By Barry Penhale
By the end of 2017 many Canadians may be weary of the word “Sesquicentennial” but, as an unabashed history buff, I eagerly anticipate our nation’s 150th birthday celebrations. Much of this country was built by the citizens of smaller communities and I am counting on many reminders of our villages and towns, the primary industries they once housed and, of course, those enterprising giants of industry who “writ large” Canada’s rich and colourful story.
Any review of Canada’s history reminds us that during our early years our principal exports were fur and lumber. While the trapping of furs may be seen as Ontario’s oldest industry, this article is primarily focusing on our logging history in recognition of the historical importance of Deseronto and its early prosperity. All was due to the Rathbun Company, whose phenomenal growth led to its expansion from a small sawmill to a multi-million dollar corporation with offices in New York City and the United Kingdom. It is time to remember the exceptional Rathbun family, notably Hugo, Edward and Frederick. Visionary giants in the business world of their day, each deserves to be more than merely a footnote in history.
Historians generally agree the square-timber trade of eastern Canada was at its height between 1840 and 1870. Few industries have captured the interest of journalists and historians quite like the day of the old-time lumberjacks, river drivers and the powerful lumber barons. This elite group consisted of, among others, J.R. Booth of Ottawa, Mossom Boyd of Bobcaygeon, Belleville’s Billa Flint, the Gilmours of Trenton and the Rathbuns of Mill Point (later Deseronto).
For some unexplainable reason, Eastern Ontario and the likes of Flint, the Gilmours and Rathbuns seem to have been ignored when lumbering history was recorded. The Ottawa Valley and the inimitable Booth, however, frequently crop up in published books, periodicals and Canadian folk music. Even the late Donald MacKay, in his best-selling book The Lumberjacks neglected to mention Deseronto and the Rathbuns. But to his credit, Alan R. Capon, a writer concerned with the history of the Quinte area, provided some glimpses of the Rathbuns and their time. His writings and the research of unidentified others make up the Deseronto Files transferred recently to the splendid Hastings County Archives now located in the Belleville Library.
David Scott’s books dealing with Ontario place names reminds us that Deseronto is situated on the Bay of Quinte, in Tyendinaga Township, within Hastings County. He also notes that the town site was once part of the considerable acreage awarded to a Mohawk band in acknowledgement of their loyalty to the British during the American Revolution. Known earlier as Culbertson’s Wharf and Mill Point, the community was officially named Deseronto in 1881. The name honours Captain John Deserontyou who, in 1784, led his people from the Mohawk Valley to the Bay of Quinte site that would become the Tyendinaga Indian Reserve.
More than half a century ago my own Ontario explorations led to my first introduction to Deseronto. My local base allowed me to pop into Deseronto at will, constantly fascinated by the numerous largely forsaken buildings that represented industrial-built heritage at its best. What, I pondered, did these relics of the past represent? I was totally unaware that a famous family known as the Rathbuns had, in addition to an amazing assortment of industrial buildings, also owned more than 100 Deseronto homes. Described as having actually cared for their growing family of workers, the Rathbuns had created a model company town. A Rathbun-established bank made building loans available and it was well-known that many who worked in Deseronto owned their own home. For those renting, it was likely that your employer was also your landlord. But it didn’t end there. Clothing and food purchases were likely made at Rathbun-owned stores and for those craving entertainment the obvious destination was the Opera House, also owned by the Rathbuns! How and when did this all come about?
Without Hugo Rathbun (1812–1886) and the Rathbuns that followed, notably his sons Edward (1842–1903) and Frederick (1856–1898), the past history of eastern Ontario and especially that of Deseronto would be diminished. Hugo, having already worked in his American family’s lumber business, saw the potential in Canada when his brother Amos decided to divest himself of property at Culbertson’s Landing on the Bay of Quinte, acquired from his father in 1848. With partners Hugo added a gristmill and a general store and changed the name of the site to Mill Point. By 1855, he had sole ownership and moved his family there from Auburn, New York, and took up Canadian residency.
Though H.B. Rathbun and Company was fairly successful, it wasn’t until Hugo’s eldest son, 21-year-old Edward, took over that the growth and the financial rewards ultimately reached truly mind-boggling heights. Edward and his brother Frederick worked well together and achieved so much that only a selective listing of their accomplishments is possible. But consider the following: according to accounts in the local Tribune, by 1890 the H.B. Rathbun and Son company employed 5,000 people at their numerous industries. They worked in sawmills, flour mills, railway-car shops, blacksmith shops, shipbuilding yards, charcoal and chemical works, boiler repair shops, a sash, door, and blind factory and at a plant that produced Portland Cement. Some employees worked in offices and retail establishments. The company also owned four railways, a fleet of steamboats, tugs and barges, and controlled a telegraph and phone company — service was delivered as far away as Peterborough. Surviving accounts indicate that telephone service was provided to Madoc as early as 1891.
In their heyday, the Rathbuns were on top of their game. With Edward Rathbun at the helm one could always count on brilliant and unconventional business strategies that left competitors by the wayside. One of his astute decisions resulted in the building of dams along waterways, thus holding back spring runoff and assuring the movement of logs well into summer. He even turned waste from his sawmills and forests into a profitable sideline at a time when the competition were paying to dispose of what they saw as trash.
The great growth of the Rathbun Company spanned many decades. Would it ever end? The firm’s huge timber resources along the Trent, Moira, Salmon and Napanee Rivers (the source of much of their earliest prosperity) seemed inexhaustible. But change, as it will, lay ahead. A number of major fires at Deseronto proved disastrous and dwindling timber resources led to the last company log drive on the Moira in 1907. Edward Rathbun, Deseronto’s leading citizen, was spared the sight of this historic drive, having passed on late in 1903. As Capon noted in his 2003 “Reflections” column in the March 21, 2003 edition of The County Weekly News, things would never be the same for either the Rathbun Company or Deseronto. By 1923 the company charter had been surrendered and with it came a closing chapter in Ontario history. It was an era the like of which we will not likely see duplicated anytime soon — if ever.
A special thank you to Amanda Hill, Archivist, Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County