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Capturing the 'largest store in the world for a small-town' through pictures

Peter Holman, the great-grandson of Robert Tinson Holman, pictured behind, and his wife, Ellen McEwen.
Peter Holman, the great-grandson of Robert Tinson Holman (pictured on the wall, along with his wife, Ellen McEwen) poses for a photo during an open house on March 8. - Desiree Anstey
SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. —

Editor's note: The open house mentioned in this article was held March 8, before social distancing measures were implemented. The tours of the portraits are currently closed, but will reopen when safe to do so.


It was called the "largest store in the world for a small-town" and employed hundreds in Summerside.

In 1857 Robert Tinson Holman established Holman's Department Store for the prosperous surrounding farming communities before the construction of the steam railway.

"When the store was founded it was a one-room building, 20 by 30 feet, but 100 years later the Holman Centre covers all but a few feet of an entire block," said Peter Holman, the great-grandson of Robert, during the March 8 recent open house.

To mark the 163rd anniversary of Holman Centre, 64 portraits with accompanying stories written by Wayne Wright, including storyboards by Gerard Gallant that cover the three floors, were unveiled.

Window display by Gerard Gallant. - Contributed
Window display by Gerard Gallant. - Contributed

"A project of this magnitude takes a lot of time and effort. We worked with the idea for over ten years, and I consider this historic building an icon of our history. The 'merchant prince of P.E.I.' is what residents called R.T. Holman," said George Dalton, chairman of the Summerside Area Historical Society.

"It was a unique gathering place. Paul H. Schurman and I, in the past, did tours of Summerside, and we would take tourists and show them the heritage properties. We always stopped at Holman Centre because they were interested in the sizable scale and unusual brick architecture," Dalton said.

"Paul and I would tell them it was once the largest small-town store in the world. Now the building is a gathering place 'where old friends meet' at the Summerside Farmers' Market on Saturdays, a social hub, and we hope by putting this excellent venue of history together, we honour those that came before."

Holman's Department Store, which printed catalogues and had window displays created by (Gerard) Gallant to inspire shoppers had, besides, a radio station.

Holman’s Department Store was called the "largest store in the world for a small-town". - Contributed
Holman’s Department Store was called the "largest store in the world for a small-town". - Contributed

On the third floor, Schurman's voice became familiar with the airwaves.

"Holman's had CHGS (Call Holman's Guaranteed Satisfaction). It was the slogan. The 100-watt station operated from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. and everyone listened. But after the Second World War, a new radio station took over called CJRW," said Schurman while detailing the scope of the store.

The last merchant in the Holman's Department Store was Wayne Poirier, according to Dalton.

"He closed his hardware store to operate in another location. Everyone in the community liked Wayne and had some kind of connection to Holman’s. It had such a carnival atmosphere," said Dalton, while acknowledging the eight Union Jack flags on the outside of the building, a homage to veterans.

Wright said when the chain stores and shopping malls arrived in the late 1980s, it was the "fall of the cards" for Holman's, the equivalent of the American Macy's for eastern Canada.

Holman's Department Store has been brought back to life through 64 pictures, as well as storyboards, that line the building's three floors.

During the recent open house, Dorothy Farish was presented with the Gerard Gallant Award for her commitment to preserving local history and heritage. 

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