Smiths Falls History & Mystery: A tale of two Brodies

Applied Science (Engineering) Class of 1873
Applied Science (Engineering) Class of 1873, including Clement H. McLeod, Donald A. Stewart, Robert J. Brodie, Henry K. Wicksteed, George T. Kennedy, John F. Torrance. Photo credit: McGill University Archives, PR011223.
Posted on: January 16, 2023

In 1873 McGill University granted its first Engineering degrees which at the time were known as Applied Science. Robert James Brodie (1851-1938) was one of only six scholars to be awarded this recognition. To this day he remains a McGill posterboy. Photographs of the bearded, Chateauguay-born, Fenian Raid veteran, grace the walls and website of the 200-year-old institution.

Employment was immediate and Robert Brodie began work for the Canadian Pacific Railway, surveying a route between Montreal and Saint Jerome in Quebec. He then served with the engineering team who conducted the original survey across the Canadian Prairies. Brodie made news headlines by saving his team from starvation. He traveled with a dog sled team for miles, in the brutal cold of winter, to acquire much needed food and supplies from Edmonton. When broken equipment threatened serious delays in their work, Brodie’s ingenuity prevented weeks of delay. He repurposed a spider’s web discovered in a hollow tree and used it to replace a broken wire in their Theodolite instrument.

Upon his return to Montreal in 1875, Robert Brodie formed a business with his brother-in-law, Robert Harvie. Harvie was married to Brodie’s sister, Henrietta. Brodie & Harvie’s Self-Raising Flour became a household word and can still be found on grocery store shelves today.

The following year Brodie settled in Smiths Falls. Upon his arrival he began a friendship with brothers Frank, Charles, and William Frost and Alexander Wood of the Frost and Wood Company. They were known worldwide as manufacturers of farm implements and were the largest employers in town.

In 1879, a 27-year-old Robert Brodie and his business partner, Robert Harvie, founded the Standard Fertilizer and Chemical Company Limited. News of the state-of-the-art business made it into Toronto’s The Globe newspaper. The factory was built on the west side of Quarry (later Abbott) Street on the north side of the Rideau River. The location afforded incredible shipping facilities which contributed to over 30 years of operation. The company manufactured superphosphates, creating sulfuric acid from brimstone imported from Sicily and Japan, and then mixing the sulphuric acid with finely ground apatite, to produce commercial fertilizer. Brodie’s factory manufactured large quantities of liquid acid phosphate, dry acid phosphate for baking powders and phosphate of soda. There was also a complete laboratory for analysing and testing materials. The firm had virtually no competition in Ontario and was so successful that it was “not able to supply more than one tenth of the orders received.” according to the Rideau Record in 1888.

After the factory was abandoned, it was taken over by Frey Industries in 1948, with a staff of two. The company expanded to employ 41 workers by 1956. They worked mainly on defence contracts, manufacturing marine markers, metal containers, hardware, and ammunition boxes for the military. The company moved out in 1959. The building is now the headquarters of the local Royal Canadian Air Force Association.

In 1882 Robert Brodie married Henrietta “Hattie” Lamb (1855-1930) at Glenwood, Alexander Wood’s spectacular mansion. They had five children, Mary Richmond, Agnes Isabella who only lived three years, Crawford James, Alexander Wood, and Henrietta who lived to the age of eight. In 1921 Robert and Henrietta were living at 2 George Street in Smiths Falls with Mary who was a teacher and Crawford who worked with the Canadian Pacific Railway.

When Smiths Falls was incorporated as a town in 1882, Robert Brodie was elected as a councillor. He was responsible for many civic improvements including the first sewer system, on Russell Street. He served for years as a town engineer and laid out many of the streets. He was also a member of the Board of Education. In 1912 Robert became manager of the Wood Mills. His circle of friends included Sir Wilfred Laurier and other prominent Liberal politicians. In 1919 Brodie seconded the motion to name the Right Honorable W. L. Mackenzie King as Liberal leader.

In 1936 a headline in the Ottawa Journal read “Grand Old Man of Smiths Falls in Splendid Heath as he Nears his 85th Birthday”. Robert died two years later, at the age of 87, his wife Henrietta and all but two of his children having predeceased him.  The funeral was held at his late residence with interment at Maple Vale Cemetery.

There are some interesting Keyhole House coincidences. In 1881, Robert Brodie was one of four boarders in the Hannah Cordelia (Friar) Butler household which included her daughter, Alice (Butler) McNeil. Alice would later become owner of the Keyhole House from 1923-33.

Robert’s sister-in-law, Agnes Lamb lived at the Keyhole House from 1895 until her death in 1903. Her will stated “…my Executors shall first offer to sell the said dwelling house property to my brother-in-law, Robert James Brodie, for the sum of two thousand dollars.” Agnes had paid $3,000 for the property seven years prior so this was a generous offer. Robert bought the Keyhole House and owned it from 1903-07.

Robert’s second cousin was Hugh Brodie (1850-1920). In 1880 Hugh’s quest for great fishing led him to become the first settler at Lac Brûlé in Sainte Agathe north of Montreal. Hugh Brodie would cast a line with three leaders into the river from the shore near his log cabin and catch three trout. By 1893 Hugh had title to some land on the lake which would become a recreational haven for some of his Montreal friends. Hugh Brodie’s grandson is Dr. Hugh Brodie, a retired a pediatrician from the Montreal Children’s Hospital and he is still living on the family property at Lac Brûlé. I, the writer am the current custodian of the Keyhole House together with my wife. I am grateful for a lifetime of beautiful memories from vacationing at several family properties at Lac Brûlé.

Ted & Marion Outerbridge are currently restoring the Keyhole House, a Smiths Falls heritage home built in 1893. They are also being swept away by local history & mystery. You can follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok @thekeyholehouse or email ted@tedouterbridge.com.

Column by Ted Outerbridge

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