Miles Wesley Simkins and the great fire of Newburgh

Elizabeth Hall
A Walk Through History

With only $4.50 in his pocket, Miles Wesley Simkins shipped himself as cargo to save money on travelling expenses. He was 19 years old in 1862 when he found himself alone in Kingston, looking at a Toronto based job advertisement in the Daily British Whig newspaper. The job was a ways away, and to save money he travelled as freight, shipping himself as cargo in the hold of a ship sailing to his destination. He was hired for the job of a sewing machine salesman and was given a hand operated sewing machine for his demonstrations. One of the earliest machines sold by Simkins was Abbott’s hand or table sewing machine, manufactured in St. Catharines.

Later, he earned himself the nickname of “The Great Sewing Machine Man” because of his knack for selling so many machines. As a natural salesman, he decided to open his own sewing machine store in Kingston in 1866, located at 9 Montreal Street, and later moved to 366 Montreal Street as the city expanded. But, during this time Miles served in the Militia to fight against the Irish Fenian Raiders from the United States, and left his store in the hands of a friend. He returned in 1867. Upon his return, he bought a lot in Newburgh, hoping to build a new home with a showroom and repair shop. The new house consisted of twelve rooms and was completed in 1875. He started by building a wood house and kitchen using wood and nails saved from crates, claiming that 2,000 feet of the lumber used was taken from boxes and crates of sewing and knitting machines. He built an additional barn and a house for people to rent.

In 1878 he opened branch offices in Harrowsmith on the Kingston-Pembroke Railway line, and Napanee, on the Napanee-Tamworth and Quebec line. This way, people along the railway lines could easily access his services. Simkins was an agent for numerous brands, including The New Williams (which were very popular and well designed at the time), The White Sewing Machine Company, The Wonzer, The Weed, The Davis and Domestic, The Howe and Home, and lastly the Royal and Raymond. But in 1887, a fire destroyed more than thirty buildings in Newburgh. Miles Wesley Simkins was one of the key rebuilders in the community after the fire, and lived to be the oldest citizen of Newburgh, dying in 1936 at 93 years old.

Random History Fact: In eighteenth century England pineapples were carried around by the wealthy to announce their status to the rest of the people.

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