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Jane Jewett: Store keeper was the ‘maestro’ behind the counter

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--July 28, 2016.

larger_jewett-xxob01_0.jpgThe sliver of land along the border between Quebec and Vermont has seen many changes over the centuries since the Jewett family fled north from the new American republic in the 1790s. Generations of Jewetts farmed in the Eastern Townships before George Jewett branched out and began running a general store in the mid-1940s.

His daughter, Jane Jewett, who died on June 26 at the age of 63, helped to run Jewett’s General Store for 36 years in Vale Perkins, a Quebec hamlet on the western shore of Lake Memphremagog, about 10 kilometres north of the U.S. border. Vale Perkins is even less than a hamlet, as former Quebec politician Reed Scowen wrote several years ago: “Indeed, it’s just a corner where four roads meet … Vale Perkins is illuminated at night by three street lights.”

But along with a bank of community mailboxes there is Jewett’s Store, a place without a sign and the centre of the universe in Vale Perkins. Ms. Jewett presided over it all, running the store her parents first bought in 1944 (it had been in operation for 100 years before that).

Ms. Jewett took over the store when her mother could no longer cope because of illness, and it soon became known as Jane’s place. She knew everyone who came in, whether they were regular skiers at the nearby Owl’s Head resort, summer residents, or people who lived and worked in the area. Ms. Jewett may have lived in the boonies but she was a well educated – an honours bachelor of science in physical education – with a worldly wit.

“When you went into the store, it was always a lot of fun and that was because Jane was behind the counter. She had a quick wit in both languages,” said Peter Scowen (son of Reid), who from 1987 to 1992 was co-owner and editor of the Stanstead Journal, published in a town on the other side of Lake Memphremagog. Along with writing the paper, he also delivered it to the west side of the lake, including to Ms. Jewett’s store.

“When I came in she always said, ‘Here comes the paper boy,’” recalled Mr. Scowen, an editorial writer at The Globe and Mail.

Orma Jane Jewett was born on March 7, 1953, in her parents’ car on the way from their home to the doctor in nearby Mansonville. She was named Orma after her mother, who wrapped the infant in her husband’s parka to bring her home. Only when they arrived back at the store, which was also their home, and unwrapped the newborn package did they realize it was a girl, their third daughter.

Young Jane went to the local English-language public school in Mansonville, the largest town in Potton Township, then later took the school bus one hour each way to Massey-Vanier secondary school in Cowansville.

After graduating from Concordia University in Montreal, she worked in the city for a while. But when her mother, who lost an arm to cancer, found it too difficult to continue managing the store, Ms. Jewett returned home. At the time, her sister Carolyn was a teacher and her other sister, Sandra, was manager of the Caisse populaire in Mansonville, so 27-year-old Ms. Jewitt was left to run the family business.

Vale Perkins changed over the decades, and so did the store. In the 1940s and 50s it sold veterinary supplies, balm for cow’s udders, coal oil for lamps, and ice in blocks cut from the lake in the winter, stored in the ice house and sold at 10 cents a “cake.” George Jewett also represented the local power company in the years before all electricity in Quebec came under state owned Hydro-Québec.

When Jane was young, Vale Perkins was an isolated rural community and almost as English as the towns and villages across the border. The 1951 census tallied only 2,013 people in Potton Township, of which Vale Perkins is a tiny part. In the most-recent census, the township was home to 1,849 permanent residents, of whom 785 spoke English at home, while 930 spoke French. When she was born, anglophones made up more than two-thirds of the population. (Some members of the extended Jewett family married French neighbours, so her family was not as linguistically isolated as some other English-speaking households.)

The Jewetts dealt with other changes as well. “The opening of the ski hill at Owl’s Head in the 1960s probably saved the store. It means the population swells to 4,700, with the secondary property owners,” said Sandra Jewett, sitting with Carolyn Jewett in the kitchen off the store, the room where their younger sister died of a heart attack.

As the local population altered, the store adapted. While Jane Jewett gave it a homey atmosphere, she was also an astute businesswoman. The store still had the advantage of being the only place to buy milk, beer, wine or cigarettes without driving to Mansonville, but she also brought in artisan cheeses and fancy meats, the kind of products her new customers wanted.

“She was a remarkable businesswoman, a tireless maestro. Jane would be at the cash on busy Saturdays and Sundays, making a sale, saying hi to someone else, carrying on a phone conversation with a supplier, all with a smile. It was a real performance,” said her friend and customer Lise Scott, an agronomist who has a ski chalet nearby and who read a eulogy in French at the funeral.

“In our region, Jewett’s store is an institution,” she added, “and in French we called it Chez Jane.”

Ms. Jewett was so well known in her small corner of the world that the priest at the Catholic church in Mansonville called the Jewetts, who are Protestants, and offered the large Saint-Cajetan church for her funeral.

It was filled with close to 1,000 mourners, and many spilled out to the church steps. It was the largest funeral ever in the small town.

Ms. Jewett leaves her older sisters, Carolyn and Sandra, who carry on running Jewett’s General Store.