FABIEN (Presseault, dit Fabien), CLÉOPHAS, carpenter, cabinetmaker, icebox manufacturer, and politician; b. 23 Jan. 1850 in Montreal, son of Paschal Presseault, dit Fabien, a carpenter, and Marguerite Labelle; m. there 11 Feb. 1874 Marguerite Cousineau, and they had eight children, five of whom survived him; d. there 9 Jan. 1925.
In his early years Cléophas Fabien attended Joseph-Octave Mauffette’s school in Montreal. In the mid 1860s he began working with his father as a carpenter’s apprentice. Having learned the rudiments of his trade, in 1866 he became a carpenter’s apprentice on the construction of the Canadian parliament buildings in Ottawa [see Thomas Fuller*]. It was at this time, as well, that he helped with the repairs to some of the wings of Notre-Dame church in Montreal. During the 1870s and early 1880s Fabien was employed by William Rutherford, a major manufacturer of furniture, doors, and windows in Montreal. In all likelihood, it was there that he acquired a sound training in cabinetmaking.
On the strength of his experience, Fabien went into business for himself in 1884. Borrowing $50 from a neighbour, he opened a small plant equipped with a primitive sawmill in the Montreal suburb of Sainte-Cunégonde to make furniture and iceboxes. He apparently produced only six iceboxes during the first year. In October 1888 he went into partnership with Cyrille Paré, a joiner, under the business name of Fabien et Paré. This arrangement enabled him to increase his output of iceboxes to 200 a year, while continuing to manufacture furniture. At the time, Fabien et Paré’s iceboxes were simply rectangular cold cupboards, holding 20 to 50 pounds, in which a block of ice was placed. To increase the insulating effect, the inside walls were lined with zinc, while the exterior sheathing was of wood.
During the 1890s the introduction of mechanical processes for making ice in most North American cities increased the demand for zinc and wood iceboxes. Eager to progress beyond the limited scope of cottage-type production, Fabien moved his operation into a three-storey brick building at 3169 Rue Notre-Dame, in Sainte-Cunégonde, in 1891. Equipped with modern, electrically powered machinery, the enterprise had more than 30 employees three years later. In 1910 it began producing electric iceboxes under the Aubin patent. The invention of refrigeration by compressed gas reportedly dates back to 1857, following experiments by the Frenchman Ferdinand Carré. In 1876 the German Carl von Linde invented the first ammonia compressor, which opened the way to significant use of commercial refrigeration for the transportation of perishable foods by ship and train. A method of producing electric iceboxes (the future refrigerators) for the retail trade and home use still had to be found, and Fabien turned his attention to this problem in 1910. He soon had a large clientele of grocers, butchers, restaurateurs, hoteliers, florists, and housewives. In these endeavours Fabien was a pioneer, since in 1923 there were only 20,000 homes in the United States equipped with electric iceboxes, and probably very few in Canada.
To ensure continuity, Fabien incorporated his company in 1919 under the name Compagnie de Glacières C. P. Fabien Limitée, and brought his four sons and his daughter onto the newly formed board of directors. At the time of his death in 1925 the company was considered the largest of its kind in the province of Quebec, and the second largest in Canada, next to the Eureka Refrigerator Company Limited of Toronto. Its annual output then was some 6,000 iceboxes (with a range of 22 models, priced from $12 to $2,500), of which at least 1,000 were exported to England, South Africa, Latin America, and the West Indies. The company would remain in operation until 1994.
Doubtless attracted by the financial sector, Fabien apparently had close ties to the Alliance Nationale, a French Canadian mutual life insurance company incorporated in 1893 whose president was Hormisdas Laporte*. He was also a member (and later president) of the Union Saint-Joseph de Saint-Henri, a mutual aid society founded in 1887. Elected an alderman in 1901, he served as chair of the municipal finance committee from 1901 to 1902, and as mayor of Sainte-Cunégonde from 1902 to 1905. It was in this latter capacity that he had a new town hall built at a cost of $63,000. The municipality was, however, annexed to Montreal in 1905.
In many respects Cléophas Fabien’s career illustrates the rise of French Canadian entrepreneurs in niche markets, outside the realm of industrial mass production, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
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