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Deegan's Shoes, storehouse of memories

North Bay staple has served generations of customers since 1889

The rocking horse inside Deegan's Shoe Store has been as much a fixture in downtown North Bay as owner Ralph Diegel.

Many generations of kids have expended restless energy on the antique wooden animal while their parents have been fitted for shoes.

Carved by the legendary Gustav Dentzel about a century ago, the store's founder John Deegan bought it for $400 from 'Patty' Conklin, the famed carnival barker who had taken it off a Coney Island carousel.

Diegel's cozy Main Street shop is filled with a lifetime of memories in pictures, newspaper clippings and antique shoes.

Because of the similarity in last names, some customers mistakingly call Diegel "Mr. Deegan," but that's okay.

He stocks casual and orthopedic shoes, the odd work boot and Don Jackson figure skates.

Daughter Susan is a local figure skating coach and works mornings in the store. Ralph says he'll eventually hand the keys over to her if she wants it. But he realizes it's tough to compete against Big Box stores in today's retail environment.

"There's an awful lot of self-serve in today's market. People that need help come to a store like ours."

The store was founded in 1889 by John Deegan, an Irish cobbler who emigrated to Canada and served as a scout to Colonel Sam Steele who helped hunt down Louis Riel during the 1885 Northwest Rebellion.

"I knew him coming here in my teens to buy my sister some Sisman Scampers," the 1930s version of the Nike runner, which sold for $3 a pair.

Ralph was hired by Deegan's son George in 1946 after being discharged from the Canadian navy, "and I've been here ever since."

He married Deegan's niece, the late Gwen Darling, in 1948, and has two children, John and Susan. Today, he's with his second wife, Pat, who runs an antique store next door.

Like Ralph, 82, his clientele is aging. But it's a loyal one.

Family-owned shoe stores are going the way of home-delivered milk because of the pull of Big Box retailers on the highway. Nevertheless, Ralph still shows up for work every day at 9 a.m.

He shakes his head at the disappearance of Canadian shoe manufacturers in favour of imports shipped from Asia. "Manufacturers in this country are slowly becoming a thing of the past."

Downtown North Bay no longer has the vitality of the hey-days of the 1960s and 70s, but Ralph has no inclination to pull stakes and relocate in a mall.

"After so many years here, I'm satisfied."