Local History: Son filled the vacuum when his father died

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Have you noticed how career preferences occasionally echo through families? James Richardson and Sons developed a grain empire. Tony Deodato & Sons captured the fresh produce market. Municipal politics is similar, and Kingston has had several sets of fathers and sons take on civic responsibilities. Among local families, the Drennan men kept the lamp lights burning at City Hall in the mid- and late 1800s.

An advertisement for W.M. Drennan, funeral director and embalmer, in Foster’s Kingston Directory, 1894. J.G. Foster & Co., Publishers. Toronto 1893.
An advertisement for W.M. Drennan, funeral director and embalmer, in Foster’s Kingston Directory, 1894. J.G. Foster & Co., Publishers. Toronto 1893. jpg, KI

Emigrating from Scotland, Samuel Trangott Drennan was about 22 years old when he arrived in Kingston. Born in County Tyrone, Ireland, on Nov. 20, 1819, he and his father moved to Scotland when Drennan was a child. The young man had no trouble finding work in Kingston. First taking a clerk job at R. Waddell & Co.’s dry goods shop at Princess and Wellington streets, Drennan’s eye turned to the waterways a few years later.

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Drennan “secured the position of purser on the passenger steamer Comet, afterwards the Mayflower, which was finally blown up,” editor George Maclean Rose said in A Cyclopedia of Canadian Biography, Rose Publishing 1886. (Perhaps Drennan worked on the Great Lakes passenger-and-freighter wooden sidewheel named Mayflower, launched at Detroit in 1849. It was wrecked in November 1854 off Point Pelee, Ont.)

Realizing that he did not enjoy the work, the newly motivated entrepreneur switched back to form a land-based partnership of Kennedy & Drennan. The collaboration was short-lived, and Drennan carried on in the dry goods business by himself.

Not one to sit and gather dust, the businessman again changed professions. Establishing a furniture-making business, Drennan located the operation inside Kingston Penitentiary, using inmate labour. Employing 65 to 100 productive prisoners, “a huge quantity of the finest description of cabinet-ware and furniture is here made,” said Sutherland’s General Directory for the City of Kingston for 1867. Warehouses were located at the corner of Princess Street and Bagot Street, and another opened in Ottawa to accommodate distant customers.

Civic-minded, Drennan added his voice to the race for the mayor’s seat for 1872. Winning the one-year term, Mayor Drennan went on serve the city as alderman, retiring from politics in 1879. Also, he was president of the Liberal Conservative Association.

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The commercial endeavours and political career were enhanced by a growing family. Drennan married Anne Jane Boyd and they raised five children — four daughters and one son. Living in the thriving business district, the Drennan residence was listed as 119 Princess St. in the 1857-1858 Directory of the City of Kingston. It was an easy walk from home to his retail and wholesale dry goods store at 295 Princess St. With politics behind him, the senior Drennan continued to pursue his passions for community improvements.

Congenial, outgoing and energetic, Samuel Drennan was regularly chosen to be the master of ceremonies for special local events, including the celebratory welcome of visiting royalty. “He was vigorous in the prosecution of all good works about the city, whose welfare was ever uppermost on his mind,” Rose described. For all who knew Drennan, “he was a sincere friend, and a frank, honourable opponent.”

While operating his businesses, Drennan added a roster of other activities. Along with his key role as a director on the board for the House of Industry, Drennan fulfilled a childhood desire to be part of the fire department as “an active member of the hook and ladder company,” Rose said. In 1846, the fireman was elected a lieutenant of the hook and ladder company, and appointed captain on the passing of the sitting officer. “When the fire engine-house was built on Ontario Street, he laid the corner stone and was presented with a silver trowel.”

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Moving through the ranks of membership of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Drennan was also a member of the Ancient St. John Lodge, and was a trustee of Chalmers Presbyterian United Church. As well, the businessman ensured time in June 1872 to turn “the first sod on the Kingston and Pembroke Railway.”

It was a sad day in Kingston when 63-year-old Drennan died suddenly on Feb. 9, 1882. He was buried with Masonic honours. The vacuum left by the vibrant man’s passing was soon filled by his capable and experienced son.

William Melville Drennan was born in Kingston on Nov. 15, 1853. He attended Kingston Collegiate Institute (later Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute), concentrating on the classic languages — Greek, Latin, French, English and more. Leaving home at age 15, Drennan went to Montreal to train in hardware store operation. “After remaining there for three years, he went to New York and entered the office of the Russell & Erwin Manufacturing Co., as salesman,” Rose noted.

Applying his skills to other markets, Drennan became a travelling salesman for American companies and then a Montreal brass and iron foundry, the H.R. Ives & Co. His time on the road ended in January 1877 when he married 20-year-old Mary Eliza Moore and settled back into his hometown. Opening a hardware store at Princess and Wellington streets, the shopkeeper offered varnish, paint, nails, glass, fence wire and much more on his shelves.

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On the death of his father, Samuel T. Drennan, Melville Drennan sold his hardware operation “to continue in the furniture trade,” Rose mentioned. Drennan added “a manufacturing department and steam power.” Augmenting business opportunities, “he also entered into the undertaking and embalming business on a large scale.”

The entrepreneur joined a prominent group in similar commercial operations. Samuel Corbett provided funerary services and undertaker Henry Brame was a cabinet maker and furniture dealer. James Reid, established in 1853, provided funeral and embalming services, plus manufactured furniture and caskets.

Placing advertisements in the local directories, Drennan promoted his funeral services situated in the “Odd Fellows Building” on the corner of Princess and Sydenham streets. The businessman stated that “he is the only undertaker in the city holding a diploma from the New York School of Embalming.” Another ad boasted that he “was the cheapest undertaker in the city, open day and night.” In the late 1880s, wrote Rose, Drennan was considered “the best equipped undertaker’s establishment in Canada.”

Launching his political career as a school trustee for four years, the younger Drennan was then elected as alderman for Kingston’s Cataraqui Ward. (As with his father, he was a member of the area’s Liberal Conservative Association.) Drennan was elected mayor, holding the seat for two years, from 1890 to 1891. During his political tenure, Drennan helped to set up a system of electric lights within the city.

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Electrical lighting was a welcomed contemporary development. Incorporated in 1886, the privately owned Kingston Electric Light Company constructed a plant at the foot of Brock Street. “The plant, primarily used to manufacture street lighting, was moved to Queen Street in 1892,” according to Kingston Hydro. “This location is still used by Kingston Hydro as a distribution substation.”

Keeping his beloved city safe and sound, Drennan joined the Princess of Wales Own Rifles as lieutenant then moved to the Kingston Field Battery to serve as captain. He was a Presbyterian, and a member of several societies such as the Odd Fellows club, Minden Lodge (the Masonic Association), and Foresters, a fraternal benefit society.

Kingstonians were startled once again when William M. Drennan died on May 28, 1900.

He was only 46 years of age.

Through political achievements and service club memberships, the Drennans made the welfare of Kingstonians their priority.

Susanna McLeod is a writer living in Kingston.

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