Historic Douro store in Peterborough County lost to fire

Historic Douro store in Peterborough County lost to fire
By Joelle Kovach
Peterborough Examiner
Link to article: Historic Douro store in Peterborough County lost to fire

Michelle Towns was exhausted and in shock on Friday after her family's historic general store, P.G. Towns in Douro, burned to the ground overnight.

Towns and husband Chris Coons grabbed their daughter, 8, and son, 4, from bed shortly after 1 a.m. to escape their farmhouse, which is located on the same property as the store.

But the fire didn't spread to their farmhouse, which stands directly behind P.G. Towns. Nobody was in the store, and nobody was hurt.

Chris Coons also has a cabinet-making workshop on the property that was saved.

"So there are a couple of miracles we have to be grateful for," Towns said in her house on Friday.

Meanwhile the store is gone.

P.G. Towns was founded by Michelle Towns's great-grandfather Patrick George.

The business had been handed down through the family for more than a century by the time Michelle and Chris took it over in 2005.

They closed it in the fall of 2016, following a few years of declining business (people were shopping at the big box stores in Peterborough, they said at the time).

Yet the store reopened on June 1, after an extensive renovation, as Towns & Leahy Mercantile and Deli.

Nancy Towns - Michelle's sister - had teamed up with business partners Bernard and Lise Leahy to start a market offering local produce, meat and baking.

"They had it looking so stunning - it brought the old days alive," Michelle Towns said. "It had become a hub again."

Looking out of the window of her farmhouse at the rubble outside on Friday, Towns said she was dumbfounded the building is gone.

All day people were streaming through the farmhouse door: the Leahys and Nancy Towns, as well as others.

Michelle Towns said the whole community will miss the store.

"The building itself was treasured by a lot of people," she said.

A passerby who was driving home along County Rd. 8 noticed flames and called 911.

One neighbour across the road awoke to the sound of windows shattering in the P.G. Towns building as it burned. Another neighbour called Michelle and Chris to wake them.

Douro-Dummer Township firefighters arrived shortly before 1:30 a.m.

At the scene later on Friday morning, Douro-Dummer Fire Chief Chuck Pedersen said the building - which was largely made of wood - burned quickly.

"Flames were visible through the front of the building, the west end, when our crews arrived," he said. "That's the old part of the building, been around many years, so lots of fuel load there."

"It extended beyond that and getting into the other part of the building, so we focused on our building on what we could try to help, like the garage behind the building, and the family dwelling directly behind it, and the workshop that's still standing here now."

A truck from Otonabee-South Monaghan Fire Department joined the effort, Pedersen said.

By Friday afternoon an excavator was on the scene to help firefighters remove debris and help extinguish hot spots. There was still smoke rising from the ashes early on Friday afternoon, more than 12 hours after the fire broke out.

Investigators from the Office of the Fire Marshal were also on the scene Friday afternoon.

Patrick George Towns first opened his general store on Hunter St. in Peterborough in 1896.

He was from Douro, and four years later he and his wife Ellen O'Brien bought the building on County Rd. 8 - a former tavern - and moved the store there.

The business was passed down through three generations. Michelle's parents Mike and Rosemary Towns took it over in the 1970s and worked there full-time.

In those days it was well-stocked store carrying everything from groceries to farm equipment.

Michelle Towns and Chris Coons had no plans to ever take over the store; she's a teacher and he's a cabinet-maker.

But when her parents wanted to retire in 2005, they took it over and kept operating it until 2016.

On Friday, Towns said she was amazed at how the firefighters acquitted themselves.

"They did a phenomenal job - we could've lost our house," she said.

She was also amazed at how people were coming to the door on Friday, offering to help or just making sure the family was OK.

Everyone was doing alright, she said - even her parents, who had lost the store archives in the fire.

"People just keep coming - you feel like you're at a kind of a wake," Towns said.

"It's just surreal.... When you live in a place like this, people just come out of the woodwork."

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