DAVIS, ELIHU JAMES, tanner, manufacturer, and politician; b. 2 Dec. 1851 in York Township, Upper Canada, eldest of the four children of Andrew Davis and Elizabeth Pease; m. 29 Oct. 1874 Margaret Johnston in King Township, Ont., and they had five sons and two daughters; d. 14 June 1936 in Toronto.
E. J. Davis was born into the tannery trade. In 1834 his paternal grandfather, James Davis, established a small operation on Yonge Street in York Township, and 15 years later it was taken over by James’s son Andrew, who sold the business in 1854 and moved his family to Waterdown (Hamilton). There Andrew attempted unsuccessfully to run a tannery on a 25-acre farm inherited by his wife, and then worked as a general merchant before relocating in 1856 to King Township, where he purchased what would become known as the Lowell Tannery, in Kinghorn (King City). Young E. J. studied at the local common school until 1863, when his father leased the business to his brother-in-law Edward Pease. The family then returned to Waterdown and E. J. attended grammar school there before taking a course at Hamilton Commercial College.
In 1868 Andrew Davis took back control of the Lowell Tannery and E. J. began his apprenticeship in the trade. Four years later he and his father became partners in a new company, A. Davis and Son, which owned and managed the Lowell Tannery. At first the tannery was a small, rural operation with only a few workers, but by the early 1870s the market for leather had begun to expand geographically, and with regular bank credit the Davises were able to start selling through wholesalers. They kept abreast of developments in the industry and installed a small steam engine, and by March 1884, when E. J. bought his father’s interest in the company for $37,903.74, A. Davis and Son employed about 25 men.
Less than a month later the Lowell Tannery, which was only partially insured, was destroyed by fire. Its operation was not interrupted for long, however, because local businessmen appreciated its importance to the region and helped Davis to rebuild the plant and double its capacity. Over the next two decades mechanization would transform all stages of leather manufacture and enable the new facility to produce a wider range of products. A. Davis and Son began to trade internationally, buying hides and selling leather in England, and at the turn of the century the tannery employed between 80 and 100 men year round.
By this time Davis was not only a prominent figure in business, but a successful politician as well. He had first earned a favourable local reputation by participating in temperance debates around York County in the 1870s. Having built up a committed and lasting base of support, he quickly moved up the electoral ladder, becoming a school trustee at age 21, a councillor for King Township from 1877 to 1880, deputy reeve from 1881 to 1882, and reeve from 1883 to 1886. He also served in 1884 as the youngest-ever warden of York County. In December 1886 Davis lost the Liberal nomination in York North to the sitting mla, Joseph Henry Widdifield, who was re-elected in the provincial contest of that year. Widdifield kept his seat for just a year and a half before resigning to become sheriff of York County, and in May 1888 Davis received the Liberal nomination in the ensuing by-election and won by acclamation. He would be returned in 1890, 1894, 1898, and 1902.
Just 36 years old when he first took his seat, Davis brought new blood to the ageing Liberal government of Oliver Mowat*, and in February 1898 the Toronto Globe remarked, “His rise to a commanding position has been rapid.” After demonstrating his abilities in committee work, most notably as chair of the committee on public accounts, Davis was rewarded in July 1896 with a cabinet post in the new government of Premier Arthur Sturgis Hardy*. He was initially a minister without portfolio, but when William Douglas Balfour* died a few weeks later, Davis succeeded him as provincial secretary and registrar, the cabinet member responsible for answering opposition criticism over the expenses and inefficiencies of government agencies. Most controversial was a scandal involving the provincially run Humber piggery, which, the Conservatives charged, had distributed meat unfit for human consumption. Davis vigorously countered that there was “not a scintilla of solid foundation” for the accusation, but the issue was added to a long list of Tory complaints.
In October 1899 the Liberal government was reorganized under the premiership of George William Ross*, and Davis remained in the cabinet as commissioner of crown lands. The highlight of his tenure was the creation in 1901 of the 1.4-million-acre Temagami Forest Reserve, an important initiative in scientific forestry management that had been championed by his deputy commissioner, Aubrey White*. However, Davis was unable to finalize cutting regulations that satisfied the government’s desire to use its crown lands not only for logging, but also for the promotion of agricultural settlement and wilderness tourism. This regulatory impasse complicated forest-fire prevention and impeded the sale of timber and mining rights to raise revenue. Yet another problem was that the land claims of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai remained unsettled [see Ignace Tonené*].
By 1902 Davis was tiring of politics. A long-time Methodist and Bible-class teacher who was hailed by the Globe as “a man of rigid rectitude of character,” he sometimes found the actions of his allies as offensive as the charges of his foes. He privately debated whether to contest that year’s election, but ultimately ran and won. His victory was immediately challenged by Thomas Herbert Lennox, his Conservative opponent, who claimed that Davis had, among other improprieties, employed an agent previously convicted of illegal electoral practices. Davis denied any knowledge of the background of workers hired by his campaign committee. The case dragged on until 22 Sept. 1904, when the court voided the election, though it acknowledged that Davis himself had “no moral culpability.” At a meeting of the North York Reform Association in Newmarket on 11 October, he announced that for health reasons he would not run again.
E. J. Davis was now free to concentrate on establishing his sons in the family business, which had to be radically reorganized following a fire on 14 March 1903 that destroyed the Lowell Tannery and caused $80,000 in damage. He first incorporated his firm, which became A. Davis and Son Limited, and purchased a tannery in Kingston. As company president, E. J. placed two of his sons in key positions: Elmer directed operations as vice-president and Harold Wilkie became secretary-treasurer. The Kingston plant specialized in vegetable-tanned cowhides destined for the shoe trade in both the domestic and the export markets, and despite further setbacks from major fires in 1914 and 1923, the business prospered. In 1924 A. Davis and Son Limited expanded into a new product line after acquiring the Canadian Patent Leather Company of Toronto.
Even more successful than the Kingston operation was a new tannery that Davis built in Newmarket, whose town council had offered him a $10,000 bonus and a ten-year tax exemption to locate there. E. J. incorporated the Davis Leather Company Limited, installed himself as president and his son Aubrey as vice-president, and in 1904 went into the production of fine calfskin leather using the chrome-tanning method. In later years his sons Andrew Johnston and Elihu James Jr would also become partners as general manager and superintendent, respectively. The company flourished during World War I despite supply problems and the absence of Aubrey, who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the rank of captain in March 1916 and served as quartermaster of the 220th Infantry Battalion. The Newmarket tannery, which employed 200 workers in 1915, was regarded in the trade as the most modern in the country. By the 1920s the Davis Leather Company was reputed to be the largest producer of calfskin leather in the British empire. Specializing in a high-quality product helped the company to weather the Great Depression; although it faced higher tariffs in the American market, Davis Leather retained much of its business there, and it increased its exports elsewhere as a result of the preferential trade agreements reached in 1932 at the Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa [see Richard Bedford Bennett*]. In 1936 the firm employed 360 men and even expanded its plant.
After 1904 E. J. Davis left the operation of the two companies to his sons and concentrated on financial and strategic matters. He was also an active freemason, a delegate to Methodist conferences, and a member of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association and the Toronto Board of Trade. In later years he limited his civic activities to public speaking on special occasions and to local philanthropy. “Mr. Davis never refuses assistance to any worthy cause,” the Newmarket Era observed, and his favourites included the York County Hospital, his church, Trinity United, and the campaign to erect a war memorial. Davis died from heart failure at Toronto’s Wellesley Hospital on 14 June 1936 and was interred in Newmarket Cemetery. Leather manufacturing and sound investments had made him a wealthy man: he left an estate valued at $3,483,635, only a third of which was derived from shares in the family’s two tanning companies.
E. J. Davis’s career demonstrated the success that could be achieved in small-town Ontario in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In political life, his country roots, commitment to his Protestant religion, and temperance convictions appealed to Liberal supporters in the towns, villages, and rural areas of the province, while his obvious concern for ethical probity helped, for a time, to offset the public’s distaste for the more questionable practices of machine politics. In his business, Davis’s ability to adopt new technologies and processes in tanning, coupled with the financial support that his good character secured, enabled him and his talented sons to transform a rural craft enterprise into a modern industrial complex. Davis Leather would remain in the family’s hands until 1945, when Aubrey, Andrew, and Elihu Jr sold their controlling interest; they managed the Newmarket tannery for another year and then retired. The tannery stayed open until 1962. Elmer and Harold ran A. Davis and Son until the former’s death in 1959; Harold carried on with help from his sons Harold Polson and Neil C. until he died in 1971. By then the Kingston tannery had deteriorated into what historian Richard Harris describes as a “notorious sweat shop,” and it ceased operations later that year, bringing to an end a significant chapter in Canadian business history.
Elihu James Davis delivered several political speeches that appeared in print, and as Ontario’s commissioner of crown lands he directed the preparation of reports published by his department. His speeches included the following: Public institutions: speech by Hon. E. J. Davis in the legislature: an array of facts and figures ([Toronto?, 1897?]); Address of Hon. E. J. Davis, commissioner of crown lands, on the completion of the Port Arthur section of the Canadian Northern … delivered at Port Arthur, December 30, 1901 ([Newmarket, Ont., 1901?]); Address of Hon. E. J. Davis, commissioner of crown lands, in connection with the budget debate of the legislative session of 1902 … (n.p., [1902?]); The Department of Crown Lands: a record of its successful administration by Hon. E. J. Davis, 1899–1902: the wide range of duties involved (n.p., 1902); and Ontario’s forest wealth: interesting and instructive address: a hundred years of revenue … (n.p., ). The reports are: Land settlement in new Ontario: a short account of the advantages offered land seekers in Ontario … (Toronto, , 1903); and A statement concerning the extent, resources, climate and industrial development of the province of Ontario, Canada (Toronto, 1901, 1903).
LAC, Census returns for the 1911 Canadian census, Ont., dist. York North (137), subdist. Newmarket (33): 14; R233-34-0, Ont., dist. Wentworth North (23), subdist. Flamborough East (d): 27; R233-36-4, Ont., dist. York North (131), subdist. King (H): 15. Daily Mail and Empire, 6, 13, 15 Jan. 1898. Globe, 19 Feb. 1898. Globe and Mail, 6 Dec. 1971. Newmarket Era, 2 March 1877; 28 Feb., 8, 10 Aug. 1879; 20 Jan., 1 April 1882; 18 May 1883; 26 Nov., 3, 10 Dec. 1886; 17 June, 9 Dec. 1887; 25 May 1888; 16 May, 13 June 1890; 19 Jan., 25 May, 1, 22, 29 June 1894; 4, 11 Sept. 1896; 28 Jan., 18, 25 Feb. 1898; 13 July 1900; 21 Feb., 23 May 1902; 2, 30 Jan., 6, 13, 17, 24, 27 Feb., 20, 27 March 1903; 22, 29 Jan., 19, 26 Feb., 11 March, 23, 30 Sept., 21 Oct., 16 Dec. 1904; 24 March 1905; 16 March 1906; 16 June 1912; 5 Nov. 1915; 16 June 1916; 5 Oct. 1917; 29 June 1923; 30 Oct. 1925; 26 June, 21 Aug. 1931; 30 Sept. 1932; 1 Sept. 1933; 27 Feb., 19 March, 18 June, 27 Aug. 1936; 30 April 1942; 20 March 1952. B. P. Davis and Carroll Langstaff Davis, The Davis family and the leather industry, 1834–1934 (Toronto, 1934). A Davis genealogy: the descendants of William Davis and his wife, Hannah Phillips, of North Carolina and Upper Canada, 1774–1934, comp. Carroll Langstaff Davis and B. P. Davis (Toronto, 1934). The facts about the Humber piggery (n.p., 1897?). Richard Harris, Democracy in Kingston: a social movement in urban politics, 1965–1970 (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1988). History of Toronto and county of York, Ontario … (2v., Toronto, 1885), 2. B. W. Hodgins and Jamie Benidickson, The Temagami experience: recreation, resources, and aboriginal rights in the northern Ontario wilderness (Toronto, 1989). Mark Leslie, Haunted Hamilton: the ghosts of Dundurn Castle and other Steeltown shivers (Toronto, 2012). Elizabeth McClure Gillham, Early settlements of King Township, Ontario (King City, Ont., 1975). The mercantile agency reference book … (Montreal), 1879, 1887. “Minutes and proceedings of the select standing committee on public accounts with evidence and statements,” Ont., Legislature, Journals (1897–98), 31: app.1. H. V. Nelles, The politics of development: forests, mines & hydro-electric power in Ontario, 1849–1941 (Toronto, 1974). Jerry Prager, “Blood in the mortar: the abolition-emancipation movement in Guelph, Ontario”: abolition-emancipation.blogspot.ca (consulted 20 April 2017). J. S. Schultz, The leather manufacture in the United States: a dissertation on the methods and economies of tanning (New York, 1876). Thomas Webster, “Early scenes in Canadian life,” New Dominion Monthly (Montreal), 2 (1868): 283–87, 348–54.
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Cite This Article
David G. Burley, “DAVIS, ELIHU JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 21, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davis_elihu_james_16E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||David G. Burley|
|Title of Article:||DAVIS, ELIHU JAMES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2021|
|Year of revision:||2021|
|Access Date:||March 21, 2023|