In the early days, John H. Fairbank General Store carried hardware used by oilmen as well as groceries and even liquor and wine. By 1871, the store carried only the “heavy and shelf hardware”, catering mostly to oilmen like J.H. himself. Heavy hardware meant it was too heavy to lift and shelf hardware meant it could be stored on a shelf.
Pictured Right: one of the early ads from 1874, once Benjamin Van Tuyl became a partner in the store.
As Petrolia blossomed and grew into being the oil capital of Canada, Van Tuyl expanded the stock to supply everything oilmen and farmers needed. In the years between 1873 and 1881, J.H. Fairbank owned the Home Oil Refinery, a big operation that covered 16 acres in Petrolia. The store was an agent for the refinery.
The store was also an agent for the Petrolia Carriage Works, established on the main street. (This is not to be confused with another company, The Petrolia Wagon Works.) In 1888 the hardware store advertised all styles of horse-drawn carriages and wagons and horseshoeing was declared a specialty.
Later, in 1890, he bought the mortgage on Stevenson Boiler Works after William Stevenson fled town owing J.H. and others huge sums of money. The boilerworks were vital to the town, supplying 90 percent of all the boilers, tanks and stills of heavy plate need to produce and refine oil. J.H. improved an earlier design of the fire extinguisher.
It also began carrying everything needed for the well-equipped Victorian home: ornate stoves, tinware, glassware, decorative lamps, sterling silver combs and handkerchief boxes, skates, carpet sweepers, and walking cane name plates, to name a few.
When harder times hit, the store refocused once more. Gone were the tinware and items for the Victorian home. It streamlined the inventory to the kind of hardware and equipment used for farming and producing oil. Charles Sr., who was also the Liberal MPP from 1941 to 1943, foresaw the steel shortages coming due to the Second World War and with great effort, he managed to stock immense quantities. The store also carried the regular sort of hardware that people would want for their homes…paint, brooms, shovels and even hammocks.
Long after the Depression had lifted in the rest of the country, Petrolia remained hard-hit by the economy. In the 1960s during the era of Charles Fairbank Sr., one of the best- remembered stories was the tale of the Fairbank Electric Teapot. The ceramic teapots had a built-in heating element that brought water to the boil much faster than the traditional kettle on the stove, then automatically turned off. People were delighted with them. They were assembled by Petrolia church groups and sold at the store.
They proved to be so wildly popular that they were to be included in the famous Christmas catalogue for Simpson’s and Eaton’s. These would of course be distributed across all of Canada. This was not to be. A man from the Canadian Standard’s Association declared it had to boil for an hour and this meant much lower wattage was needed. With lower wattage, it no longer boiled in minutes and so people no longer wanted it.
There’s an epilogue to the tale. Years passed and Charles Fairbank Sr. met a retired fellow from the Canadian Standards Association who clearly loved his original teapot. He made it his personal crusade to win the necessary approval. He did not succeed.
Under manager Ron Brand, new lines and new stock were added to expand the market. And one of the most stunning surprises for the store so entrenched in the oil business was that
Theresa MacDonald boldly brought the store into the new age of solar. Although the store is rooted in the Victorian era, check the roof you’ll see photovoltaic solar panels are installed. The store’s new solarware offshoot opened in 2010, recognizing renewable energy is the future, even in this town famous for becoming Canada’s first oil capital.
Pictured Right: Van Tuyl and Fairbank later carried everything for theVictorian home as well as heavy and shelf hardware. This advertisement from 1900 shows one of the many models of stoves carried by the store.