Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Dictionary of Miramichi Biography

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O'BRIEN, JOSEPH LEONARD, lumber company head, MLA, MP, and benefactor; lieutenant governor of New Brunswick; b. Nelson, 6 Nov 1895, s/o John O'Brien and Bridget Lavinia McPeake; brother of John McPeake O'Brien; m. 1947, Kathleen O'Leary, RN, of Richibucto, N.B.; d. Montreal, 18 Jun 1973.

J. Leonard O'Brien was educated at St Thomas College and took over management of the O'Brien Co. Ltd after his father's death in 1917. In April 1924 his sawmill at Nelson burned, but it was replaced by a new mill, which came into operation that September. At the start this mill could saw 75,000 lineal feet a day, and its capacity was to be increased to 125,000 lineal feet the next spring.

The O'Brien Co. prospered, and O'Brien attached other companies to it, of which he was often the sole owner. In the 1930s he created British-Miramichi Exporters Ltd and developed a profitable trade with European countries in pulpwood and pit props. In 1939 he took over operation of the former W. M. Sullivan sawmill and planing mill at Nelson. Later in the same year he acquired the W. & R. Walsh Co. millsite in Chatham, where he subsequently operated long lumber and planing mills, as well as a sash and door factory. In 1943 he bought the huge timber limits formerly controlled by the Sullivan firm.

O'Brien was the principal employer on the Miramichi in 1943 when he formed a company called Chatham Industries Ltd to coordinate activities in the lumber manufacturing field. In 1947 it was announced that he would be adding a plant for the manufacture of a new type of wall paneling. The plant, which came into production two years later, created "synthetic lumber" by pulverizing sawdust, edgings, and shavings from the O'Brien sawmills and planing mills, adding plastics, and pressing the mix into a solid material called "plaswood." This was the first pressed board of its kind in Canada, and O'Brien created the Plaswood Corp. of Canada to control the rights to it. Trafalgar Mills Ltd of Nelson, another entity of his creation, was the manufacturer.

In 1952 O'Brien had two sawmills, two planing mills, a box shook mill, a 'plaswood' plant, a woodworking factory, a cement block plant, a general store, 200 square miles of timber limits, and much other property. He had losses by fire in 1959, but he kept most of his empire until 1961. Then, at age sixty-six, he divested himself of it and retired from business.

In 1925 O'Brien was one of the three incorporators of the Miramichi Golf and Country Club. He was the club's first secretary and was later made an honorary life member. In the 1960s he sat on the board of directors of Atlantic Sugar Refineries Ltd. He was a director of the Acadia Pulp and Paper Co. and was appointed in 1963 to the board of directors of the Bank of Nova Scotia. He was also a member of the board of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton.

O'Brien became a factor in provincial politics in 1925 when he won a seat for the Conservative party. He was speaker of the legislature from 1926 to 1930. After his defeat in the election of 1930 he did not re-offer at the provincial level. In 1940 he won election to the House of Commons. He failed to reclaim the seat in the 1945 election and did not run again. He retained his interest in politics, however, and served as president of the New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Party between 1956 and 1958.

In 1958 O'Brien was named lieutenant governor of New Brunswick. When his term expired in 1963 he agreed to accept a two-year extension. He retired in 1965. He was granted an honorary LLD by St Thomas College in 1958 and an honorary DCL by the University of New Brunswick in 1962. He claimed several other honors, initials for which are appended to his name in his entry in Who's Who in Canada and on his huge granite tombstone in the cemetery of St Patrick's Church at Nelson.

O'Brien's family came into possession of historic Beaubear's Island in 1920, and at his death in 1973 he willed it to Parks Canada for development as a national historic site. Another important benefaction of his was the establishment of the O'Brien Fellowships for New Brunswick graduate students, which continue to be awarded annually. A different kind of gift to posterity is represented by the amateur art works signed "Neirbo" (O'Brien spelled backwards). Many of these depict scenes from the lumber woods captured first on film by him during his travels in all parts of the Miramichi region and elsewhere. A 1966 private showing at the Owens Museum of Fine Arts at Mount Allison University exhibited sixty-two pieces of his work. A number of the paintings hang at the Rankin House Museum in Douglastown. He and his wife, Kathleen O'Leary, had no children.


[b] Encycl. Can. [m] Graves [d] Telegraph 20 Jun 1973 / Advocate 22 Apr 1924, 21 Apr 1925; Avard; Commercial World 28 Dec 1939, 12 Aug 1943, 5 Dec 1963; Encycl. Can.; Leader 26 Sep 1924, 10 Apr 1964, 30 Mar 1972, 21 Jun 1973; MacDonald; MacDonalds; Speakers