There are some people in this life who seem to take on a mythical quality as the years pass by. Gwen Watson is one of those people. Everyone who lived or grew up on the Old Mission Peninsula during the 1950s, 60s and 70s has a story about Gwen (aka Gwennie) and Claude Watson, who owned Watson’s Store in Mapleton, across the road from the Peninsula Grill and Peninsula Market.
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So you can imagine my delight when Gwen’s great-niece emailed and said she and her family would be visiting the OMP, and wondered if I might know something about Watson’s Store.
“My name is Leslie (Bradford) Tozier and my great aunt, Gwendolyn May (Bradford) Watson was married to Claude Earl Watson,” she wrote. “Claude passed away in 1962 and my Aunt Gwen in 1990. I believe Claude was shown in an article of yours, showing the men of the Old Mission Fire Department circa 1945.”
Here is the Fire Department photo Leslie referenced. Pictured, standing left to right, are Harry Heller, Arnold White, Roy Hooper, Claude Watson, Stanley Wood and Ray Heller. Seated in the truck are John Lardie (wearing helmet) and Ike (Isadore) Lardie. Read more about the photo and truck here.
Leslie said she knew that Gwen and Claude owned a cherry orchard and an old general store, which burned down some years ago. She also said the orchard was sold after Gwen’s death, and that both Gwen and Claude are buried in Ogdensburg Cemetery (just north of Old Mission Peninsula United Methodist Church on Center Road).
Leslie recalled, “We visited my Aunt Gwen over the summer sometimes and stayed with her. My two sisters and I have memories of sleeping in the attic where there were bats and bees. She would say, ‘Ah, the bees won’t bother you’ and ‘don’t worry about the bats.’ Needless to say, we were a little (or a lot) concerned about the bees and the bats!”
Gwen was the sister of Leslie’s grandfather. Leslie’s father, Ralph Bradford, was Gwen’s nephew. Leslie noted, “My father was an only child, so he was doted on by Gwen and her sister.”
My husband Tim and I met Leslie and her family up at Mapleton where the store used to sit and chatted about Gwen and Claude and the store. I was struck by how much Leslie reminded me of Gwen – tiny, with a quick smile and fun laugh.
As mentioned, everyone who was on the OMP during the 1950s and 60s has memories of Gwen and Claude Watson and their store. For me, it involved our family’s strawberry patch across the orchards and down in the valley. Our family farm, Johnson Farms, is about a half-mile north of Mapleton, with a big red barn on the right side of Center Road heading north.
When I was a kid in the 1960s, my mom, Mary Johnson, ran the strawberry patch down the hill from the barn. All of us kids and our friends would pick strawberries, and help Mom load them into the back of our Volkswagen Bus, to be delivered to stores in the area. Then we’d take our strawberry money and run across the orchards to Watson’s store, where we’d buy pop and candy.
My favorite candies at Watson’s Store were those tiny wax bottles holding about a half teaspoon of juice. You’d bite the end off the bottle, suck out the juice, and then chew on the wax. And of course, candy cigarettes. I can still taste those sugary-sweet cigarettes (and no, they didn’t lead me down a dark path to a lifetime of smoking).
Tim recalls that on Sundays, their family would stop by Watson’s on the way home from church (St. Joseph Catholic Church) and buy eggs and bread. You’d pay for the eggs and bread inside the store, then get in your car, drive around the circle driveway, pick up your eggs in the chicken coop and grab a loaf of bread at the house.
Watson’s house, across the driveway to the north of the store, had a big porch, and in the middle of the porch was a door that led inside the house. To the right of the door was the kitchen window, where home-made loaves would be resting on the windowsill. If Gwen was in the house, she’d sell you a loaf of bread through the window. I remember being in the house a few times, and recall it being very light and airy.
They also had gas pumps out front, and out by the road, there was a small pop stand, where you could buy chips, pop and ice cream.
There was a door at the back of the building leading to the basement. Guys would often disappear down the stairs and have a beer with Claude, who could usually be found sitting by the beer cooler. As I recall, there was also a stairway leading downstairs near the cash register inside the store.
According to the book “A Century of Service,” published by Jack and Vi Solomonson, and their daughter Mary Jo (Solomonson) Lance of the Peninsula Telephone Company, Pete Lardie owned the store and house until 1946, at which time he sold it to Gwen and Claude. Here’s a picture from the book captioned “Harold ‘Pete-the-Boss’ Lardie in front of his store in Mapleton.”
And here is a picture from the book captioned, “Left to right: Belle Lardie, Catherine Lardie, Pete and Lizzie Lardie.”
I’m sure I have some pictures of Gwen in my archives, and will post as soon as I dig them out. Let me know if you have any photos of Gwen, Claude or Watson’s Store you’d be willing to let me publish in Old Mission Gazette.
What are your memories of Gwennie and Claude Watson, and Watson’s Store in Mapleton? Leave thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
Here’s a clipping I came across in Newspapers.com about the time Gwennie organized a community birthday card for OMP resident Sgt. Ralph Heller, who was serving in Viet Nam. The clipping was originally published in the May 28, 1970 edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle.