This prominent heritage-listed building has always been Sheffield’s largest retail store with its original first-storey section being built for Joseph Schmidt more than 140 years ago. Born in England Joseph Schmidt (1845-1888) had an English mother and a German father. After immigrating to Tasmania, in 1877 Joseph Schmidt (30) married Charlotte (Lottie) Excell (18), daughter of local blacksmith Wm Excell Snr and purchased 320 acres in West Kentish. Greatly influenced by ‘the Sheffield gold rush’, Schmidt sold his farm and purchased a prime 1¾ acre corner block on High St and along Main St which today incorporates both Turnbull’s pharmacy and the Don Co store. Two years earlier John Best had bought it and built a split-shingle shop-fronted house on the corner.
1882 Schmidt’s original brick store
But Schmidt wanted a much larger shop and had Latrobe builder James Bellion erect a spacious single-storey store next to it on Main St so that he could sell groceries, drapery, ironmongery, boots and shoes. Schmidt opened this first brick store in Sheffield on 25 August 1882 just as Wm Collard began laying the first bricks for his ill-fated Kentishbury Hotel. Further down Main St close to the present site of the RSL, Bellion also built a fashionable wooden house with front bay windows for Joseph and Lottie Schmidt and their four children, which they called The Elms. Shortly after opening his large new store, Schmidt was approached by James York, manager of the Lower Barrington store and John Henry of Don to join their growing group of retail stores known as The River Don Trading Co.
James York (1845-1929) was born and educated in Launceston and as a young man found employment in the office of Cummings, Raymond & Co at Don. In 1863 he married Mary Neville and had 4 boys (‘64 Albert, ‘66 Samuel, ’68 William, ’80 George York) & 4 girls. When Cummings, Raymond failed, visionary entrepreneur John Henry from Melbourne purchased the bankrupt firm and joining with James York and Wm Shaw formed the exporting and importing firm of John Henry & Co which in 1880 became The River Don Trading Co. This new Company built a horse-drawn tramway up the Don Valley to tap into both the timber and agricultural trade. Upon reaching the new farming district of Lower Barrington, they built an 80ft x 24ft store in May 1879 and appointed James York manager. Across the road they erected his homestead York House which still stands today.
Both John Henry and James York were also drawn into the prospecting frenzy throughout our back country that followed the discovery of gold at Lower Beulah, dubbed the Sheffield Gold Rush. They took out mining leases at the base of Mt Roland which proved an utter failure. However, in 1881 they had a much better success, after purchasing several miles of fertile river flats on both sides of the Dasher River from Lockwoods Rd upstream to present day Gowrie Park. They envisioned continuing their tramway from Lower Barrington up through Sheffield to the Claude Road, but of course this never happened. On 13 Jan 1883 James York (37) did persuade independent shopkeeper James Schmidt (also 37) to join forces and become York, Schmidt & Co and be part of their expanding chain of retail stores. This partnership worked so well that in Nov 1885 at Railton, they purchased the first of Foster’s many town blocks offered for sale, intending to erect another branch store.
1888 became a momentous year for the River Don Trading Co. In January John Henry moved their headquarters from the Don township to Devonport because of its better port facilities, while James York was asked to move to Devonport and take charge of the company, so that the founder John Henry could enter State politics. Selling their sawmilling interests at Don, the company began majoring on exporting potatoes to Sydney and importing manufactured goods from Melbourne. Prior to this, there had been no real market for potatoes, so the ‘Don Co’ became the first to begin buying potatoes in Kentish. Within a few years, they were exporting 60,000 tons of potatoes and curing 1000 hogs of bacon annually. At this time the River Don Trading Company consisted of Wm L Well’s first store at Don, James York & Co, Lower Barrington, York Schmidt & Co Sheffield, Wm Fair & Co, Dunloran, and F. Henry & Co at Strahan. Later they added stores at Devonport, Ulverstone, Penguin, Burnie, Rosebery, and Zeehan to become the largest retail business on the NW Coast.
In June 1888 came the sudden unexpected death of Sheffield branch manager Joseph Schmidt (43) from an attack of rheumatic fever that turned into pneumonia. Being a capable friendly businessman, more than 300 people attended his funeral on a bitterly cold day in the High St cemetery adjacent to his shop. Joseph left a young wife Charlotte (30) with 4 small children: Josie (8), Florence (6), Albert (4) and Hilda (1). As Schmidt was a partner in the firm, the Don Co provided his widow with an annual allowance sufficient for her to live and raise her family in reasonable comfort. Charlotte had opportunities to remarry but never did. She remained at The Elms until her death in 1932. Nor did her two eldest daughters ever marry. Josie Schmidt was engaged for two years to Sheffield’s young Dr Ed Chisolm, whose father was a Macquarie St specialist and wanted his son to join him. But Josie couldn’t bring herself to move in Sydney. Florence’s fiancée drowned in the Forth River. Young Albert Schmidt worked for his father’s firm and became a prominent Sheffield cricketer/footballer until 1907 when he was transferred to their Zeehan branch. Later he moved to Queensland where he won the Golden Casket Lottery. Youngest daughter Gladys Schmidt married Robert Soutar employed by Customs Hobart and had two sons.
1890 Adding the second floor
James York’s 3rd son William T York (21) was sent to Sheffield to replace Joseph Schmidt as manager and because of increasing business, to oversee the erection of a 2nd storey. Bulk supplies were stored upstairs on its western side and Miss Eliza Carr’s dressmaking department with seven employees was set up on its eastern side. The first sewing machine operator they employed was Margaret Bannon, who married Clarence Murfet and became pioneer settlers in Staverton.
Above the broad staircase that led to the second floor, was an interesting feature of ‘modern’ architecture – a glassed-in box-like opening in the roof that allowed daylight in to lighten up the centre of the ground floor. The finished store with its ornamental trimmings and curved veranda over the footpath made a stunning impact upon the town and was classed as the only building of its kind on the coast. Opened on 25 Sept 1890, it was said of this tall new shop ‘there was nothing to beat it outside of the cities.’ Even today its ornate exterior is still impressive. Four months later in Jan 1891, on a visit to Devonport, the Governor of Tasmania was driven to Sheffield by Wm Henry to see the Kentish district. Numerous vehicles and horsemen followed the Governor’s carriage to Sheffield where the vice-regal visitors were welcome by the Hon John Hope. In the afternoon they were given a tour of the district including an inspection of ‘the magnificent business premises recently open by York Schmidt & Co’.
During the building’s construction, young Wm York was appointed Chairman of the Sheffield Town Board and on 18 March 1891 aged 22 he married postmistress Louisa Pullen (27), daughter of schoolteacher Thomas & Margaret Pullen in her parents’ home Vermont Nowhere Else Rd, Upper Barrington. The Yorks had four children: Thomas b1892, John b1893, Gwen b1897 & Freda b1902.
1899 New manager’s residence
Just after midnight on 30 Dec 1898, a destructive fire broke out in the split-shingle shop/house that Joseph Schmidt originally purchased on the chemist’s corner. The alarm was raised by tolling St Barnabas’ church bell which soon bought willing helpers to assist. The fire commenced in the old shop section, but quickly spread to the adjoining house where Wm & Louisa York and family were asleep along with Louisa’s widowed father Thomas Pullen. Fortunately, they were all rescued; but the old wooden building was destroyed. York Schmidt’s impressive new 2-storey store was only feet from the fire which blackened its brick wall but didn’t catch fire. The destruction of this original house/shop allowed William York to erect a much more substantial manager’s residence of bricks, into which he and his family moved in September 1899.
With nearly a dozen local young men away fighting in the Boer War, great excitement swept the Kentish community after York Schmidt’s store received a wire at 5pm, 30 May 1900 informing them that the Boer’s seven-month siege of Mafeking had been broken and Colonel Baden-Powell with 1000 soldiers had been freed. Horse riders were despatched to all outlying districts ringing bells, carrying flags and shouting themselves hoarse. Farmers fired guns, families lit bonfires, while others rode into Sheffield to join the evening celebration. St Barnabas’ church bell was rung, the gathering crowd waved flags and a drum of tar was set ablaze in front of the Post Office. Then a parade led by the local rifle Corp and 60 schoolchildren beating kerosene tins made continuous din until they reached a huge bonfire built on Jamieson Plain (south-eastern side of Spring St) where an estimated crowd of 1000 people sang patriotic songs and listened to speeches.
1906 Extra wing windens the Store
The Don Co’s shop frontage on Main St was widened by 27ft, when a single-storey extension along its eastern side was opened in March 1906. It provided a large new drapery department in front of a stylish showroom displaying fashionable ladieswear and hats. A feature of this new showroom was its huge wall mirror 20ft x 13ft high (6.1m x 4m) edged with elaborate wood carvings, millinery cabinets, chest of drawers and a long-carved counter – all manufactured by their company’s carpenters at Don. Other improvements included the installation of ‘flying foxes’ to bring cash and dockets over a network of wires to one small office in the centre of the store. Three years earlier the store had switched to acetylene gas lighting and this was now added to by fixing a row of glowing acetylene lights beneath their front veranda.
In charge of this new drapery department was Alexander Cruickshank. He came from
Scotland in 1888 and managed their drapery section for 22 years. In 1902 Alexander & Annabelle built a house at 13 High St where they raised their 6 children. In 1910 they moved to Ulverstone, where Cruikshank established his own drapery business. His 2nd son Tom Cruickshank commenced at York Schmidt as a boy and eventually took charge of their grocery department. In 1906 Tom married Nellie Morris dau of John Morris and purchased 33 acres from his father-in-law’s farm along High St. He built the original house on the site of the present Kentish Municipal Offices. Eventually he sold this house to Albert Phair and his farm to Charles Duff/Ray Duff before moving to Hobart to work in Chas Davis store. Between 1904-1909 James Curnow was office manager/accountant. It was through Curnow’s vision and drive in 1906 that townspeople built Sheffield’s first public swimming pool, on a 5 acre Government land grant, next to the Sheffield Recreation Ground. It was 80ft x 50ft, had graded concrete bottom, timber planked sides and fed from Dodders Creek.
Up to this time the River Don Trading Co stores had being dealing in all kinds of farm machinery and implements, but as of November 1907 Tas Woolgrowers took over all their farm machinery and fertilizers, allowing them to concentrate on groceries, drapery, and ironmongery. They did however retain stocks of gelignite, detonators, fuel, cement, sawn timbers and roofing iron. On 2 Feb 1910 York, Schmidt & Co held its first annual picnic for employees and their families. Nearly 70 people travelled in horse ‘drags’ via Nook to Denny’s Gorge, where they played games, and ate plenty of ‘viands.’ On 1 Aug 1912 the first motor lorry carrying 1½ tons of merchandise from Devonport arrived at the Sheffield store, where this latest means of transport was inspected by many townspeople.
1912 Two Prominent Don Co Deaths
The founder of the River Don Trading Co, the Hon John Henry CMG (79) died in Devonport on 14 Sept 1912 and buried at Don. He had distinguished himself in Tasmanian politics as a treasurer and a member of the Legislative Council chosen to help write the Australian Constitution. Six weeks after Henry’s death, on 25 Oct, 1912 York Schmidt’s popular manager at Sheffield William York (44) was found drown in distressing circumstances. His clothed body was discovered floating in the towns swimming pool. An autopsy show he had also taken a dose of arsenic. His untimely death caused a sensation not only in Kentish, but throughout Northern Tasmania. His cortege was the largest ever seen travelling to the Sheffield General Cemetery. Many motored from all branches of the ‘Don Co’ resulting in the greatest display of motor cars ever witnessed in Kentish. Louisa and her four children moved to the mainland where she died in 1934 aged 72. Her two daughters never married.
Wm York’s replacement was William Lord, followed by the longest serving manager L W Tankard. Their stories up to the present day continues next month.
Next Time: (81) The Don Co Store sold to Private Owners