

“Saying goodbye to a child that you cared for all those years and is now moving on,” is how he explained his feelings on the sale.

The Northern Pen