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Labour in
Lennox & Addington County

Lennox and Addington County has always been a busy place. From harvesting timber in logging camps to agricultural labour on the County’s many farms, from tradespeople and skilled manual workers in town to cottage industries of rural women, it has always taken a lot of work to make L & A County go.

 This exhibit is about Lennox and Addington County and the working class people who lived here around the turn of the 20th century. Labour presents a special problem for historians. Though working class people have always represented a majority of our society, their lives do not preserve well in the historical record. Throughout human history the wealthy and powerful have always been able to leave a more durable mark on history when they pass. Holding elected office, making large financial transactions, patronizing artists and owning land and businesses all leave durable textual records, and the material possessions of the wealthy are often preserved and passed down within families. As a result, the collections of museums and archives tend to overrepresent the history and lives of wealthy people. Our archives is not immune to this bias. When we attempt to look back at the lives of working class L&A residents, we find patchy and incomplete records. There are many photographs of workers, but they are primarily unidentified. A birth certificate or wedding license may be the only physical record of an individual person; often not even this remains. But when we look at the sources that we do have, a rich picture emerges. We see our County as a vibrant hive of activity, populated by skilled and creative people of every discipline and field of labour. Painters, cooks, farmers, cleaners, teachers, carpenters, seamstresses, more occupations than we can possibly list. All these people lived their own lives and left their own marks on the world around them, even if those marks are now faint to our eyes. There is only space in this exhibit to follow some of these individuals – farmers and logging crews captured in photographs, cheese makers recorded in factory ledgers, a tenant farmer who left behind a series of poems, an urban artisan who kept an erratic record of his work, domestic workers who filled roles advertised in newspapers, and skilled carpenters reflected in the photographs of handcrafted furniture. These are the people who built the roads and the houses, worked the fields and staffed the workshops. This exhibit is dedicated to them.

Agricultural Labour

The unique terrain and varied soil of Lennox & Addington County allowed for the cultivation of cash crops such as wheat, barley, and oats during the 19th century, and an explosion of grist mills, over twenty by 1851, played a large role in the initial settlement of the Napanee area by settlers. But because of the thin topsoil and rocky terrain primarily found in the region, it was livestock farming that proved lucrative here. By the turn of the century, livestock made up well over thirty percent of cultivated land in the County. Dairy cattle and sheep were commonly raised for butter, milk, and most notably, cheese. All of these agricultural pursuits demanded a healthy, industrious working class of farm labourers, who worked long days to bring food to their families’ tables and to those of the urban populations.

The first cheese factories in the County were established in the 1860s, with about forty factories in the County at the height of the industry around 1916. Farmers would bring their milk for processing, often signing on to a co-operative agreement with a single cheese factory. Many photographs exist of these cheese factories. Unfortunately most of the workers in these photographs are unidentified. It was often proprietors holding the camera, concerned less with memorializing workers and more with documenting their resources. Even though these workers remain unnamed, the photographs of The Farmers’ Dairy near Napanee, Metzler’s Cheese & Dairy factory, Moscow Cheese Factory, Newburgh Cheese Factory, and the Napanee Condensery provide a record of their role in the County’s dairy industry. Account ledgers for cheese factories also provide insight into the lives of such workers. A Kaladar Cheese Co. ledger lists expenses for the year 1900, including payments of wages to factory workers and machinery repairs completed by tradespeople. This ledger helps to estimate how many workers were active in the factory at the time, and how they supported daily operations.

William S. Bradley was an Irish immigrant and tenant farm labourer in the Napanee area, active in the 1860s through 1880s.  The archives holds a book of poetry written by him while living and working on John Wallace’s farm. Inspiration for these poems is taken from his experience as a farm worker and his political views. His words provide a glimpse into the social landscape of Napanee and Richmond Township in the latter half of the 19th century. This book is a rare find in the collection because it captures the experiences and opinions of an immigrant agricultural worker in his own words. In a rambling 26 page preface to his poetry, Bradley spouts his views on politics, religion, and class. He speaks directly to the plight of agricultural labourers, bemoaning the expectation by landowners that labourers work 14-18 hours per day, comparing the life of an agricultural labourer to that of slavery. Bradley states “If, dear reader, you be not a dignified person, I can tell you how to increase your dignity. Just go and hire with a farmer for a year, and if, at the end of the year, you be not very dignified indeed, that is to say, with labor; if at the end of that time you do not know more about the meaning of the phrase “dignity of labor” than editors and orators do, I shall be greatly mistaken. And if you be a lover of very strong tea, and would like to drink copiously of that exhilarating beverage, go and hire with a farmer” (5-6). In his poem “Sweet Hour of Six”, Bradley dwells on the delight of Napanee workers of all stripes at the end of the work day. Bradley’s writing takes cues from the social gospel movement, and one of his main arguments is for the moral value of hard work, which in a just world would necessitate the fair and equitable treatment of workers.


Both the Napanee River and the Salmon River were essential to the success of the logging industry in Lennox and Addington during the 19th century, allowing a path for logs travelling from the northern parts of Addington to the sawmills in Napanee and the southern townships. By 1851, Lennox and Addington was home to over fifty sawmills. Whether it be snapshots of packed logging camps in the dead of winter in Denbigh Township or dynamic photographs of log driving along the Napanee River near Yarker and the Salmon River to Woodcock’s Mill north of Beaver Lake in Sheffield Township, these photographs show the strength and rigor required of men in the trade. Back then, logging was quite dangerous, requiring lumberjacks to spend months in remote logging camps felling trees. Log drivers transporting logs downriver to the mills of Napanee and Ernestown constantly put themselves in the path of danger, and sometimes death, when a log got jammed. Large logging outfits such as the Rathbun Company employed new immigrants and the working poor, people with less social capital, willing to tolerate the isolation and harsh conditions of the northern townships in all seasons.


At the turn of the century, there were artisans of all kinds working in the urban centres across the County. Among these were numerous cobblers, who can be found in business directories and ledgers, whose construction and repair of shoes was essential to sustain the working class and their hardworking feet. Photographs of cobblers’ workshops are particularly interesting because they provide details of which tools were commonly used and examples of popular shoe styles. In one of these photos, behind the workbench of a seasoned cobbler, a sign is posted for The Boot & Shoe Workers Union. Established in 1895, it was one of the most radical North American workers unions in its time. Cobblers often worked solitarily in their own shop, but some had employees or apprentices who traded their labour for a wage from the shop owner, hopeful for the possibility of becoming an independent artisan themselves.

Alexander Armstrong, known to some as Sandy, was a painter in the Napanee area, in the late nineteenth century. An account book belonging to him for the years 1893-1897 illustrates his skills in painting, interior decorating, and carpentry. The account book provides a record of churches, businesses, and well-known homeowners in the Napanee area that depended upon Sandy to maintain and renovate their buildings. The account book lays out the details of the materials purchased and labour completed for each client, giving insight into the diverse set of manual skills that a painter like Armstrong would have had at the turn of the century. Such high profile clients as Dr. Oronhyatekha and Judge Wilkinson suggest that Armstrong was a sought-after artisan in the Napanee area. He was contracted by the Bank of Montreal, Town of Napanee, and Rathbun Company, among others. Sandy often gave detailed descriptions of his work in the account book: “bronzing, marbling, and painting pillars” at the Masonic Lodge in Deseronto, whitewashing Camden East Church, painting the front of Robinson & Co. and the interior of the store’s millinery room. This book captures an intimate portrait of Sandy’s daily labour as an artisan. Sandy died in 1903 at the age of 41, amidst a fruitful career as a painter and decorator.

Domestic Servants & Cleaners

The labour of L&A women during the 19th and early 20th century is poorly documented. Much of women’s labour was unpaid domestic work in the home, which included countless tasks such as cooking, cleaning, preserving food, doing laundry, gardening, and rearing children, just to name a few. Women who did work outside the family home often pursued domestic labour in the service of those wealthier than them. Numerous newspaper advertisements posted in the Napanee Express and Napanee Standard provide evidence of continued demand for domestic workers in the County. Such advertisements tell us what the ideal servant was at the time – young, female, and moderately compensated. Occasionally, newspaper advertisements would include a wage, such as a wanted ad in the March 4, 1898 issue of the Napanee Express, with compensation listed at eight dollars a month. It follows with the statement “No children to look after”, which implies that a servant usually acted as both housekeeper and nanny. Organizations, such as the Western Methodist Parsonage, as advertised in the April 12, 1889 issue of the Napanee Express, would hire domestic workers as well, to clean facilities and help with the washing and cooking for clergy. Woman could also enter into short contractual labour and gig work. Among some miscellaneous receipts relating to the Town of Napanee, two 1883 receipts kept by the treasurer of the West Ward School survive for cleaning work completed by one Sarah A. Pringle who was hired to clean the school’s classrooms. Beyond a vital statistic here and there, these are the only textual records that exists in the archives of Sarah; no photographs, no diaries. These receipts capture the kind of casual, temporary work that women often performed to supplement their family income, but they also tell us that Sarah was an integral part of the Napanee community, a woman who supported public school students and teachers through her work maintaining the school rooms where children learned, played, and grew.

L&A County was once bustling with industrial activity, producing woolen and carding materials, furniture, auto parts, baskets, glass, and more. The County has been home to distilleries, foundries, tanneries, canning factories, you name it. Several furniture factories have operated in the County, with the most prolific being Gibbard Furniture in Napanee. Established in 1835, it was arguably the first fine furniture factory in Canada. The archives holds many records of Gibbard Furniture, but again, these records are skewed towards telling the history of the proprietors. We are mostly left to decipher photographs to tell the stories of Gibbard’s employees in its early days. The factory also had a “Fifty Years Club”, which awarded a group photograph of employees who had served fifty years or more with the company.
The archives also holds a time book from the lesser known R. H. Wright Chair Factory, an Odessa chair manufacturing facility. In this book was recorded the weekly wages and hours of factory workers for the years 1895-1896. This book tells us that skilled workers in the Odessa factory produced high quality wooden chairs, many working 60-72 hours per week. This time book, along with product photographs of the factory’s chairs, illustrate the time and precision that went into crafting these pieces on the shop floor.
Much of the existing infrastructure of L&A County was built by a vibrant, industrious working class, who dedicated their lives to improving the lot of their families and their communities. Obviously, this exhibit does not come close to representing all of the unique communities throughout L&A, nor does it address all of the types of labour undertaken to make the County what it is today. This exhibit is simply a starting point in the difficult task of accessing the rich history of the County’s working class during a period of great economic and societal change.

Plan my visit


Monday – Saturday: 10am–5pm
Macpherson House: Open for tours in the summer


Adults: $3
Children Under 12: Free


Adults: $25*
Students/Seniors: $20*
*Does not include MacPherson House or special event programming.

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Monday – Saturday: 10am – 5pm

*closed on holiday weekend Saturdays and Mondays

Archives hours

Monday – Friday: 10am – 12pm* & 1 – 4pm

*closed from 12 –  1pm 

Macpherson House & Park hours

Tuesday – Thursday, 1 – 4pm in July & August

Holiday Hours 2024

June 29 – July 1: Closed (Canada Day Weekend)
July 4: Closed (only Macpherson House open)
July 5: 10am – 12pm (staff professional development)
August 3 – 5: Closed (Civic Holiday Weekend)
August 31 – September  2: Closed (Labour Day Weekend)

Museum and Archives daily rate

Adults (ages 13+): $3
Children (ages 12 and under): free

Museum & Archives location

97 Thomas St E, Napanee, ON K7R 4B9

Macpherson House & Park location

180 Elizabeth Street, Napanee, ON K7R 1B5

Labour Day Weekend Hours

Please note that the Museum & Archives will be closed from Saturday, September 2nd - Monday, September 4th for the Labour Day long weekend.

Regular hours will resume on Tuesday, September 5th.
Have a great long weekend!