460 and 462 Bagot Street
Leo Paul L’Oiseau and Gertrude Josephine Desrosiers were married at 6 o’clock in the morning on February 19, 1924 at St. Mary’s Cathedral, had a little breakfast reception at the house of Annie, Leo’s mother, and got on the train to Oshawa. Leo had a job there, but they returned to Kingston after a few years. Leo made his way through the Depression working as a caretaker at the cathedral, a painter, a gardener, and a butcher, before opening a grocery store at the southwest corner of Bagot and North Streets, abutting their house at 460 Bagot. The store was called Bird’s, not L’Oiseau’s — and indeed although Leo had grown up speaking French at home, he never taught it to his own five daughters. Irene, Doreen, June, Rosemary, and Sylvia grew up working in the store, which was open early till late every single day, with the exception of six to seven in the evening on Sunday so the family could go to Mass. The store offered fruit and vegetables supplied by Tony Deodato, magazines, newspapers, ice cream, candy, cigarettes, bologna and other cold meats that would be sliced to order, and “flour and sugar and all that.” Kotex was wrapped in brown paper for discretion. To neighbourhood children, Bird’s most notable product was taffy apples, which cost a quarter. As Sylvia, the youngest daughter, recalls:
People used to come from out of town for Mom’s taffy apples. We had a little pot-belly stove, and she’d take a big bushel-basket of the Macs, Macintosh, when they’re just at that nice, tart stage, you know. Mom would be in there with a big pot on the stove of taffy going, and she had a special recipe. Now, because she didn’t read or write, this was in her head. She used vinegar, and the day she did taffy apples, you had no problem with your sinuses, because the house reeked of the vinegar!
Josie Bird had a canary in a cage above her kitchen sink; perhaps it inspired her, because she could whistle any tune that was in her head.
Leo’s sister Delia and her husband Duke Gordon, a sergeant in the army, rented a house a few doors down at 454 Bagot Street for over forty years. Delia and Duke were like second parents to the Bird girls; they also provided a home to Leo and Delia’s mother Annie at the end of her life. Delia worked making cigars as a young woman, and later she was a supervisor at Frontenac Tile. Well after retirement, at an appointment at Hotel Dieu Hospital, she noticed the green and white tile and and was proud of having a role in producing something that lasted so long and looked so nice.
Sylvia was eager to escape the neverending demands of the store:
I was the last to help in the store, of five girls, so I said I will never ever own a grocery store. It ruled our life, you know, it did, it really did.
Sylvia was interested in business, however, and did a business course at KCVI. After that, she worked in accounting at the LaSalle Hotel over on Princess Street, doing the payroll for 250 people in the Seaway Hotel Chain. During this time, she met Dale Hickey, the country cousin of the Cochranes who ran the corner store a block down from Bird’s, at Bay Street. The French chef at the La Salle Hotel was always impatient with his mostly Portuguese kitchen staff, but he gave Sylvia a four layer fruit cake when she married Dale in 1961, and the hotel arranged for the use of a ballroom and a hotel room at Niagara Falls.
In the 1980s, Josie and Leo decided to close the shop, and Leo had the building torn down. Today, it’s almost hard to imagine that there was room for a shop on the corner.
Warm thanks to Sylvia McElroy for stories and photos.