The P & R Laing grocery business was one of the largest and longest running in Dundas’ history. It occupied the distinctive three-story Italianate building at 15 King Street W. and operated in this location for almost ninety years, from 1875 to 1963.
“P” and “R” stood for the brothers Peter and Robert Laing. In 1866 Peter had become the manager of a large grocery business owned by future mayor and prominent Dundas citizen R. T. Wilson. In 1869 Peter bought out Mr. Wilson and entered partnership with his brother Robert. Their shop was located in the recently closed Merchant’s Exchange Hotel which still stands across from Town Hall at the southeast corner of Main and York. Just as the owners of the hotel had discovered before them, the Laing brothers soon noticed that Main St businesses were losing out to their busy King St competitors. They sold their building to the Town for use by the local School Board in 1872 and moved up Main St into a building owned by James Somerville, another eventual mayor and publisher of the leading local newspaper the Dundas True Banner and Wentworth Chronicle.
As business improved, the Laing’s planned their next step, the purchase in 1875 of the Wellington Buildings, a set of stone shops and storehouses situated on the North side of King between Ogilvie and Cross. The premises had previously been owned by T. H. MacKenzie, a former mayor and wholesale grocer whose extremely diverse catalogue of goods helped him to dominate the grocery business in Dundas throughout the 1840s and 50s. MacKenzie’s Wellington Buildings were divided into a hardware store on the west side (owned by Mr. J. Findlay Smith), and a grocery store on the east; the Laing brothers followed this layout when they took over the property.
Situated between the stylish Collins Hotel to the west and the more modern three story Dufferin House hotel to the east, the P & R Laing grocery business prospered.
On the early morning of September 15th 1881, a fire broke out in the Billington and Forsythe factory around the corner on Cross street. The blaze quickly spread westward through the nearby furniture shops, storage barns, and hotel stables behind the factories, engulfing the block west of Cross and north of King. As people gathered to watch the conflagration, the Wellington Buildings began to catch fire. The Laing’s were only able to rescue a small number of valuables, leaving much of their goods behind. Without adequate water pumps to fight the flames, it was feared that the Collins Hotel and the whole rest of King Street might burn to the ground. Two frame buildings next to the Collins were preemptively demolished to cease the spread, but a single stone wall of the Wellington Buildings, standing amid the ruins, did much to stop the progress of the flames. By the time water hoses from the Dundas Cotton Mill and Bertram’s could be brought to the site, this single wall was all that remained of P & R Laing’s store.
Along with the other business owners on the block, the Laings quickly began to rebuild their lost property. A larger and more decorative brick building was designed by Hamilton architect Peter Brass, with the local firms of Doidge & Son, and Bowman and Casey executing the brickwork and woodwork respectively. The opening of the building was announced in May of 1882. The Laing’s occupied most of the building including the east end, while Mr. J. Findlay Smith’s hardware store returned to the extreme western portion. The new P & R Laing’s was a feast for the eyes; packed rows of shelves reached up to the high ceiling and pyramids of jars, boxes, and tins sat atop the ornately carved counters. In its heyday the Laing business was actually comprised of three shops with distinct storefronts — grain and feed, liquors, and grocery. The feed and grocery shops each had their own storage barns at the back of the property. A large stoneware liquor bottle stamped “P & R Laing” is now in the collection of the Dundas Museum and Archives.
Part of the charm of P & R Laing’s was how little it changed. While Smith’s hardware was sold first to Gordon Wilson, and eventually Hugh Walker, the name of Laing remained a constant. For almost eight decades the store offered home delivery, giving jobs to many young boys of the town, including Peter Laing’s son George. In the evening men would often gather to chat and chew tobacco around the old pot-bellied stove. The store prided itself in offering the widest possible range of goods for sale. Lengthy newspaper advertisements listed all manner of foods, drinks, liquors, glassware, crockery, seeds, and general provisions could be obtained there. The reputation of the business seems to have been an excellent one; for generations of Dundasians the name of P & R Laing was associated with a lost age of friendly and personal service. By 1930 George Laing had taken over the business from his aging father and uncle. He kept the operation running in the same old-fashioned way, even continuing the horse feed store into the 1940s. Like so many places in Dundas, Laing’s was a time capsule of days gone by. When George finally retired he donated many interesting artifacts to the Dundas Museum. The store was a treasure trove of local history, containing artifacts which reflected over eighty years of Dundas business. The long list of items given to the Museum include one of the beautiful original counters, a large grinder that had ground out hundreds of pounds of coffee over the decades, a hand painted store sign, and a large variety of antique tins, bottles, and boxes.
This beautiful building remains one of the most recognizable in Dundas. The Laing name is still associated with the building as the transom over the main entrance to the upper floors still reads “Laing Apts“.