491 Commercial Street

Last general store

An era passed in June 1959 with the closing of Provincetown’s last true general store, which had opened in the 1880s under Josiah Swift, passed to Alpheus Irving “Irv” Freeman (±1875-1960), then to John I. Shaw and his wife. “When Irv Freeman ran the store, the two big windows displayed socks, gloves, lanterns, pie plates, magazines, crockery, sprinkling cans, oil cans, cakes, lawn grass seed, soap flakes, furniture polish, beer pails, flashlights, buckets, gasoline cans, axes, shovels, hoes, soap, paper cups, baking powder, Vaseline, lemon squeezers, dog food, pudding flavor, Boston brown bread, canned peas, ink, peaches and animal crackers,” a newspaper account recalled.

“And this was only a smattering, it seems, for inside on the shelves was an assortment of merchandise ranging from fish hooks to cage anchors, from patent medicines to bathtub stoppers.” The Advocate took its own stab at hinting at the variety to be found at Freeman’s after noting that Freeman himself had no idea how many lines of merchandise he carried, except to say, “Got as many as chain store and a damned sight more.” (“Irv Freeman Is No Longer Moored to Last Authentic General Store,” The Advocate, 16 September 1948.)

Well, there were steel wool and corn flakes, light bulbs, garbage cans, films, bubble gum, school supplies, hardware, carpenter’s tools, canned foods, ice cream, candy, ‘kerosene for sale,’ milk, drug sundries, gift wrappings, garden tools, gifts, butter, post cards, alarm clocks, cigarettes (with a pasted-up clipping in the case warning that ‘Cigarettes Rob Young Girls of Health’ by Angelo Patri). Freeman’s General Store also has the agency for the sale of all government geodetic maps, charts and tide-tables in these parts and Irv says it is not all uncommon to be routed out of bed any time of the night to get a certain chart for a boat owner.

Oh, yes; the store was open seven days a week, year-round, and Freeman himself was reportedly excused for jury duty on the ground that closing the store might result in crisis conditions, during which “citizens would roam the streets in a vain search for artificial fish bait and safety pins.”

Freeman’s parents were Prince I. Freeman and Dorinda (Cook) Freeman. He married Alice Atherton Adams in 1899 and survived her by 21 years. Trained as an architect and then employed by the federal government as a lighthouse repairman, Freeman took over the business at 491 Commercial in 1916 from Swift, who had run it as a junk shop for 35 years. Shaw, Freeman’s successor, kept the business going as Shaw’s Old Timer Store. While that was still open, the East End Gallery opened at No. 491. It operated at least through the late 1960s and was a showcase for many familiar artists in town, like Richard Florsheim, Gerrit Hondius, John “Jack” Kearney, Seong Moy and Romanos Rizk. David M. Colburn had a real-estate office here in the 1970s.

Though no longer in commercial use, the storefront is among the more conspicuously handsome in town. Maybe there is still some truth to the guess hazarded in the 1959 obituary for the general store: “We’d venture to say that you might find some treasure of the days of Irv Freeman, or possibly even from the time of Josiah Swift. For no proprietor of a general store ever really knows what’s hidden behind that can on the top shelf or in that barrel way at the back.”




4 thoughts on “491 Commercial Street

  1. My aunt, Ida May Mayo, who lived across the street in the Mayo Guest House, worked as a clerk in the store off and on for many years. Ida was my father’s sister (Herbert F. Mayo) and her parents were Frank Lothrop (his middle name was given to me) Mayo who was the keeper of the Peaked Hill Station on the Back Shore. My grandmother was Jenny May Mayo.

    • Hi David, Irv is my great-grandfather. While he left this earth shortly after I arrived upon it, I had the great fortune of better knowing his sister Faustina. For some reason, I seem to recognize your grandmother’s name and may even hold images of her within my collection of family photographs. Could she have been friends with my great-great aunts, Faustina and Jenny Young Freeman? After Irv and his wife (Alice Atherton Adams) separated and divorced, my grandmother (Louise Irving Freeman Philibotte) removed with her mother to Manchester area in NH. Until she married, she summered in Provincetown along with her aunts, who were both school teachers. Recognize the names of any of my Freeman women?

  2. “Irv” is my maternal great-grandfather. So happy to see a bit of his story here along with a small part of my Provincetown heritage. I hold a treasure-trove of family photographic images. Including more of Irv’s property on Commercial Street and properties at 6 and 6A Cook Street where earlier generations were born and lived. Interested?

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