Brass, Brains and Backbone

The story of the McAvitys, of Saint John—an epic of courage, vision and determination

Louis ARTHUR CUNNINGHAM March 1 1929

Brass, Brains and Backbone

The story of the McAvitys, of Saint John—an epic of courage, vision and determination

Louis ARTHUR CUNNINGHAM March 1 1929

Brass, Brains and Backbone

The story of the McAvitys, of Saint John—an epic of courage, vision and determination


WHEN I was but a little lad,” as the

frayed old song has it, I recall seeing often in the streets of this venerable city of Saint John a “handsome kerridge,” drawn by two sleek, prancing bays in shiny harness, and driven by a Wellerian type of coachman who wore full livery in summer and appeared in winter in a huge black busby and fur pelisse that were the admiration and envy of every small boy in the community. This turnout was known far and wide as McAvity’s carriage or sleigh, as the season decreed. And when one said “McAvitys,” everybody knew quite well whom you were talking about, though you might have mentioned a dozen people internationally famous at the time and been met with blank and suspicious looks.

The imposing turnout passed away— where are the hacks of yesterday?—and in its place appeared a sleek, slinky limousine; but the same man, now in natty chauffeur’s rig, drove “McAvity’s car.” Something of permanence in these McAvitys, you’d say; and fair enough people to work for, as men go from youth to age contentedly in their service. Since Saint John was a collection of lean-to’s, the name of McAvity has been among those foremost in the industrial life of the community, and with the passage of close to a hundred years of active business, the firm of T. McAvity and Sons, Limited, has become known throughout the Dominion of Canada and in the lands beyond the seas.

A Question of Backbone

"DEFORE discovering how that came to pass, however, a few lines apropos the good that has come out of Nazareth: I was brought up to the credo, inculcated by whom, specifically, I do not know, that I dwelt and unhappily was doomed forever to dwell in a ruined and futureless land . . . the East. More fruitful than these provinces were the burning sands of the Sahara; more rich in prospects of prosperity was the Gobi Desert. But, after prying around a bit, I found . . . here, a few boat-shops that have grown to a million-dollar industry; there a tea-packing plant that is in the same class; again, a fishcannery with a yearly turnover that runs to seven figures; pulpmills, brass-foundries . . . and all “down East.” Verily, ’tis a land flowing with cream and nectar; but this significant truth emerges . . . the boatbuilding, tea-packing, fish-canning and brassworking men were at the job all the while and were much too busy toiling to-day to stop for a spell of hand-wringing and moaning and to picture ruin on the morrow.

Thus with McAvity’s. The brassand ironworks that this firm controls have been run steadily and profitably. Strong hands were at the controls and there is no record of any faltering. The enterprise was starred with success from its earliest days because the men who ran it possessed backbone, knowledge and foresight. Here the acorn has grown to the oak, and we are privileged, as we are not in the arboricultural analogy, to examine the tiny original and the mammoth eventual. Let us, then, since it is very easy on paper, carry ourselves back to a sunny day in Saint John before the fog came in, of the year of grace 1783.

in 1783

G^N ONE of the many green and rocky 'D hills that slope down to the harbor of Saint John, a family named Van Dean, of Knickerbocker descent, built in times long past a log-cabin, and fixed there in the wilderness the household gods, brought with them from their comfortable dwellings in the land to the south—dwellings which, as loyal subjects of the British Crown, they could no longer inhabit.

There was born in 1783 a daughter to the Van Dean’s. She, in time, married and had a daughter who became the wife of Thomas McAvity, Esquire, a young man of the town.

The McAvitys did not come to Saint John with the Loyalists. In 1810 they first settled in this city. They were an old Scotch-Irish family. Thomas McAvity’s father and grandfather were magistrates of Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Ireland. They came first from Dumbarton, in that part of the Island of Great Britain quicker at gatherin’ in the bawbees than any other part—north of the River Tweed—people of the same sturdy stock that settled so thickly in the Sea Provinces and who throughout Canada have done so much for the moulding of the nation.

Parrtown, as Saint John was first known, grew and waxed prosperous; the trees were cut down, streets began to climb their backbreaking way up the steep hillsides, the log-cabin of the Van Dean’s passed away and structures of brick* and mortar soon replaced the primitive habitations of the Loyalists. Almost a century and a half after the exiles from the south landed in Saint John, there stood in that selfsame spot where Thomas McAvity’s wife’s mother was born, the home of the Van Dean’s, a proud and imposing structure of brick that bore across its front the name of T. McAvity and Sons, Limited, and was the head-office of a firm that now has branches all over the Dominion, and is rated as being the largest manufacturer of the most complete line of brass and iron valves in the British Empire and that still is owned and controlled almost exclusively by descendants of the founder, Thomas McAvity.

To learn “the art, trade and mystery,” as the quaint old forms of indenture have it, “of an ironmonger,” young Thomas McAvity became at the age of twelve an apprentice articled to one James Hendricks who kept a hardware store on the North Market Wharf. His lot with James Hendricks was a pleasant one; but it was by no means unusual to see in the early colonial papers notices like the following, which I chanced upon while reading a New Brunswick Courier of the year 1834:

“Run away from the service of the subscriber on Wednesday, the 30th. ultimo, Jacob Till (son of William Till), an indentured apprentice. All persons are hereby cautioned against employing or harbouring the said apprentice, as in the event of so doing, they will be prosecuted as the law directs. —Robert Ray,

May 5th, 1834 Sail-maker.”

And below this medieval manifesto:

“In Monday’s paper there appeared an advertisement signed Robert Ray,

Sail-maker, in which he cautions all persons against harbouring or employing Jacob Till, stating he had ran away. The boy has not ran away, he has left Mr. Ray because he beat him without any sufficient cause. If Mr.

Ray has any indenture upon the boy let him produce it or he can have no claim upon him. If he has not, the above advertisement is void of meaning. —W. Till.”

May 8th, 1834

Young McAvity, however, stayed his full apprenticeship of seven years and remained after that in James Hendricks’ service until 1834, when he started in business for himself; and not long [afterward he took over the Hendricks establishment in which he had begun work in the humblest capacity. From then onward, the history of the firm is one of constant and rapid growth. It began as Thomas McAvity and Company, later changed to J. and T. McAvity, then to T. McAvity and Sons, and was finally incorporated under its present name—T. McAvity and Sons, Limited.

1838. By the meagre light of dipped candles on the office-desk— there was neither oil, electricity nor gas in those times—young Thomas McAvity penned this notice appearing in the Sentinel, Saint John, on May 19, of that year; penned it with justifiable pride, for he was scarcely twentyeight years old, and for one so young to have made a success of anything in those dear old days was considered remarkable.


“Beg leave to intimate to their friends and the public, that they have taken the premises on the North Market Wharf, lately occupied by James Hendricks, Esquire (deceased), and succeeded to the HARDWARE and DRY GOODS BUSINESS, carried on by him therein for many years.

“From the long experience T. McAvity has had in the hardware business, having been thirteen years in the employment of the late Mr. Hendricks, in this City, they feel confident that they can give their correspondents every satisfaction.”

Thomas McAvity’s youthful confidence was justified. Fortune smiled upon him, the poetic would say, but you and I know it was just hard work, foresight and good commonsense.

The first advertisements of the firm contained notice of such an assortment of goods as nails, cotton and woollen cloth, satinets, shot, anvils, one Doctor Arnott’s stove, paint-oil and saltpetre . . . which came to Saint John by the ships Hebe, from London; Clyde, Edward Thorne, and Ward from Liverpool.

Soon the time was ripe to branch into the working of brass. Ships were being built in Saint John—“hunnerds o’ them,” as the old men say, and a goodly amount of brass and other metals, copper, iron, lead, went into the making of a wooden ship. There were bronze bells, rudder-braces, handrails—many things that still may be seen cluttering up the windows of the ship-chandlers’ shops along the Street of the Lost Trade, for the iron ships use these too.

Thomas McAvity became a power in the community. From 1859 to 1863 he was mayor of Saint John. He was mayor at the time the late King Edward, then Prince of Wales, visited Saint John, and it was his privilege to extend a welcome to the royal guest. From apprentice-boy to chief magistrate in less than fifty years!

He was a quiet man, reserved; somewhat stern, it seemed to those not close enough to see beyond the masque of business and practical affairs; underneath, he was a man of fine and deep sentiment with a quiet dignity that commanded respect.

There arose during his magistracy, as there has arisen before and since, the question of utilizing the Old Burying Ground, which has now become surrounded by the buildings of the city—a green, tombstone-sentinelled hillside, a place of eternal rest in the midst of the city’s bustle. They wanted to make building-lots out of a part of it. The mayor, alone, stood out against the rest of the council; the people were with him in the desire to keep this historic spot intact, and it has been a tradition with the city’s heads that not even the infringement of an inch on the ancient acre is to be tolerated. Thomas McAvity lived almost to the four-score mark; long enough to see the business of which he was the founder accede to a high place in the industrial life of his country.

Thomas McAvity had six sons—six sons fit to help in the work he had so well begun. Two of these—James, the eldest, and William, the third son, established the brass and iron foundries which since have made the firm famous. They began in a modest way by buying out a small foot-lathe brass-foundry owned by James Kennedy in Princess Street. In 1877, the foundry they had established on Water Street was destroyed in the great fire which almost wiped out the city of Saint John. Two years later they rebuilt on the old site. It was here, in 1879, they made their first valve, and 'they’ve been making them ever since. The business grew so rapidly that by 1903 the firm owned and operated the Vulcan Iron Works, a large plant on Broad Street, in addition to an equally extensive brass foundry on Water Street.

A Ten-Acre Plant

TAEEPLY into our industrial and even our private life does the work of this great plant enter. It is bound up inseparably with the colossal rail and water transportation-systems of the Dominion, the greatest in the world. The very railway coaches you ride in have bearings made in the McAvity shops; the locomotive that pulls the coaches has valves and inspirators made here in Saint John; the whistle that shoos wandering cows off the tracks and tells happy motorists that it’s time now to begin the race for the crossing, is a product of this big Maritime manufacturing-plant; the handsome fittings for toilet or bath, the faucets, the port-hole casings of ships—McAvity’s make them all.

Canada is the land of power, which begets, among many other things, mills for the manufacture of pulp.

These, almost without exception, are equipped with acid-resisting bronze valves or fittings that McAvity’s have made. From Newfoundland to British Columbia you will find the Saint John product in countless mills, factories and mines. We in Canada have the largest number of, and the finest pulp mills in operation. No other country has been so lavishly favored by nature with such large sheets of fresh water, hydraulic power being counted among our principal natural resources. And it falls chiefly to the lot of this one Canadian firm to supply many of the mills’ requirements. Only the other day, from far Japan came a big order to McAvity’s for pulp mill testers.

The situation of the McAvity plant, with its spur-lines connecting with the railways, economized the importation of raw material for the locomotive boiler mountings; valves and fittings for pulp mills, and digesters; steamvalves, both brass and iron, for general use; also plumbing fixtures of almost every description.

The head-office and retail hardware store was once on King Street, and thus the different branches of the firm were well separated—too widely separated, in truth, for the volume of business that they had acquired. In April, 1916, was begun the erection of a modern plant that would enable them to consolidate the iron and brass foundries; and to-day, on what was not so many years ago a great stretch of waste land, not even fit to play baseball on, stands a plant with over ten acres of floor-space.

It is on the outskirts of the city, on the Great Marsh Road, now known by the sadly inferior and less picturesque name of Rothesay Avenue. Vines cover the concrete walls. There are 72,000 panes of glass and the shops are bright as greenhouses, which they rather resemble—at least from the outside. Inside, they are no less inviting. We cannot here draw pictures of smoky infernos and gloomy pits, glowing betimes with lurid flares from the maws of furnaces—that sort of thing which used to be part and parcel of foundries and the pièce de resistance of Charles Dickens’ descriptions of Birmingham. It’s modernized. There’s a cafeteria. Savory smells greet one’s nostrils. Even a dietitian, and a rest-room for the comfort of the employees. Men and bobbed-haired girls in overalls work away at making faucets and valves—work cheerily. It’s not such a grind—lots of light, good ventilation and every available type of machinery lending its aid.

Across Canada—in Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver—the firm has permanent branches and sales offices. It has a large agency in London, England. It reaches, through its agents, into South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies and Japan. Like more than a few other Maritime industries its activities encircle the globe.

What is the secret of this firm’s tremendous growth and outstanding success? What gives it the vitality and power that makes it always progressive, always aggresssively after business? Unity, I think, is the answer to that—the unity and solidarity that come from many members of a close-knit family working in harmony. The progress of McAvity’s has been without friction of its leaders. The six sons of the founder worked with their father. In business and out, they were close to him, and their own sons, in turn, carry on the same fine traditions.

The first one I met in the Rothesay Avenue plant was G. Clifford McAvity, and in talking with him—a man who at an age when most fellows are starting in, is manager of one of the largest industrial concerns in the Dominion—I learned another secret of the McAvity success— unfailing courtesy and a warm welcome, whether it be for a buying-agent from a chain of mills or a pestiferous writer in search of a story. The McAvitys have always been popular with the men who work for them and the esprit de corps oí the employees in itself bespeaks success.

They work with their men, not over them. Clifford McAvity, grandson of the founder, was not the first of his family to put on overalls and go into the white heat of the moulding shop, into the brass foundry and machine shops. He took a course in mechanical engineering at McGill, then he went through the mill, literally; and thus is quite able and ready to see a problem from the workman’s angle as clearly as from the owner’s.

Clifford McAvity is a dynamic, pleasant young man. When I found him he was telling James Hoyt, the plant-manager, exactly what was wrong with the porcelain on a faucet-handle that had broken.

It was obvious that he had “been there himself.” The whole weight of the managerial end of the business is on his wide shoulders.

He is typical of the McAvity family about middle height, with determined face, snappy dark eyes and an earnest manner. He flung himself into the task of furnishing the company’s history with as much energy as if he were about to supply valves to the navy.

“How is it,” I asked him, “that when so many firms in the Maritimes had to close down, give up during the period of depression and Uecome, some of them, completely wiped out, that T. McAvity and Sons survived? You were always strong.”

“We hung on,” he explained. “And we didn’t stay in the Maritimes.”

“You didn’t stay ... !”

“No; we went after the rest of Canada. Do you know that during those years of depression ninety per cent of our business was done outside the Maritime Provinces?”

I had to admit that I had known nothing of the kind.

“Well, it’s so. If we’d had only these provinces to look to, we’d have gone into liquidation long ago. When business went down here we started”-—he checked them off on his fingers—“in Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver. Competition?—the stiffest you could find, but we’ve won out on the quality of our goods. Our orders are almost always repeaters. The stuff we make suits the buyers, they come back for more.”

“We’ve fought up under the handicap of our geographical isolation down here. The implementing of the Duncan report by reducing freight-rates has helped us enormously. The high rates hindered us, but they didn’t stop us.”

Looking at him, strong, forceful, aggressive, I reflected that it would be rather hard to stop him. And around us, hung on the walls, were portraits so like him—those of his father, grandfather, his uncles and cousins.

The President Talks Turkey

GEORGE McAvity, president of the firm, is one of the most popular business men in the Dominion. A lot of the McAvity success has been won by the personal element, the contacts, always favorable, they have made. And in this gaining of goodwill George McAvity, “the big boss,” has played a leading part. He is kind, tolerant, good-humored.

They tell a story about him. Around Christmastime some years ago a number of the men in the Water Street plant clubbed together and acquired unto themselves a crate of the renowned Yuletide birds, which were duly apportioned and carted off affectionately by their owners.

But among the men was one who, like the foolish virgin without her candle, was minus a turkey. He was one among many, of course, who hadn’t clubbed in; but he was new on the job, a bit green, and when the plant jester accosted him and said: “Friend, where is thy turkey?” he rose to the bait—wing, leg or piece of the breast—and confessed that he had, in some not-understood way, been passed over.

“Sir,” he said, “I haven’t any.” Pointing to a glass door marked, “George McAvity,” the joker said.

“Go right in to Mr. McAvity and fight about it. Tell him you didn’t get your turkey.”

The youngster went. He stood in front of “the big boss”, was kindly, gravely received.

“I want my turkey, sir.”

“Eh! You want—what?”

“My turkey. The other fellows all got theirs. There wasn’t enough to go around.”

“Oh,” slowly, “I—see. You didn’t get your turkey! That must be remedied. Just leave your name, my boy, and we’ll fix it all up.”

Shortly after, a most excellent turkey, lugged post-haste from the Country Market, was presented to the mollified youth, and it is pretty hard yet to say on whom the laugh lies most—but certainly not on “the big boss.”

In Saint John, McAvity’s give direct employment to some 498 persons, the largest payroll of any concern in the city. Employees who have passed their days of usefulness are pensioned off. There are twenty-five on the pension list. Still in the firm’s employ are men who have been with them forty, fifty and more years. James Nichol, expert brass-worker, has been with T. McAvity and Sons for sixty-three years, and three generations of his family have served the firm loyally. Mat Rolston has been with the firm sixty-two years, and Charles Coster, of the directorate, fifty-one years.

“We make it our business,” said Mr. Clifford, “to buy everything possible for our needs right here in Saint John, failing that, in Canada—only then do we go elsewhere.”

The McAvity branches outside of Saint John are managed by Percy D. McAvity of the same generation as Clifford, a young man. The plumbing supplydepartment on Water Street, Saint John, is in charge of John McAvity, a son of the founder. It is obvious that brothers and near-relations can put more of the intimate, personal touch into their work together than if they were not kin at all, and to this consanguinity of executives may be attributed a good share of the firm’s success.

“We’re very clannish,” Clifford McAvity explained, looking appreciatively at the family portraits. “Very. We even do our hunting and salmon-fishing together.” He had just got back from a week in the woods with his father. “Never a year passes that we don’t get the hunting and salmon-fishing,” he continued. “Things just couldn’t go OD without that.”

They know how to play, and it’s almost truistic to observe that if you know how to play well, you know how to work well. Everything in that great plant was running with swift smoothness: in the office a great corps of stenographers and clerks toiled on unrestingly; withal, in good humor. Through the glass walls I could see hundreds of wheels turning, long belts going their endless way, men in overalls bending over the machines. In the luxurious quiet of the manager’s quarters, the innermost sanctum, I felt a million miles removed from all that. Only remotely could I hear the hum and throb of the machinery. The place where a pebble is dropped in a pond is soon smooth but the ripples widen out. The comradely young man who shared his cigarettes with me was the initial impetus to all this movement; yet he didn’t seem to have a care in the world.

A Hand-Work Theory that Works

DURING an hour’s talk, in which everything, including dogs, AÍ Smith and Maritime ills were discussed, I became an acquaintance and an ardent admirer of John McAvity, a senior member of the firm who manages the extensive plumbing-supply end of the business.

“Most of my friends are in the graveyard,” he remarked, apropos of the early days of his work. “The early days? Nobody gives a hoot for the past. We’ve had far too much sentiment in business down here. People haven’t realized that a glorious past doesn’t affect the present one whit. Now, in our case—we built up a big business right here when Saint John was a shipbuilding port. The ships went, our business would have gone with them—if we hadn’t gone out after more and added new lines for which there was a growing demand.

“We began to manufactureplumbing supplies. There were three bathrooms in Saint John then, and people were rather dubious about them; but they had to come. We knew it and we’ve stayed always just a jump ahead of the times. Business depressions came, we were too busy trying to beat them to give much thought to what they might do to us.

“We sold our goods—no trouble about that. I was on the road for years selling valves, plumbing fixtures. Throughout Canada and the Eastern States, keeping an eye on new developments, always adding new departures in the plumbing line. Canadians should buy Canadianmade goods. ‘It’s not fair to bite your neighbor,’ I told a ehap in Toronto once who asked why one part of Canada should defer to the other. But we haven’t sold our goods on the ground that they’re Canadian—merely on the guarantee that they’re good.

“People don’t know what we’re doing. How many realize that every week ten thousand dollars goes out in wages at the Rothesay Avenue plant? Not many. They think we have a garden out there, because the place is good to look at. But we are working there top-speed, with orders four months ahead.”

Mr. John is short, thick-set, ruggedly featured—the kind of business man who talks with a cigar and at first rather awes you with his snap brevity. I had rashly insinuated that I was coming to him for a bit of ancient history.

“Who gives a damn for ancient history!” he enquired very justly. “Look at what we’re doing now. Business is great; barring a deluge or an earthquake it will be better still. You can’t stop that. There’s as much down here for a man as any place else in Canada. We’ve been neglecting our boys—that’s the trouble. It’s only natural for Youth to want to go to the States. They want the experience, want to feel that foot-loose thrill. But the thing for us to do is not dissuade them, but let them go and learn and then pay them better wages to come back to us with what they’ve learned. We should send them, not drive them there.”

He spoke at length about the potentialities of the Maritimes—the industries of fox-ranching, the untapped mineral wealth of New Brunswick, the growing enterprise and confidence of our people. “We have to work,” he insisted. “Legislation will help, lowered freight-rates undoubtedly have helped, but in the last analysis it rests with ourselves. We need the courage and the vision to see beyond the wall of obstacles. Look what our own business has been through—the loss of the ships, then the great fire of Saint John which wiped us out. We could easily have dwindled away to nothing after that, like so many others.

“Geography, high-freight didn’t beat us, because our product had value— hours of honest labor went into its manu-

facture. There was a time when we had to make our own tools—couldn’t afford to buy them. We pushed on by means of advertising extensively, always reaching out for new customers and doing our level best to keep the old ones. We’ve all worked; we’ve even got willingly into the rut and stayed there. It didn’t come suddenly; it wasn’t spectacular—bit by bit we built it up, adding new lines, dropping old ones—and knowing why we did it.”

With shrewdness, vision, fighting in the open, with the attitude that the past, save for its mistakes, need not enter into the future, these McAvitys have got on. They’ve made something—they’re honestly proud of it. They’ve exacted hard work from their workers, but they’ve worked hard themselves and always showed the way. For a time as far back as our fathers can recall, their firm has been the backbone of Saint John’s industrial structure. It has stood for solidity, permanence. In good times or bad it has carried on; to-day it has reached one of the busiest and most successful phases of its career, rivaling the busy years of the war. As Canada expands along the inevitable lines of mining and milling, McAvity’s will expand too. The executive to-day is made up of young, almost youthful, men of the name, and for generations to come the business will remain a family affair.