Tag Archives: Vankleek Hill

A history of the Black population in Eastern Ontario as shown through the 1861 census

In February, for Black History Month, I asked Alan Campbell of the Lambton County Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society for his help. I am a member of the Lambton County group, and I read a report by Alan about his Black history research into Ontario census records. He was most helpful, and generously pointed me toward research conducted by Michael Wayne PhD at the University of Toronto, and by Barry Christopher Noonan in Wisconsin. That 1861 Census research brings us the names and locations of identified Black persons in Prescott (2), Russell (9), and Glengarry (39). Here, we take a look at the Prescott findings of: John Dawson of Longueuil Township and A. Robertson of South Plantagenet.

Column #13 1861 Census

In 1995, Michael Wayne was a social history professor at the University of Toronto. He published a paper in Histoire sociale/Social history, a York University publication. It was entitled: The Black Population of Canada West on the Eve of the American Civil War: a Reassessment Based on the Manuscript Census of 1861.
Wayne’s research was aimed at reviewing the rate of repatriation of freed Blacks from Canada West back to the United States after the Civil War. He wrote that the 1861 Census showed that the Black population of Canada West (Ontario) —

… had made their way to all corners of Canada West and had become an integral part of the provincial economy. More than half were from the United States, but contrary to popular opinion they were mainly free Blacks, not runaway slaves. …

Wayne and his research team performed a detailed review of the 1861 Census for Canada West. The 1861 Census had a column, #13, for “Coloured Persons, Mulatto, or Indian.” The research team captured all the Column #13 entries per county, including Prescott, Russell, and Glengarry.
In 1861, enumerators were provided with this instruction:

13th. In this column mark a figure (1) for every coloured person’s name, i.e. negro or negress. This was much neglected last census, and the number of coloured persons was not ascertained. If Mulatto, mark M after his or her name – thus, (1) M; and if Indian, mark “Ind”.

The Prescott County Census Commissioner for the 1861 Census was Charles Waters of Vankleek Hill. He wrote to his superiors questioning if it was even reasonable for enumerators to gather census information from Black or “Indian” residents. His disdain was palpable, as he appeared to believe that to obtain information from “Colored, Mulatto, or Indian” for their name, religion, birth place and age would be problematic.
However, according to Michael Wayne, enumerators did do their job.

The Prescott County representative wrote his superiors asking how much information on Blacks they wanted him to gather: “It would be difficult in most cases to ascertain their Names Religion Birth Place Ages or any thing else…”. Negligence in recording data on religion, age, or even names is not the same as leaving individuals off the rolls entirely, however, there is little evidence to suggest that enumerators failed to take seriously their responsibility to provide the Bureau officials with an accurate count.

While the 1861 Census in Canada was underway, the American Civil War began in April, 1861 to end in April 1865. This was a war about economics, governance, and underpinning it all, slavery.
There was slavery in both Upper Canada and Lower Canada. In Lower Canada, there was slavery first under the French regime, and then under the British regime.
The British Slave Trade Act of 1807 did not abolish slavery. Rather, it brought an end to the slave trade, the slave markets. Those already enslaved remained so. Children born to slaves were still considered slaves. It was only with the 1833 British Slavery Abolition Act that slavery finally officially ended throughout the British Empire.
Eminent Canadian historian, Marcel Trudel (1917-2011) catalogued in detail 4,200 Indigenous and Black slaves in Lower Canada from 1632-1834. Trudel itemized names and owners. He discovered that about two-thirds of slaves were Indigenous, identified by the derogatory slang “Panis” (for Pawnee). (Dictionnaire des esclaves et de leurs propriétaires au Canada français / Canada’s Forgotten Slaves, Two Centuries of Bondage, Marcel Trudel 1960, 2009)
Trudel was encouraged to perform the same detailed study of slavery in Ontario; regretfully, he had to decline.

In 2010, author Frank Mackey published his book: Done With Slavery, the Black Fact in Montreal 1760-1840 (McGill-Queen’s University Press). In his Introduction, Mackey writes:

“We cannot know who we are without knowing who we were, and we in Canada — whatever our origin or skin tone — will never know that without understanding the black experience and what it tells us about Eurocentric culture that has dominated our history. But we cannot begin to restore the missing black element to its rightful place without first establishing who the blacks were who have been left out.”

In 1841, the Province of Canada was formed. It contained Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario). Professor Wayne’s 1995 work addressed the presence of the Black population in Canada West (Ontario) in 1861. Although many were born in the province, they did not have freedom from pervasive racism.

Although entitled to equality before the law, they experienced persistent discrimination. Whites called them “nigger” to their faces, and worse. Still, when the Civil War ended most chose to remain. Canada was not all they had hoped for, perhaps, but, despite what their white neighbours may have believed, it had become home. For the 40 per cent of the black population who had been born in the province, it had never been anything else.

We know from the 2022 article in ‘Vankleek Hill Stories’, History of Racism & Stereotyping in Vankleek Hill’s Past [link here], that the “N-word” was used in The Eastern Ontario Review which began publication in 1893. No readers’ letters of complaint were published about its use which sadly infers that the term was longstanding and deemed acceptable.

A word search in The Eastern Ontario Review for the “N-word” finds it intermittently used in the purchased pages of fiction and international news from 1894 to 1915. In 1916, the term appears in seven issues of the newspaper, then fewer times in 1917 and 1918, until disappearing in 1921.
… The intent of racism is to objectify and dehumanize a race. To make “those people” appear both lesser and less deserving; and, in turn “we” become both more deserving and entitled to hold the power.

The 1861 Census enumeration forms officially indicated the racist term “Mulatto”. The term was historically used to describe a person who had one Black parent, and one White parent. The derogatory term is derived from the Spanish for mule, which is half horse and half donkey. This racist term was successfully designed to be demeaning and offensive.  
Other races do sadly share in being the subject of racial epithets. However, unlike the Black population, no other racial group is defined by their percentage of White. “Mulatto” immorally implies that to be less than Black is better.

Dingman’s Electric Soap‘ advertising pamphlet, c.1890. Developed by Archibald Dingman at his Toronto soap factory. It is a laundry detergent in bar form. This racist promotional material was available in the ‘McCuaig, Cheney General Store‘ which today houses the Vankleek Hill Museum. The prejudiced graphic demonstrates that Black children can never be as clean as White children. It forces the racist conclusion that Black children, indeed Black people, are shamefully less than white. (Donor: Ken & Daisy Brock)

Wayne’s research of the 1861 Census for Canada West provided the quantity of those enumerated in Column #13 “Colored Persons, Mulatto or Indian.” The results for our region were: Prescott County: two; Russell County: nine; and Glengarry County: 39.
In 2000, Barry Christopher Noonan, for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, published Blacks in Canada 1861. He compiled the names of everyone identified in the 1861 Census Column #13 as: “Black, Mulatto or Indian”.
Noonan’s valuable work provided names. He noted that ‘more than half the people listed as Black or Mulatto in the 1861 Census were born here and not ‘freed slaves’.’ That conclusion agreed with Michael Wayne’s research.
With the assistance of these two publications, for Prescott County we are able to locate:

— John Dawson, age 20, in the Township of Longueuil (today part of Champlain Township).
— A. Robertson, age 19, in the Township of South Plantagenet.

We must keep in mind that these two young men were born c.1840; Dawson in “Canada East” and Robertson in “Upper Canada”. That was only a few years after the abolition of slavery in Canada. An ugly fact to consider is that although the two were not ‘freed slaves’, they very likely had parents or grandparents with direct life experience with slavery.

John Dawson, Longueuil Township

In the 1861 Census report for Longueuil Township, Prescott County is John Dawson. In Column #13 for “Colored Persons, Mulatto or Indian” there is the letter “M” for “Mulatto”. Dawson was born in Canada East (formerly Lower Canada). He was Roman Catholic, and he was unable to read or write.
There is no occupation indicated for Dawson; however, he was enumerated with Wilfrid Labelle, age 23, and his wife Mary A. Labelle, 23. Wilfrid Labelle was an “innkeeper” in Longueuil who had a one-storey log building.
Also enumerated with Wilfrid and Mary Labelle was Olive Brazeau, 20, who was a “Servant”. The census indicated that neither Olive Brazeau nor John Dawson were Labelle family members. Neither Brazeau nor Dawson lived with the Labelle Family.

1861 Census, Township of Longueuil: John Dawson, labourer, 20, single, born Canada East, “M” in Column #13. Wilfrid Labelle, Inn Keeper; Mary A. Labelle; Olive Brazeau Servant. Enumerator: J.C. Marston. (Library and Archives Canada)

To get an idea of the business that John Dawson worked for, we look at the 1861 Census Agricultural Schedule for Longueuil Township. Wilfrid Labelle’s log house sits on one acre. He has one horse and one cow valued at $70. And, he has a “carriage for hire” which was valued at $24. As an innkeeper he was in a position to provide transportation for his guests, or service to the community.
The enumerator, J.C. Marston, did not provide any value for the Labelle business, nor the wages paid to either of Olive and John in the columns provided. Marston was one of many disgruntled enumerators. Their instructions sent them to enumerate in January and February, in winter conditions compounded by what Marston referred to as poor road conditions and a “scattered” population. The official pay for enumerators was 10 shillings per 100 names. Marston and others petitioned for 15 shillings per 100 names.
Twenty years after the 1861 Census, Wilfrid Labelle appears on the 1881 Prescott County map for Longueuil Township where he now owns a hotel. We discover that he was born in Québec in 1838, and arrived in Longueuil in 1859 just before starting his innkeeping business.
Did John Dawson relocate from Québec to Longueuil Township with Wilfrid Labelle? The many facets of Dawson’s life may never be fully known.

Detail from the Prescott County map, showing a section of Longueuil Township. The property of W. Labelle is indicated on Cassburn Road. Information collected by the map-maker stated: Wilfrid Labelle had a hotel, that he was born in Quebec in 1838, and arrived in Longueuil Township in 1859. (Canadian County Atlas Digital Project, McGill University)

The 1881 Prescott County map for Longueuil Township map indicated Wilfrid Labelle’s hotel in the northeast section of Cassburn Road, at the bend.
With no more than an approximate year of birth, 1841, and the general location of Canada East, I have not been able to find out more about the life of John Dawson. In later census reports, there are a number of John Dawsons in southern Ontario.

A. Robertson, South Plantagenet

The second person to be identified as “M” for “mulatto” in the 1861 Census for Prescott County lived in South Plantagenet.
In the 1861 Census for South Plantagenet was A. Robertson, 19. In Column #13 was “M” for “mulatto”. He was born in Upper Canada, was Roman Catholic, and was unable to read or write. His occupation was listed as “labourer”.
Robertson was enumerated with Lumber Merchant James Burton, 30, and his wife Hannah Burton, 26. The couple had two children: L.J. Burton, 4 and Simon, 2.
The Burton Family had one “Servant”, Jane McCullough, 18, originally from Ireland, who the enumerator listed as single, and he indicated she was a member of the family.
Then followed a list of five male labourers, all single. Two were family members: Robert Burton, 20, R. Burton, 22. Three were non-family labourers: A. Robertson, 19; A. McPhee, 27; and, William Mackie, 25. (Mackie appears on the next page of the Census.)

1861 Census South Plantagenet, detail showing the Burton Family and their employees. Indicated is A. Robertson, labourer, age 19, single, born in Upper Canada, “M” in Column #13.

In the corresponding 1861 Agricultural Schedule for South Plantagenet we find out more about the Burton Lumber business.
It was located on the “Rear of the 8th Concession”. James Burton had livestock, two horses and two cows, valued at $110.
For the business, Burton had 100 acres valued at $400. According to the enumerator, Burton “saws logs,” and his saw mill operated on “water power”. The “Capital Invested in Business, in Real & Personal Estate” was valued at $2200. The sawmill, valued at $2000, annually produced “200 thousand feet” of “boards” with a value of $1600. This was a substantial family business that required employees.

This depiction of a private sawmill business in the late 1800s demonstrates that the workers required skills to perform their duties – whether harvesting trees, harnessing horses, sledding logs, using the sawmill. (Brault, Lucien. Histoire de Prescott et Russell, Ottawa 1965.)

James Burton reported to the enumerator that he had “four male” employees and “one female”. The individual wages listed under “Average Cost per Month for Male Labour” was $10. For the “Average Cost per Month of Female Labour”, the answer was $2.
Although we can tally five named male labourers, apparently one of them is not officially collecting wages. Were one of the two family-related labourers not collecting wages? Did the enumerator make an error in his reporting? We will never know the explanation.
On the 1862 Walling map of Prescott & Russell, we find J. Burton on Lot 23 Concession 10, South Plantagenet. A creek off the South Nation River runs through his lot.

Detail from 1862 Walling Map. The blue marks the property of J. Burton, just south of Pendleton.

Neither the Burton Family nor the Burton sawmill appear on the 1881 Prescott County map for South Plantagenet.

What do we learn?

As in the case of John Dawson, there is little information available to help enrich our knowledge of the life of A. Robertson. Perhaps there will be someone to take up that research.
The research of Professor Wayne does inform us that in 1861, Prescott County had at least two Black men in the population. Russell County had nine persons and Glengarry had 39 persons of Black race (see listings at bottom).
With the work of both Wayne and Noonan, we have added to our knowledge of the people who made-up our region in its early formative years.
As we pull ourselves away from perpetuating the narrow white European origin stories of those colonial days, we now accurately acknowledge that we are in fact on non-treaty Algonquin Lands.

Thanks to available research, we can rework our preconceived notions about early arrivals here, and recognize that there were Black neighbours — people who had to endure the deliberate racist society around them.
Critical knowledge of our community reveals new diversity, and tells us that ‘we are richer than we think’.

1861 Census report of Column #13, Prescott County, Longueuil & South Plantagenet townships. (Blacks in Canada 1861, Barry Christopher Noonan, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000)
1861 Census report of Column #13, Russell County, Clarence Township. (Blacks in Canada 1861, Barry Christopher Noonan, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000)
1861 Census report of Column #13, Glengarry County, Lochiel Township. The enumerator followed the protocol instruction of identifying the children of Evender and Margaret Dewar as Black, the same as their father. However, their daughter Mary Dewar, 7, is classed as ‘W’ which indicates the enumerator was grading the degree of skin colour. (Blacks in Canada 1861, Barry Christopher Noonan, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000).
1861 Census report of Column #13, Glengarry County, Charlottenburg Township. (Blacks in Canada 1861, Barry Christopher Noonan, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000)
1861 Census report of Column #13, Glengarry County, Lancaster Township. (Blacks in Canada 1861, Barry Christopher Noonan, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000). The enumerators were instructed to identify the race of children in keeping with their father’s race. Louis and Elizabeth Richelieu’s children are identified as ‘W’.

The history of Pilon’s Bakery

We welcome the story of Pilon’s Bakery in Vankleek Hill, a family business that spanned five decades. It is written by Jean-Luc Pilon based on audio recordings made by his father Ambrose, and informed by his own family experiences at the bakery during his youth. Thank you Jean-Luc for sharing the history of this well-loved and long-remembered business.

“Lately there has been quite a bit of interest around reminiscences of Pilon’s Bakery. I recently completed a personal historical overview of Pilon’s Bakery that I shared on a family history website. The main storyteller is my father, Ambrose Pilon, and I complement his account with a number of photo-essays. I hope this will bring back more vivid memories and perhaps answer some questions.”

— Jean-Luc Pilon
Pilon’s Bakery, Main Street East, Vankleek Hill. (courtesy Jean-Luc Pilon)
Notice the blackboard sign propped up against the building. It’s announcing an upcoming softball game. Bill Pilon was a longtime softball umpire at Vankleek Hill games. There was never any arguing with his calls!

Click Here To Read The Story

The history of phone service in Vankleek Hill

Vankleek Hill Telephone Service: the beginnings

Compiled by Michelle Landriault from a 1962 essay, author unknown; the Stardale WI Tweedsmuir Book held in the archives of the Musée Vankleek Hill Museum; and recent research.

In 1890, cantaloupes were known as watermelons. Most young men had livery bills. The hired girl drew $1.50 a week. Lamplight illuminated every street corner 72 years ago [from 1962]. All this existed when the telephone came to Vankleek Hill.
The telephone connection was local news at this time, and a call to either Ottawa or Montreal drew as much comment from the boys around the cracker barrel in the general store as a rocket launching does to their modern counterparts today.
“Two Texas steer horns tied together with a wire, and an arrangement to make the concern bleat like a calf,” was the editorial comment of one newspaper shortly after the discovery of the telephone was announced in 1876.
By 1890, Vankleek Hill was talking to itself and to its neighbours over Alexander Graham Bell’s 14-year-old invention. Communicating by the telephone was still considered somewhat of a novelty.
In many homes across the province, for instance, it was not unusual to see a small bag of camphor decorating the telephone set as an added precaution, or so it was thought, against the spread of disease. [Eastern Ontario Review August 16, 1962]
To a pioneer lineman, the virtue of patience took on a greater significance as he travelled across the country breaking the horizon with miles of telephone poles and wire.

Vankleek Hill Bell Telephone Crew: “Bell Boys 1953” (l-r) Gabe Poirier, Fred Currier, John Nezan, Doug Hall, Jack Kitchen, Ernie Steele, Ed Mullin. (courtesy Debbie Hall)

He would politely, or not so politely as the case might be, explain to his perennial group of onlookers that the wire was neither hollow nor did it have a hole in it. At times, it became too much for even his stoic calm and the occasional whisker was nailed to the pole as well as the cross-arm.
Within a relatively short time, a vast whispering gallery of iron and copper extended across both Ontario and Quebec, and isolated areas were becoming a thing of the past. By the summer of 1890, a fine web of lines had caught-up Vankleek Hill, Hawkesbury, and L’Orignal.
That same year, an exchange service opened at Vankleek Hill shortly after a small switchboard was installed in the store of Z.J.E. Beaudry, and Mr. Beaudry was placed in charge.
The following year, further developments occurred. Pete I. Saucier succeeded Mr. Beaudry as the local Bell representative, and a direct telephone line from L’Orignal to Vankleek Hill was opened.
Long-distance calls during this time were connected at the telephone office in Hawkesbury where a call could be switched to Ottawa or Montreal. From these two centres a telephone user could reach hundreds of towns and cities in Ontario and Quebec.
As we can see from a report in the September 1888 issue of The Glengarrian, in these early years, business and professional people were usually the first to subscribe for service. Gradually, as the advantages of telephone calling became more apparent, telephones were installed in private homes.
It is extraordinary to read that by 1888 Vankleek Hill already had telephone services.

“With its numerous inhabitants and a well-built town, illuminated by over 200 electric lights, netted with telephone wires which connect the leading stores, hotels and business offices, as well as the residences of the leading citizens, Vankleek Hill has reason to be proud of its success.”

[The Glengarrian, Alexandria, September 28, 1888]

Among the first subscribers at Vankleek Hill were Doctors A. McDonald and D.J. McIntosh. The number steadily increased within the next few years and by 1897 the total of subscribers had risen to 19.
From the Stardale WI Tweedsmuir Book comes this May 1897 directory list of Vankleek Hill telephone subscribers. [The Historical Society added locations where possible.]

N. Butler, hotelkeeper (11 High Street); Canada Atlantic Railway Station (town’s east rails); Canadian Pacific Railway Station (TransCanada trail north of town); G. Constantineau Hotelkeeper (41 High Street); Durant Brothers (102 High Street); Banque d’Hochelaga (38 Main East); B. Kelly Hotelkeeper (113 Main East); E.Z. Labrosse Grocer (28 High Street); McCuaig, Cheney & Co. Merchants (Museum at 95 Main East); J.S. McIntosh Merchant (76 Main East); H. MacKinnon Physician (151 Main East); J.R. McLaurin Merchant (94 Main Street East); J.R. McMaster Hotelkeeper (68 Main East); A. Metcalfe Veterinary Surgeon; R.P. Pattee Physician; Joseph Routhier Machinist (Pearl Street); W.C. Sylvester and Son Grist Mill (Farmer Avenue); F.W. Thistlethwaite Conveyancer; and the Vankleek Hill Manufacturing Company (Mill Street).

In sharp contrast to the modern compact phones of today, were the old-time Blake sets used by pioneer telephone users here which consisted of three boxes mounted one above the other on a board.

Exhibit of telephone evolution & design. Montreal, 2018

The generator for ringing central, or other subscribers on the line, was in the top box from which the receiver hung. The mouthpiece was in the centre box and the battery or talking current was in the lowest box.
Recalling a characteristic of the old-time telephone apparatus, a notice in the directory stated:

“Face the transmitter with the mouth about two inches from the opening. Speak naturally, distinctly, and not too rapidly.”

Another footnote warned subscribers: “Do not use the telephone during a thunderstorm.”
Gradually, the Blake telephones were replaced by improved long-distance sets that greatly increased the talking range from 100 miles if “atmospheric conditions were favourable,” to about 1,000 miles.
By 1906, among those taking advantage of these improved phones were Joseph Hurtubise at the Grand Central Hotel (68 Main East); D.A. McRae Undertaker (Main Street East); H.C. Jones proprietor of the Eastern Ontario Review (Main East); the Ottawa Bank (90 Main East) and the Hochelaga Bank (38 Main Street East); Donald Shea and J. Sherman livery stables.
This 1921 report in the Eastern Ontario Review provides insight as to the annual charges for telephone services. Note that the charges are annual and not monthly.

New Bell Telephone Rates Vankleek Hill, The Eastern Ontario Review, 1921: “In Vankleek Hill, a business ‘phone costs $25.00 and a house ‘phone $20.00 a year. The increase under the new schedule will mean an addition of $2.50 a year in the one case and $2.00 in the other …. “

The year 1902 saw the completion of a long-distance line between Vankleek Hill and the neighbouring community of Rigaud.
In 1897, the telephone agent changed again to Hugh Duncan and on May 1, 1904 druggist Edward Elvidge was appointed local manager and the central office was established in the rear of his drugstore. The exchange office remained in the same building until dial service was introduced in 1960.
The telephone office remained open for business from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the week; from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays; and from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on holidays – a far cry from the 24-hour daily service available here today.
Informality highlighted the early exchange. It served many purposes. It was a means of neighbourly chatting, an efficient method of business communication, and a fast way to bring help in case of fire, illness, or another emergency.
The operator knew everybody by name and everybody knew her. She was the town’s alarm clock. She woke subscribers for work, to catch an early train, and to give them an early start in the hunting season. In fact, the demands upon her time went far beyond operating the switchboard.
Miss Clara Lajeunesse, who began her career as an operator at the exchange in 1907 and served in this capacity until her retirement in 1945, was one of the first operators in Vankleek Hill.
Telephone traffic slowly but steadily increased through the years. In 1911, the number of subscribers had risen to 50; a year later, the 100 mark was passed. By 1930, there were over 200 telephones connected to the local switchboard.
In 1937, Edgar Brown bought Mr. Elvidge’s drugstore and took over management of the telephone office. His wife, Helen, assisted him both in the store and at the switchboard and was appointed chief operator in 1944. That year, the exchange was converted from an agency to a company operation which meant that its administration became the direct responsibility of the Bell Telephone Company rather than of local agents who had formerly operated the office under contract.

In 1937, Edgar Brown purchased Mr. Elvidge’s drugstore at 92 Main Street East, and managed the Bell switchboard office located at the back. The Bell operators, (back) Doris Smith (Sproule) and Helen Allen (Cameron), conveyed all local calls until dial telephones arrived in 1960. Mrs. Helen Brown was Chief Operator, and Joyce McCrimmon (Nixon) was also an operator. Priscilla Milner took over from Mrs. Brown in 1962. (courtesy Debbie Hall)

Mrs. Helen Brown served as a chief operator until her retirement in May 1962 and was succeeded by Mrs. Priscilla Miner.
Looking after the telephone requirements of over 600 customers in the town when dial service was introduced was chief operator Mrs. Milner, and a staff of eight which included Mrs. Lorraine Mooney, Mrs. Kay Hurley, Mrs. Jean Barton, Mrs. Esther Miller, Miss Lucienne Paquette, Miss Isabel Campbell, Mrs. Mary Wathier, and Miss Laura Duffy.

Bell Telephone employee James Oswald, Vankleek Hill: Bell employee James Oswald outside his home on Jay Street, early 1970s. James had a 35-year career with Bell. He served as a Vankleek Hill town councillor & deputy reeve. Each year, when the new ice was laid at the arena, Jim was the first to put on skates to glide on the fresh ice. (courtesy Dawn Pier)

The history of Sinclair Supply Company

A story of the Siversky family’s success in Vankleek Hill

In 2001, Historical Society summer student Seema Maloni interviewed Sidney Siversky. Here is an excerpt focused on the Sinclair Supply business that his older brother Alex Siversky began in the 1940s, and which Sidney joined as a partner.
The interview covered various aspects of Sidney’s busy life: arrival of the Siversky Family in Canada; his business life; and his political life when he served as Mayor of Vankleek Hill.
As Sidney Siversky mentions here in 2001, his older brother and business partner Alex Siversky died in 1996. Sidney died in 2005, and their brother Frank Siversky passed away in 2020. Frank, together with his wife Frances Siversky, founded and managed the successful Siversky Hardware store on Main Street in Hawkesbury. The brothers were a powerhouse example of entrepreneurial spirit.
Here is the Sinclair Supply Company portion of the 2001 interview, in Sidney’s own words. Additional content is clearly indicated.

Sinclair Supply: the beginning

The company my brother Alex and his partners bought in Vankleek Hill was operated by John A. Sinclair. After we purchased the company, Mr. Sinclair used to come down and sit in the office and he did this for probably four or five years. He didn’t work or anything, but he was interested in the progress the company was making. We decided to continue operating the business under the name Sinclair. Because of the different ventures, we called it Sinclair Supply Company. He was well-known in the community, and, until the end of the business we used Mr. Sinclair’s name.
The company was originally purchased in 1947 by my brother Alex and his partners. And then the partners were eventually bought out. My brother Alex and I worked together for some 50 years. He is now deceased.
The year I came to Vankleek Hill, my brother Alex had come 2 or 3 years earlier, and bought a building that operated as a building supply company in those days.

Clipping from 1945 issue of the Glengarry News. These ads demonstrate the determination of Alex Siversky to connect with a wide community, and to develop a business response.

They sold coal, they sold lumber, they had a sawmill, they had a kiln to dry lumber, and a little sash and door plant. The sash and door plant was inside the former Agricultural Society building. It was a very interesting building in the design of it.

Historical Society Note: The first fairgrounds in town were at the corner of Mill and Boyd streets, today vacant land. The Vankleek Hill Agricultural Society purchased the land in 1872, and a segment of Mill Street became Agriculture Street. There was a $575 mortgage which was discharged in 1880. As the fair became more popular and expanded, the Fair Board sold the land for $805. In 1886, they purchased a larger lot on Main Street West for $1,625, where the Vankleek Hill Agricultural Fair is held today.

Vankleek Hill Insurance Map, 1912. Alex Siversky used this old map because the property he purchased at the corner of Mill and Boyd streets still contained the same buildings. He superimposed his Sinclair Supply Company needs over the old buildings he would re-use. The L-shaped building opposite the top of Jay Street (to the right) and circled in green is the Agricultural Society Hall constructed between 1874 and 1886. (Musée Vankleek Hill Collection, donor Ted & Marcia Liddycoat)

Sidney continues: When I first came to Vankleek Hill to join my brother, I drove a truck. We had an old Model T Ford truck. I did that, delivering merchandise.
In those days, we made some changes in the sash and door plant. We started building furniture, and we built end-tables and sold them to Eaton’s in Montreal. After a few years, we found out that this wasn’t a viable profit-type of operation, so we abandoned doing that.

Sinclair Supply Company Ltd., c. 1945. This building first served as the hall for the Vankleek Hill Agricultural Society between 1872 and 1886, when the Society purchased the current location on Main Street West for the Fair. Alex Siversky re-purposed the building. (Photo Siversky Family Archives)

We continued making door frames and windows in the sash and door plant. We sawed the lumber and we had a lumber-drawing in the yard, and kept a big inventory. We had the kiln, and we had horses.

Expansion continues

As time went on, we decided to buy an oil truck. We could see that oil was the coming fuel, and we did an assessment of the area and we found that none of the trucks had meters on them, only gauges. It was a visible type of thing. So, we bought a new truck with a meter on it. We built-up quite an oil business.
We found that we had developed a lot of steady customers with our lumber supplies sales. When a large construction contract was awarded in the area, we’d complain that we were not able to sell these customers any materials. Our customers said, why don’t you get into construction and you can supply your own materials.
So, then we decided to get into construction.

Disaster strikes

And then we had a terrible fire.
We were pretty well wiped-out of the whole business of the sash and door plant. There was no town water system, so we just grabbed what water we could. That was the end of that operation.

In 1951, fire destroyed the offices and workrooms of Sinclair Supply. Decisions had to be made about whether or not to continue. (Photo James Oswald Family Archives)

After the fire my brother and I sat down and discussed, “What do we do?,” “Do we rebuild?” We had no insurance. We couldn’t afford insurance because there were no fire hydrants, no fire protection; insurance was too costly.
We did rebuild, and later we had some 200 employees. We had our own plumbers, our own electricians, our own carpenters, so it was a big responsibility.

Sinclair Supply Rebuilds Bigger

Sinclair Supply Company building, late 1950s, at corner of Mill & Boyd streets. The log home on opposite corner remains in place today, covered by siding. (Musee Vankleek Hill Museum. Photo by Archie Hardy)

We started doing repairs in the construction field. We did renovations. Somehow, we got into housing, and we did a considerable number of houses in the community. We started the first subdivision in Vankleek Hill just off Highway 34. (Hillview Subdivision)
And we built houses in the subdivision (Stevens subdivision – nicknamed the ‘new development.’). We built houses for CIP. Over a 15- to 20-year period, we built a house for every CIP President elected. We were fortunate to be awarded those houses.
During that period of time, we also worked at the Seigneury Club in Montebello. They built some huge houses.
But then because we lived in a small community, and our staff was getting larger, we felt that we had to expand.

Sinclair Supply Employees Remembered

We had several employees in those days, and a lot of them were related or inter-related. We had quite a few employees, and their names were Lapensée. We had four or five from the same family working for us. Then we had another family by the name of Cummings, and we had two of their family working for us. Then we had twins working for us, their name was Doth. They stayed with us for years and years. I’ve forgotten how many, 35 or 40 years.

Memory from J. Denis Seguin Architect of Vankleek Hill who worked summers as a student at Sinclair Supply, and credits many of the longtime employees for grounding him in construction methods.
Denis adds: When we remember the employees, it is equally important to recognize the Siversky Family as ‘donneur d’ouvrage’ – their business efforts kept countless families fed in this region.
There were in-store workers like Lionel Mercier, and Gerry Piché. Carpenters, such as René Ouimet – in my view, a man who could make anything with any material.
My stint with Sinclair began in the estimating office working under Leonce Delplancke. In 1976, I was a junior estimator at $5.00 /hr. This was summer employment while attending university.
Later that same summer I asked Mr. Siversky – Sydney – if I could join the construction/carpenters crew. He said, we need to know what you can do. He gave me the job of adding tin to the 2nd floor office rooftop. I was up for it, and jumped at it for a raise to $ 7.00/hr if I did well.
Télis Lapensée took me down to the third yard, known as the company scrapyard, and left me there to sort through secondhand tin. There was a lot of re-purposing back then. After I completed my selections, Télis returned with the big Hyster fork lift and got the sheets of tin. He raised it all to the roof and I unloaded it.
It took a few days for me to complete the roofing, and Sidney came to inspect. His response was, job well done. He brought me orange paint to make it all look good from afar.
I got my raise, and was sent out with the men to construction sites in Cornwall, Prescott, Hawkesbury and then across the river to Quebec projects. We left the shop at 7:00 or sometimes at 6:00 a.m., which made for 44-hour weeks with some O/T.
Sinclair was building homes all over the place. René Ouimet and I were on the finishing crew. We did all the touch-ups, special installs like fireplaces, poured walkways, installed floor finishes and carpet, hung doors etc.
Sinclair began doing social housing projects in Cornwall. René and I did final stairs, window caulking and deficiencies clean-up for final inspections.
Once Sinclair got the provincial contract to build and maintain OPP stations, I got to help. We also did work on their buildings in Hawkesbury and Vankleek Hill.
In Vankleek Hill, in the ‘new development,’ I worked on the 28-day house at the corner of Home and Barton streets. It was built in 28 days.
Sinclair had me build decks and even window flowerboxes such as at the Orr’s house on Barton Street. They are still there, 40 + years later.
I worked for Sidney and Alex Siversky for four summers, and it strengthened my construction knowledge which led to my becoming a successful architect. To this day, I can walk through any construction site and say, “I did that kind of work.” Because of my experience with Sinclair Supply and the employees I worked with, I know what it takes and how to do it well.

Sidney continued: At that time, I was looking after construction, and doing the estimating and pretty much everything except doing the inspection of the construction. We thought that we would have to specialize, and go farther afield.
From there, we got involved with curling clubs; there was a need for curling clubs. So, we built the curling club in Vankleek Hill; we built the Hawkesbury Golf and Curling Club. Then we went to Baie d’Urfe and built a curling club. From there we went into different types of construction, we went into schools, and we did high schools too. Another year, it was church halls. Then the Ontario government decided to subsidize housing and build senior citizens’ homes. We set-up a department to look after that. We built them in most communities from here to beyond Cornwall, and up as far as Ottawa.  We stayed out of the big cities.

Housing & Industry Markets

We built hundreds and hundreds of either individual houses that were subsidized, or senior citizens’ homes that were probably 40 or 50 units at a time, in different towns like Finch, Avonmore, Lancaster, Hawkesbury.
Alex looked after the building supply company; he looked after the financing of both that and the construction because it grew so large that we pretty well had to divide it. We still operated under the same name, but I was responsible for construction and he was responsible for the financing. As the projects grew, the financing was considerable.
Then in 1970 or 1972, there was a movement from the province of Quebec for industry, and we got involved in what we call ‘design build.’ We hired our own designers and by that time we had three estimators in the office, and we started building plants.
In Hawkesbury alone, we built about 80% of all the new plants. We expanded and went into Cornwall to build some plants, and then up to Kingston, Brockville and Napanee. During those years we were specializing in industrial buildings.
At the same time, we sometimes got involved in what is called a turn-key building, that we owned and we would lease to the manufacturers. We built some of those, kept some of them for ourselves which we still own. There was another period where we got into building banks. We built numerous of those.
At the same time, we built-up quite a large land-bank in the Hawkesbury area. Between the two communities of Hawkesbury and Champlain Township, we had some 400 to 500 acres of industrial or commercial land, and we have been developing it.
Within the town of Hawkesbury, we also have commercial land which we have sold over the years. Where the new Zellers store is, that was developed on our land.

Note: The Zellers building is Walmart today. In 1999, Hawkesbury named the street access to Walmart, Alex Siversky Street.

In the late 80s, Sinclair Supply built a second outlet in Hawkesbury. It was a 10,000 square foot building on Spence Street which had a modern building supply store and it was operated for three or four years.
But it proved to be unnecessary as it was too close to the one in Vankleek Hill which maintained its popularity.

In 1967, Vankleek Hill Mayor Sydney Siversky promoted the publication of “An Invitation to Vankleek Hill.” It was published by the Industrial Committee and the contact for investors was Cecil E. Barton, Clerk of Vankleek Hill. This page is an excerpt from the booklet. (Musée Vankleek Hill Collection, donor Michelle Landriault)

A history of racism and stereotyping in Vankleek Hill’s past

A Story To Mark Black History Month

Black History Month brings us an opportunity to explore both our personal experiences and our community experiences with racism. We know racism and prejudice continue to exist. We must continuously make the effort to recognize and reject it, and to forge new pathways that benefit us all.
The Vankleek Hill Museum contains local artefacts that are racist in their content. The Museum identified them as racist on their arrival, and knowing this accepted them into the collection.
Why? Because these items represent opportunities for discussion and learning. They are a chance to explore and consider prejudices that influenced our community in its earlier years. Talking openly about racism, or prejudice becomes a tool to identify the different forms of it that we live today.
The Museum holds in its collection, for example, a Dingman’s Electric Soap advertising pamphlet that was made available to customers in the ‘McCuaig, Cheney General Store’ which today houses the Vankleek Hill Museum. In addition, the collection includes white tea towels embroidered with exaggerated images of Black musicians and dancers in absurd stances meant to be amusing.

Dingman’s Electric Soap advertising pamphlet, c.1890. Developed by Archibald Dingman at his Toronto soap factory. It is a laundry detergent in bar form. This promotional material was used in the McCuaig, Cheney General Store which today houses the Vankleek Hill Museum. Dingman’s used images of Black children in their advertising and trading cards, to absurdly demonstrate the effectiveness of their soap’s cleaning properties. The racist implication is that once the dirty Black colour is washed off, the child becomes civilized.
(Collection Daisy and Ken Brock)

The Dingman’s Electric Soap pamphlet directly implies that Black children can never be washed as clean as White children. Therefore, Black children, indeed Black people, are unworthy and no one should expect very much from them.
Advertisers often used children in these racist types of promotional materials. It is a socializing strategy: how could images of such sweet children mean any harm. But of course, they do harm.
Take note of this: Dingman’s Electric Soap was used as laundry detergent. It was not meant for washing skin. Yet, in the ad it is demonstrated just how effective this laundry soap is when faced with the toughest ‘black’ dirt possible.
In Vankleek Hill, the racist Dingman’s Electric Soap advertising was used at the McCuaig, Cheney store during a time when the local paper, The Eastern Ontario Review, carried racist content that used the “N” word from 1894 to 1921, with no complaint evident in letters to the editor, nor comments by the editor. The use of the word had been normalized.
During those years, small newspapers purchased folios of 2- to 4-pages of weekly content, ready for print, to provide readers with entertaining fiction and international news. The “N” word is embedded in this purchased content. The fiction depicts Black people in derogatory terms as comical, illiterate, impaired and as entertainment for White readers who could easily see themselves as far more sophisticated. Much the same as the purpose of the tea towel graphics – Black people as ridiculed stereotypes, barely a step-up from slavery.

In 1915, the world was hoodwinked into paying top dollar to see the landmark 3-hour film “Birth of a Nation” about the Civil War by director D.W Griffith with movie star Lillian Gish. People who experienced the Civil War were still living. Under cover of glorifying President Lincoln, the film overtly degraded Black citizens with racist content and presented the Klu Klux Klan as a heroic force to preserve white supremacy.
Three years later, at a single showing in Vankleek Hill, the technically innovative film played to a packed audience on March 13, 1918. There was also a matinee open to children who took in hours of experiencing the “N” word and viewing racist violence. Did the film shape local attitudes?
A word search in The Eastern Ontario Review for the “N” word finds it intermittently used in the purchased pages of fiction and international news from 1894 to 1915. In 1916, it appears in seven issues of the newspaper, then fewer times in 1917 and 1918, until disappearing in 1921.

Coming attraction notice for “Birth Of A Nation” in the March 8, 1918 edition of the Eastern Ontario Review (left).

The movie review of “Birth Of A Nation” in the March 15, 1918 edition of The Eastern Ontario Review (left).

In the September 9, 1921 issue of The Eastern Ontario Review, we find the first and only use of the “N” word by a local reporter, and it is on the front page. The “N” word appears in a report of the success of the 1921 Vankleek Hill Fall Fair, including a popular target game:

“The directors and officers [of the Vankleek Hill Fair] realizing that some “pep” was needed to put forth every effort to live up to advance notices, and outside of a few disappointments, everything advertised was there. The merry-go-round, the ocean wave, hit the “N…..” and the midway made things merry and added a much needed spree to the show of the agricultural products.”

Today, it takes our breath away that there was ever such a game. There was, and it was rampant in the U.S. and Canada.
Did the page one report of this unconscionable and racist ‘game’ at the Fair spark some revulsion in our community? Was there some recognition that it was wrong? There is no evidence of complaint in subsequent issues. Knowing our community, we want to believe it did raise ire and criticism.
What can be said is that the September 9, 1921 issue of the Eastern Ontario Review appears to be the last issue that carried the “N” word.
The intent of racism is to objectify and dehumanize a race. To make “those people” appear both lesser and less deserving; and, in turn “we” become both more deserving and entitled to hold the power.
We celebrate Black History Month to recognize and appreciate the many contributions made, and being made, to the honourable advancement of Canada by our Black citizens.

The history of 4132 Highway 34, Vankleek Hill

The Story of How One Property Helped Influence The Red Brick Look of Vankleek Hill

4132 Highway 34 Photo: Jan Amell

History gives us a good excuse to look into early lives and older buildings. Here is a history of 4132 Highway 34, Vankleek Hill which was on the 2018 Christmas Home Tour organized by The Review. The Vankleek Hill & District Historical Society provides the property research for this event. Photographer Jan Amell provides the images. Enjoy a bit of local history and Christmas during our Covid-19 physical isolation.

4132 Highway 34 Vankleek Hill

Our property history for this location begins in the late 1840s when a small brick factory started-up and kept going through different owners into the 1930s. Many of the brick homes in Vankleek Hill were built using red bricks fired in these yards between the 1850s to the 1920s. Other busy brickyards included the Reasbeck Family, Guindon (Yado) Family, and the Curran Family. For the owners, farming was their primary occupation with the brickmaking a second income.

Hiram Johnson Brick Yard

Hiram Johnson purchased the property at 4132 Hwy. 34 in 1849. Our local soil is clay-based with a sandy loam topping, and in wet areas this is a perfect combination for brick-making. In 1856, as often happened in early villages where wood and coal were mainstays for heating and cooking, a fire swept through Vankleek Hill destroying, or damaging many wood frame buildings.

Vankleek Hill’s ‘The Creating Centre’, the former Dominion Hotel Photo: Michelle Landriault

The hotel operated by Hiram Johnson in Vankleek Hill was severely damaged in that fire. Using bricks fired at his Highway 34 location, he rebuilt the Dominion House on the same site – the corner of Highway 34 and Main Street East, where the Creating Centre is currently located (above). The building we see today is an example of construction using the red brick from the Johnson brickyard.
The 1856 fire sparked serious fire prevention interest from many building owners. They got busy covering their wood frame buildings with brick, and turned to using brick for new construction. What a boon to the local brick business! The Vankleek Hill Museum building at 95 Main Street East (below), built in1834, is a wood frame building, and was reportedly the first to be covered in red brick after the 1856 fire.

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