Genealogy, Military history, Quebec, Social history

The Canadian Celanese and the Great Depression

“Damn!” My dad, Edward McHugh, cursed to himself. He thought ruefully that his great idea to change his job ten months ago did not work out very well. His first job after school was in the office of Henry Birks & Sons. While he was working there, he decided to take a bookkeeping class at night at Sullivan College and the A.R. Whittell Can Company thought that he showed initiative, was a snappy dresser, and would make a good salesperson. So they hired him. It was now 1931 and he had just been laid off because sales were dropping.1

McHugh, Ed Verdun

Edward McHugh in Verdun, Quebec, in the 1930s

Now what? Edward knew that the prospects of getting a job were bleak. Luckily Edward still lived at home with his parents and his father was a foreman at the Atlas Absestos Company.2 Still, it was worrisome.

It would be two years before Edward would find employment. He spent many evenings with his brothers and sisters, playing cards. During these evenings, their supper was sandwiches, made out of a loaf of white bread, some butter, and one can of salmon. 3

Maybe the idea to go altogether to Drummondville was hatched at one of the card parties. In any event, in 1933, in the depth of the Depression, the McHugh siblings, Edward, Thomas, Sarah Jane, and Sarah’s husband Jack, decided to move to Drummondville, Quebec to find work.

At that time and even though Quebec was hard hit by the Depression, the Canadian Celanese Company in Drummondville was a significant employer in the province, with 1,757 employees. The picture below shows the employees of the Canadian Celanese Company in that year.4

Celanese 1931

Moving to Drummondville would have been equivalent to immigrating to a new country. None of the members of the family would have had an automobile so the trip from Montreal to Drummondville would have had to be by train. As with many immigrants, their motives were financial.

As far as I know, they were all employed by the Canadian Celanese Company. The Celanese Corporation was founded in 1915 by two Swiss chemists, Camille and Henri Dreyfus and enjoyed significant success during WWI because of its development of synthetic fiber. The Canadian plant was built in 1926 in Drummondville. This location was chosen due to its proximity to a large expanse of forest, it was close to Montreal that was the centre of the textile industry at the time, and inexpensive hydro power  supplied by Southern Canadian Power was available.5

This picture of the Celanese, taken in the 1920s, shows that it was a significant manufacturing plant: 6

Celanese 1920s

My dad was hired as an electrician and worked in what was called the silk factory.7 The Celanese required electricians to work full time to ensure that the machines were never idle.

My dad and his siblings settled in and made a life in Drummondville. Both my dad and his brother, Thomas, played on the Celanese football team.8 Thomas married Simone Cloutier in 1937 and then died a year later in 1938 of an illness. Thomas is buried in the cemetery of the St. Frederic Church in Drummondville.9

Edward continued to work for the Celanese until the outbreak of the war. He signed up for duty in August 1940 at the Ste. Hyacinthe recruiting centre. The Celanese agreed to hire him once the war had finished but he did not go back.10

  1. Military records from WWII, Edward McHugh, Royal Canadian Air Force Attestation Paper. This information was in his employment records. It states that he left Henry Birks and Sons for a better job and that he was let go from A.R. Whittell because of lack of work.
  2. Although Thomas McHugh, Edward’s father, was deceased when the RCAF Attestation Paper was filled out, Thomas’ job at his death was noted. It is an assumption that he was working there in 1933. There is no indication that he was out of work during the Depression.
  3. As told to the author by her aunt, Elsie McHugh.
  4. The Ministry of Patrimoine Culturel, Province of Québec, http://www.patrimoine-culturel.gouv.qc.ca/rpcq/detail.do?methode=consulter&id=14311&type=pge#.W6gnEWhKiUk, accessed September 23, 2018.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Eastern Townships Archives Portal, https://www.townshipsarchives.ca/canadian-celanese-ltd 192?, accessed September 24, 2018.
  7. Military records from WWII, Edward McHugh, Royal Canadian Air Force Attestation Paper.
  8. Death of Thomas McHugh, “The Drummondville Spokesman,” “Thomas McHugh Passes Away,”May 27, 1938, accessed March 19, 2015. This article states that Thomas McHugh was on the Celanese football team. It is assumed that Edward was also on that team as his Attestation Paper said that he played football extensively.
  9. Marriage and death certificates of Thomas McHugh. Drouin Collection. St. Frederic Parish, Drummondville, Quebec.
  10. Military records from WWII, Edward McHugh, Royal Canadian Air Force Attestation Paper.
Genealogy, Quebec, Social history

Sundays and the Great Depression

I used to hate Sundays. I had to go to Sunday school. I really didn’t understand why I had to attend because my parents just dropped me off. That’s right. They didn’t even go to church. And no one asked me if I wanted to go.

After they picked me up, things got worse. It was homework time until lunch. Of course, I could have done my homework on Friday night but Fridays were reserved for movies on the television and reading in bed with a flashlight until all hours.

And worst of all, some Sunday afternoons were for Visiting the Elderly Relatives. In my mind, my aunts and uncles were ancient. Plus my brother, being a boy and older than me, was apparently able to take care of himself, as he always seemed to be absent from these visits. So I would sit in the living rooms of my aunts and uncles, with no toys or any other amusements, and listen to the adults talk.

I now cherish the memories of these visits because they provided me with an appreciation of the social history of Montreal, as well as significant events such as the Depression and World War II.

The stories about the Depression are the ones that struck me the most. During the Depression, a quarter of Canada’s workforce was unemployed.1  My dad, Edward McHugh, was a young man out of work in Montreal and he joined his older brother and sister in Drummondville, to work for the Celanese. At the peak of the Depression, the Celanese employed 1,757 workers.2

None of the McHughs had cars in those days so they must have travelled back and forth to Drummondville by train. And Uncle Thomas McHugh married a local girl. I can just imagine the McHughs, from Verdun, arriving in Drummondville for the wedding. I doubt very many people spoke English in Drummondville at the time. The culture shock must have been intense.

My aunts and uncles, even into the 1960s, were thankful that they were able to have some work during the Depression. Uncle Al Scott worked for the Northern Telecom for 40 years, although with reduced hours during the Depression. Luckily Uncle Frank McHugh worked for the Montreal Tramway Company so he was able to keep working during the Depression. He was a tram driver for tram number 24 that started in Montreal West and crossed the city on Sherbrooke Street. His job was safe.

My aunts and uncles loved to have a good time and the Depression did not stop them. My Aunt Elsie used to describe their card parties. There was only one bottle of scotch, some ginger ale, one can of salmon and one loaf of sliced white bread. My aunt was able to spread the salmon so thinly that she could make sandwiches out of the whole loaf of bread.

It was very clear to me that the Depression was a very frightening time in their lives. During this period, the future must have seemed bleak. Life was a struggle to make ends meet.

 

Notes

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Depression_in_Canada

2 http://www.patrimoine-culturel.gouv.qc.ca/rpcq/detail.do?methode=consulter&id=14311&type=pge#.WSNY7Gg1-Uk