In early July, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Duerkop for SWIHHP. Although he was not born in Kingston and only came to call this city home in the early 2000s, John did marry into one of Kingston’s more prominent families – the Davis family, who operated the A. Davis and Son Tannery in the Inner Harbour from 1903-1974 – and he has conducted extensive research on the tannery’s history and the industrial history of the Inner Harbour more broadly.
In addition to sharing his wealth of historical knowledge with me, John also told me how the A. Davis and Son fonds (all 19 boxes of it!) came to be in the Queen’s University Archives:
I knew that after the tannery closed in 1974 that the papers of the tannery went into a filing cabinet out at the cottage, not protected from the weather particularly, and I kept agitating with my brother-in-law to do something about it. My father-in-law was emotionally unable to deal with the subject. My brother-in-law was very resistant because he believed that everything was a family secret. Just about everything was a family secret. He wouldn’t talk ‘business,’ as he called it, with anybody. Even his own brother, who did not live in Kingston, was outside the closed circle. But after [Stephen] died, I worked on Mary, my sister-in-law, and she eventually said, well it’s about time to do something with that. So I was out of here like a shot out of a gun, went down to the cottage and opened up the filing cabinet … So Heather Home arrived one day in her van and threw all this stuff in the back of the van and I tried to help her, but she had already taken possession of it and I wasn’t to touch it anymore. And she drove off and I haven’t seen it since.
The materials that historians use in archives can often be taken for granted. These documents do not just materialize in archival collections, neatly organized, carefully preserved, and ready for our use. Archival collections are not only the result of the hours and hours archivists spend sorting, analyzing, cataloguing, and preparing these papers, photographs, audio clips, etc., but they are also the result of someone realizing their historical value and having the foresight to say “this deserves to be preserved.”
So far in our SWIHHP research, we haven’t come across a more ample archival collection than that of A. Davis and Son. Archives aren’t just filled with illegible writing on crumbling, musty pages – although sometimes they are and these pieces are always incredibly useful. Sometimes, archives are lucky to have objects that really bring the history alive.
In addition to letters, receipts, invoices, memos, staff lists, seniority lists, payroll, private notes, and even the formulas for the 1930s tanning process, the A. Davis and Son fonds also houses signs, blueprints, the CPR railway siding agreements, a handmade scrapbook, union agreement booklets, advertising, environmental reports, and even leather samples.
We were all enthralled with the leather, with its tactility and its beauty, and marvelled that something so fine and beautiful could have been made in Kingston! After reading the boxes and boxes of documents, there was something special about actually holding the finished product, and knowing that you were touching and smelling something made by Kingston workers over 40 years ago. It creates a connection between the past and present, and it is nice to know that something is left from the tannery besides toxins in the soil.
Even though John hasn’t seen the Davis files since the family donated them to the Queen’s Archives, there is nothing stopping him from going to look at them again. The Queen’s Archives are free (although donations are always appreciated) and open to the public – all you need to do is sign in and the archivists are always happy to help. We are lucky to have such a wonderful historical resource here in Kingston!
Special thanks to the great people at the Queen’s University Archives for their help with the A. Davis and Son fonds and a huge thank you to John Duerkop not only for his wealth of knowledge, but also for donating the tannery’s files to the archives for the public’s use.
— Bronwyn Jaques