LUMBER BARON AND MYSTERY ENTREPRENEUR (August 13/04)

“The most considerable lumber merchant in the county for the past 20 or 30 years has been Mr. S. P. Benjamin,” A. W. H. Eaton notes in his Kings County history, published in 1910. “His ownership of lumber woods and his large shipments of lumber give him a conspicuous place in the county’s long role of enterprising men.”

Ivan Smith of Canning has several references to S. P. Benjamin’s business activities on his massive historical website; he writes that Benjamin is “one of the bigger mysteries of Kings County history. It is clear that he was important during the years about 1870-1910.”

A mystery man, indeed! I’ve been looking for biographical information on Stephen Peter Benjamin for several years and until recently the most I could come up with are one and two line references in local histories and the tidbits on Ivan Smith’s website. Benjamin is mentioned three times in the Wolfville history Mudcreek, for example, but the references are mainly about business transactions.

Recently, thanks to Doris Atwell of White Rock, I obtained a copy of Benjamin’s obituary dated 1912, the year he died. But even this is vague about his business activities and accomplishments, reading more like a social note than a death notice.

A Pugwash native, Benjamin apparently controlled a lot of Nova Scotia timberland at one time; he also appears to have been an early pioneer in the hydroelectric business, possibly predating R. A. Jodrey. Ivan Smith writes that Benjamin’s “entrepreneurial drive… seems to have rivalled that of Roy Jodrey a couple of generations afterward.”

Smith’s website contains references to Benjamin being involved with the Nova Scotia Electric Light Company Limited. The website mentions several Acts of the Nova Scotia Legislature, one referring to Benjamin re incorporation of the Nova Scotia Electric Light Company, another to construction of “a tramway from White Rock Mills, by S. P. Benjamin and others.”

There are tantalising references to Benjamin’s lumbering activities as well on the website. One, from the February 17, 1897 issue of the Berwick Register reads, “W. R. Huntley, master shipbuilder of Parrsboro has obtained a contract from S. P. Benjamin, Port Williams, to build five scows and a steamer to be used in bringing his lumber down from the Avon River to a place of shipment.” Similar newspaper references from 1897 note that Benjamin plans to use the scows and steamer to bring lumber to Hantsport for shipment to points beyond.

Those “points beyond,” we learn from his obituary, were markets in the West Indies, Great Britain and the United States. Benjamin eventually sold out his lumbering interests, however, and retired to Wolfville where he became a leading citizen and merchant. Mud Creek, the Wolfville history, refers to his operating the S. P. Benjamin Company which in 1900 was selling lumber and building supplies. Mud Creek also notes that Benjamin owned the first telephone in Wolfville.

Benjamin died in Wolfville at age 75 in March of 1912. He was known all over Nova Scotia, his obituary said, for “promptness, business methods and honorable dealing in all his transactions with others,” and he was held in “high esteem in both in Bridgewater and Wolfville.”

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