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Away to a Good Start – The Brockville Board of Trade and Its Founders

“With full sails set the new brig, ‘Board of Trade’ was launched upon the sea of commercial prosperity” pronounced The Evening Recorder on Wednesday, December 5, 1906. The news was that The Brockville Board of Trade had held its first organizational meeting the evening before and was “Away to a Good Start”.

The Charter of The Brockville Board of Trade

Any lawyer worth his (or her) salt would tell you that to achieve longevity a fledgling organization must begin with a charter. And so it was that on the fourth day of October 1906, one hundred Merchants, Traders, Brokers, Mechanics, Insurance Agents and Manufacturers in the Town of Brockville had signed their names to an application for a charter to incorporate The Brockville Board of Trade under the Boards of Trade Act. On the 24th day of October 1906, the Deputy Registrar General of Canada duly recorded the Certificate of Association of The Brockville Board of Trade. Upon payment of the $5 registration fee, the Brockville and District Chamber of Commerce was born.

One hundred years later, this event is cause for celebration and reflection. Much has happened to the history of business in Brockville over the 100 years that the Chamber has been its voice.

Researching: The Pieces of a Puzzle Coming Together

The Centennial Committee most recently struck by the Chamber is not populated with historians. We are amateur history buffs at best and not all of us would even lay claim to being history hobbyists. But we are interested in the people who created the Chamber, the role it has played over the last 100 years and the mere fact that it has achieved the feat of survival for such a heroic period of time.

In 1906, the population of Brockville was 9,500, according to the charter of The Brockville Board of Trade. It would appear to be quite clearly recorded, and perhaps still remembered by some, that Brockville was at that time one of the most prosperous and advanced communities in Canada.  The local history books supply excellent information on the businesses that operated at that time, the public institutions which formed the infrastructure of the Town and the people who most prominently ran it. In the midst of all of this, we struggled, at first unsuccessfully, to uncover information on the role of the original Board of Trade. The Board of Trade was clearly not a public institution such as the Board of Water Commissioners and the Brockville Light and Power Company (predecessors to the Brockville Public Utilities Commission).  Its history is not recorded alongside the institutions of municipal government. While frustrating for amateur historians, this is appropriate as the Board of Trade was formed by 100 private business people who established its working rules with the original by-law which is attached to the charter, and elected their directors and officers, and appointed their first committees, at a private meeting held on December 4, 1906. They paid their dues (originally three dollars annually) in order to finance its operations. 

Who were those people?

The Founders

Their commercial undertakings, their related public roles and the homes they lived in tell us that the founders of the Board of Trade were among the most prominent people in the Town. For the most part, they were owners or senior employees of the retail establishments that supplied goods and services to the citizens of Brockville. They were grocers, druggists, hoteliers, dry goods and clothing purveyors, insurance agents, jewellers, bakers, bankers and publishers of newspapers. We counted a small but important number of large manufacturers represented among the signatories. To us, this mix of businesses spoke to the notion that Brockville was relatively sophisticated for its time. It was quite self-sufficient; it was not a resource-based or primary production economy. It was not import-dependent.  It had many retailers (large and small) supplying the local demand for quality goods and services. Our analysis of the signatories to the charter also caused us to speculate that, like the Chamber today, the membership was largely comprised of businesses that were locally owned and operated, with Brockville as their market, in contrast to the regional or national businesses operating in the area who constituted a small (but significant) proportion of the membership and whose markets were more far flung. Their primary and vital contribution to the local Brockville economy was the creation of thousands of jobs, providing demand for the goods and services of the local merchants who largely comprised the membership of the Board of Trade.  Few of today’s Chamber members can trace their roots directly to these original businesses. That said, a number do still exist.  Furthermore, many of us will remember names that only recently retired from the commercial landscape of our community.  Regardless of the longevity of their businesses, it is fair to say that the founding members of The Brockville Board of Trade were significantly influential in shaping the commercial and public landscape of our community, in part by virtue of having the vision to found the entity which is now the Brockville & District Chamber of Commerce.

Some of the First Signatories

We expect that the first signatories to the charter must have been particularly prominent citizens in order that their leadership might act as an inducement to others to participate.  The first signatory of the charter was a Mr. S.J. Geash. He was the Assistant Manager of the Brockville Lumber Company and served as Mayor of Brockville from 1902 to 1904. He was also the Chair of the Board of Water Commissioners. His home was at 27 Pine Street. His picture may be found repeatedly in a variety of sources of Brockville history and graces the cover of our directory.  A prominent local grocer and dry goods dealer, James H. Gilmour was the second signatory of the charter and the first President of The Brockville Board of Trade, having been elected, along with his fellow officers and committee members, at the meeting held December 4, 1906. Mr. Gilmour operated a grocery and dry goods wholesale distribution business, which was regional in scope, at 224 King Street West, located where Youth Unlimited recently had its home. He lived at 75 King Street East. The Gilmour family was also represented among the ranks of the founding members of the Board of Trade by Albert Gilmour, also active in the family business, who signed the charter at number 96 and lived at 14 Clarissa Street.  Robert Craig was the fifth signatory of the charter, on behalf of R. Craig & Co., located for many years at 30-32 King Street West. They sold furs, hats, furnishings and clothing. The Craig family clearly supported the Chamber for many generations, as Grant Craig,  grandson of the founding member, was a member of the Board of Directors in the 1950s.

Grocers, Chemists and Other Retailers

Among the twenty or more grocers and dry goods purveyors who signed the charter was Albert M. Patterson. He was a principal of Lewis & Patterson, which operated a dry goods store at 205 King Street West (although there is some evidence that it once occupied 82 King Street West, where the Royal Bank is today). The store specialized in clothing (dress materials and ready-to-wear) and home furnishings and issued a monthly newsletter called “The Nut-Shell” for the reading pleasure of its patrons. Mr. Patterson lived at 63 Orchard Street and was the eighth signatory of the charter. His partner, George T. Lewis, also signed the charter.  He lived at 12 Beecher Street. The 1909 Souvenir describes the proprietors of this “modern departmental store” as “gentlemen of sterling character and sound business principles”.  Several members of the Wright family signed the charter, including Robert Wright, the founder of the department store business, who lived at 17 Sherwood Street. George A. Wright, who lived at 32 Sherwood Street, was the ninth signatory. He was the general manager of the business known as Robert Wright & Co., which was a prominent department store located at 47-51 King Street West on the southwest corner of King and Broad Streets. Some of us will remember that subsequently Eaton’s occupied that space for a number of years. The Wright family also operated a popular confectionery store on King Street that subsequently became known as Kyle’s, remaining in business until 1969. Mr. Kyle was also a signatory of the charter. Brockville’s druggists were prominent in the formation of The Brockville Board of Trade. Six of the signatories were druggists, including Adam Fullerton, who operated at 2 King Street West and lived virtually around the corner at 10 Victoria Avenue. Many of us will remember Fullerton’s Drug Store. Some may also remember Curry’s Drug Store, for many years a fixture in the Fulford Block on King Street. R. Curry was the 62nd signatory to the charter.  Braund’s Fair was interesting not only for the name of the establishment, which sold fancy goods, chinaware, crockery, glassware and the like from its location at 81 King Street West, but also because it was one of three retail stores established by the same owner, William Braund, in three different communities – Lindsay, Smith’s Falls and Brockville. It could be considered one of Brockville’s first chain stores! Mr. Braund, who, by 1906, lived at 53 Pine Street, was the 67th signatory to the charter.  Copland’s Book Store was another long-time fixture of the Brockville retail landscape, operating as a book and stationery store at 95 King Street West where Dreamweaver is today. J. S. Copland signed the charter, recording himself, as did many others, as a merchant”. Mr. Copland lived at 39 Ormond Street. 

Until recently 62 King Street West was operated as a jewellery store. In 1906, it was owned and operated by F.B. Steacy, who signed the charter as the 88th member of the Board of Trade.  Eventually, the business passed to Hap Wingfield, a senior employee of Mr. Steacy, who operated it for many years as Wingfield’s Jewellers. 

The Real Estate Agent

William Shearer was one of the most noteworthy and colourful supporters of the Board of Trade. He signed the charter as the 13th original member and lived at 81 Bethune Street. He was a real estate agent operating from the Durham Block whose slogan “Let Brockville Flourish” is an excellent motto for any era. He was the Secretary of the Board of Trade for a period of time following its incorporation and appears to have developed an early sense of the value of the organization for the purpose of networking! His advertisement in the column beside the 1906 Recorder article on the Board of Trade listed properties for sale but commenced with: “The launch of the new tug ‘B. of T.’ having been successfully accomplished and articles signed by a volunteer crew, it will now be in order to proceed to the banqueting hall and begin the toast list in the usual orthodox way.” As he listed his properties with reference to the prominent people who owned them, he advised his buyers to “get in line”. At that time, the sales of the “Brockville Real Estate Bureau” totalled over $1 million annually, considered a boom. History records his commitment to public service in this community by virtue of being the champion of the establishment of St. Lawrence Park, which he accomplished in part through his involvement in the Board of Trade.

The Manufacturers

Given the importance of the transportation industries to the growth and development of Brockville, we would be remiss if we did not mention some of the players in those industries who signed the charter. D.M. Spaidal represented the Canada Carriage Company, a large manufacturer with 400 employees in the Town of Brockville at the time. Mr. Spaidal was the Vice-President of the company and lived at 138 James Street East. The company made sleighs, phaetons and wagons at the time, foreshadowing its future role as a manufacturer of early automobiles, including the bodies for the Brockville Atlas. Charles R. Rudd & Co. manufactured harnesses and saddles on King Street West and its principal, Mr. C.R. Rudd, was also a signatory of the charter.  This firm kept with the times by eventually becoming a car dealership.  John H. Fulford was the only member of the Fulford family, famous for its involvement in the patent drug business, to sign the charter. He signed as a ticket agent for the Grand Trunk Railroad, operating out of the Fulford Block at 8 Court House Avenue. He lived at 9 Pine Street. George P. Graham, who is likely better remembered in business circles as a newspaper publisher, was the 35th signatory to the charter and lived at 350 King Street West. In 1907, Senator Graham (as he was eventually to become) was elected Member of Parliament for Brockville and was named Minister of Railways and Canals. He served 4 years in the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in this ministerial role before being defeated at the polls. Subsequently re-elected to Parliament, he served in the House of Commons for many years before entering the Senate. 

Shipping was another primary driver of Brockville’s local economy at the time, and it was represented by the industries that depended on it and the railroad to transport their goods, such as W.B. Reynolds & Co., coal merchants operating out of 14 King Street East. Walter B. Reynolds, who was the 41st signatory of the charter, lived at 68 Bethune Street. Thomas Wilkinson, the founder of the Central Canada Coal Company, signed the charter at number 38. 

Among representatives of the large manufacturers who were founding members of The Brockville Board of Trade, John M. Gill, President and General Manager of James Smart Mfg Co., was the 40th signatory and J.A. Briggs, the Vice-President and Secretary-Treasurer was the 23rd signatory of the charter. It is well known that Smart’s was a prominent employer in the Town of Brockville for many years as a maker of stoves, furnaces, hardware and tools which were distributed throughout Canada and the British Empire. Mr. Gill lived at 181 King Street East. Mr. Briggs lived at 53 James Street East. The Smart family was also represented among the founders of the Board of Trade by Robert H. Smart, who operated Smart’s Hardware Store at 193 King Street West and lived at 20 Broad Street.

The James Hall Company, was located at 17 Broad Street where the Boardwalk building is today. A large manufacturer of gloves, mitts, suspenders, men’s belts, arm bands and garters, it employed over 200 people and was represented by William C. MacLaren, the President and General Manager, clearly a notable Brockville figure. He lived at 27 Jessie Street, was the third signatory of the charter and President of the Board of Trade in 1909. He is described as “a man of shrewd business and financial judgment and of unswerving integrity of character”. His commitment to Brockville extended beyond the operation of a successful and up-to-date manufacturing business to membership on the Boards of entities such as the Board of Commissioners of the Light and Power Department and the Public Library.

Founding Members in Business Today

Several of Brockville’s Chamber members carry on as they did when they became charter members of the Board of Trade in 1906. With apologies to any we may have missed, we identified Cummings-Cossitt Insurance Brokers, Tait’s Bakery, The Recorder & Times and the banks.  In 1884, Abraham Cummings founded A. Cummings & Son, an insurance agency, with offices in the Comstock Block at 11 Court House Avenue (since demolished). He was the 9th signatory of the charter. By the early 1900s he was joined by his son, D.A. Cummings, both of whom were highly respected members of the business community and “prominent in a public way as well” as Mr. A. Cummings was a Commissioner of the High Court and his son a Justice of the Peace.  The Cossitt firm was originally founded in 1870 by Mr. George H. Weatherhead (who lived at the corner of Victoria Avenue and James Street, where the Irvine Funeral home is now located), who was later joined by Mr. Charles S. Cossitt. By 1909, G.H. Weatherhead & Son had become a member of the Board of Trade. In the list of founders of the Board of Trade, the Cossitt family was represented by F. B. Cossitt, who was in the farm implements manufacturing business. Edwin C. Cossitt & Co. (named for Charles’s son and the father of Tom Cossitt, long-time federal Member of Parliament), as the insurance firm was eventually known, operated in the Cossitt Building, located in the building directly behind the Cummings-Cossitt offices today, at the corner of King Street and Court House Avenue. The two long-time competitors finally merged in 1980.  There is a bit of speculation involved in the origins of Tait’s Bakery prior to Mr. John Tait becoming the proprietor in 1908.  We believe that, in 1906, Charles H. Buell and his son Clancy M. Buell, operated a bakery and grocery store, C.H. Buell & Son, at 31 King Street West, from which they sold baked goods as well as fresh nuts, dried fruits and other “Superior Table Groceries”. Their ad in the December 5, 1906 Evening Recorder declares: “The stock we got is the best we can buy.”  Charles Buell was the sixth signatory of the charter and Clancy was the 89th. Charles lived at 79 James Street East.  As is well known, the Brockville Recorder & Times is the product of two newspapers, the 1906 owners of which both signed the charter. A.T. Wilgress, President of The Brockville Times Printing & Publishing Company, located at 23 King Street West, was the 36th signatory to the charter. Until recently, the Recorder & Times operated out of 23 King Street West. W.H. Comstock, President of W.H. Comstock Co. Ltd. and The Recorder Printing Company, whose head office was located in the Comstock Block, was the 53rd signatory of the charter. Mr. Comstock, founder of the patent drug business that flourished for decades in Brockville and Morristown New York, lived at 185 King Street East. He held many offices on public boards, owned various businesses and was a director on the boards of many Brockville businesses.  A number of banks, still operating today, were represented among the founders of the Chamber. The Bank of Toronto (now TD Canada Trust) was located in the Comstock Block. It was represented by the Branch Manager, Mortimer Atkinson, who lived at 173 King Street East, and signed the charter at number 54. Molson’s Bank carried on business at 21 Court House Avenue, where the law offices of Stewart Corbett are today. The manager of the Brockville branch (which subsequently merged with the Bank of Montreal) was J.E. Fidler, who was the 33rd signatory of the charter.

Diverse and Widespread Membership

Through our homespun research, we have been able to highlight only a few of the 100 signatories of the charter. Even as we comment on the large manufacturers and those businesses that have survived into the 21st Century, not to mention the grocers and other retailers we have highlighted, it remains significant to the character of The Brockville Board of Trade, and to the Chamber today, to recall its original diversity of membership.  Among the signatories, we identified one plumber, one mason, one dentist, one launderer, one butcher, several hoteliers, one undertaker, several furriers, one auctioneer, one customs broker, two fancy goods dealers, three tailors, one liveryman and two music dealers. 

Considering that Brockville was comprised of 9,500 citizens in 1906, it was quite an achievement to gather the signatures of representatives of 100 of Brockville’s businesses. The Brockville Recorder discloses that not only did the Board of Trade have 100 founding members, but also, by December 4, 1906 when it held its organizational meeting, it had grown to 156. Today, it is noteworthy that Brockville has 22,000 residents and the Chamber has approximately 550 members, a membership the number and quality of which the Board of Directors of the Chamber is justifiably proud. Today, as in 1906, the Chamber membership is broad-based and comprised primarily of locally owned and operated businesses.

The Voice of Business

In 1906, in addition to offering the kind of networking opportunities that we have today, advocacy was a primary function of The Brockville Board of Trade. Even then, we were the Voice of Business and, as it is today, the organization was a watchdog of municipal government.  The Brockville Recorder’s account of the discussions at the December 4, 1906 organizational meeting highlights the debate over public versus private investment in utilities and the most efficient manner in which to run them. The Evening Recorder captures the debate, as follows:

“The consolidation of the electric and waterworks plants was a matter over which there seemed to be a great deal of  misunderstanding… If a business man owned two plants he would consolidate them at once with a view to saving money. It was an important matter for the Board of Trade to consider.”

The Brockville Light and Power Company Limited, as it came to be known in 1892, supplied gas and electrical services to the Town. The Brockville Water Company had been originally founded as a private company because the citizens of Brockville balked at having to pay for public water service. It was bought by the Town in 1892. It was not until 1912 that the three utilities were brought together to operate out of one office, eventually to be known as the Brockville Public Utilities Commission, no doubt in part due to the lobbying of the Board of Trade. W.H. Comstock, one of the founding members (as noted earlier in this article), was also the President of the Brockville Light and Power Company Limited when it was founded. H.A. Stewart, a prominent lawyer in town (of Stewart Corbett fame) was also the Mayor of Brockville at the time of the formation of the Board of Trade, the Chair of the Board’s first organizational meeting and the first Vice President of the Board of Trade.  While we observe the overlap between the leadership of the Board of Trade and the Town’s institutions, the theme of the Board of Trade struggling with the Town’s investment in, consolidation of and divestiture out of, public utilities echoes many of the same issues facing the Chamber and the taxpayers of Brockville today. The Chamber’s voice remains as necessary and relevant today as it was in 1906.

Centenary Celebrations

As part of the celebration of the Chamber’s 100th anniversary as Brockville’s Voice of Business, the Centennial Committee is extremely proud to have launched a commemorative coin. With the Chamber’s centenary logo on one side and the image of Sir Isaac Brock on the other, the Centennial Coin will be a collector’s item for Brockville businesses and residents for years to come. We offer our thanks to artist Diane Godwin-Sheridan for her donation of the image of Sir Isaac Brock. 

With the cooperation of area businesses, the five dollar coin was in “circulation” for use as local trade dollars with participating Brockville businesses until December 31, 2006. The Centennial Committee also hosted a celebration of the Chamber’s centenary on October 21, 2006 at which we highlighted past mayors of Brockville as well as past presidents of the Chamber. Thank you for joining us in celebrating the past and look forward to a bright future for Brockville and area businesses.

Respectfully Submitted,

Dave Murray and Mary Jean McFall
On Behalf of the Centenary Committee
Brockville and District Chamber of Commerce

Sources: “Brockville, A Pictorial History”, edited by Dr. ten Cate and Christina MacNaughton (whose ancestor signed the charter of the Board of Trade); The archives of The Recorder & Times, with special thanks to Chris Stesky and Bob Pearce; the 1906 Souvenir published by the Brockville Recorder to commemorate the Old Boys Reunion of 1906; the 1909 Souvenir published by the Brockville Recorder on the authority of The Brockville Board of Trade; the First Directory of Brockville businesses, published in 1913 (in which it is unfortunately noteworthy that no mention of The Brockville Board of Trade is made). In light of some inconsistencies which we encountered, errors and omissions are to be forgiven.

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