FRASER, ARCHIBALD, lumberman, industrialist, and office holder; b. 22 April 1869 in Aberdeen, Scotland, son of Donald Fraser and Ann Reith; m. first 18 Dec. 1901 Agnes Dunbar (d. 29 July 1911), probably in Woodstock, N.B., and they had a daughter and two sons; m. secondly 25 June 1930 Evelyn Whyte in London, England; they had no children; d. 10 Oct. 1932 near Nictau, N.B.
Archibald Fraser came from several generations of woodsmen, sawmillers, and lumber merchants, so it is no surprise that his father resumed that vocation soon after emigrating to Canada and that both his sons followed him into it. The family had arrived in 1873 as members of a planned settlement called New Kincardineshire, on the Tobique River in northwestern New Brunswick’s Victoria County, popularly known as the Scotch Colony. Possibly in order to take up a land grant, Donald Fraser initially started to farm in a region far more amenable to forestry than to agriculture, but he soon returned to lumbering. In 1875 or 1876 he leased and subsequently purchased a sawmill at River de Chute, a community on the west side of the Saint John River. Buying logs from local farmers, he manufactured clapboards, shingles, and other wood products for sale elsewhere in the Maritimes and in New England. The business prospered.
In 1883 Archibald, the younger of his sons, joined Donald to work as a timberjack. After Archibald turned 21 in 1890, he and his brother, Donald Jr, became partners in the business, later incorporated as Donald Fraser and Sons Limited. In 1892 the young men were put in charge of logging camps on the Odell River. Two years later the business was relocated to Fredericton, where Donald Sr built, and his sons managed, the Aberdeen mill. At this time the lumber industry in New Brunswick was still largely characterized by a number of small operations, but the Frasers would eventually purchase many of these entities to create an empire that came to dominate the province. In 1898 they expanded into southeastern Quebec, acquiring timber limits and moving an existing sawmill from Notre-Dame-du-Lac to the town of Cabano, nearer the point of supply. The new concern was so successful from the start that it provided a solid basis for growth elsewhere in both Quebec and New Brunswick. It also marked the beginning of the Frasers’ long relationship with the Royal Bank of Canada, which financed the initiative and of which Archibald became a director in 1928.
In 1902 the Frasers began a gradual takeover of the Tobique Manufacturing Company, which had been incorporated four years earlier. They had been associated with logging on the Tobique River since 1895, when Donald Sr helped organize the Tobique River Log Driving Company; “Archie” Fraser was an incorporator and soon to become a director. Tobique Manufacturing was in bad shape financially but possessed valuable capital assets, chief among which was a state-of-the-art sawmill at Plaster Rock, terminus of the Tobique Valley Railway. The Frasers purchased the mill, bought up the company’s stock, and in 1908 changed its name to the Fraser Lumber Company Limited. Archibald, who had managed Tobique Manufacturing, soon moved on to bigger things, leaving Donald Jr to settle in Plaster Rock, where he became the village headman and chief benefactor. By 1917 the town would loom large enough in symbol, if not in reality, to serve as the official corporate headquarters of the Fraser empire (the actual centre of operations was in Fredericton).
Another significant development had occurred in 1905 when Donald Sr brought new men and money into the business to help manage further expansion while he concentrated leadership and control firmly in family hands. Brothers William and Thomas Matheson were also the sons of Scotch Colony immigrants of 1873 and employees of Donald Fraser and Sons, while Andrew White Brebner had recently arrived from Aberdeen to oversee timber limits and a sawmill in Quebec on behalf of Glasgow interests. These assets were soon acquired by a firm organized in November 1905 under two of the families’ initials as the F and M Lumber Company Limited, with Archibald Fraser as president. The Mathesons and Brebner would spend the rest of their careers at the highest echelons of the Fraser conglomerate, in which William Matheson, Archibald’s closest associate and collaborator, was especially influential.
Growth in the form of horizontal integration continued at a rapid rate. In 1911 a new company, Fraser Limited, was incorporated to acquire the properties of James Murchie and Sons [see James Murchie*] in New Brunswick and Quebec. The following year the Frasers returned to Fredericton, which they had abandoned after the Aberdeen mill was destroyed by fire in 1905, and bought up the assets of the Scott Lumber Company and the Oromocto Lumber Company Limited. Three years later they appeared on the Miramichi River, in northeastern New Brunswick, when they purchased the timberlands and sawmill of the Timothy Lynch Company Limited of Nelson (Miramichi). As early as 1913 construction of a sulphite pulp mill at Edmundston was under consideration. The new mill, the province’s second and larger, was in operation by 1918.
Edmundston held a number of advantages for this expansion into the pulp and paper industry: an abundance of hydroelectric power, extensive forests nearby, several converging railway lines, and the proximity of the international border; its location was enhanced by the removal in 1913 of the tariff on wood pulp and newsprint imported into the United States. In 1912 Fraser Limited had obtained a fixed assessment of its Edmundston properties for a period of 25 years, and in 1917 it won further tax concessions in exchange for a promise to build one or more pulp and paper mills in the town. Under an agreement ratified by provincial legislation, the municipality also pledged to provide water and electricity at set rates for the operation of the mills. These would eventually become the town’s principal employer.
At the time of his death in April 1916, Donald Fraser Sr, an intestate millionaire widower whose only heirs-at-law were his two sons, had reputedly been the richest man in New Brunswick. Appointed co-administrators of his estate, Archibald and Donald Jr simply divided his holdings between themselves and apparently used them to effect the flotation of a new corporate entity. Donald Sr had been content to set up as many single-purpose firms as were required to address the needs of the moment. But the companies lacked a unifying corporate structure, and Archibald resolved to turn them into a modern business enterprise. He believed that one big organization would offer not only managerial and operational efficiencies but also greater capacity to undertake new initiatives and exploit future opportunities. Accordingly, in June 1917 Donald Fraser and Sons, Fraser Lumber, Fraser Limited, and F and M Lumber united to form Fraser Companies Limited (FCL), incorporated under the federal Companies Act. The new concern, capitalized at $10 million, was the largest venture of its kind in eastern Canada. Archibald Fraser’s pre-eminence in the forest industries was soon recognized by his appointment in 1918 to the small, select, and highly influential Provincial Forestry Advisory Commission, which was established that year by the New Brunswick government of Walter Edward Foster* and largely dictated official policy.
The purpose of FCL was to act as the holding or parent entity for its operating subsidiaries. The first of these was the Fraser Pulp and Lumber Company Limited, formed in 1919 to purchase timberlands in Nova Scotia that had belonged to Alfred Dickie*. These resources remained undeveloped, however, and in 1924 would be sold to American interests. Aggressive acquisition and integration continued. Also in 1919 Archibald Fraser and the corporate headquarters moved from Fredericton to Edmundston, a recognition of the town’s increasing importance to FCL’s ambitious plans for industrial expansion. The following year another subsidiary, the Fraser Paper Company Limited, was incorporated under provincial legislation. As well, FCL picked up Dominion Pulp, whose properties on the Miramichi included two pulp mills and extensive timberlands. Despite overproduction and the temporary collapse of the lumber market, FCL built four new sawmills in Quebec and New Brunswick between 1923 and 1925. A third subsidiary, the Fraser-Gaspé Company Limited, was established to manage newly acquired timber limits and operate a sawmill in the Gaspé peninsula, but these last assets were sold to International Paper in 1928.
Three years earlier FCL had bought Stetson, Cutler and Company, a fully integrated but bankrupt American forest-products concern with numerous subsidiaries, which owned timberlands and sawmills in Quebec and New Brunswick. Fraser’s principal aim was to gain a foothold in the American paper industry. Construction of a mill at Madawaska, Maine, to turn the product of Edmundston’s pulp mill into fine (non-newsprint) paper soon followed. The pulp was transported across the border by means of a mile-long pipeline. The years 1927–29 saw FCL purchase a half interest in six lumber companies on the Miramichi, sharing ownership with International Paper. In 1928 another sulphite pulp mill was constructed, this one at Atholville, on the Restigouche River near Campbellton, and the assets of the Edward Sinclair Lumber Company in Northumberland and Gloucester counties were also acquired.
In the early 1920s New Brunswick had been on the verge of financial collapse, and Foster’s Liberal government had promoted hydroelectric power and pulp and paper manufacturing in an effort to stimulate the provincial economy. In 1925, following two years of another Liberal government, led by Pierre-Jean Veniot, John Babington Macaulay Baxter*’s Conservatives took power, a victory that was decisive for the forest industry. Fraser, a staunch Tory, fellow lumber magnate Angus McLean, and a representative of International Paper were able to pressure the new regime into changing the terms for leases of crown lands to their advantage. According to historian Christopher S. Beach, by 1930 Fraser Companies Limited was International Paper’s “sole partner in oligopoly” in the province. FCL and its various divisions were now the leading leaseholders of crown land, and between them FCL and International Paper controlled the industry. The largest producer of wood products east of Ontario and one of the biggest in North America, FCL was estimated to supply as much as 50 per cent of New Brunswick’s requirements. The secret of its success during Archibald Fraser’s 15 years as president was growth through systematic integration, both horizontal and vertical. FCL bought but rarely sold, and then only to finance a better proposition elsewhere. It adapted well to changing market, industry, and business conditions, combining logging and lumbering with pulp and paper manufacturing, while swallowing up smaller, weaker, and more traditional but less adaptable competitors along the way.
Unfettered expansion, however, was purchased at the price of liquidity. By the late 1920s FCL was asset rich and cash poor; no public offering of shares had been issued before 1925, and the company was floundering. In March 1927 the New York Times reported an impending takeover by International Paper. Then in October FCL’s board was reconstructed with a view to a possible merger with Price Brothers Limited [see Sir William Price*]; Fraser’s elder son, Donald Alexander, and John Herbert Price were to become directors. Both efforts miscarried. FCL, already virtually bankrupt, was saved by an omnibus trust deed in favour of Montreal Trust. By 1930 Archibald had rebuilt one last sawmill and seemed to be contemplating semi-retirement. In April he gave up the post of general manager in favour of a young industry professional, Kellogg Sinclair Maclachlan*. In June, after nearly two decades as a widower, he remarried; his second wife, Evelyn Whyte, was an Edinburgh woman 18 years his junior. She had emigrated to Fredericton after World War I and was working as a stenographer in the office of Richard Burpee Hanson*, whose firm served as FCL’s solicitors. The couple eloped to London, where they were married in a register office and stayed at the new Grosvenor House, one of the best hotels in the metropolis, before embarking on a wedding trip to Paris. Returning home to live in Edmundston must have come as something of a shock to the second Mrs Fraser.
While Archibald lived the high life, the financial crisis at FCL deepened. Following the stock-market crash of October 1929, lumber prices had fallen precipitously. As well, the corporation’s administrative structure was top-heavy and in danger of collapsing under its own weight. Few if any capital reserves were available to fund the accumulated debt, and FCL was deeply in hock to its bondholders. As a director of the creditor bank, the Royal, moreover, Archibald found himself in an anomalous situation verging on conflict of interest. The board was replaced, Maclachlan becoming a director, but Archibald and his brother retained their positions as president and vice-president respectively.
Despite the difficulties, expansion continued when retrenchment was called for. In March 1932 Fraser Industries was incorporated in Maine to market FCL’s products in the United States. That summer FCL and its existing subsidiaries – Fraser Paper and Restigouche (the latter a merger in 1928 of former Stetson, Cutler firms) – were reorganized. Trustees with voting power were appointed to provide financial oversight. Interest payments on bonds were deferred, capitalization was reduced, and fixed assets were sold off. But Archibald Fraser would not live long enough to see whether FCL ultimately survived. The Thanksgiving holiday of 1932 found him and his wife at their remote lodge in Nictau. Fraser, who was thought to have an iron constitution, was hunting on the Tobique River a few miles away when he dropped dead of a massive heart attack. A week earlier the debenture holders in Montreal had agreed to FCL’s restructuring plan, the final step in the approval process.
Fraser was succeeded as president by Maclachlan, who retained the post of general manager. Archibald’s death and that of his brother, Donald, in 1940 marked the end of family involvement in the direction of FCL. There would be no room at the top for a third generation. In a sense Archibald’s removal from the scene at this juncture was fortunate. Yet his death, coinciding as it did with the most momentous period in FCL’s history, gave birth to the myth that he had laid down his life for the company. The financial crisis that his expansionist business model had brought about was not generally known at the time or discussed in the New Brunswick press. By 1947 he had become a heroic figure and the subject of public commemoration. In October that year Edmundston’s Rotary Club unveiled a memorial cairn to Archibald Fraser and his close associate, William Matheson. Though ostensibly a privately sponsored event, it was, in effect, a state occasion: the mayor presided, the lieutenant governor attended, the premier was represented by a cabinet minister, and the keynote address was delivered by the chief justice of the King’s Bench division of the Supreme Court of New Brunswick. The inscription on the cairn eulogized Fraser as a pioneer, planner, and builder. In 1976 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada declared him a person of “national historic significance.” The plaque in his memory, belatedly installed in 2000, overlooks the Edmundston pulp mill, which was among FCL’s greatest achievements.
The question of whether Archibald Fraser was culpable of nearly driving FCL into the ground remains open. What is clear is that he, a largely self-educated and self-made man whose gifts lay on the operational rather than the administrative side, was out of his depth in matters of corporate governance and finance at a time when such expertise was indispensable to the enterprise’s survival. By 1927 FCL’s structure and organization were no longer equal to sustaining a business of its size, sophistication, and complexity. For 13 years Fraser had divided his time and energy between administration and management. It was an impossible balancing act that rendered him unable to give his full attention to the more important of his two positions, the presidency. The monster that he had created simply overwhelmed him. FCL survived intact until 1974 and vicariously into the 21st century as the Twin Rivers Paper Company. Despite the near collapse of his empire towards the end of his life, Archibald Fraser was unquestionably a visionary businessman in the same league as entrepreneurs Howard Perley Robinson*, Kenneth Colin Irving*, and the brothers G. Wallace F.* and Harold Harrison McCain*. New Brunswick became a company province thanks in large measure to his stewardship of Fraser Companies Limited.
Archibald Fraser’s personal papers do not survive, but his business activities from 1917 onwards are well documented in PANB, Fraser Company Limited fonds (MC 444), and the Centre de documentation et d’études Madawaskayennes (CDEM), Campus d’Edmundston, Univ. de Moncton (N.B.), Fraser Companies, Limited fonds (41). Related material is held in CDEM, Nicole Lang et la Compagnie Fraser fonds (81). Of particular interest is a company-commissioned account by Mary B. Reinmuth, a secretary at Fraser Paper in New York City. Prepared in collaboration with Archibald’s elder son, Donald Alexander Fraser, the work combines family history with corporate narrative. It reflects Reinmuth’s privileged access not only to valuable oral tradition but also to predecessor-company records and personal and family papers that are no longer extant. A typescript version of Reinmuth’s history titled “The Fraser story”  (Aroos. MS 4) is held by the Blake Library, Special Coll., Univ. of Maine at Fort Kent, and has been posted on the Canadian Heritage website “Knock on wood: the forest at the heart of the Madawaskayan social and cultural heritage in Acadie”: www.toucherdubois.ca (consulted 2 Sept. 2014), which also contains many other documents related to the evolution of the Fraser companies. The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Dr Nicole Lang, professeure titulaire, histoire, Campus d’Edmundston, Univ. de Moncton, in the preparation of this biography.
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Cite This Article
Barry Cahill, “FRASER, ARCHIBALD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fraser_archibald_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:||Barry Cahill|
|Title of Article:||FRASER, ARCHIBALD|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2019|
|Year of revision:||2019|
|Access Date:||April 2, 2023|