ROBBINS, ABEL CUTLER, merchant, shipowner, and entrepreneur; b. 19 Oct. 1819 at Chebogue Point, N.S., ninth of the 13 children of Joseph Robbins and Hannah Raymond; m. September 1848 Sarah Jane Porter in Yarmouth, N.S., and they had three sons and five daughters; d. there 5 Sept. 1901.
Abel Cutler Robbins was a descendant of Abigail Robbins, one of the first grantees of Yarmouth Township. As a youth he worked on the family farm at Chebogue Point, and in 1840, after a year at sea and another teaching, he entered into partnership with William H. Townsend*. The firm of Townsend and Robbins sold dry goods and hardware in a store on the main street of Yarmouth until 1847, when Robbins left to open his own general store. As postmaster from 1857 to 1860, Robbins ran the local post office in the same building as his store.
Robbins had started up his business just as Yarmouth was beginning to experience its greatest economic growth. Well established by 1850, his merchandising operations expanded over the next two decades to include partial, then total, ownership of many of the vessels being built for the profitable carrying trade to Europe and the United States. One of Yarmouth’s leading shipowners during the 1860s and 1870s – in 1871 he was said to be the largest owner of sailing ships in the county – Robbins registered a total of 28,320 tons in the period up to 1885. Shipping registers reveal a steady increase in the size of his vessels; beginning with small brigs, he progressed to ships of 1,000 tons and more.
In contrast to the majority of Yarmouth’s shipowners, Robbins became involved in shipping not through family ties but because of his business involvements with Townsend and with George Stayley Brown, both of whom were leading shipowners. He was, however, typical in that he did not concentrate on shipping. He closed his merchandising business in 1873, and the next year he established the firm of Parker, Eakins and Company with Edward F. Parker and Arthur Eakins. It began as a commission and wholesale grocery business but quickly expanded into the curing of fish and exporting. The company operated two large wharves on the waterfront as well as another across the harbour. It laid down tracks connecting with the Dominion Atlantic Railway in order to shunt loads of lumber and other materials to vessels alongside one of the wharves. The total value of goods handled by the firm exceeded $500,000 in some years. Robbins was a partner until his death.
The bulk of the wealth brought to Yarmouth through shipping remained in the area and was invested in a multitude of businesses and technical ventures. Robbins became involved in many enterprises which benefited Yarmouth and its people. He was an original shareholder in the Commercial, Atlantic, Pacific, and Oriental insurance companies, held shares in the Acadian Insurance Company, and served as a director of the Yarmouth Marine Insurance Association. In addition he was the founding president of the Mutual Relief Society of Nova Scotia (1881), announced as “the first life insurance company ever established in the Province on a perfectly equitable basis.”
President of the Exchange Bank of Yarmouth from 1874 into the 1880s, Robbins was also a director of the Bank of Yarmouth from 1866 to 1875. Enterprises which profited from his experience were the Yarmouth Duck and Yarn Company, the Yarmouth Gas Light Company, the Western Counties Railway, the Yarmouth Woollen Mill Company, the Power Knitting Company, and the Burrell-Johnson Iron Company; he served on the boards of all six. He was also a founding member of the Yarmouth County Agricultural Society, formed in 1842.
A member of the town’s two Zion Baptist churches, where he generously supported all programs, Robbins sat on the board of governors of Acadia College in Wolfville, to which he contributed liberally, and was sometime president of the Baptist Home Missions Board.
Abel Cutler Robbins was born into a farming family but at an early age turned to the shipping industry. Through initiative and hard work he became a leading shipowner, and he invested the profits in local businesses. In this respect he was typical of the men who built Yarmouth into a world renowned deep-sea port in the mid 1800s.
NA, RG 42, E1, 1186–92, 1196–98, 1200, 1439–41 (mfm. at Yarmouth County Museum and Hist. Research Library, Yarmouth, N.S.). V. S. Sweeney Limited (Yarmouth), Sweeney’s funeral records (photocopies of transcripts at Yarmouth County Museum and Hist. Research Library). Yarmouth County Museum and Hist. Research Library, Arch. files, YMS 4-6 (Bank of Yarmouth); 4-7 (Exchange Bank of Yarmouth); 4-9 (Burrell-Johnson Iron Company); 4-88 (Yarmouth Woollen Mill); Clement Doane, cemetery records; Grantees’ map of Yarmouth Township; Robbins geneal., comp. G. S. Brown. Progress (Saint John, N.B.), 14 Oct. 1893. Times (Yarmouth), 6 Sept. 1901. Yarmouth Light, 12 Sept. 1901. Yarmouth Telegram, 6 Sept. 1901. R. M. Aitken, “Localism and national identity in Yarmouth, N.S., 1830–1870” (ma thesis, Trent Univ., Peterborough, Ont., 1975). David Alexander, “The port of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, 1840–1889,” Ships and shipbuilding in the North Atlantic region, ed. Keith Matthews and G. [E.] Panting ([St John’s], 1978), 77–103. G. S. Brown, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia: a sequel to Campbell’s “History” (Boston, 1888). Busy East of Canada (Sackville, N.B.), 7 (1916–17), no.11/12. J. R. Campbell, A history of the county of Yarmouth, in Nova Scotia (Saint John; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1972). Canadian biog. dict. Directory, Yarmouth, 1890, 1895. Haley, Robbins, Cook, ed. J. L. Haley (St Stephen [St Stephen-Milltown], N.B., 1939; copy at Yarmouth County Museum). J. M. Lawson, Record of the shipping of Yarmouth, N.S., containing a list of vessels owned in the county of Yarmouth since its settlement in 1761 . . . (Yarmouth, 1876); Yarmouth past and present: a book of reminiscences (Yarmouth, 1902). G. [E.] Panting, “Cradle of enterprise: Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, 1840–1889,” The enterprising Canadians: entrepreneurs and economic development in eastern Canada, 1820–1914, ed. L. R. Fischer and E. W. Sager ([St John’s], 1979), 253–71. Marguerite Woodworth, History of the Dominion Atlantic Railway ([Kentville, N.S.], 1936). “Yarmouth shipping-related businesses and industries,” comp. Randy Saulnier (Young Canada Works grant research paper, Yarmouth, 1977; copy at Yarmouth County Museum).