Hubert Prévost the entrepreneur: City builder

Fourth of an eight-part series describing the real and imagined life of Hubert Prévost of Maisonneuve.

In the years following Confederation, Canada felt the effects of the Long Depression that afflicted world economies, particularly England. Between 1874 (the year the Montreal Stock Exchange was established) and 1896 there was widespread unemployment and a rise in bankruptcies. Protectionist policies in the United States and Britain hurt trade, and demand for Canadian resources and goods slumped. Despite this, industrial expansion in Montreal’s new east-end towns was getting well under way, led by prominent French-Canadian businessmen and landowners like Hudon, Barsalou, Viau, Desjardins and others. When the depression ended, investment from Britain resumed in Canada, immigration grew and manufacturing expanded.

For almost 100 years Montreal was the financial capital of Canada with many ‘emerging tech’ businesses like railways and telecommunications establishing their headquarters there. Banking and leading businessmen were early adopters of the telephone and by the end of 1880, Montreal was the most wired city in Canada – with 546 telephones in use.

Hubert’s business was expanding into multi-family dwellings and some commercial projects. He also had several business dealings with Victor Hudon, one of Hochelaga’s leading industrialists, who established a large cotton mill among other businesses. It’s also clear that not all of Hubert’s contracts went smoothly, as there are records regarding dispute settlements and lawsuits.

In 1881 Hubert and Alvina’s family of six children are recorded in the census as living in the district of Hochelaga (Montreal) in the village of Côte-de-la-Visitation. They have four children attending school: Michel, Sem, Ezilda and Alphonsine.

Two years later, Hochelaga was annexed to Montreal. That spurred a group of French-Canadian landowners to found Maisonneuve – a city inspired by the City Beautiful movement . Its developers planned to build grand civic buildings and factories – and at one point Maisonneuve became known as the “Pittsburgh of Canada”. Judging from the numerous property transactions and contracts for work in the area, it’s clear that Hubert Prévost was among those early industrialists of Maisonneuve.

In 1882 Victor Hudon was expanding his textile manufacturing business and planned to build a new mill (St. Ann Spinning Co.) with authorized capital of $300,000 and an exemption from taxes for 25 years from the town council of Hochelaga. Hubert Prévost was among those named to the board of directors. V. Hudon’s mill and the St-Ann Spinning company later merged to become the Hochelaga Cotton Mill.

Cotton mill

Proposed plant for Hochelaga Cotton Mill

Victor Hudon’s mills were an important part of the area’s economy. In 1874 it employed 250 workers – including many women and children, some as young as 10. Conditions were harsh – a situation that led to a Royal Commission in 1888 to investigate child labor in the mills. It was learned that many children worked barefoot because they had no shoes, most had not attended school and the majority could neither read nor write. While the factory still carried Hudon’s name at the time of the commission, he no longer owned the business.

Article in Gazette

On June 11, 1883 an application to form a joint stock company is announced led by Victor Hudon and with Hubert Prévost and others as provisional directors. The stock offering is for 2,000 shares of $100 each. The company is called La Compagnie de Filature Saint-Joseph, Beauharnois and will manufacture cottons into various fabrics.

It seems that the Beauharnois town council were willing to grant a tax exemption to the new mill for 20 years, a subsidy of $8,000 and free access to hydroelectricity. They also committed to purchase $80,000 in shares of the new company. But for some reason the project never got off the ground.

In 1883, Hubert’s father, now 76, decides to make provisions for himself and his wife Lucie in their old age. He made a living donation to his son Eugene in advance of his inheritance of a lot in Pointe-aux-Trembles for his use (possibly the family home). In return Eugene must clothe, feed and lodge his parents. If they can’t perform these duties satisfactorily, then the property reverts to the parents and they may sell it to pay for their ease and care.

Quebec Gazette clippingOn December 26, 1884, Hubert (fils) achieves a measure of status when he is among a group of men who are named Justices of the Peace in the District of Montreal. He holds this post until 1894 and only appears to have been active during 1889, when he heard seven cases.

In 1885, Hubert begins to focus on public sector projects. He submits a bid for the construction of a market – one of six firms to bid on the construction contract. His bid of $19,800 was unsuccessful, and just $1 higher than the winning proposal.

Zoe Reeves obituary clippingOn March 14, 1886 Zoe Alvina Reeves passed away afer a long and difficult illness. Could she have been a victim of the smallpox epidemic of the previous fall? That epidemic killed 1,391 Montrealers, 1,286 of which were French Canadian, despite a mandatory smallpox vaccination program that was protested by angry mobs. Her death was announced in La Presse.

Less than a month later, their oldest daughter, Alvina, is the first of the children to marry. Her husband Joseph Christin appears to also have had an interest in property, as the name Christin is tied to some lots in St-Mary Ward.

In September, probably in accordance with Alvina’s will, Hubert arranges for an inventory and valuation of their matrimonial property. The inventory provides a good insight into their means and the degree to which Hubert’s business was entwined with the household finances. The home had an office, sitting room, dining room, kitchen, and bedroom on the main floor. Upstairs were three other bedrooms and an attic space. There was also a workshop, outbuilding and barn.

Apart from the usual array of household furnishings and small goods were the following items:

  • A piano made by L & E Fisher of New York ($250)
  • A wine press and bird cage ($2.50)
  • A carriage (voiture) valued at $60 along with an assortment of wagons and a sleigh
  • Two horses – un presque ruiné ($100)
  • One cow ($20)

The total valuation of their communal property was $1,168.70.

Zoe’s personal belongings (such as clothing) were divided among the daughters and not included in the inventory. The inventory took seven hours to complete on the first day.

The next day, Charles Reeves and Joseph Chretien (husband of Alvina Provost) supervised another inventory session in Maisonneuve. Before that got underway, Hubert added a declaration to the effect that he undertook on behalf of Alphonse Desjardins the construction of 6 houses in the Pie IX area of Maisonneuve for the sum of $7,880 – due the following April. Because he did not keep records of actual expenses incurred to date for the work, he proposed a separate evaluation to assess the amount of profit/or loss to be added to the inventory valuation. The valuators assessed the value of the work completed to date at $4,730 and the remaining work at $3,150, with a calculation of the expected profit. The result, along with other building materials added $1,399.10 to the estate valuation.

The inventory continued a third day with an accounting of finances (cash and deposits $10.20). Money owed (from business transactions and property rentals) amounted to $5,154.67, of which $1,500 was expected to be a write off (Victor Hudon). As a note to the evaluation, Hubert intended to sue the School Board for $1,000 for breach of contract. He had a life insurance policy that he paid over 25 years amounting to $1,000; Zoe also had a life insurance policy of $1,000 which was claimed.

On the liability side, debts totaled $11,811 consisting mostly of loans related to business and property transactions. Zoe’s funeral costs were $67.72 and the notary fees for the inventory were $142.25.

Real estate holdings accumulated during their marriage included:

  • Property in Point-aux-Trembles with house, workshop, barn and other buildings in good condition
  • 5 lots in Pointe-aux-Trembles without buildings
  • 4 lots in Hochelaga Village
  • 3 lots in Hochelaga with houses
  • 1 lot in Hochelaga on Notre Dame Street

The inventory concluded on the fourth day with a review of titles and legal documents and additional declarations by Hubert regarding:

  • The donation of $500 from Zoe’s parents per the marriage contract
  • Property in Hochelaga that was sold
  • Additional bank deposits of about $2400
  • About $4000 in payables due
  • Additional debts bringing the total owed to $16,080.80

On September 21st, there was a double wedding in Pointe-aux-Trembles. Brother and sister Michel and Eugenie are married the same day in Pointe-aux-Trembles. Michel marries Ernestine Belliveau daughter of Hilaire and Marie Célina Cadotte; and Eugenie marries Jean Baptiste Foisy, son of Urgel and Elmire Lavoie.


Sources

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