Crunch! I’d just bought a single Courtland apple, to munch while out on a walk with my friend Barb. 1978 and we were both very pregnant; walking was a great activity. I will never forget the taste and smell of that apple. I’d bought it at Cancilla’s Fruit and Vegetable Market.
When Anthony Cancilla turns the key to open his wholesale fruit and vegetable business in Barrie, he’s the fourth generation of his family to do so. Really, importing and distribution of fresh produce in Barrie area has been the purview of two Barrie families for a century, the Cancillas and the Saso’s, and they were all related by marriage.
In 1907 when Anthony’s great grandparents, Domenic and Francesca (Saso) Cancilla first opened shop in Barrie, 6,200 souls lived here; the town really spanned about six blocks east, west and north of the Five Points. Trains brought produce from the Toronto terminal and the Cancillas picked up their wares and distributed to small grocery stores all over this region, by horse and buggy and often by hand-pushed cart.
Simple days. Two families, both from Sicily and both settling in Barrie for its picturesque location and its feel of ‘home.’ Domenic and Francesca raised a family whose dna contained produce! Their son, Anthony, married Mary Battalia (the Orillia produce Sicilians) and they joined their parents in the produce trade. The seniors ran Cancillas Fruit and Vegetables for the first half of the past century (roughly 1907 to 1950); their sons Sam and Frank took over for the second half and in 1990, Frank’s son Anthony said he’d like to assume responsibility for the business.
Cancilla delivered to Shanty Bay, Oro Station, Orillia, Midland, Wybridge, Elmvale, and all points in between…no superstores in those days.
The business started out behind the former Wellington Hotel in sheds that held the horse and buggy (and likely nearby rooms that held the family). It moved to what is now a second empty lot at the Five Points. They were mainstreeters. Mainstreeters in the 20’s and 30’s really held the pulse of a whole community in their hands. They knew how people were, who was sick, in need, who was celebrating, mourning. The townspeople were knit together by their main street and the grocery stores were supplied by Cancilla.
The business left the Five Points in the 1950’s and moved up the street to its wholesale (at back) and retail (at front) spot on Clapperton until the 1980’s. When I first moved to Barrie in 1971, Cancilla anchored most of the east side Clapperton St between Dunlop and Collier. There was an old fashioned weigh scale, rows and rows of vegetables and fruits, a relic of a cash register, paper bags, fabulous wooden floors, milk glass in the back windows. The family had bought the old Opera House (also gone) on Collier St and moved the business there for a decade or so until the building was sold to accommodate the Collier St parking garage. But Cancilla’s warehouse was anchored on that property and exists today down the lane, just steps from where it started out.
Today, Anthony has a base of restaurants and institutions who count on him. While he doesn’t advertise it, he does sell the odd retail item for people who live downtown or people who have always bought from Cancilla’s. His sister, Joanne Eyers helps in the business, too, when she’s not teaching at Mariposa Skating School.
Barrie’s no longer a town of 6200. Yet, with all the growth, retail expansion and movement, Cancilla’s produce remains anchored in much the same location as it did 105 years ago.
Steady. Sturdy. Ever present. Thanks, Anthony. Thanks, Domenic & Francesca.