Few could match E.B. Eddy

I was contracted by the Ottawa Citizen to write a series of profiles about prominent Ottawa business people. This article profiles pulp and paper manufacturer E.B. Eddy.

Few could match E.B. Eddy

Of the early great business leaders of the national capital region, perhaps no name is so well-known today as E.B. Eddy. The small match manufacturing enterprise he founded in Hull in 1851 is today a large specialty paper producer owned by Domtar Inc. of Montreal, employing 3,200 people (420 in Ottawa-Hull) and generating annual sales in excess of  $900 million per year.  Ironically, the firm hasn’t produced a match since 1928.

 The 24-year-old Ezra Butler Eddy probably had not envisioned such a success when, attracted by the water power of the Chaudière Falls, he moved his small friction match factory from Burlington, Vermont to Hull in 1851.  He shared a building with the lumber baron  J.R. Booth. While Mr. Booth manufactured sashes and doors on the first floor, Mr. Eddy made matches on the second floor.

Actually, it was Mrs. Eddy who oversaw much of the initial work at the factory, because Mr. Eddy was on the road much of the time, drumming up business for his wares as far west as Sarnia.  “He was a great salesman, even in his latter days, rarely returning from a trip without a budget of orders from those whom he had met while travelling,” reads a newspaper account. 

Business flourished with the purchase of a second factory and the opening of a general store. In a short time, Mr. Eddy became known as the largest manufacturer of wooden matches in the British Empire, eventually developing markets from Winnipeg to Halifax.  As well, he employed most of the population of Hull — the men and boys in the mills and factories and the women and girls in their homes making paper match boxes. In 1886, the E.B. Eddy Company, a joint stock company, was organized, with Mr. Eddy as president. 

The fact that his operations thrived as well as they did is testament to Mr. Eddy’s stamina in the face of what would be certain disaster to a less enterprising man. His factories were swept by fire on 27 different occasions, and twice they were entirely destroyed. 

 “In 1882, when matters were running most smoothly, fire completely wiped out his concerns and his loss was a quarter of a million more than the insurance.  He was not to be repressed by such reversals, and he was quickly completing details for the resumption of operations,” reads a newspaper account. The same article claims even the Great Fire of 1900 that destroyed three-quarters of Hull as well as one-fifth of Ottawa was but a “setback” for the company.

However, J.R. Booth, who termed himself a great friend of Mr. Eddy as well as a business rival, said he believed the 1900 fire was the “death blow” for Mr. Eddy.  “…the vast works of a lifetime were swept away in an hour. Although his indomitable will forced him to go on again, still, I believe, the shock in a great measure was responsible for the final break-up,” he commented. 

Although Mr. Booth and Mr. Eddy were engaged in similar businesses and considered themselves friends, they differed greatly in one aspect of their lives. Mr. Booth avoided politics if at all possible, terming himself “too busy” to be involved. However, Mr. Eddy apparently embraced public life. As a Conservative, he represented Ottawa County in the Quebec legislature from 1871 to 1875.  He served as alderman for the newly-formed city of Hull and was elected the city’s mayor six times. 

 He was also known for his loyalty to his employees. According to published reports, his first thought was for his staff when word of the fire of 1855 reached him while travelling in New York. “Save the homes of the men. Will rebuild the factory,” was the message Mr. Eddy sent to his foreman. Similarly, after the Great Fire of 1900 completely wiped out his holdings, he was encouraged by business advisors to shut down. He replied that 2,000 citizens of Hull depended on him for their living, and he would not let them down.

Small wonder the flags in Hull flew at half-staff on news of his death. The streets were lined with mourners who watched his coffin loaded onto a train car to take his body to his hometown of Bristol, Vermont for burial. 

At the time of Mr. Eddy’s death, the E.B. Eddy Company operated 27 mills in the area around Chaudière Falls. Three paper factories turned out 100 tonnes per day, ranging from fine tissue to newsprint; the match factory produced 52 million matches a day. There were also factories producing wooden ware, wash boards, and sulphide; a printing office; and a counting office. Mr. Eddy’s diversified empire employed over 2,000 and was worth at least $4 million.

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