By Robert Allan Rankin – Author of “Down at the Shore; A History of Summerside, Prince Edward Island (1752-1945)” published by the PEI Heritage Foundation, 1980
The birth and development of Summerside, Prince Edward Island, “Green’s Shore, the Swamp,” is a fascinating story of nineteenth century mercantilism and the influence of water and rail transportation. As a community caught up in the excitement of two great speculative industries, shipbuilding and fox farming, and as the trading centre of a prosperous agricultural district, Summerside’s history from earliest settlement to civic organization and identity is expectably fertile.
Lot 17, the Township in which Summerside is situated, was owned in 1800 by an Englishman, Colonel Harry Compton. The Comptons took up residence on his land in 1804 and a village evolved. St. Eleanors was to hold the status of Shiretown for Prince County from 1834 to 1876.
The American Rebellion indirectly resulted in the inhabiting of the lands around Bedeque Bay by non-Acadians. When in 1784-86, grants of land were made to disbanded troops and loyalist refugees who had remained true to the King throughout the struggle for independence, several families from the American colonies settled in Lots 17, 25 and 26. The nucleus of the loyalists was at “Bedeque.” By 1830, Bedeque was the most densely populated agricultural district in the county and a rising place of exportation.
Among the Loyalists who came to Prince County were the families of Daniel Green, Benjamin Darby, George Linkletter, John Small and others. They took up land in Lot 17. The Green’s 500-acre tract, stretching northward from the bay, acquired the name of “Green’s Shore.” As more people moved into the isthmus area and purchased or rented lands, Green’s Shore haphazardly took on the configuration of a village, even though in 1800 it was hardly that, merely a handful of buildings shrouded by primeval forest. The cultivation of an acre or two of oats, the extracting of shellfish from the bay and the hunting of wild geese and brant in the woods, was an all absorbing life-style, which left the pioneer subsistence farmer with little time for anything else. Enterprise, by necessity, was aimed at survival rather than economic gain.
About 1840, lots of land in the township began to sell. The new arrivals included some of Summerside’s founders – Thomas Hunt, Samuel Green, the Gourlies and McEwens. Also in 1840, Queen’s Wharf was constructed and a road opened up from the shore to St. Eleanors.
The shipbuilding activity that followed marks the true genesis of Summerside, and it was the entrepreneurial brilliance of one man, Joseph Pope, which made the community a shipbuilding centre. After building a few vessels in their shipyard at Bedeque, inadequate drought forced Pope and his son, James Colledge, to move across the bay to Green’s Shore where vessels of medium to large tonnage could safely be launched. The senior Pope’s wealth and political prominence soon led to improvements to road communications with the village.
In 1851, on the eve of colonial responsible government, Summerside was rapidly becoming a trading centre. New immigrants as well as tradesmen and merchants from the longer settled areas of Bedeque, Malpeque and St. Eleanors moved into “town” in search of employment. The export trade in timber and agriculture produce was thriving and regular steam communication had been established with other colonial ports. A wagon path known as “Broadway” (Water Street) now extended east along the shore to meet the western post road.
Joining the Popes in shipbuilding were John Lefurgey, James Ramsey, Angus McMillan, James Muirhead, together with a host of tradesmen and mariners and a few merchants who dabbled in the construction of wooden sailing vessels. One of the latter group, Robert T. Holman, did more than dabble in both mercantilism and shipbuilding. Holman had come to Summerside indirectly from Saint John, New Brunswick and was a man of immense ability and energy. His business in produce and retailing eventually became the largest and most successful of its kind in the colony. Mr. Holman had no equal in the county as a man of example and influence, though he never took an active role in political life.
Summerside in the 1860’s was at the zenith of its affluence, a community totally consumed with planking decks, shipping oats and potatoes, and simply “doing business.” Although decidedly maritime in character; that is, with one eye seaward, the town had also developed a keen appreciation for and dependence on the labors of the farmer. For it was the farmers’ produce and patronizing of local retailers which stabilized Summerside’s economy and would sustain it long after the subsidence of shipbuilding. The town came alive at market time. Carts filled with produce lined Water Street on their way to the schooners, while storekeepers manned their posts at daybreak hoping to catch some business from a ploughman just compensated for his crop. Crabbe’s Hotel, a favourite stopover spot for members of the agricultural class, was usually full to capacity.
A preoccupation with business precluded for a time necessary initiatives in civic organization and public welfare. Meandering cows were left to determine the direction of streets, inadequate water supply threatened townspeople with disease and fire, and paupers frequented the doorways of the well to do. Nevertheless, Summerside did make significant strides in civic improvement over the next decade Limited powers conferred by an 1875 incorporation of the community, under the Provincial “Towns and Villages Act,” were extended in April 1877 when Summerside assumed full corporate status. The Incorporation Act of 1877 was comprehensive and gave the Wardens of the Town rights of taxation previously held by the Province.
In return, the Government turned over to the corporation responsibility for the construction and maintenance of public buildings and roads within the confines of the town. Schools remained the jurisdiction of the Province under the New School Act. A group of townsmen, including several prominent businessmen, vehemently opposed Incorporation in 1877, fearing it premature and costly in additional taxation. However, Summerside had grown in population at a rapid rate and improvements in public services could only be affected by a local government empowered with the rights and means to do so.
The extension of the mainland Intercolonial Railway from Shediac to Point-du-Chene in 1862 and the controversial building of a Prince Edward Island Railway in the early 1870s cemented Summerside’s position as the leading centre of trade and commerce for the western half of the Island. However, the apparent advantages of an Island railroad and the subsequent entry of the colony into the Canadian Confederation in 1873 quickly disappeared. Traditional trading patterns and local industry were made subordinate to a new economic arrangement, which had as its centre the industrial heartland of the “Canadas.” To make matters worse, shipbuilding was in decline and the timber resources had been all but depleted. As a result of these dramatic political and economic changes, the ethereal prosperity of the 1860’s gave way to a period of hard times.
One immediate effect of a depressed economy in Prince County was the departure of scores of young men for greener fields. Those skilled in the shipbuilding trades – shipwrights, sail makers, blacksmiths, etc., left Summerside to pursue their professions in the “Boston States” where shipbuilding still flourished. A most crushing blow to the town’s economy in the 1880’s was the stagnation of a promising local, farm implement manufacturing industry. The enterprise and technological deftness of Messrs. Hall, Dickieson and Bishop encountered insurmountable odds from subsidized “Canadian” farm implements of inferior design. The one salvation for town businessmen was a prevalent agricultural trade. In 1900, Summerside’s population numbered about three thousand.
It was the fur of the domesticated silver fox which gave Summerside its second era of speculative although fleeting economic greatness. First carried on successfully in the Alberton-Tignish area by Robert T. Oulton, the breeding of the silver fox in captivity blossomed into an industry of international importance, and the town of Summerside was to be its hub. Frank Tuplin introduced fox ranching to the area in 1909 when he sold breeding stock to a Hinton-Holman partnership. The sale of live animals naturally democratized the fox industry, but it also led to the overproduction of pelts. For the rancher new to the business, however, thought was given only to the fortunes that were to be made almost overnight. The years 1910-14 were “boom” years for the fox industry and exciting ones for Summerside. Furs were annually peddled in the street and the presence of buyers from such exotic, far-away places as Paris and Leipzig gave the town a cosmopolitan atmosphere reminiscent of the days of wood, wind and sail.
As the silver fox industry grew in value and complexity, a more efficient registration and marketing structure was deemed necessary. In consequence, the Canadian National Silver Fox Breeders Association was formed in 1920 with Summerside as its headquarters. Five years later, the Dominion Experimental Fox Ranch was established in the town and secondary service industries were making their appearance, as evidenced by Mr. Hancock’s “Sunglo” fox food and Halls’ “Redi-Made” pens.
The pelt market began to decline in the thirties and approached collapse at war’s end in 1945. Wartime economics, chronic over-production, a change in the unpredictable world of women’s fashions and new chemical dyeing techniques, had sealed the fate of fox farming. The “Fox Boom” was over. In Summerside, the ranches of Callbeck, Clark, Muttart, Hinton and Holman, Rayner, Lea, Tuplin, Rogers, Hancock, Monkley, and others, slipped into disrepair.
As the post Second World War period of Summerside’s history is somewhat contemporary in nature, it is too early for the historian to objectively assess the changes that have come about since then, such as the establishment of R.C.A.F. Station Summerside in 1940, and its growth as a permanent peacetime military installation. It is also too early to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of such recent changes as the construction of shopping malls and the presence in the town of national chain retail stores. Nevertheless, Summerside’s heritage can be examined! It is laced with entrepreneurial energy, ingenuity and a co-operative Christian spirit, which ought to serve as a guide in the future.
[Robert A. Rankin, December 1976]