by Andre Lalonde
This story was written almost 40 years ago when I was fresh out of Trent University and looking for writing challenges. In my notes for the story, I was going to submit it to magazines of the day like Harrowsmith, Mother Earth News, The Ottawa Review, but the story was never finished or submitted to any important publication, until now. Turns out the entrepreneurs for the Starlight Candle Company never needed publicity, they had more business than they could handle and were too laid back to let any job turn into a serious occupation!
In hindsight, I was attracted to the alternative “hippie” lifestyle that was going strong back then and I wanted to be a part of it or at least take a snapshot of it. This little country candle factory at the Cascades “hippie commune” seemed like a good way to frame those times.
Louis Rompré started making candles in 1978 at only 20 years old while he lived in Cascades, “At first I just made them for myself because I love candles. I have always been transfixed by fire, so I have these little fires burning all around me. I find them calming, mesmerizing, even therapeutic.”
When Louis moved to Ottawa with his new wife Michele, he sold his candle making business to Pierre Lalonde for $50 who continued the stove top tradition.
Louis taught Pierre how to make candles in the hand-dipped tradition. On a good day, Pierre was making 27 pairs of hand-dipped candles over his kitchen stove!
The road to success for Starlight was not always straight forward or easy. Running any small business is filled with hard work, changing challenges, and a degree of luck. This was the case one day when Pierre woke up to find his recently installed candle making operation in the spare bedroom had sprung a leak in the melting vat during the night and narrowly missed pouring about 20 gallons of hot wax over the electric heater below. Miraculously Pierre’s home and candle business did not Melt-down” or go up in smoke that night.
When Louis came back to Wakefield in 1983, he resumed the candle making operation in a scrap built garage on Gendron road. He sold and bartered candles locally and eventually found outlets with the local and Ottawa craft market.
As there was only one vat to use for melting wax and the location was not large enough to grow into a business for two people, the partnership was dissolved and Louis continued making his own candles on a small scale basis. Before too long, Louis was moving to Quebec City with Michele so he sold the business back to Pierre, this time for $75. Pierre continued making candles on a small scale basis for a few years until Louis (now 25 years old) returned to Wakefield and planned to build a bigger factory that would be called the Starlight Candle Company. This candle factory would be big enough for these two old friends to become partners
They decided to move the original factory on Gendron road and rebuild it at Pierre’s home at Cascades. This retreat had once been home for Louis (the chicken coup) and many other hippie friends over the years, but now it would be the home of the new candle factory.
The lumber for this factory was transported piece by piece from Gendron road and reassembled over a weekend. Being Pierre’s kid brother, I was on the scene around this time and helped them rebuild the factory, made of scrap material and sheer imaginative determination for about $250. As a young man, I was inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit exhibited by these very capable hippies, if they could do it maybe I could too!
While the recycled siding from the old factory on Gendron road was being assembled, I was amused to see words scrawled on the building “I CAN NOT TAKE A SERIOUS OCCUPATION”. Thinking this was a hippie statement of the times, I asked Pierre if this was their “mission statement” for Starlight Candles? No, “that was Randy MacMillan making his own artistic statement”. But he agreed that it kind of represented the philosophy these two laid back partners had in life. Louis called it “following your bliss, not the money”.
Over time I realized his bliss must have been the freedom to do his own thing. Invariably for Louis and Pierre while waiting for wax to melt or candles to cool down, it also involved getting high, drinking coffee and playing hacky sack or jamming around the fire at the regular potlucks.
At that location, in just three years, they could make up to 450 pairs daily. The success behind the candle business said Pierre was keeping the operating, construction and maintenance costs as low as possible while ensuring each candle is of the highest quality and sold for a fair price to encourage repeat buying. Louis said he never got sick of making candles “every one is a potential light of pleasure”.
Starlight did not compromise on the quality of their wick or paraffin (wax). With the layering process made up of multiple dippings, they produced a high quality candle that did not drip. Louis once told me he never had to worry about running out of wick or paraffin for the candles because Pierre had a keen memory for detail and knew what amount of raw materials was needed or available for any job. They were a good team because they knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. As good friends, they became great partners.
Their factory was the result of careful planning and logic so an overall cost-effectiveness could be achieved for the final product. For example, though the factory was well insulated, electricity requirements for heating and melting the wax were kept minimal during the winter months.
Much of the candle factory was made of discarded or recycled parts like the burner elements from old stoves, winch handles made from sturdy iron wood tree branches and discarded oil barrels cut in half for melting vats. It is a reminder that the Mother of ingenuity comes from scarcity and imagination.
One safety issue they had was pressure building up in the vat as the wax was heated into a liquid. You could see how the pressure was actually bending the metal of the vats and there was fear it would spring a leak and start a fire. I suggested using an auger to drill a hole through the wax so the pressure could be relieved. The next time I visited Pierre, I saw they had acted on my suggestion and devised an ingenious way of relieving pressure with a tool they made themselves for nothing.
Fire is of course, was one of Starlight’s biggest risks. Louis and Pierre constantly used their creativity to find low cost innovations to ensure their operation was both safe and efficient. The floor of the factory was basically a sandbox with several smoke alarms and fire extinguishers installed.
Starlight has been able to sell each candle at a competitive price. This according to Louis, “allows the profit to be made more on gross sales rather than individually wrapped decorative or scented candles”. Louis and Pierre knew these mass produced candles contained useless packaging and were usually made of inferior wick and wax – that dripped.
Louis and Pierre were always open to fair trade and barter with their product, as part of their philosophy of giving and getting what you need when you need it through the local community. Louis used to barter his candles at Craft shows for gifts he gave his friends and family at Christmas – Louis being the sharp business man he was, his gifts always seem to be candle holders.
According to Pierre, the quality of their candles never dropped off with their success. He called it a form of art and quality always came first. When this story was written in 1983, they were selling a pair of 10” hand-dipped candles for only $1 and a pair of 15” candles at $2.25. What may have started as a hobby, reached the point of no return and turned into a “somewhat serious occupation” that neither would trade for any job in the city.
The two friends kept the candle factory going at Cascades for several years until Pierre moved away and Louis returned to Wakefield in 1990 to live in his childhood home on Legion Road. The factory was moved there and rebuilt in a large garage on the property. Though it was much bigger than before, Louis went solo with the business at this stage and was able to support his new family as a candle maker and continued following his bliss in Wakefield.