Early Woolen Enterprises in Oshawa

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

When I’m not sharing the history of Oshawa or giving tours of the site, I can usually be found with knitting needles and yarn in my hands. A voracious knitter with a dangerous yarn shopping habit, I’m rarely cold as I’m usually covered in wool.  Naturally, my interest is piqued when knitting or wool is mentioned in a historical context, like how I could not resist knitting the pair of socks from a pattern published in the local newspaper in 1916.  In Jill’s post from mid-November, she recounted that in the Sam Pedlar manuscript, the earliest business mentioned is Beagle & Conklin, purveyors of spinning wheels and handlooms in 1793.  Be still, my heart. This got me curious as to how many other woolly industries has Oshawa been home to through the years.

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Knitting at an Culture Squared in 2016; thanks to Carla from the RMG for the photo!

Let’s start with Beagle & Conklin. Pedlar serves as the resource for this industry.  After arriving in Oshawa in the early 1790s, Benjamin Wilson was so taken with the area that he wrote letters to those whom he knew in the States, espousing the greatness of Upper Canada, and Beagle & Conklin arrived as a result of one of Wilson’s letters.  They established their business of making spinning wheels and handlooms around 1793.  As stated by Pedlar: “It has often been asked how came it about that Oshawa is such an industrial centre, in the light of its history it is easily accounted for. So long as shaft and pulley revolves in Oshawa’s busy works, may the names of Beagle and Conklin be kept in mind.”

A number of woolen mills, where wool is processed, have also been located in Oshawa through the years.  Perhaps the largest such industry was Schofield, who were located on Centre Street and in our community from 1892-1951. It is worth noting that woolen mills were often large employers of women, and this was indeed the case with Schofield.

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The Oshawa Creek provided power to many of the early mills in our community, including Gorham’s woolen mill, located at what Pedlar called ‘The Hollow;’ he was referring to the area around what is today Mill Street.  The proprietor was Joseph Gorham, and this woolen mill was established in 1822, in the same vicinity of Dearborn & Cleveland’s grist mill.  Pedlar asserts, “this woolen mill so far as the writer has been able to learn is the third industry which utilized the water power of the Oshawa Creek.”  Before long, the Hollow was the home of E Smith’s distillery and Miles Luke’s tannery.  It is not known how long Gorham’s woolen mill was in business, but Joseph himself died in 1839, aged 50 years, buried at the Pioneer Memorial Gardens Cemetery.

An enterprising man, Samuel Hall was a prolific builder in our community, establishing factories, saw mills, helped with a store house and elevator at Port Oshawa, and a woolen mill north of the town.

The Oshawa Creek also provided power to Ethan Card, another woolen and carding mill established around 1842.  His was located at the ‘raceway,’ along the creek north of King Street, where the creek ‘races’ along. He was also laid to rest at the Pioneer Memorial Gardens, passing away in 1854.

If we look to the northern communities in Oshawa, there was the Empire Woolen Mill in Columbus.  It was located just outside the village, another mill that harnessed the power of the creek.  It was reportedly the largest mill in the area.  It was established in 1835 by Mathewson and Ratcliffe and was sold to the Empire Mills Company in 1850. According to information from Archaeological Services Inc., approximately 50 workers were employed by this business, many of whom were brought to the area from Lancashire and Yorkshire in England, and they resided either in boarding houses or small cottages.  The business moved in 1887, and a flood three years later washed away the mill’s dam.

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Empire Woolen Mills near Columbus, c. 1883 (AX995.169.1)

Finally, we know our own Thomas Henry dabbled with wool. As per the 1851 agricultural census, amongst his other crops and livestock, he had 27 sheep with 100 pounds of wool.  An interesting note in the 1868 Vindicator tells us Thomas had an incident involving his sheep.  As reported:

Returned – Three of the sheep advertised by Mr. Thomas Henry, have returned home without their fleeces, but marked with a hole in the right ear.  If the man who was kind enough to shear them will be kind enough to return the fleeces and the two missing sheep, he will be paid for the shearing, but not for the marking.

Finally, memories shared by one of Thomas’s granddaughters, Arlie DeGuerre, gives a glimpse into how Thomas’s daughters would have passed time inside the house:

One can scarcely imagine the work it was to clothe and feed a family of 14 children, especially when all the yarn was carded and spun from the sheep’s wool and then woven into cloth right at home.  The big loom was in a corner of the kitchen and it seemed to never stop.  On into the later evening one could hear the shuttle go back and forth; one foot peddle go down and then the other as Mother Henry wove the cloth for trousers, shirts, and dresses and all the woolen cloth used in the home.  Elizabeth the second eldest girl became the seamstress.  She sewed nearly all the time.  The girls knit socks and mitts, pieced quilts, mended and darned socks during most of their spare hours.

Oshawa has long been known as a manufacturing community, the creek providing power to the early industries that became established here, many of which were woolen mills, preparing the fibres so that warm clothes could be made.



Addendum: October 2020 – I was looking in our database at the Thomas Henry Correspondence Collection, a donation received in 2013 and has been written about before on the blog. I was very delighted to see this as part of the collection:

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Unfortunately, this slip of paper is undated and has no additional context, but Thomas Henry is named on this receipt for 10lbs (or 1.0lb) of yarn. A surprise like this was worthy of an addendum to this post.

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