Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville – Theresa Tate
Meet Theresa. More commonly known as ‘Mrs. Tate’ or ‘Mother Tate’. She hardly needs an introduction. As the matriarch of the East End Garden Centre for decades now, we’ve probably all crossed her path at some point.
I made it a point not to profile folks who own businesses in the neighbourhood as it might look like favoritism, but I’ve made an exception here. Besides, she hardly needs the press! As iconic as the EEGC is, her story will make you better understand and appreciate the life of this extraordinary entrepreneur.
Born on Manitoulin Island, in a teepee, back in 1932, to a First Nations father and white mother, Theresa’s early life was no picnic. At the tender age of 3, she was put into an orphanage by her mother, who was unable to care for her. At 10, her uncle rescued her and brought her to live with him and was raised with his 3 boys in Sudbury. She lived and worked with them until the age of 18, when she headed to Toronto; with a grade 3 education and the willingness to work.
Her first job was with the Usher family, stocking shelves, working in their retail and food section. If anyone remembers them, they owned a similar business to Knob Hill Farms.
She met her husband Norman around this time, and over the next years became proud parents of 6 kids; 5 girls and one boy. This didn’t stop either of them working. They opened a variety store on Parliament, then moved to River St. after a year or two. She’d run the business by day, and when the kids would come home from school, they’d head straight to the store to work. Theresa would then head out into the night collecting garbage to sell for extra money. She was the first woman in Toronto to be officially given a collector’s license. One night while she was outside rummaging through bins and picking up old furniture in a residential area, a man came out asking her what the hell she was doing! She explained to him what and the next thing you know they exchange phone numbers and shortly after she gets a call from City Hall. Little did she know, he was a big wig there then and through him, she was employed by the City of Toronto to assist battered women who were evicted and/or on welfare to help them move/set up in new places of residence. She worked with the City (on and off) before, during and after she established the Garden Centre.
At the same time they ran the convenience store on River, Theresa started, coached and sponsored a hockey league for underprivileged kids. The locals supported her, so she returned the gesture. “It was a mutual respect thing. Helping the community is what it’s all about”.
In the early 1980s, they sold the convenience store and bought the space the Garden Centre is currently on for $32,000. Their daughter Kathy was the first to occupy the house/cottage that was on the lot. Shortly after, they bought 1395 Queen using that space as their moving business. “We had so much storage space, it was easy to store furniture. Perfect”, she smiles. “Kathy eventually moved, and that’s when we expanded and added food to the business. Norman’s family had a groceteria up near Bobcaygeon, so we’d bring some of the food back and start selling it out front”. It eventually expanded to the current Garden Centre in early 1992 with the help of Tom Jacobek and then mayor June Rowlands. “We know Jacobek wasn’t too popular then, but he helped us enormously. Norman took sick and Tom was there to help us set up, help with the business permits etc.” On May 17, 1992 the Garden Centre officially opened.
When they started to expand even more, Theresa bought 1397 Queen. “We needed to house our workers!” We were often sent people from out of town to work with us; students doing horticulture apprenticeships, out of towners needing work, women who needed to leave a domestic situation. We got a pretty good deal on the house then, and to do this day, we still have family living in them”.
“We still take on apprentices here: from Humber College, Guelph U, you name it”, says Judy, the middle daughter and Master Gardener, who seems to run the show these days. “Yep, Mom is pretty much the supervisor these days vs doing much else. She’s gettin’ on!” Theresa turns 85 this year. I can’t think of too many octogenarians still showing up for work every day and greeting the customers, but Mother Tate wouldn’t have it any other way.
I mentioned their somewhat ‘crusty’ reputation to some in the ‘hood. They didn’t take offence to that at all, but Judy explains. “We went through a lot of heartache these past years. Our dad died, one of my sister’s husbands contracted cancer and died, mom was beaten and robbed by friends of an employee back in 2004. The list goes on! It’s hard to keep on smiling through all of this”. Wow. No kidding. They make up for this by giving back to the community in bigger ways than I knew. Every year they sponsor one or more of these causes/shelters/community fundraisers: Nellies, Duke of Connaught, Street Haven, Jessie’s, Red Door, Good Shepherd, Bowmore School, St. Joseph’s, Heritage Nursing Home. “Mom never had a family, so treats the locals like family and loves to give back.”
Where they did run into some trouble was during the TTC streetcar track debacle. “It nearly put us under,” Judy sighs. We had to offer free delivery just to get our customers to shop. And now the boulevard marketing hikes. It’s enough to put you out of business. For the last years it’s been creeping up from $70-$80/year to $200-$300/year an now they want to introduce some crazy cost – $7,000/year! The patios are being hit with the same crazy prices. We don’t understand it. If you want community to shop and use what the neighbourhood offers, you can’t do this. It’ll kill the neighbourhood”. Hear hear.
After I wrap up my chat with Judy, I look over and there she is. The ‘supervisor’ can’t help herself. She’s behind the desk, helping out a customer, with Patches the cat looking on. She smiles at me, and says ‘Oh we just rescued a few more kittens. Want to meet them?” I laugh. Of course they did. The crusty old gals at East End Garden Centre really aren’t so after all. They have big hearts, community spirit and longevity to their credit.
Next time you pass by, pop your head in and say hi. It took me a while to do it, but once I did, I now get waves from across the street and Sunshine always gets a guaranteed pat on the head. Unless Patches is around. Then we keep on goin’. She doesn’t like dogs much.
*Older photos provided by Tate Family