From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:
If you’ve driven the stretch of highway between Sault Ste. Marie and Wawa, you’re likely familiar with Agawa Crafts and the Canadian Carver.
The history of these stores stretches back almost 50 years. In the early 1970s, a young man by the name of Gerry Demers had a vision for a business in Northern Ontario.
He’d moved to Sault Ste. Marie at the age of nine. After returning to southern Ontario for school and a short stint working in Toronto, he knew that the big cities weren’t for him, so he moved to Montreal River Harbour and leased a Gulf Oil service station. He wasn’t going to run just a service station, however; he decided he would also sell authentic crafts at a new gift shop.
It wasn’t easy. Gerry describes having to defend himself from wildlife with his two dogs and a shotgun. In The Greatest Lake by Conor Mihell, he recounts having to bail out a septic tank by hand. He quickly developed the skills he needed – including the more hands-on maintenance skills – to run his business successfully.
He briefly picked up another job in an effort to cover his bills: driving a Gulf Oil delivery truck and filling oil tanks at people’s homes. Through that job, he developed a new determination to make his gas station and gift shop succeed.
Shortly after that, Gerry Demers met June Middleton, the woman who would soon become his wife. Due to icy road conditions, she found herself stuck in a snow bank not far from Gerry’s business . . . and he arrived to help her out of the snow. The two began a relationship that would see her move from Manitoulin Island up to Montreal River Harbour. They had three children together, and June became a key player in the success of the stores.
Gerry initially started importing most of his goods from overseas. However, he quickly made it a priority to support local artisans and sell high-quality, authentic goods from Canadian and First Nations artists. During the off-season, he travelled, visiting reserves and communities across the province (and into Quebec and, eventually, the Maritimes). He used these trips to connect with artists, build a collection, and offer these new goods up for sale at his store.
The store soon expanded to include multiple new locations along the highway between Montreal River Harbour and Pancake Bay: Agawa Indian Crafts on the east side, the Canadian Carver on the west, and the Trapline Trading Post in Pancake Bay.
At their peak, 65 people worked for the stores. Many employees were students who stayed on the premises.
The Demers hired a manager for their Pancake Bay location, a man by the name of Frank O’Connor. O’Connor ran the gift shop for approximately five years. At the gas station where he frequently stopped for lunch, he met Gail Gibbs, his future wife.
Frank and Gail O’Connor would go on to open the Voyageurs’ Lodge and Cookhouse.
The Demers became well-known not only for the goods they sold, but also from their work ethic. In his book, Mihell described Gerry Demers as being “part drill sergeant, part Walmart greeter.” He would fill his sixteen-hour days with whatever needed doing at the store – whether it was procuring handmade goods or cleaning bathrooms.
For a while, the Demers family ran three stores across two separate locations. With their children reaching school age, however, the family opted to relocate to be able to more easily travel to Sault Ste. Marie for schooling. In 1987, the family and many of their buildings officially moved out of Montreal River Harbour and over to their Pancake Bay location. Moving meant the closing of the Montreal River locations . . . but the stores at Pancake Bay thrived.
Currently, the Demers run Agawa Crafts, the Canadian Carver, and the Camper’s Grocery Store. The three stores hold different collections of goods – from tourist items, to ornate wood carvings, to ice cream and supplies. And while not all of their items are local, they still feature Canadian and First Nations artisans and sell their beautiful, handmade items.
This year, Gerry and June Demers announced their retirement and a search for new ownership.
It’s unclear what the future will hold, but whatever happens, they have become fixtures on the highway between Sault Ste. Marie and Wawa. Countless people will hold fond memories of meeting the Demers and visiting their stores over the years.
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.