|Ambrose Pilon's Reminiscences
about Pilon's Bakery
Sometime around 1995 I brought a cassette tape recorder to Vankleek Hill and I asked my Dad to record the story of his life on it. I left it with him and some time later, he gave it back to me along with a recorded cassette. In the years following his passing in 2004, I have not only listened to his soothing voice and laughed along with the stories he told, but I also transcribed his words to share with my siblings.
Recently I was asked to write a short story about the history of Pilon's Bakery for the Ouimet family association newsletter (you can read it here)since my father was married to Gisèle Ouimet. Doing a bit of research and revisiting my father's tapes made me realize that the essence of the history of Pilon's Bakery was contained in those recordings. So, with just a bit of help from me, here is the history of Pilon's Bakery, according to Ambrose Pilon.
You can listen to Ambrose Pilon introduce his story by clicking below.
On June 16, 1952, Gisèle Ouimet married Ambrose Pilon in the St-Grégoire de Naziance catholic church of Vankleek Hill where she had been baptized 22 years earlier. In so doing, she became irrevocably linked to the history of Pilon's Bakery which served the needs of the town of Vankleek Hill and the surrounding area for more than 50 years.
The story of Pilon's Bakery begins in the depths of one of the worst economic crises of the 20th century. Today we call it the Great Depression, but then it was just a deep crisis that dragged on with no end in sight. This story illustrates the tenacity and the courage of an individual and his young family when faced with a nearly insurmountable challenge and very few choices.
Louis Victor Pilon was born in 1885 in Amherstburg, a small town on the Ontario side of the Detroit River, just south of Windsor. He was the son of Victor Pilon and Oliver L'heureux, the third generation of Pilons born in Amherstburg, who descended from Antoine Pilon, a voyageur originally from the parish of Ste-Anne-du-Bout-de-l'Île on the west island of Montréal, Québec. L.V. (as he was known) and his wife Lena Marontate first moved to the Vaudreuil area near Montreal in the 1920s where their sixth and last child, Mary Helen, was born. The other five children, including my father Ambrose, were all born in Amherstburg. At the time he moved east, Louis Victor was a farm machinery salesman for J.I. Case.
"And then he lost his job with J.I. Case...[at the beginning of the Great Depression] I often heard him say that twenty-four hours notice was all he ever got. Boom. So he turned to one thing that he had, that was his knowledge of baking which he learned from, in River Rouge or Detroit. He worked there, with a baker over there, and he got to know the trade quite well. And it came in handy with years to come, because if you have nothing to fall on, you loose your job, you haven't got too much to do, or to put bread on the table, so to say."
"When we lived in Labrosse's house, in the old Allen house across from Mr. Fraser, I remember that's where Dad started the first bakery, was in the little stable there. It was a little stable and the ... He got it made all over, cleaned it up inside, put all new floors, new ceilings, new walls and everything. Bought some baking equipment, a little Hubbard, two deck, portable oven. There was no mixing with a machine then, it was all done by hand in a pétrin or a trough. Had a candy furnace there, to heat the place up and I think he made donuts there too, I'm not sure. Nevertheless, that was where Pilon's Bakery first started in Vankleek Hill, was in that little stable." here is an October 8, 1931 notice of the new bakery published in the E.O. Review.
The invoice for this equipment was kept after all these years (you can view it here). The oven alone cost $455 (nearly $8000 in 2022 dollars). Bread pans and tools cost $120 for a grand total of $575.07 in September of 1931. The times were somber at the beginning of the crisis and L.V. was betting his family's future on this baking project. The challenges and the risks were high.
"Théoret the baker, well he lived at his bakery at, where Léo Séguin is today at the corner of Mill and High Streets. It was there for a long, long, long, long time. So when we opened up, Dad opened up, oh boy, Mr. Théoret said "You'll never succeed". He put us down in the sense that we were making bread in a stable, trying to turn the people against Pilon's Bakery."
"And slowly it grew, grew and grew and got better, business improved."
"So after we moved the bakery up onto to Main Street, at the corner of Kirk Lane and Main. He was renting this place from an estate, I think it was Léandre Saucier's [actually the estate of Peter T. Saucier who passed away in 1910] estate and Mr. Anselme Matte, that was Philias Matte's brother, was the executor. And I think Dad was paying 15 dollars a month for that part of the building that was, we were using as the bakery and the store, like the little bake shop in the front, to sell the bake goods. .. So it's there we stayed in that place, in the bakery, in that part, in that particular place for quite a while."
L.V. bought the entire property following the death of Monsieur Saucier's widow for the grand sum of $1500 in 1941. The family stayed upstairs and the store was set up where Mme Saucier had formerly lived.
"And, then we started to get bread trucks then, wound up with two bread trucks...We had night bakers there that would work at night and bake. And we had the two bread trucks, Fords. And Dad was back working for J.I. Case, as a salesman. So, he'd come home on the weekend, you see. And of course, peddling bread all over the country, he had given out credit to the farmers and then we had to hire a man to drive. I think most of them kept half of it for themselves. They, the farmer would pay the bill and the driver wouldn't give a credit for the amount received. And there was mass confusion. You didn't know who the hell was who and who owed what. And the first thing you know, well the driver quit and what would you do then. You couldn't go to the farmers and say "Well you'll have to pay me, you didn't pay". It was a mess, but we got by."
"And then we had these bakers coming to work at night, night bakers. We had one fellow by the name of Pit Ladouceur, a very good baker. Another one by the name of Lebrun. And one by the name of Champagne. All night bakers...And then we had Charles Baillie, he stayed right to the end. He was from France, he was a French baker. A very good man. But he liked his beer, Black Horse. He'd get sipping that there on a hot night, you know and oh...I don't know how he ever succeeded in making such nice bread with all the beer in his gut, but he sure made some damned nice bread, believe me. He made, turned out nice bread...And then we got, Dad got one fellow here, a young fellow just out of the baking school, he'd just graduated. He was supposed to know everything. Well my God, he, he was baking pie shells in the oven, the big oven...it was coal fired anyway. We were digging the well at the house, uptown at the bakery there, for the house well. The baker comes out and sticks his nose to see what was going on. Sure. He left, forgot the pies in the oven. The pie crusts, they're just burnt black. He took them out of the oven and Dad says, well he says "Put them in the garbage", he says "you go with it, I don't want you around here at all". That was the end of that fellow. He got the walking ticket."
"But, we used to peddle bread...I went out with in the horse wagon, in the winter on the sleighs. Dalkeith, St. Eugene, out to Aberdeen, all through there, up to Kirk Hill. Hell of a long jaunt then, it was cold. And I worked in the bakery besides that too. I used to get old Pat McManus, he always hung around there for years. He liked to come on the sleigh with me and do the bread route. He was the teamster, he wasn't the best in the world, but he was alright. He used to light up his pipe with that stinking French tobacco. It'd almost make me sick. He was alright Pat."
"Then, when we had the trucks going, well, we went to St. Eugene and up to Alfred, L'Original, Grenville, Hawkesbury. We had two trucks on the go. Two bread trucks. I drove them part time and I'd work in the bakery part time, in the daytime. And in the afternoon, I'd take the bread route with the truck and go to Alfred, L'Original, Grenville. It was just, it was a way of getting rid of your products, if you didn't go out and sell them. The counter trade was never that heavy in the store, that it would warrant the night baker, you know. And with Charlie the baker at night, and Arthur Dupuis used to work at night with him. And there was the two of them at night. They weren't paid big salaries. And at times they were turning out 3 and 4 hundred loaves of bread, different bread. Like your plain bread was never sliced. There was the French stick, and the Chinese bread, and the Homemade and the Dutchoven. It was all turned out. We had two big bread cupboards and they were always filled in the morning. And there was a whole bunch of bread on the bench in the back. You'd come in in the morning and it was there, bread galore."
"And in the winter when you had the sleigh out, peddling bread, God darn it, the bread would freeze. You go to the last few stops, the bread was frozen solid, it was so damn cold. Many's a times I got off the sleighs on the way back home, walk for a couple of miles, warm up, your feet were froze, by God it was colder than hell. But we got by."
"And at that time I think I was getting around 4 dollars and a half, five dollars a week. Of course my room and board too. But still, that was the tough time, hard times. That's when you worked like hell and got little for it, as far as money goes. There was no money around, eh? Donuts were selling for about 20 cents a dozen or 25 cents a dozen. And bread was, well, 7 cents, 8 cents, then it's go up to 9 cents, 10 cents."
"And the war came by, came along. Frank joined the Air Force. Bill joined the Air Force. My sister Olive, she joined the Army; Nursing Sister. And Vince, well he left home, you see, and got into the Merchant Navy and went overseas with a load of horses, for the country of France. They were Arnold's from Grenville. A boat load of horses, I forget, a thousand on there or whatever it was."
"And then one by one, they all came out of the armed forces."
"I was called up for a medical for the armed forces in Cornwall. I don't know, it must have been my fingers or something. They weren't accepting me into the military and that's all I know. I never asked any questions. Like Dad says "If they take you" he says "they clean me out, I have nothing left"."
After the war, Ambrose and his brother Bill continued to work in the bakery with their father. After Louis Victor's death in 1971, the two brothers continued on as partners. This partnership came to an end with Bill's passing in 1983 after Pilon's Bakery had celebrated 52 years of existence. Ambrose carried on alone for a bit longer and closed the store door for the last time on May 19, 1985. The bakery was sold and operated as a bakery for a few years and has since been transformed into a number of other businesses. Its 45 year vocation as the supplier of fine baked goods had changed forever.
So much more could be written about events and people who made Pilon's Bakery an institution on Main Street of Vankleek Hill for decades.
Here are some examples:
So much more real, rich living took place back then that has unfortunately slipped away. But know that Pilon's Bakery was so much more than just a place where bread was made and sold.
For easier access, here is a list of the photo-essays sprinkled throughout this page: