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Barbour Brothers were major
suppliers in N.B.
ln 1867 young
George L. Barbour and his brother William showed their faith in the future of
the new Canada that was born that year by committing their all to a great new
project. They gave up their jobs as clerks in safe employment and set up as
wholesalers, or in the language of the time, as commission merchants. The two
young brothers opened their office and warehouse at 9 and 10 South Market
Wharf, Saint John, New Brunswick. This is "The Slip", famous as the landing
place of the United Empire Loyalists in 1783. It is today part of the Market
Square development in downtown Saint John.
The new business
first concentrated on the wholesaling of fish, butter, eggs and poultry, which
were consigned to local dealers in exchange for groceries. Saint John was then
the fourth largest ship-owning port in the world, and the home of Canada's
largest fleet of merchant vessels. Much of the shipping in those days revolved
around lumber, fish, molasses and sugar. The first two were outward bound
freights, the two last were the return cargo.
brothers built up a big Maritime business and became suppliers on an increasing
scale to the trade of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Market Slip was filled
with coastal schooners. From Apple River, Joggins, and Parrsboro, they plied
between the north shore ports of Nova Scotia, Port Lorne, Borden, Victoria
Beach and the Fundy ports of New Brunswick. There was also service at one time
to the fishing ports of Lunenburg, Shelburne and Yarmouth on Nova Scotia's
South Shore. Barbour's were serving all of the fishing ports and their salesmen
on the South Shore of Nova Scotia were selling heavy groceries to the fleet.
Such staples as beans, flour, port and beef were sold by the barrel. Mess beef
and clearback pork were carried in bond for ships' stores.
A graphic description of the commercial traveller of the
old days was given some years ago by the late Percy Webb, long-time employee
who became a vice-president of Barbour's. "The Barbour's man of the early days
had to be hardy," he said. "There were no automobiles with heaters to drive,
almost casually, from town to town over smooth, wellplowed Macadam roads. More
often than not, it meant sleeping in a draughty hotel room huddled in bed with
most of his clothing and under his huge heavy fur coat. It meant using the heel
of a stout boot in the morning to break the ice in the wash pitcher by the
"Travel was arduous ... it could mean a jolting
buckboard or horseback ride or perhaps a hard-backed seat aboard the "iron
horse" smelling of orange peelings and coal gas. Not infrequently it could be
like the adventure of the Barbour's traveller who was going from Fredericton to
Prince Edward Island for the company.
"He had spent
wearisome hours on the Canada Eastern Railway from Fredericton to Newcastle,
arriving in a howling snowstorm, to be greeted with the news that
Northumberland strait was frozen and he couldn't continue on to Prince Edward
"The traveller wouldn't take no for an answer.
With a shrug, he put on a pair of snowshoes, packed his wares into a flat
bottomed boat and trudged across the ice pulling his improvised sleigh.
Persistence paid off, for he sold everything he had taken
with him. A few years later the same salesman struck out again on his own. He
left Barbour's to start his own firm. He was John D. Palmer, president of the
Hartt Shoe Company in Fredericton."
Disaster struck after
10 years. The Barbour brothers' office, warehouse and stocks were wiped out in
the Great Saint John Fire in 1877. They managed to salvage a small part of
their business, and carried on for a further decade. Then they had to sell out,
and business for a time was conducted by outside interests but under the name
of George L. Barbour. In 1895 the Barbours were able to buy back their family
firm. In 1899 George E., the son of George L. Barbour, took over the company.
The expansion then grew fast.
In 1910 the A.I. Teed
Company was purchased, followed the year later by Dickason and Armstrong,
owners of "King Cole" tea. Many other acquisitions followed over the years.
George E. Barbour was a man of staunch and unbending
principle. Barbour's had always shunned the strong drink trade in the days when
it was permitted in New Brunswick. They sold no cigarettes or tobacco. This
must have been a costly ban at a time when they were ships' suppliers in a big
way. But if Mr. Barbour walked in righteousness, he walked in progress and in
shrewd business understanding.
In 1946 Barbour's acquired
the Reed Company's shares. Reed's operation in Newcastle and Bathurst was then
sold to Atlantic Wholesalers, but the Moncton operation was retained.
Subsequently Barbour's business was expanded in many ways. King Cole Tea, King
Cole Coffee, spices, flavouring extracts, peanuts, peanut butter and cheese all
carry the Barbour's label over a wide area of eastern Canada and the export
Peanuts and peanut butter became major products
of the firm following the declining years of the molasses trade.
In the early 1950s, Mr. Barbour sold the company to Ralph
B. Brenan who remained as president until his son Ralph Jr. took over in the
About that time the company was faced with
deciding how to cope with the urban redevelopment which was affecting almost
all its plants and warehouses in Saint John. Barbour's built a completely new
plant in Sussex, close to a good supply of vegetables for pickles and milk for
cheese, in the heart of the agricultural district about 50 miles east of Saint
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