Will the Past Meet the Present in Port Elgin? Part I

Before me is a copy of the September 1921 issue of The Busy East of Canada. This monthly magazine began publication in Sackville in 1910 and was later absorbed by the Fredericton based Atlantic Advocate. It’s masthead bore the motto: Faith in the future of the Maritime Provinces; and the subscription rate was one dollar per year.

This issue, an all Port Elgin number, is of particular interest to the Tantramar region. The lead editorial concluded: It’s preparation has been a revelation to us. We have caught the enthusiasm of Port Elgin people, who believe in the future of their town and who are prepared to do everything in their power to promote its progress and prosperity. No town in the Maritime Provinces has a better civic spirit… we say this advisedly, without fear of contradiction.

On reading this statement many people might be inclined to dismiss it as journalistic hype or inflated optimism. Yet the record reveals that the writer was not far off the mark. Port Elgin, like nearby Busy Amherst, was booming in the 1920’s.

It’s bustling economy was based on a number of successful industries. For example: J. & C. Hickman’s flour and saw mills; F.H. Copp Limited, manufacturing their Everlasting Brand of woolen cloth and the woodworking factory of C.C. Raworth & Sons. These and other businesses, numerous retail outlets and many luxurious homes were lighted by electricity; steam generated, at Hayward’s Saw Mill. Electric street lights also added materially to the appearance of the town at night.

In a class all by itself were the many enterprises of Fred Magee Limited. As the Busy East commented: When you think of Port Elgin the name of Hon. Fred Magee comes to mind, for he is recognized as an outstanding man in this section of the province. This is due not only to his political and commercial achievements, but to his essay into the manufacturing field.

Fred Magee (1875–1953) left his native Saint John in 1897 to establish a general store in Port Elgin. An ambitious individual, he quickly abandoned retailing for the buying, packing and exporting of canned lobsters. Soon the firm expanded along the Northumberland coastline of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. As his business increased, a plant to manufacture sanitary tin cans was established in Port Elgin.

Not content to specialize in the lobster industry, Magee branched out to the curing and smoking of herring. To complement these new endeavors he started a shook mill in Port Elgin for the manufacture of staves, headings and sides for the barrels and wooden boxes required for smoked fish and his growing Mephisto line of canned products.

In order to promote its flourishing business, Fred Magee Limited had sales representatives throughout Canada, the United States, the Caribbean as well as in overseas centres such as: London, Paris, Stockholm, Hamburg and Copenhagen. Magee’s Mephisto Brand of canned lobster, in particular, quickly earned an international reputation.

Much could be written about the social and cultural life of Port Elgin in it’s heyday; but this will have to await a future Flashback. There remain two pertinent questions: What happened to these once thriving industries? Almost eighty years later, can the confidence of the first decades of the 20th century be rekindled in the 21st?

Port Elgin is a very different community today. However, in fairness, it must be pointed out that the rise and fall of locally based industries, such as those mentioned above, characterized many another small town or village throughout the Maritime Provinces.

Both the Depression and the Second World War had an adverse impact on these communities. Specifically, high transportation costs to central Canadian markets were responsible for the collapse of some industries. An inability to apply new technologies hastened the end of others, dependant as they were, on labor intensive means of manufacturing.

Lacking a large population base, so essential for reliable markets, some firms in Port Elgin and elsewhere, went under; others deliberately closed, while a few were bought out by competitors from outside the region. Only a small number of Maritime centres received a major stimulus from the Second World War through shipbuilding, war based industries and the proximity of military bases. Port Elgin was not one of them.

By mid century there was little left of the industries that once played such a dominant role in the local economy. New methods of refrigeration and fast freezing spelled the end for the once lucrative lobster canneries. Live lobsters were now shipped directly to New England and central Canadian markets. Thanks to air freight, lobsters caught one day turned up on restaurants tables in New York or Toronto the following day.

What of the future? Can the past intersect with the future to provide a brighter tomorrow? Happily, there are some encouraging signs on the horizon. It’s a basic rule of economic renewal that lasting solutions are seldom found externally — they must come from within the community itself.

Port Elgin’s mayor, Bob Hall, is positive as he looks ahead. It is his belief that opportunities for the future are becoming more evident. During the course of a wide ranging discussion he pointed to Port Elgin’s Port of Call Master Plan as an important first step in this process.

In January 1997 the consulting firm of Totten Sims Hubicki Associates was commissioned to inventory, analyze and assess the Port Elgin and environs landscape and infrastructure… and to outline a series of projects which the village might undertake to better position itself as a tourist destination.

Part II of this Flashback is scheduled to appear on December 1. It will focus on the recommendations of the Port of Call Master Plan, and illustrate how these, combined with other recent developments, may point the way for Port Elgin in the twenty first century.