James W. Woods

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1863-1930

 

In 1885, Woods established himself as an outfitter of canvas supplies to lumbermen in the Ottawa Valley. He established his own manufacturing facility to produce tents, sleeping bags, and canvas bags. He invented a new light canvas so effective in its waterproofing that he became the chief supplier of canvas to British forces during the Boer War (1899–1902), outfitting troops with everything from tents and clothing to horse blankets. Woods was knighted after WWI.

 

James Woods lived at 323 Chapel in Kildare House (named after St Ambroise de Kildare in Quebec where he was born) between 1898 and his death in 1930. Built in the Second Empire style, the house was either rebuilt or substantially enlarged around 1912 — a frontispiece was added on the front and the sides and the rear were extended. In subsequent years, it was stripped of its wooden verandas. The 1911 census shows James Woods living with his wife, five children, one governess and seven servants at this address – maybe one reason why the house was enlarged.

 

Woods was well-connected socially: he married Ida Edwards, the daughter of John C. Edwards, the wealthy lumber merchant who lived at 345 Laurier Ave. E., and one of his daughters, also named Ida, married J.R. Booth jr. A member of the Ottawa elite, the president of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association and the Ottawa Board of Trade, Woods was also a well-known philanthropist who raised money for the YMCA and endowed a chair in dentistry for the Protestant Hospital. He took great pride in his art collection and it was said that “few were better known than he in Ottawa society and no social gathering seemed complete without his presence.” (Roberts 1934)

 

Through his affiliations with both the National Geographic Society and the Royal Geographic Society in the U.K., Woods outfitted many of the most important exploratory ventures of the early 20th century, including the Amundsen Northwest Passage Expedition (1906), the Stefansson Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913-1918), the Roosevelt Field Expedition through Central Asia and the first ascent of Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan (1925). Woods developed the down-filled Woods Arctic Parka for the Canadian Arctic expedition that became the prototype for the extreme weather jacket that is now ubiquitous on Canadian streets in winter.

 

Ernest Hemingway refers to the Woods sleeping bag in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls: “He doesn’t know about that robe, Robert Jordan thought. Good old pig-eyes doesn’t know why I paid the Woods boys sixty-five dollars for that robe[1].” The Woods Arctic Eiderdown Sleeping Robe is generally recognized as the first modern sleeping bag, using down instead of feathers and featuring compartments to keep the down in place. First introduced around 1898, it was a luxury item when it was first developed, costing about $1000 in today’s currency and remained in production, along with the canoe pack and the Prospector canvas wall tent until 2008 when the company folded.

 

Woods had factories in Ottawa (at 30 Slater St.), Hull, Toronto and Ogdensburg (New York). The company supplied tents and other goods for Allied soldiers in both World Wars and created the first gas masks for the Canadian army. In time, Woods Manufacturing would grow to be Canada’s largest contractors and lumberman’s supplier.

 

Woods invested some of his fortune in land development. In 1910, he built the Roxborough, the chic apartment building on Laurier Ave. W. at the corner of Elgin St., which was demolished in 1965 to make way for Confederation Park. Over the years, residents of the Roxborough included Mackenzie King, Louis St- Laurent, George Vanier, Supreme Court justices and cabinet ministers.

 

One of Woods’s sons, John, died in France in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme and is buried there. Another son, James, founded the Woods Gordon accounting firm in 1933 (that later became part of Ernst and Young).

In 1933, the Soeurs grises de la Croix d’Ottawa (the Grey Nuns) acquired Kildare House as a retreat for nuns of the order and renamed it Maison de Lajemmerais. The house served as barracks during the war and is now home to a wellness centre.

 

[1] Ernest Hemingway (1940) For Whom the Bell Tolls (Scribner), p 180