Anita Young feels a lot of loyalty to the people of Wawa. And for good reason, because the people of Wawa have been there for her and her late husband, Bill, when they most needed a hand.

Bill Young founded what has become Wawa’s most famous landmark, Young’s General Store, way back in 1971 and soon brought Anita into the business. As the store grew over the years, it expanded into a potpourri of souvenir T-shirts, fishing bait and lures, food, gifts, ice cream, a player piano and – its most famous feature – a pickle barrel where buyers could pick their own. (It is now relegated to behind-the-counter service because of COVID-19 precautions.)

Anita Young sells locally caught beaver pelt.

The store’s growth over the years is even more remarkable, considering one devastating setback that could have easily destroyed the couple’s dreams.

Eight years after the store opened, in April 1979, the family awoke to the barking of their family dog, Tonka. They discovered the store and their attached home were in flames. Despite the efforts of the Michipicoten volunteer firefighters, the wood-frame building was destroyed, but Bill, Anita and their three sons had escaped alive.

“The door frame was on fire as we got out,” says Anita.

Anita says Bill was a bit of a risk-taker and had left the building underinsured, which made rebuilding unrealistic.

“Bill didn’t believe in a whole lot of insurance,” says Anita. “We were pretty short.”

Then, the townspeople stepped forward.

“They said to Bill, ‘Have you got enough money to buy the lumber?’” says Anita. “’If you can buy the lumber, we’ll build it.’”

And so a crew of volunteers from town not only rebuilt Young’s General Store, but made it bigger and better than it had been before. For that, Anita remains eternally grateful.

“The women brought food. … Everybody from town came with the saws and ladders and nailing guns,” says Anita.

“It makes it feel you really belong,” she says. “We’ll always be grateful and we’ll support the town.”

More heartbreak came in 1988 when Bill, a lifelong smoker, died of lung cancer. But the town once again rallied for the Youngs, and today it still operates with Anita, now 73, and two of her three sons, Jim and Allan.

Old gas pump is among the relics found outside the store.

Today’s Young’s General Store is there in all its rustic glory, greeting visitors to this northern Ontario town. The famous stuffed moose that occupied the veranda has been put into storage during the pandemic, but a broad array of artifacts remain – mementoes to the days when Wawa was a boom mining town.

Wawa grew on gold and iron ore mining, and forestry. As industries faded, the town of 3,000 on the beautiful, sandy shore of Wawa Lake has shifted its focus to tourism.

The town rallied once again a few years ago to save Henrietta, the stuffed moose, after it was confiscated by provincial conservation officers. Local folks started a yellow ribbon campaign demanding Henrietta’s return, got politicians involved and finally prevailed two years later when the moose was returned. (As it wore out from tourist use, it was eventually replaced by a bull moose.)

Beside the store, stands the original massive Canada goose statue that the town erected to attract motorists passing by on Highway 17. When the goose was replaced with a more modern version a few years ago, Anita bought the old one and had it moved to beside the store.

Anita grew up in nearby Hawk Junction and met Bill when he came to manage the Wawa branch of his family’s business, Steel City Coach Lines. Anita went to work for Bill, who had opened the store in “a little wee cabin,” and the couple soon fell in love and were married.

Anita with her prized player piano. In 2002, staff bought the rolls that make it play.

The support over the years has taught Anita a lot about life and about the value of taking chances.

“If you try, you can do it. There were a lot of hard times, but we did it,” she says.

COVID has been costly to the Youngs, with business about half what it was in good times, but Anita says it will prevail, just as the town itself has.

“We’ve seen ups and downs,” says Anita.

“Fifty years already, I don’t know where time goes. I still think it’s not real.”

The ConnecTour team is in Sault Ste. Marie. Watch for more updates in the coming days. 

Relics capture the nostalgia of a bygone era.

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