Having written the history of this store in a book called Buttons, Bodices, Braces & Britches in the year 2000, for this story let’s take a light-hearted look at some humorous moments during the years that my wife Elsie and I worked together in this shop. Firstly, for those not familiar with Slaters Country Store, it sits on the corner of Main & High St, Sheffield, as it has done for 124 years. An old family business, I was the fourth generation of the same family to own it from 1973-1995. After a 5-year working holiday overseas, I returned to Sheffield with my American wife Elsie in 1959, just prior to the commencement of the huge Mersey-Forth Hydro Development Scheme behind Sheffield, so we were both offered employment in Slater’s Store. This enormous construction scheme took 10 years to complete and during these boom years Slaters more than doubled its staff. The peak year was 1969 with thousands of Hydro employees living at Gowrie Park and around Sheffield.
Lost dentures & Clean specs
One morning a staff member swept up off the floor a set of false teeth. We were all mystified as to why the deprived owner hadn’t immediately retrieved them and began imagining the victim’s gummy grin. However, two weeks later we had our answer. A local mother admitted she carried a spare set of teeth in her handbag, which she had placed in her baby’s pram. When she wasn’t looking, her baby had opened her handbag and thrown away her teeth.
In the menswear department, sales-lady Doreen McCoy was wrapping up workwear for a scruffy HEC employee from the single men’s huts when something was said about ‘clean eyeglasses’. Immediately, this boozy bloke volunteered: ‘I’ll show you the best way to clean your glasses,’ and, reaching forward, he lifted Doreen’s glasses off her face, poked his finger in his ear to get some earwax, and smeared it all over both her lenses. Then he pulled out his grubby handkerchief, polished them up and handed them back, expecting a compliment. Doreen was speechless.
After the Mersey/Forth Hydro scheme was completed, Frank & May Slater retired and Elsie & I took over the business from 1 July 1973. It was hard at first, because Sheffield was now full of vacant shops and the district full of empty houses. But the Hydro left behind a tremendous legacy waiting to be discovered. The length & breadth of Kentish was covered by good bitumen roads leading back to impressive mountains and newly created lakes. Tourism would become our new economic saviour. At the same time, Slaters Store desperately needed major renovations. We chose to recreate the charm of ‘yesteryear’ by reviving its colonial heritage, which I had seen done in the US. We changed our shop’s old, drab, boxlike façade—built economically during WW2—back to its original colonial façade with a curved veranda roof, fluted posts and intricate cast-iron trimmings. Everything was repainted in heritage colours and given old-world signage. The new façade looked striking. Slaters was one of the first shops on the NW Coast to make this heritage change, for which we received an award. Gradually most shops joined this ‘colonial look’ to make our township an attractive tourist destination.
When replacing the old wooden floor with concrete, we did it in three sections. One third of the shop floor was cordoned off with several big signs saying, ‘Keep out – wet concrete’. As the tradesmen finished trowelling, suddenly there was a loud shriek. Looking up, a lady was standing ankle-deep in wet concrete. Together they grasped: ‘How on earth did you get in here?!
Whilst reroofing the shop, local tradesman Ray Gillam stepped off the corrugated iron roofing and fell feet-first straight through the plaster ceiling down into one of the offices below. He was quite shaken, but appeared OK – until he realised just how close he came to straddling the open door into that office. That thought took his breath away, causing him to go limp all over.
Faith in Humanity
An elderly couple often walked slowly around town hand-in-hand. On several occasions our senior staff member Gwen Hardstaff said, ‘Isn’t it lovely to see them? They restore my faith in humanity.’ The time came for this same elderly couple to celebrate a special wedding anniversary, so the husband asked if he could take home a couple of men’s suits on ‘approval.’ After their celebration was over, he returned both suits, saying, ‘Sorry, I didn’t need them – I was able to borrow one instead.’ As I hung the suits back on the rack, I checked all the pockets as I usually did, and out came two packets of sugar from a well-known restaurant. I showed them to Gwen and said: ‘I’m so glad that old couple restored your faith in humanity, because they have just shattered mine.’
Attending to Tourists
In 1985 we formed the Kentish Association of Tourism and developed the idea of Sheffield becoming the Town of Murals. On her first overseas holiday, a Scottish tourist came in, made several significant purchases, and paid for them with English currency travellers’ cheques. Without allowing for the exchange rate, our junior staff member had over-charged the customer more than $150. We only had her name, nothing else. We contacted travel agencies, airlines, advertised on the radio and eventually located the lady who was grateful to retrieve her money.
One morning a tourist couple drove their van away from the front of Slaters Store and accidently left on the footpath a large video camera, which they didn’t miss until late in the afternoon upon arrival at Stanley. Meantime, a lady found it and brought it into our shop. In a panic, the couple rang our shop on the slim chance we had it and were over the moon to know we did. Returning next day to collect it, they told us they were in Tasmania solely because they had been asked to video their niece’s wedding which was the recording on this camera.
After a tour bus of Italians arrived in town, a group of ladies swarmed into the shop and surrounded a stand of fashionable tops. Holding up a fancy top, one lady jabbered away in Italian to a staff member. Assuming she was asking to try the top on in the fitting room, Jenni said ‘That’s OK.’ Whereupon the lady pulled her blouse off over her head, and, standing in the middle of Slaters Store in just her bras, tried on several tops before selecting one. Noticing how badly her bras fitted, staff told Jenni later, ‘You really needed to have made two sales.’
We had a group of Japanese in the shop with the obvious leader an attractive Japanese woman. Fascinated by our display of Aussie outback gear, she insisted on trying on an Akubra hat, long Thomas Cook riding coat and Blundstone boots. While she was putting these on in the fitting room, one of her party whispered, ‘She is the most famous film-star in Japan today.’ But our smallest sizes were far too big for her. When dressed up, she looked ridiculous – boots too big, the riding coat touched the floor, she appeared to have no arms and the Akubra hat almost covered her Asian eyes. But she adored them and asked one of her minders to produce several hundred dollars to purchase the lot.
Tourist falls in the street.
A lady tourist from the mainland tripped on the gutter and fell face-first into the concrete footpath, shattering her glasses and giving her a bleeding and bruised face. She was picked up and brought into our staff room, where she sat whilst Elsie and others cleaned her up and gave her a cup of tea until she regained her composure. Later, a lovely letter of appreciation arrived from Adelaide addressed: To the American lady in the Corner Store, Sheffield, Tas.
Fitting a big-bosomed farmer’s wife.
Self-conscious about her bulging bosom, a farmer’s wife asked Jenni Stafford to bring some large-fitting bras to try on at her house. Jenni parked her new Ford Falcon in front of the farmhouse but forgot to pull on the handbrake. She was about to fit a size 40DD bra when through the window she saw her car creeping down the driveway. Without time for explanation, Jenny left the bare-breasted lady, tore out through the front door and down the driveway after her car. Now, Jenni was an avid horsewoman, who went riding each morning before work. She knew how to catch a runaway horse but wasn’t too sure how to catch her car. She ran down the driveaway, twirling the big pair of bras over her head like a lasso, calling out, ‘Whoa there, whoa there!’ But the car continued until it crunched into a tree. Later at the AAMI office, trying to explain her insurance claim, Jenni had the staff in stitches. Even the boss suggested, ‘We should make a commercial out of that story.’
Occasionally we purchased new mannequins to display our fashion garments in the front windows. Gwen Hardstaff was anxiously waiting for a new mannequin to arrive, which was delivered during her lunch break. Staff members quickly unpacked the model and had young John Overton climb in and reclosed the box. After her lunch, Gwen sailed back into the staffroom and immediately fell on her knees to unpack the long box. When she opened the lid, up sat John with a cheesy grin that had Gwen nearly dying of fright.
When changing frocks on mannequins in the front windows, you soon learn to pull down the blinds first, to prevent serious accidents. It appears when people glimpse an apparently naked body, they are compelled to take a longer look. We found people would walk into one another, trip over prams, push-bikes would run into the backs of parked cars, and even passing cars had near misses. Only when you had completed your new window display was it wise to raise the blinds. But there was something else our staff learnt: if you stand perfectly still in a shop window, viewers cannot tell who is real and who isn’t. We had an old rocking chair to use as a window prop and occasionally a staff-member would sit motionless in this chair, wait until someone was gazing straight at them, then blink one eye or slightly move the rocking chair. A person looking in from the street would go into cold shock, believing that they had had some deeply religious experience like visiting Lourdes in France.
Bullet Hole in Next Door Shop
For many decades, Slaters owned the shop next door, which still displays a bullet hole through one of its nearest shop windows. This is what happened- before Bossimi’s Bakery, the site was occupied by the Commercial Bank with an adjoining house for its bank manager Bert Seamons. Bert had two teenage daughters Beverley & Elaine who attracted plenty of attention from three local youths Max Abbott, Neil Robson and Bruce Rees. One day, they were skylarking with the girls in the bank’s front yard, when one of them discharged an air rifle. The bullet crossed Main Street, passing over 2 footpaths and 2 traffic lanes, pierced the front glass window of the shop, travelled the length of the building and embedded itself in the back wall – without hitting anyone. Police confiscated the air rifle for 6 months and dispensed some very sober advice.
When Elsie & I retired in June 1995 to allow our son John and daughter Barbie Dyer to take over the shop, the tourist boom was at its height. Sir Joh & Lady Beljke-Petersen were living in town with Lady Flo promoting her ‘Pumkin Scone Shoppe’. All the tourist bus companies had rerouted their itineraries so that between 6-10 buses were stopping in Sheffield daily. Then out of the blue, on Sunday, 28 April 1996, the unthinkable, the utterly unimaginable tragedy occurred. At Port Arthur, Martin Byrant shot 35 tourists dead and wounded another 21 – the world’s worst massacre by one individual. Suddenly, tourists became terrified and en masse stopped visiting Tasmania. Our tourist industry went into a free-fall. Coaches and cars stopped coming and our crucial tourist trade ground to a halt. It took more than two years for Sheffield’s daily visitors to get re-established; never returning to the same numbers as in those pre-Port Arthur days.
Much Travelled Painting
Our daughter Barbie will always remember the tourist from WA who couldn’t
decide whether to purchase a large painting costing $100 and finally returned to the West without it. A week or so later we received a cheque in the mail from her enough to cover the picture and its postage to WA. The painting was carefully wrapped, carried to the Post Office and dispatched. Fourteen months later, the same painting arrived back in our shop with an accompanying letter to say the lady was now moving into an aged-care home and could she have her money back! Barbie wrote her a courteous letter saying unfortunately Slaters couldn’t operate their business on those terms and that her painting was being sent back to her local PO in WA where upon paying the return postage, she could dispose of it some other way. The lady never did collect the painting and in the process of time the WA postal department returned the package back to the sender in Sheffield, Tasmania. This time Barbie refused to receive it, so what the lost property division of Australia Post did with this much-travelled painting is anyone’s guess.