Eganville — When O’Grady Brother’s Garage began in 1953, there were several garages in town and customers who pulled up for gas at the Texaco pumps were served at the pump, usually by a member of the O’Grady family, including one of the 11 kids.
Seventy years later, as the business is preparing to close following the sale to the County of Renfrew for a new paramedic base and multi-purpose building which may be a home for a Renfrew County Virtual Triage Assessment Centre location (VTAC), there are very few independent garages anywhere; there is no Texaco in Eganville and the pumps are long gone, never replaced following a devastating 2007 fire.
“A lot has changed,” said Pat O’Grady. “When dad started, he had the office, two bays and gas pumps.”
The garage was founded by his father, Archie, and uncle Arnold. They were the original O’Grady Brothers. Soon, another brother, Jack, came into the business.
“Then dad bought out Arnold,” Pat said.
By the 1970s, Jack had started his own garage, and it was Archie and his family who were the face of O’Grady’s.
The business is something Pat grew up with. The second oldest of the children, he lived in the family home next door and was helping out as soon as he was able.
“I started working when I as 14,” he said. “I was pumping gas at 12. So, you could say I have been here a couple of days.”
The business was busy and it was a family business, so it was natural for the youngsters to help out their dad. Since they lived next door, coming over to pump gas or do what was needed was part of life in the O’Grady household.
“Dad ran the business to support 11 kids,” he said. “There were 13 of us around the table. Most of the kids helped out but Dad would not let the girls come over to work in the garage.”
Later on, there were also nephews and nieces pumping gas, so it was very much a family business. It was also a thriving business, even though there were several garages in town.
“At one time dad had four mechanics beside himself working,” he said. “It was always busy.”
Archie was also civic minded, serving as the reeve of Eganville for several terms. Other members of the O’Grady family include the late Preston, Pat’s uncle, who taught at Opeongo High School and volunteered in various capacities including helping establish Fairfields assisted living for seniors and the Bonnechere Museum.
For Pat, the garage was in his blood. He quit high school after Grade 12 and did his apprenticeship in Ottawa, coming back to the family business to work.
“So, I never really left here,” he said. “And Jim (his brother) was here the whole time pretty well too.”
Pat took over the business from his father in 1998 and continued to work long days and long weeks.
“He lived it and breathed it,” his wife, Helen said. “Six days a week and sometimes the odd Sunday.”
Those were the days when there was always a garage open on Sunday in Eganville.
“We would work the odd Sunday rotating the garages in town,” he said. “We had a deal one garage would always be open on Sunday.”
This was especially important in the summer when the tourists and cottagers were in the area and a breakdown could mean they would not be able to get home if there was no garage open on Sunday.
Helen has been part of the business since she became one of this branch of the O’Grady’s (she is also an O’Grady but not related), marrying Pat in 1978.
“And I started helping here in 1980,” she said. “I did the books for awhile.”
She was in charge of booking appointments for customers, pumping gas and doing the books. She would greet the customers when they arrived and hand them the car keys when their vehicle was ready to go. Then a devastating fire in 2007 brought a change to O’Grady’s.
It was an early Saturday afternoon in late July when O’Grady’s Garage and Esso Service Station turned into a ball of flames within minutes of a fire starting. The heat was so intense the nearby Shell Service Station and restaurant was closed and residents of the nearby Fairfield’s seniors’ home were evacuated to another location because of smoke. Traffic was closed in the vicinity and the large column of smoke filled the sky.
The fire began when Pat removed a gas tank and it split in two, causing an explosion. He suffered serious burns to his arms and hands and minor burns to his face. The force of the explosion knocked him off his feet and onto the floor. He was very, very fortunate to not be hurt worse.
“When I looked down, my feet and everything were on fire,” he told the Leader in 2007. “I was on fire.”
Archie, who was 79 at the time, was still living next door and Pat ran to his parent’s home to make sure he was safe, since Archie still spent a lot of time at the garage doing odd jobs and chores. He was safe, but later he was one of the many bystanders who watched in disbelief as the garage was consumed by fire. It was the loss of a landmark and the loss was then estimated to be at $1 million in 2007. Many questioned if O’Grady’s would open again.
They were closed for 10 months and then everything was ready to re-open in May, 2008. Their customers booked appointments in advance and they were busy from the first day at the new garage.
Archie, who died in 2012, lived to see the new garage rise from the ashes. The new O’Grady’s was large and spacious, but no one would be pumping gas there again. Environmental issues after the fire made it not feasible to have the gas pumps put in again, especially realizing there would still be the liability issues associated with the pumps. However, with the removal of the gasoline pumps came the addition of the gift shop/flower shop operated by Helen which proved very popular in the community.
By 2023, O’Grady’s was continuing to serve the community in the garage and gift/flower shop. Jim and Pat were the mechanics and the business was busy, but the opportunity came to see the building take on a new life and the O’Grady’s were pleased to see it become something which would benefit the community. Perhaps in the spirit of something that a civic-minded Archie would have liked to see.
With both in their 60s and Pat turning 69 soon, it is time to take life at a slower pace. They enjoy being with their three grandchildren and are looking forward to having time to do other things. For life at O’Grady’s is always busy.
“I get up at 4:30 and am here at 5 o’clock,” Pat said. “I do the books and order parts then. So, I won’t miss the paperwork.”
Is the independent garage becoming a thing of the past? The O’Grady’s are very cognizant many of their customers are quite sad to see them close and wondering where they will take their vehicles for service. They are also not the only garage closing in the area. A garage in Westmeath and one in Beachburg are also closing at the end of June. In the last few years, the last garage in Golden Lake closed down. There are very few independent garages left.
The loss of O’Grady’s, with four bays – one is used for the flower business now – will be felt in the community.
However, things have changed a lot since Archie and Arnold opened the garage in 1953.
“It is all computerized now,” Pat said. “And it is all found in a smaller space.”
Not only does the equipment to deal with the car computers and diagnostics cost a lot, but the engines are also different than the old ones. Getting a part takes a lot longer than it used to when the engines were simpler and more open.
“It takes so much longer to take things off to get to an alternator for instance,” he said. “It is a whole different way of looking at things.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, into the 1970s, the vehicles were big and the space the engine was found in was big too. Many vehicles in 2023 are much, much smaller and looking under the hood is a different experience.
“In those days, you had a station wagon for 13 people,” he laughed.
Although discussions have been ongoing about the sale for the last few years, now that things are finalized there is a permanency as the reality sinks in O’Grady’s is closing after seven decades. For Pat, it is the end of an era which has encompassed his whole life.
“I really have not had time to think about it,” he said. “Once I am done, I can sort it out.”
The next few months will be busy. The garage is open until the end of July and then they have until the end of September to get everything out for the turnover to the county. While Helen has items at the gift shop on sale now, Pat will wait until August to begin his clear out. He will be getting rid of all the garage items and saving some for his own shop where he can fix things.
As they look forward to retirement, they also realize they will miss their customers, many of whom are friends.
“Many are lifelong customers,” Helen said.
The last day at the garage is July 28. Until then the business is busy and life continues with long days and busy weeks. That final day will likely be a bittersweet day at O’Grady’s and as people call to wish them well and congratulate them on the sale, they still welcome the chance to say goodbye in person.
“If people want to stop and say goodbye, feel free,” Helen said. “It will be nice to see them.”