1880s


A genealogist visited the archives last week, interested in finding out more about her ancestor, a man listed in the 1881 census as of African origin, who had been born in the United States. A closer look at the whole census for Mill Point, as Deseronto was then known, using the search interface at Library and Archives Canada, shows that there were five adults in the town at that date who are identified as being of African origin: two women and three men. The three men were all born in the United States and two of the three are described as barbers. They were, in fact, the only barbers in Mill Point at that time.1

Former archivist Kenneth M. Brown found the following advertisement for John Jackson’s business in the September 2, 1881 edition of the Napanee Express:

Advertisement for Jackson's Tonsorial Parlours

In light of this discovery, I  thought it might be interesting to have an overall look at the racial origins of Mill Point (Deseronto) citizens in 1881. There were 1,670 people in the town at that time (slightly fewer than today). Here is a table breaking down the population by their reported racial origins:

Racial origin Number
Irish 542
German 343
Scottish 253
French 177
Indian 121
English 112
Dutch 41
African 10

In this next table, the places of birth of the townspeople are listed:

Place of birth Number
Ontario 1,300
Quebec 106
Ireland 99
England 71
USA 52
Scotland 25
Germany 7
Nova Scotia 4
West Indies 4
Alberta 1

We can see that by 1881, nearly 100 years after this area was first settled in any great numbers, 85% of the town’s population had been born in Canada. This was a period of industrial expansion for the Rathbun Company, whose mills and factories were attracting working men to the town. A closer look at the ethnically Irish third of the population shows how youthful the people of the town were in 1881:

Age Number
1 to 10 170
11 to 20 110
21 to 30 118
31 to 40 48
41 to 50 44
51 to 60 23
60+ 22

If we compare this age profile with information taken from the 2001 census for the town, the difference is obvious:

Profile of age groups in Deseronto, 1881 and 2001

The gender profile was also quite different from today’s. Now there is an even split between men and women in Deseronto. A sampling of the 1881 data suggests that two thirds of the population were male and only a third female back then. Those American barbers would not have been short of customers!

1 Douglas Bristol’s article, “From Outposts to Enclaves: A Social History of Black Barbers from 1750 to 1915,” Enterprise & Society 5 (2004), gives a good overview of the entrepreneurial success of black barbers.

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Last month’s description of Deseronto as one of Canada’s leading industrial towns in the late nineteenth century is reinforced by the Canadian Patents database at Library and Archives Canada. This database has been created by digitising microfilms of patents for the years 1869 to 1894. A search for ‘Deseronto’ reveals a list of 23 patents that were filed from the town in those 25 years; a period covering its busiest industrial times.

These include:

  • 1884
    • APPARATUS FOR PRODUCING GAS FROM SAW DUST, submitted by George Walker
    • MACHINE FOR GUMMING AND SHARPENING CIRCULAR SAWS, submitted by James H. Totman
  • 1885
    • SNOW PLOUGH [for steam locomotives], submitted by John M. Poitras
  • 1886
    • COUNTERBALANCE FOR LINK MOTION OF STEAM ENGINES, submitted by James B. Stewart
  • 1889
    • PROCESS FOR MANUFACTURING POROUS EARTHENWARE BUILDING MATERIAL, submitted by William Lenderoth

This last is one of nine patents filed in this period by Lenderoth and Edward Wilkes Rathbun in connection with the Rathbun Company’s brick and terra cotta works at the eastern end of Deseronto. The firm began producing terra cotta in 1887 and the factory continued to generate terra cotta (both structural and ornamental) and bricks until it was destroyed by fire in 1898. The picture below shows the works from the west in the early 1890s. The photograph was taken from Dundas Street, with First Street visible in the foreground.


Examples of the terra cotta produced by the works can still be seen on many of Deseronto’s buildings.

A mention in the Napanee Standard of April 7, 1881, led former Deseronto archivist, Ken Brown, on a detective trail to hunt down a published description of ‘Deseronto and its industries’. The article in question appeared in the journal Lumber World, published in Buffalo, New York, in 1881. This publication proved difficult to find, but eventually we established that the Hagley Library in Wilmington, Delaware, held a copy (call number: TS800.L98). This library specialises in collecting the records of American enterprise (and is based on the site of the original DuPont gunpowder factory). The library’s head of imprints, Max Moeller, was incredibly helpful and has furnished the Archives with a digital version of the article.

The article runs to seven pages and is handsomely illustrated with etchings of some of the principal industrial buildings of the town: the saw mill, sash and door factory, flour mill, cedar mill and steamboat wharf. The text is fulsome (verging on the sycophantic) in its praise of the Rathbun company. Here are a few extracts:

The original saw mill has given place to one of immense proportions; extensive machine and blacksmith shops; sash and door factories; cedar mills; flour mills; lines of steam and sailing vessels; commodious and extensive warehouses and docks have been called into being, and, so great has become the importance of Deseronto as a shipping centre, the United States government has established there a Consular Agency. [p.32]

The total number of vessels which sailed from Mill Point (Deseronto) loaded by or for the firm alone, during the season of navigation beginning March 31, 1880 and ending November 20, 1880, was 509, of which 300 cleared for United States, and 209 for Canada ports. This does not include passenger steamers. During the season of navigation it is not an unusual sight to see from fifteen to seventeen vessels loading at the Deseronto docks simultaneously. [p.35]

The firm of H. B. Rathbun & Son is too well known and stands too high in the commercial world, to require commendation at our hands, yet our acknowledgement of an appreciation of the numerous courtesies extended, upon occasions when we have visited their establishments will not be inappropriate. Mr E. W. Rathbun, upon whom has devolved, in a great measure, the direction and management of the vast interests of the firm, has repeatedly demonstrated that courteous demeanor is not incompatible with careful watchfulness and prudence in business affairs, and were we to hazard a guess as to the prime cause of the magical success which has crowned the business career of this firm, we should attribute it in a large degree to the courteous and affable manner in which everyone who has dealings with them is treated. [pp.36-37]

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