In return, the Government turned over to the corporation responsibility for the construction and maintenance of public buildings and roads within the confines of the town. Schools remained the jurisdiction of the Province under the New School Act. A group of townsmen, including several prominent businessmen, vehemently opposed Incorporation in 1877, fearing it premature and costly in additional taxation. However, Summerside had grown in population at a rapid rate and improvements in public services could only be affected by a local government empowered with the rights and means to do so.
The extension of the mainland Intercolonial Railway from Shediac to Point-du-Chene in 1862 and the controversial building of a Prince Edward Island Railway in the early 1870s cemented Summerside’s position as the leading centre of trade and commerce for the western half of the Island. However, the apparent advantages of an Island railroad and the subsequent entry of the colony into the Canadian Confederation in 1873 quickly disappeared. Traditional trading patterns and local industry were made subordinate to a new economic arrangement, which had as its centre the industrial heartland of the “Canadas.” To make matters worse, shipbuilding was in decline and the timber resources had been all but depleted. As a result of these dramatic political and economic changes, the ethereal prosperity of the 1860’s gave way to a period of hard times.
One immediate effect of a depressed economy in Prince County was the departure of scores of young men for greener fields. Those skilled in the shipbuilding trades – shipwrights, sail makers, blacksmiths, etc., left Summerside to pursue their professions in the “Boston States” where shipbuilding still flourished. A most crushing blow to the town’s economy in the 1880’s was the stagnation of a promising local, farm implement manufacturing industry. The enterprise and technological deftness of Messrs. Hall, Dickieson and Bishop encountered insurmountable odds from subsidized “Canadian” farm implements of inferior design. The one salvation for town businessmen was a prevalent agricultural trade. In 1900, Summerside’s population numbered about three thousand.
It was the fur of the domesticated silver fox which gave Summerside its second era of speculative although fleeting economic greatness. First carried on successfully in the Alberton-Tignish area by Robert T. Oulton, the breeding of the silver fox in captivity blossomed into an industry of international importance, and the town of Summerside was to be its hub. Frank Tuplin introduced fox ranching to the area in 1909 when he sold breeding stock to a Hinton-Holman partnership. The sale of live animals naturally democratized the fox industry, but it also led to the overproduction of pelts. For the rancher new to the business, however, thought was given only to the fortunes that were to be made almost overnight. The years 1910-14 were “boom” years for the fox industry and exciting ones for Summerside. Furs were annually peddled in the street and the presence of buyers from such exotic, far-away places as Paris and Leipzig gave the town a cosmopolitan atmosphere reminiscent of the days of wood, wind and sail.
As the silver fox industry grew in value and complexity, a more efficient registration and marketing structure was deemed necessary. In consequence, the Canadian National Silver Fox Breeders Association was formed in 1920 with Summerside as its headquarters. Five years later, the Dominion Experimental Fox Ranch was established in the town and secondary service industries were making their appearance, as evidenced by Mr. Hancock’s “Sunglo” fox food and Halls’ “Redi-Made” pens.
The pelt market began to decline in the thirties and approached collapse at war’s end in 1945. Wartime economics, chronic over-production, a change in the unpredictable world of women’s fashions and new chemical dyeing techniques, had sealed the fate of fox farming. The “Fox Boom” was over. In Summerside, the ranches of Callbeck, Clark, Muttart, Hinton and Holman, Rayner, Lea, Tuplin, Rogers, Hancock, Monkley, and others, slipped into disrepair.
As the post Second World War period of Summerside’s history is somewhat contemporary in nature, it is too early for the historian to objectively assess the changes that have come about since then, such as the establishment of R.C.A.F. Station Summerside in 1940, and its growth as a permanent peacetime military installation. It is also too early to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of such recent changes as the construction of shopping malls and the presence in the town of national chain retail stores. Nevertheless, Summerside’s heritage can be examined! It is laced with entrepreneurial energy, ingenuity and a co-operative Christian spirit, which ought to serve as a guide in the future.
[Robert A. Rankin, December 1976]