Tompkinsville, Nova Scotia

Associated name: Reserve Mines
Location: A neighbourhood of Reserve Mines, Cape Breton Island. West of Glace Bay, northeast of Sydney.  46.18025 N, -60.01952 W

Tompkinsville was a cooperative housing endeavour, one of a cluster of cooperative initiatives in Reserve Mines, Nova Scotia including a credit union (1933), a community library (1935), and a co-op store (1937). All these initiatives were stimulated by the co-founders of the Antigonish Movement, the Catholic priests James J. (Jimmy) Tompkins (1870-1953) and Moses Coady (1882-1959). The two men happened to be cousins, both working out of the Extension Department at St. Francis Xavier University. Coady went around explaining the benefits of collective work for collective gain throughout the Maritimes, while Tompkins became pastor in the Reserve Mines area and became the namesake of the housing initiative. In 1937, the Extension Department hired Mary Ellicott Arnold (1876-1968), an experienced cooperative housing organizer. She and her partner, Mabel Reed (1876-1963), helped the miners and their wives turn their decision to have better housing into a reality.

The primary technique used to generate these cooperative initiatives was the “study club”: local residents, both men and women, identified, studied, discussed and debated what their problems were, and then went on from there to decide which actions were necessary to actually solve them.

Mary Arnold working on house measurements with members of the housing study club. Precise models were constructed in order to make realistic building cost estimates, and make adjustments as required. Source: Arnold 1940, opp p 40.

In the Tompkinsville case, the problem was to build better houses on land the group members did not yet own. Nova Scotia had dozens of study groups with more than 1000 members in the mid- to late-1930s, but none were devoted to housing. The circumstances at the time included a very deep economic depression and long-standing dissatisfaction on the part of miners and their families with their mining company employers.

Housing Initiative

Reserve Mines was a coal mining town, and much of the poorly-built housing stock was owned by the coal company. Many had no foundations, lacked flush toilets and, by 1936, some of the thin-walled duplex dwellings were more than half a century old. They had seen little in the way of improvements or repair. People paid rent to the coal company but the owners spent little on maintenance. Adding insult to injury, because their homes were situated too close to the pit head, any land around them was unusable for gardens.

By the 1920s, the level of discontent was so great that strikes in the coal fields were common. Against this background, in 1936 a small group of eleven families began a land study club, followed the next spring by a housing study club. Cooperative housing was a field in which Coady and Tompkins had no expertise. Though his support for the idea was not immediate, Coady eventually hired New York social activist and organizer, Mary Arnold, to work with the families, which she did along with her partner, Mabel Reed.

A study group-designed 3-bedroom house floor plan and exterior. Source: Arnold 1940, 97.
Another study group-designed house, two bedrooms, with the exterior appearance. Source: Arnold 1940, 99.

Arnold and Reed were both Quakers who had originally come to Canada simply to observe Coady’s work, but instead, they ended up living with the mining families in Reserve Mines for nearly two years as they provided guidance on the project. Central to both the land and housing study clubs were Joe Laben, a local miner, and Mary Laben, his wife. They brought their own leadership experience in cooperative enterprises from an earlier successful credit union study club of 1932-33. The housing study group was initially called the Toad Lane Study Club after the site of the first cooperative store in England in 1844 opened by the Rochdale Pioneer Society. When it became necessary to incorporate so that their group could hold title to the land, it was renamed the Arnold Cooperative Housing Corporation in honour of Mary Arnold.

Meanwhile, Coady’s Extension Department worked successfully on the immediate problem of having changes made to provincial legislation so that housing cooperatives in Nova Scotia could be financed. Land acquisition was another concern. Study club members had decided they needed enough reasonably good land to be able to grow vegetables for their families as a safeguard against losing their work in the mine. Land belonging to the parish was made available for sale. In March 1938 the group of eleven miners formally took title to eleven acres to be held in cooperative ownership.

Design and Construction

The prospective owners, both the men and the women, learned house design and eventually designed their own homes. Arnold used scale models to help them visualize the finished buildings. For example, using the models, a roof pitch of 9 in 12 was chosen for largely consistent use throughout the project. All the houses were designed in a conservative two-storey Cape Cod style, with a kitchen, living room and small dining room on the ground floor, and bedrooms usually upstairs, but Arnold encouraged families to personalize them to meet their needs, including with regard to the number of bedrooms. Of the eleven finally built, no two were exactly alike.

“Honest-to-goodness houses.” Source: Arnold 1940, opp p 25.

Since group members would also build the homes, they had to learn construction methods because they had no previous house construction experience. They learned all this over a two-year period.

Tompkinsville house. Source: Jeanne M. Wolfe, circa 1985.

MacKinnon calls the Tompkinsville housing“vernacular” architecture and part of Nova Scotia’s built heritage because the people controlled the entire design-build process.

Tompkinsville Cape Cod style house. Source: Jeanne M. Wolfe circa 1985

Despite the long study and model-making process, it was thought prudent to build just one home at first, mainly to ensure costs were what the group expected. The prototype was completed in the fall of 1937 and Mabel and Mary occupied it during the remainder of the construction period. With Arnold acting as the contractor for the families, the remaining 10 dwellings of Tompkinsville were completed by March 1939.


The Tompkinsville experiment in and of itself was small, at only eleven dwellings built. Nonetheless, because it was the first such housing cooperative in Nova Scotia, it was a model for subsequent initiatives in the Maritimes.

View along Tompkinsville Road. Source: Jeanne M. Wolfe, circa 1985.

Because Tompkinsville was tied in large part to the very successful Antigonish movement, this opened opportunities to convey the story widely. Mary Arnold took her experience to Newfoundland where she next worked briefly before returning to the United States where she kept working in her field. A part of the story that continues to inspire people today is the determination shown by these families to take matters into their own hands, to refuse to be helpless, to refuse to be without hope of better living conditions.

Mary Arnold’s book on Tompkinsville (1940) includes advice about how to use the study club approach in the field of cooperative housing. See Neal (1998; 1999) on how Arnold’s contributions were obscured in the subsequent historical record, along with those of other women working in cooperative actions. The significance of the case within the architectural history of industrial housing in the Maritimes is discussed by Richard MacKinnon (1996a; and 1996b for a shorter, more popular version). Larder (2011) discusses the complementarity between community organizing and the arts, using examples from the Tompkinsville of the 1930s and again today. The Tompkinsville story was turned into a stage play by Lindsay Kyte, great-niece of Mary and Joe Laben, and herself a third generation resident of Reserve Mines. The play was performed in 2012, 2015 and 2016 and has been featured in both radio and television documentaries.

by Jeffrey P. Ward and Beth Moore Milroy
12.09.16; revised 12.06.17


  • Arnold, Mary Ellicott. 1940. The story of Tompkinsville. New York: The Cooperative League.
  • Caplan, Ronald. 1977. Father Jimmy Tompkins of Reserve Mines. Cape Breton’s Magazine, 16, 6-12.
  • Larder, Dorothy. 2011. What would Mary Ellicott Arnold say? Canadian Quaker History Journal 76: 23-32.
  • MacKinnon, Richard. 1996a. Tompkinsville, Cape Breton Island: cooperativism and vernacular architecture. Material History Review 44: 45-63.
  • MacKinnon, Richard. 1996b. Conservatism and vernacular architecture in Tompkinsville. In The centre of the world at the edge of a continent: Cultural studies of Cape Breton Island, eds. Carol Corbin and Judith A. Rolls, 145-162. Sydney NS: UCCB Press.
  • Neal, Rusty. 1998. Brotherhood economics: women and co-operatives in Nova Scotia. Sydney, NS: UCCB Press.
  • Neal, Rusty. 1999. Mary Arnold (and Mabel Reed): co-operative women in Nova Scotia, 1937-1939. Acadiensis 28, 2 (spring): 58-70.