Rathbun Company


A recent accession to the Archives gives us an insight into what life was like for the men who worked in the lumber shanties which supplied firms like the Rathbun Company with their raw materials.

James R. Hill was born in Tyendinaga in around 1863, the son of Isaac and Lucinda Hill. Isaac died before 1871. The photograph below shows James with his mother and two sisters, Susan (on the left) and Elizabeth Josephine (standing), and Elizabeth’s daughter, Elsie. The picture was taken by Herbert Osborne, a Deseronto photographer who was active in the early 1890s.

Members of the HIll family in around 1892

The Hill family, c.1892 2015.19 (1)

James married Lucretia Hill on October 14th, 1896 and the couple had two children: Ruth, born in 1898 and Selma, born in 1900. In the 1901 census, James and Lucretia were living next door to Lucinda, Elizabeth and Elsie. Susan had married a Maracle and in 1902 was living in Rochester, New York.

In October 1902 James was working in Collins Inlet, near Manitoulin Island, in a lumber camp. He wrote a letter to his sister, Susan, talking about his life in the camp and his feelings about his distant family members in Deseronto.

Letter from James Hill to Susan Maracle, 2015.19 (13)

Letter from James Hill to Susan Maracle, 2015.19 (13)

Collins Inlet Nov 30th 1902
Camp No. 1
Dear Sister Susan
I must write a few lines to you to-day, its almost six weeks since I have been at this camp. I like this place very much nearly all that are working here are from Deseronto and Reserve, we are getting good board, nice clean Camp. The Weather is fine to-day, it snowed yesterday for a little while, but it turned into rain, I got a letter from home last Friday. I am very glad to hear that Elsie likes the school so well and its also a good thing that the officers all think so much of her. I intend to go and see her before I go home and I must write to her before Christmas. I wrote to Lucretia the second Sunday I was here but she never answered me yet, and perhaps is’nt going to. Charlie Claus is here with me and we are going to stay all winter and drive the river in the Spring if we keep our health, there was about forty Indians here from our Reserve, and about sixteen Chippewa Indians from Manitoulan Island, but most of our Indians have left here for some other Camps. I suppose you see Ruth & Selma some times. If I can draw some money some time before Christmas I will send the children some money for presents, and you try and get their picture together and send it to me I think if I even had their picture I wouldn’t get so lonesom after them some times, tell them I cannot go to see them until Spring. I hope the poor children are both well kiss them both for me. This will be all Good Bye
From Your Brother
James R. Hill
Collins Inlet
Algoma District
Camp No. 1

It is not clear what happened to James after this. His wife moved to Rochester in 1906 and was working as a servant for the Babcock family in 1910. In 1911 Lucretia married William Charles Holley, with whom she had another three children. She died in Brighton, New York on September 2nd, 1957.

Perhaps the reason this letter survives is because James died young and it was kept as a memento of his life and his affection for his family. It was found in a house in Main Street, where Lucinda Hill, James’s mother died in 1933.

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If you missed the history talk on the nineteenth century development of Deseronto this weekend, there’s a chance to catch it again on YouTube:

Due to a technical hitch on the day, the visuals weren’t available, but this version includes the slides!

2015.09 two pairs of glasses made by Canada Optical

After the iron we featured a few weeks ago, here are two more examples of Deseronto-made items. These glasses frames were manufactured at the Canada Optical Company’s factory on Main Street in Deseronto, the building which was until recently the Deseronto Fleamarket and which originally contained drying kilns for the Rathbun Company’s lumber business. It is marked number 15 on the detail of the 1895 map below:

Dry kilns and sash factory. c.1895

According to an article in the Quinte Scanner newspaper of October 4th, 1972 this building had several other uses between these two:

The building which is occupied by Canada Optical at present housed a match factory in the 1920’s, a meat packing plant in the early ’30’s and a cheese factory after that. Canada Optical started operations in 1946; in 1947 an extension was added to the factory, this consisted of an old hanger from the nearby wartime airfield.

At this time the firm was called the Canada Zyl Company, (it is still known by this name to local residents) and was producing four or five different types of spectacle frames in only two colours. They were made of a highly inflammable material and had to be stored in thick walled buildings well away from the main plant.

Here is how the building looked in 1972:

The factory moved from this location in 1996 to a building at the airport on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. It closed down in 2002.

Thanks to Andrea Hinz for the donation of these frames, another piece of Deseronto’s manufacturing past.

Edward Walter Rathbun's signature

E. Walter Rathbun, MPP, 1905 (CABHC: 2017-73/1)

Edward Walter Rathbun enlisted on this day in 1915. He was born in Deseronto on December 28th, 1865, the eldest son of Edward Wilkes Rathbun and his first wife, Elizabeth How Burt. After the death of his father in 1903, E. Walter Rathbun took over the running of the Rathbun Company. He was mayor of Deseronto, like his father before him, in 1914 and was also active in provincial and local politics: between 1905 and 1908 E. Walter represented Hastings East in Ontario’s Legislative Assembly.

In the 1901 census the Rathbun household comprised E. Walter, his wife Aileen and his mother-in-law Emma C. C. Blair. Rathbun had married Aileen Blair in Portsmouth, England, in 1893.

Rathbun was active in the local militia, holding the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel when he enlisted at the age of 49. Belleville’s paper, The Intelligencer, reported his departure in the following way on February 15th, 1915:

Farewell to Colonel Rathbun
At Deseronto, on Saturday night the opera house was filled with an enthusiastic audience of well-wishers to Col. Rathbun and his gallant comrades, who are going to the front with the guns of the 6th Brigade. An address was presented by those associated with him from boyhood, and patriotic music by local talent, led by Mr. Hercher [Herchimer] Aylesworth—a host in himself—stirred all present.

Colonel Ponton, of Belleville, carried the greetings of the Bay of Quinte District and comrades-in-arms west of Deseronto, and congratulated both the gallant Colonel and the Town on having the honor of furnishing a commander of a Brigade, which General Lessard has pronounced one of the best ever inspected in the whole Dominion in organization, spirit and efficiency.

A bountiful supper was served at the close and another of Canada’s soldier sons left for the post of duty.1

He arrived in England in March 1915, when his brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery was transformed into the Canadian Reserve Artillery. Rathbun himself was transferred to the Canadian Forestry Corps when it was established in 19162: presumably as a consequence of his experience in running the Rathbun Company’s lumbering business in Deseronto. The Forestry Corps was established to harness Canadian expertise in the lumber industry to supply the Western Front with the wood it desperately needed. It operated in England, Scotland and France.

Grave stone for E. Walter RathbunE. Walter Rathbun died in Deseronto on September 6, 1940. His wife, Aileen, was living in Scotland at the time with her brother, Arthur Blair, and Rathbun’s body was transported to Toronto for cremation and his ashes were then shipped overseas. There is a memorial to the couple in the cemetery at Nairn in Scotland. This image of it is from the Scottish War Graves Project‘s site. The incription reads:

In memory of Col Edward Walter Rathbun, Royal Canadian Artillery died 6th Sep 1940 and his wife Aileen Blair who died 1944.


1 Our thanks to the Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County for this information
2 For a history of the Corps in the First World War, see The Canadian Forestry Corps, by C.W. Bird and J.B. Davies, published in 1919.

Aerial photograph of Deseronto in winter, c.1920

Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-213876

This aerial photograph is a reproduction of an image held at Library and Archives Canada. It is undated, but was probably taken around 1920, judging from the visible buildings. Right at the bottom of the picture is the chimney of the Big Mill, and on the right is the sash and door factory which took up the western side of the bayshore end of Mill Street. The two roads stretching away from the photographer are Green Street and Mill Street, both of which were lined with trees. The Arlington Hotel can be seen on the middle right of the image, with the Canadian National Railway station just in front of it, on the other side of Main Street.

The Archives will be closed on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, but will be open again on January 7th. We’d like to take this opportunity to wish you a happy and peaceful midwinter break!

A recent accession from Edward Wright (2014.18) has added considerably to the Archives’ stock of information relating to the match companies which used to exist in the town. Mr Wright is a collector of matchboxes (a phillumenist) and has done a lot of research into the matches made in Deseronto in the first half of the twentieth century.

The Rathbun Match Company was only in operation for a short time between 1915, when this advertisement appeared on the front of the Canadian Grocer, to 1916, when the Town Council minutes note that it ceased operations in June.

Canadian Grocer - Rathbun Match Company advertisement

Canadian Grocer, August 20th, 1915

The Dominion Match Company seems to have taken over from the Rathbun concern, and it is clear from the Council minutes that the firm was offered tax exemptions for its site in Deseronto. The factory was on the northwest corner of Mechanic Street and Main Street, as shown in this extract from the town’s fire insurance map:

Detail of fire insurance plan showing the Dominion Match Company

By 1917 the Dominion Match Company was looking to expand. At a Council meeting on July 17th of that year the firm asked:

…the Council to provide for the closing of Quinte Street [the road immediately to the west of the factory] and the diverting and altering of Mechanic Street…and for both portions of said streets to be conveyed to the Dominion Match Company for use in their business and as the enlargement of their premises will necessitate the employing of a great many more hands than they have at present, it will enduce to the prosperity of the town. If the request is granted the company will waive its right to exemption from municipal taxes for the year 1917 to which they are entitled…

The Council approved the request, effectively wiping Quinte Street off the map of Deseronto, and giving Mechanic Street the shape it has today.

The postcard below shows the factory at the height of its operations.

Postcard of the Dominion Match Company, from the collection of R.N. Goodfellow

Mr Wright has a collection of boxes which were manufactured at the Dominion Match Company, including this one of the Dominion Silent Match:

Dominion Silent Match box

A third firm called the Beacon Match Company began operations in Deseronto in September 1919, but it is not clear where this factory was located. It may have used one of the vacated Rathbun Company sites.

A report in the Deseronto Post from March 17th, 1948 notes that the Chamber of Commerce was seeking a new owner for the Dominion Match building, which had “been vacant for many years”. It was in good condition, as it had been used by the Department of Defence during the Second World War.

1948 Mar 17 Match factory future

Today, the Deseronto Community Recreation Centre occupies the site of the Dominion Match Company’s factory and Mechanic Street still has a kink in it: the only visible evidence of Deseronto’s match-manufacturing history and the only curving road in the whole town.

Mechanic Street in 2014

The north-south streets at the eastern end of Deseronto are numbered, like those in many North American towns. We have First Street, Second Street, Fourth Street and Fifth Street, but Third Street is nowhere to be seen.

Numbered streets on map of Deseronto from Bing

Well, that’s actually not quite true: you can see it in the Archives.

Here is a detail of a plan of the town made in about 1895:

Third StreetYou can see Third Street in the middle of the map and there’s also a Sixth Street on the far left. As you can see, Third Street was never a very long road, stretching only from Main Street down to the flour mill on Water Street.

On this day in 1896 (the Victoria Day holiday), most of this side of town went up in flames, destroying docks and many buildings. Newspapers across North America reported on the fire. This clipping is from the May 27th 1896 edition of the Daily Public Ledger of Maysville, Kentucky:

Daily Public Ledger report on Deseronto fire of 25 May 1896

Fire destroyed two-thirds of the east end of the town of Deseronto, Ont., and nearly a hundred families are homeless. The Rathbun Co.’s big flour mill, storehouse and elevator, the shingle and lumber docks, the Roman Catholic church and about one hundred dwelling houses were burned. Most of the houses were occupied by workmen. The total loss will exceed $300,000.

The original Roman Catholic Church of St. Vincent de Paul stood on the north side of Dundas Street in this part of Deseronto. The church had been built in 1883 at a cost of over $4,000. Herbert A. Osborne took this photograph of it in around 1895:

St. Vincent de Paul church, c.1895

When the church was rebuilt, it was located further west; still on the north side of Dundas Street but away from the more industrial areas of the town. It was completed in November 1896.

Unlike the church, it appears that Third Street was never rebuilt after the fire. By the time the map below was made for the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway in 1912, the road  had vanished.

Detail of 1912 map of the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway

A neat example of history affecting geography!

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