Gilberts: When shoemaker Abe Savage was Chatham’s ‘Growler’

Ever get so upset with the things going on in your community, your life, or your neighbourhood that you would just love to put up a sign that expresses your true feelings? I think that possibly all of us have considered that option at least once in our lives.

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Ever get so upset with the things going on in your community, your life or your neighbourhood that you would just love to put up a sign that expresses your true feelings? I think that possibly all of us have considered that option at least once in our lives.

However, most of us, upon sober second thought, decide to keep it to ourselves, complain to a spouse or friend or possibly even write a letter to the newspaper. Most of us would not be so fired up as to place a sign in front of our house or business expressing our personal thoughts.

But in the early 1890s, a cobbler by the name of Abe Savage simply had heard enough on the political front and decided to publicize his thoughts, feelings and views on a sign outside of his small frame shop on the northwest corner of William and Park streets in Chatham.

The sign was a rather simple display board. It was a couple of pieces of half-inch plank about three feet long in the form of an inverted “V”.


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In the 1891 municipal election, Abe was a bit miffed at some political hot potato of one sort or another within Chatham. In a true expression of what it is like to live in a democratic country, he wrote his opinions in chalk on the display board outside of his shop.

As you might expect, a number of local residents paused in their travels about town to look at what was written on the sign. Expecting an advertisement for shoes or a special on leather repair, they instead got the view of the local world in clear and succinct language … according to Abe Savage.

As the word spread, even more people began to stroll by his shop to see what he had written. Seeing the interest his sign created and, being a person who did not lack in opinions, Abe decided to rub out the first message and create a new one – and the new one even more opinionated and extreme.

Hearing that Abe “had struck again,” even more people came out to see his latest volley directed towards municipal affairs. The second one cemented his hold on the local population and his popularity was secured and his messages were now becoming legend. It was, I suppose, like an 1890s reality show … of sorts!

Not content with simply reading the missives being posted outside his shop, the people of the town decided to give this public forum a name. Some wit decided that taking into account Abe’s personality and the tone of his chalk comments, the name “The Growler “might be a good fit. It worked. Chatham had a new medium. In fact it was sort of like an early social network. It had echoes of a “blog” except that it only went one way. Other opinions were not solicited nor welcomed. Abe had enough for everybody.


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Spurred on by this new notoriety and fame, Abe decided to change his comments daily. He had no shortage of comments, opinions and critiques. Citizens began to stray from their usual paths to work and started to pass by the store at William and Park just to see what “the comment of the day” was going to be on that particular morning.

His fame grew and Abe Savage took on almost folk-hero status. Many in town declared that “The Growler” usually was in the right, although not always on the side of the most popular thought. Politicians began to take notice and soon began to discreetly (possibly in disguise?) pass by the cobbler’s shop to see the shoemaker’s “comment of the day”.

It was a known fact that if Abe Savage thought that you were a “good guy” (agreeing with him) then he would support you in your political aspirations in an unswerving manner. One thing about Abe and “The Growler,” they didn’t pussyfoot around issues or people. He either loved you or wanted nothing to do with you.

However, there was that one time when Abe and “The Growler” went out of their way to support a man named Albert Phillips for town council. After the successful election, Phillips promised to provide Abe with a larger and better board.

However, time went on and no new board appeared. It was almost like those fictional situations that one hears about where politicians promise one thing before the election and then never seem to deliver. A rarity, I suppose, but I guess it does happen (sarcasm).


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Thankfully, good old Robert Gray of the nearby carriage factory stepped in and Abe got his new board, which lasted until Gray’s carriage works took over the entire block.

Over time, “The Growler” ebbed and flowed depending upon its creator’s moods. Some time later, Abe resurrected the sign when his shop had moved to the west side of Queen Street at Richmond. In fact, by this “second coming” the board had grown to three feet wide and six feet long.

By 1905, with further donations, Abe was able to boast an even bigger sign (six feet wide and eight feet long) and another one of the same size on the opposite side of the street. By now the messages were illustrated with creative art work being donated by such local cartoonists as H.E. Hughson and Homer Waffle. His empire had grown!

Eventually, the block at Queen and Richmond became the site of the American Pad and Textile Company and the cobbler-editor again had to move. Getting older now and maybe softening in his views or running out of searing social commentary, Abe Savage and “The Growler” retired and ended a rather interesting and certainly creative period in Chatham’s “literary” history.

It does not take any great leap of the imagination to see that Abe Savage was on to something. It was something that the social networks of 2021 are certainly taking advantage of and marketing with great success. Everyone wants to be heard and express, in some kind of public forum, their thoughts and views. I heard some wag say recently that, “everyone wants to write and no one wants to read”.

Looking at it this way, maybe the relatives of Abe Savage should be seeking compensation from the founders of Facebook or those who came up with the “blog”! Somehow Abe’s approach is much more appealing to me.

The Gilberts are award-winning historians with a passion for telling the stories of C-K’s fascinating past.

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