Oshawa – The Manchester of Canada

By Sara H., Summer Student

Even though I have lived in Oshawa my entire life, there is still so much I have to learn about the city!  Working at Parkwood and the McLaughlin Branch of the Oshawa Public Library has given me a great starting point to learn about some of the significant people and industries that made up our city.  The Oshawa Museum has allowed me to continue this research and given me new ways to discover more about Oshawa. For example, Oshawa was once known as the “Manchester of Canada” due to the many industries that set up shop here and helped Oshawa thrive.  We all know about General Motors Canada and the legacy of the McLaughlin family, but what about the other industries that made up the “Manchester of Canada?”  Well look no further than this blog post as I have rounded up some information on these industries from the museum’s Discover Historic Oshawa site!  

Ontario Malleable Iron was established in 1872 by William and John Cowan.  Both men previously worked at the Ontario Malleable Iron Co., and had a great deal of skill and experience from previously running a variety of small businesses.  John served as the first president of the company until his death in 1915 when William succeeded him.  The company was sold to Grinnel Co. of Canada Ltd in 1929, and unfortunately closed in 1977 after a lengthy labour dispute.  The site was acquired by Knob Hill Farms, a Canadian grocery chain, which operated a store there from 1981 until they closed in 2000. 

Black and white photograph of a large industrial brick building. There is a road in front of it with lots of wooden electrical poles and wires running alongside
Exterior of the Ontario Malleable Iron Co., Buildings No. 5 and 7 from Front St.; Oshawa Museum archival collection (A996.1.7)

Smith Potteries was the largest maker of hand-made pottery in Canada, and operated in Oshawa from 1925 to 1949.  They produced a range of hand-painted products such as vases, bowls, and other souvenirs.  The company was very successful and the quality of their white ware pottery put them in competition with other countries such as China, Japan, and Germany.  Herbert C. Smith owned and operated the business from 1925-1938, and installed a gas station at the front of the store to attract motorists and tourists wanting to purchase souvenirs.  Smith Sporting Goods, another business operated by the Smith family, opened on the property and was in business until 1968. 

Our curator has previously written about Smith Potteries: ArteFACTS – Oshawa’s Smith Potteries

Cooper-Smith Co. was located at 19 Celina Street and changed ownership quite a bit before the company was created.  It was once owned by James Odgers Guy, yes, the same Guy from Guy House at the museum, who ran a “flour and feed” store there.  Elgin Cooper bought the property from James Guy in 1905 and turned it into a larger store that sold grain, as well as seeds, oats, and other types of feed.  The company was known for a specialized seed for homing pigeons that gave them increased stamina, and their garden seeds.  The company was forced into receivership and closed in July 1982, but reopened in August 1982 under new owners who were still a part of the Smith family.  Unfortunately, in January 1988 the property was destroyed by a fire. 

A large iron scale, standing in front of square shelves
Cooper-Smith Scale; Oshawa Museum Collection (011.16.1)

Pedlar People Limited was opened by Henry Pedlar in 1861 as a kitchenware shop.  George Pedlar, his son, inherited the company after his father’s death and established a metal stamping plant.  By 1894 the company was the “largest sheet metal factory in the British Empire.”   During the Second World War, Pedlar People was contracted to make a variety of military munitions and materials such as autocannon and artillery shells, army huts and munition shelters.  The company received high praise from the Canadian government and wartime authorities due to their service and quality of products made.  In 1976, the company was bought by a Toronto firm who opened Pedlar Storage Products in the Stevenson Industrial Park.  The Simcoe Street plant was demolished in 1981 to make way for a new shopping centre, and Pedlar Storage Products closed in 1982. 

Williams Piano Factory was started by Richard Williams in Toronto in 1849.  In 1888, the Williams firm purchased the former factory of Joseph Hall Works in Oshawa and began renovations to the building to make it suitable to manufacture pianos.  In 1890 the factory began producing pianos and organs, and the company constructed their first church organ that was sent to Brighton and consisted of more than 100 pipes!  It took ten weeks to three months to make one piano, but each piano was constructed to the “highest degree of excellence in every detail of workmanship”.  The company was globally known as a manufacturer of quality products, but due to the depression and increased mass production of the radio, they closed due to lack of demand.  However, the factory building remained and many other businesses occupied the premises, and the building was even a barracks during the war years.  The factory was demolished in 1970 to make way for the Durham Region Police Headquarters and the Oshawa Times building.  

A brown upright piano with a three pedals and a stool. There is a sign above the piano that reads 'New Scale Williams Pianos, Oshawa, Canada'
Williams Piano, 1903, in Guy House; Oshawa Museum Collection

If you want to find out more information on any of these sites, or find out more information about what used to be in Oshawa, please feel free to visit either of the museum’s websites in the “For More Information” section, or take a look at the Library’s History Pin site! 


For More Information:

Discover Historic Oshawa – Oshawa Museum

Industry in Oshawa – Oshawa Museum

History Pin: Oshawa Street Scenes – Oshawa Public Library


Sources Consulted:

Ontario Malleable Iron – http://discoverhistoricoshawa.com/listings/ontario-malleable-iron/

Smith Potteries – http://discoverhistoricoshawa.com/listings/smith-potteries/

Cooper Smith Co. – http://discoverhistoricoshawa.com/listings/cooper-smith-co/

Pedlar People Ltd. – http://discoverhistoricoshawa.com/listings/pedlar-people-limited/

Pedlar People Ltd. From Industry in Oshawa – https://industryinoshawa.wordpress.com/foundries/pedlar-people-ltd/

Williams Piano Company – http://discoverhistoricoshawa.com/listings/williams-piano-company/   

The Beaver City Enterprise: A Conundrum

By Kes Murray, Registrar

Today, just like many days over the past week, I am faced with a wall of unknowns. An actual wall. I call this area of the archives the “Found in Collection” shelves. Many archives and museums face this challenge. Items that are found in the collection that can’t be identified either for historical content or even how they came into the museum. Every day is a new challenge.

The “Found in Collection” Shelf

The biggest challenge is when an item is both unknowns: no provenance or historical information. And of course, we have one such item.

The Beaver City Enterprise is truly a mystery. This newspaper was found in our collection around 2020. Searches through many archives have resulted in no answers to what this newspaper was. What we can tell from the contents of the newspaper is that it was focused on agriculture and machinery. It also dates to the late 1870s. Beyond these facts, we know nothing else.

This situation highlights the importance of proper provenance for archives and museums. In the archive/museum field, provenance is the origin of something, or the path that an item will take to come into archives/museums. For example, a person may buy something then donate it to an archive or museum. That provenance is clear. But our Beaver City Enterprise has no information of how it came to us thus making my job a little more challenging.

Although this post is a way for me to tell you all of the important and amazing work I am doing, it is also a call for information. If anyone has any information about the Beaver City Enterprise, please let us know! We want to make sure we have correct information about this unique newspaper.

Or if you are simply interested in looking through the Beaver City Enterprise, please check out the images below.

Our County – Empire Woolen Mills

Originally Appeared Whitby Chronicle, 18 Jan 1884

Our County

‘Travelers’ visits and describes the Empire Woolen Mills at Columbus – labouring under disadvantages which Whitby can and would wish to do away with.

(Special Correspondence of the Chronicle).

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

Columbus, Jan 12., 1884 – After leaving friend Liddle’s, as referred to in my last, I proceeded in a sort of zig-zag fashion, among the fine farms in the section, making many friendly calls, and having a good time generally. By the way, I seldom think of going around by the regular roads now. I have got so used to climbing fences for the sake of a short cut, that it would almost take a Chinese wall turn me. I finally drew up towards evening at the “Empire Woolen Mills” and having unearthed Mr. Robt. Gemmel, the courteous and intelligent Manager, I proceed it to interrogate him as to various matters of interest, to which he not only kindly responded, but showed me through the establishment from bottom to top. If you feel any special interest in seeing through a Woolen Mill, just step into our shadow and get as good a view as you can as it is getting dusky.

The factory is owned by Messrs. Bryce, McMurrich & Co., of Toronto, and went in full blast gives employment to about 40 hands, at wages ranging from 1 to 2 dollars a day. Mr. Gemmel informs me that he has very much difficulty in this out of the way place both in getting and keeping sufficient hands to properly run the mill. Owing mainly to the difficulty there is not more than half the work done and hands employed at present that there might be; a state of affairs that might of course must have its effect on the financial result. Tweeds and blankets are the staple productions, and are produced in great variety of texture and pattern. The goods are mainly sent to the wholesale house of the owners in Toronto, and distributed in all directions from that point.

The machinery in all departments is said to be first-class. That in the main building is run by water-power, but that in the winding and twisting and drying departments (conducted in separate building) is driven by steam. The main building is a wooden structure, in good condition, and consisting of four flats.

Perhaps, instead of taking you either from bottom to top, or from top to bottom, I had better follow the course of the manufacturing process from the wool to the finished bale of cloth. To do this we will have to strike in at the third flat, which is devoted to carding in all its phases. The machinery in operation evidently plays its cards well. When this primary operation of preparing the wool for being spun into yarn is performed, the material is sent up to the fourth flat, or spinning department, where it is converted into yarn of various grades, according to the purpose for which it is intended. The next department may be called the winding and twisting department. This work (as before stated) is done in a separate building, immediately east of the main building. The machinery here seems very complete, and is driven by steam, and the operations performed seem to the uninitiated eye to be both mysterious and marvelous. A 16 horse-power double eccentric engine is used. The twisting machine is a fine piece of mechanism manufactured by Sykes of Hudderford, England. The winding machine is made by McGee, of Paisley, Scotland. I understand that Mr. Gemmel, having a natural taste for machinery, and a quick perception of what is needed to accomplish certain ends, has added some important improvements of his own invention, in different departments of the factory. But I must hasten, as it is getting quite dusky. We will go back to the main building, up to the second flat, which we will call the weaving department. There are eleven looms at work, and the operations of spooling, warping and weaving are all very interesting; but to give a full description of the ins and outs is beyond my power, unused as I am to such operations. Let us return for a minute to the other building and take a look into the Drying department. This is a long room in which the blanketing and other cloth is kept revolving rapidly by a powerful machine said to be unsurpassed if not unequalled in this country. The Drying agent is hot air ingeniously admitted between the folds of revolving cloth, and with such effect that 1000 yards of flannel can be dried in an hour. We will not return to the basement or first flat of No. 1 which is called the finishing department. In this various goods manufactured in the establishment are sorted, finished, marked and put up in cases for shipment; to Toronto or elsewhere. The dye-house is at one end of the finishing room, where dying (sic) in all its branches is carried on. All this is done at various stages of the work, either in the wool, the yarn or the cloth, I need not more fully describe it.

I must now take my leave of the Factory and my friend Mr. Gemmel, as the sun has set, and I have a mile of rough walking ere I reach Columbus. I am well aware that in many respects my account of the Factory is very defective. It is in fact several weeks since my visit, and my notes are now hard to decipher, and my limited acquaintance with machinery would at best be a great hindrance to my giving a good description of it. Just take my sketch for what it is worth, and if you wish for more go and see for yourselves.

There is a store kept in an adjoining building; also kept by Bryce McMurrich & Co. in which goods are sold not only to employees of the Factory but to the inhabitants generally. The store is under the very efficient care of Miss Lawrence, into whose eyes one has only to look to feel fully assured both of her integrity and kindness of heart.

Now it is quite dark, and as my only way of going on is to stop, I will stop accordingly.

Traveller.

Profiling: The Cowan Brothers

The Cowan family, including brothers John and William Fredrick Cowan, their mother, and younger siblings, left Ireland for America and landed at the New York pier in 1841. There, they met the father and husband that they had not seen for three long years. Their father, whose name is not known, had left his family and travelled to America searching for a suitable spot of land. With the arrival of the rest of the Cowans, they travelled to Toronto and settled. Sadly, the elder Cowan passed away of typhoid fever soon after their establishment in Canada, leaving his widow and children to survive on their own resources.

John (left) and William (right) Cowan, as appeared in TE Kaiser’s Historic Sketches of Oshawa

The elder Cowan had operated a mercantile business in the family’s home of Fenton, County Tyrone, Ireland. His two eldest sons, John and William, continued in their father’s line of work. They began as clerks in the dry goods firm of Alex Laurie & Co. but soon moved on into the employ of William MacFarlane. Their apprenticeship under the hands of others lasted 15 years before the Cowan brothers decided that they could make a business of their own. Their first shop, a dry goods firm, opened at the southwest corner of Yonge and Richmond Streets in 1856.

Success seemed to come easily, as it did in later life, and the brothers soon expanded their business. They opened two new branches within the next ten years – one in Port Albert, and the other in Oshawa, on King Street.

William was the first of the Cowans to settle in Oshawa. He came, with his wife Susan Groves, to manage the brother’s branch store on King Street in 1861. His older brother John followed four years later, closing their main store in Toronto and moving all of their business to the growing town of Oshawa.  Thus began a business foundation which would encompass the fields of finance and manufacturing and beget some of Oshawa’s major industries.

The Cowan Block, located at present day 13½ to 19½ King Street West, was built around 1865 for the brothers’ growing business. They had several tenants over the years, ranging from various other merchants, to druggists, to dentists. The buildings, which are virtually identical in all respects, except for some ground-level changes, are built in the Italianate style. This architectural style was popular for commercial buildings in Canada during the 1850s and 1860s.

The Cowans became friends with A.S. Whiting, and soon John found himself in a partnership with the American-born manufacturer. The firm of Whiting and Cowan, also known as the Cedar Dale Works, produced scythes, forks and other agricultural implements.

A.S. Whiting Manufacturing Co., from the Oshawa Community Archives

Five years passed before the brothers felt they could tackle a manufacturing business of their own. William retired from the management of the retail business, and John withdrew from the Cedar Dale Works.  Both men  had amassed a considerable  amount of  money during this time, and they now invested in the formation of the Ontario Malleable Iron Co. Ltd. John took up the post of president of the company, with William as vice-president, and stayed as such until his death.

William also became involved in a manufacturing venture of his own. Joining in partnership with J.D. Storie and H. T. Carswell, the trio organized the Oshawa Steam and Gas Fitting Company Limited, known later as Fittings Limited. During this time, the brothers turned their attention to banking. In the early 1870s, the Cowans participated in the formation of the Ontario Loan and Savings Company with the Gibbs brothers; this company, along with the Western Bank, was soon fully transferred into the hands of the Cowan family, caused by the financial downfall of the Gibbs’ fortunes. The Standard Bank, with its head office in Toronto, was soon organized during the same time period. While John concentrated most of his time and effort into Malleable, William became leader of the financial triplet. President of the Standard Bank for 45 years, he also served as a director at the Western Bank. When the two banks were amalgamated in 1909, they both came under full control of the Cowan dynasty.

The brothers each had their particular forte. John concerned himself with the minute details of day-to-day business, while William took care of general policy. While William married and had one son, John remained a bachelor for the rest of his life. He lived with his brother’s family and was a quiet unassuming philanthropist. He served as a trustee of the Children’s Shelter and the Public Library, and he was active on the Oshawa Hospital Board and the Board of Education. He gave generously to various charities in the area. Both he and his brother served as mayor of Oshawa: John in 1887 and William from 1889 to 1894. Both were involved in St. George’s Anglican Church, and William’s house, now known as Cowan House, was give to the church by his son to be used as church offices.

Cowan House, 2016; photographed by OM Staff

John died on April 12, 1915, at the age of 86, and is buried in St. James’ Cemetery in Toronto. William followed his brother three years later, ending the reign of the Cowan brothers in the financial, industrial, and retail heartland of Oshawa. Their name lives on with Cowan Park, located on Olive Avenue.

Cowan Park, October 1999; from the Dowsley Photograph Collection, Oshawa Museum archival collection

This was originally written as an Oshawa Museum Historical Information Sheet and was edited and adapted for the blog.

References:

Historical Information Sheet: Fittings Limited. Prepared by Kathleen Brown, August 15, 2000. Published by the Oshawa Historical Society.

Historical Information Sheet: Ontario Malleable Iron Co. Ltd. Prepared by Karen Smith, May 8, 1998. Published by the Oshawa Historical Society.

Kaiser, T.E. Historical Sketches of Oshawa. Oshawa: The Reformer Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd, 1921.

Cedardale Works (A.S. Whiting) subject file: Oshawa Community Archives.

Cowan subject file: Oshawa Community Archives

Fitting Limited subject file: Oshawa Community Archives.

Ontario Loan and Savings subject file: Oshawa Community Archives.

Standard Bank subject file: Oshawa Community Archives.

Western Bank subject file: Oshawa Community Archives.

Engaging Volunteers at Home

By Dylan C., MMC Intern

As a result of the pandemic, volunteers have not been able to return in person to the Oshawa Museum. By not being able to come into the museum, they lose the social aspect of their volunteer experience which is the biggest motivator for some.  The museum has been looking for ways to keep their volunteers engaged at home. One proposed way of keeping volunteers engaged is through the audio transcription of oral histories. But if audio transcription is going to be one of the main ways to keep volunteers engaged from home during this pandemic, then the question becomes how do we incorporate and infuse that process with a social component? One theory of mine includes hosting online discussions through zoom or other web-based programs, where volunteers can discuss what they have learned from completing the transcription. They can talk about the process of transcribing itself or discuss the history that they have learned from hearing the voices of the past.

The first transcription I worked on was an oral history from a gentleman named Wardy Pankhurst who was a life long resident of Oshawa that was born in the early 1900s. (We’ve written at length about the Pankhurst family on the blog – read through past articles HERE) I learned very quickly that I could barely understand what he was talking about between the poor audio quality and the lack of knowledge that I had in regards to Oshawa’s past. It wasn’t until I did a bit of digging myself when I began to understand what were the places and people he was referencing. For example, he is hard to hear, understandably being an elderly man born at the turn of the century, coupled with the fact he refers to places and people as if it is common knowledge, which of course would have been if you were alive during his time or if you are well versed in Oshawa history. The first word or rather name that he kept bringing up when referencing to his work past was Malleable. I could not make out what he was trying to say, so I had to ask my dad to see if he could hear because at first, I could not even distinguish what word he was trying to say. After deciphering the word “malleable,” I then still found myself in the dark. After a quick google search I found out that he was referring to the Ontario Malleable Steel Company and then all of a sudden, the entire context of what he was talking about came to fruition. It connected his tales about working for the McLaughlin’s, to travelling south of the border to Detroit then coming back to Oshawa to sell his services to the highest bidder. Doing this research to simply understand the story he was trying to tell gave me the idea that audio transcription can be more than simply turning speech into text. It could be a rewarding experience that turns social transcribers into an amateur research team that seeks to learn more about the history of Oshawa.

The second part of this is that you could turn the finished and researched transcriptions into mini history resources if you will, that have hyperlinks incorporated in them so if someone wants to read the transcription and has questions about certain topics discussed they could simply click on the highlighted word that takes them to a web page on the subject.

This mixture of independent work with a social meeting aspect may help to keep volunteers engaged even if they are restricted to their own homes. However, it is impossible to replace the in-person social aspects of volunteering but this idea gives some food for thought and perhaps gives us an avenue to engage and stay connected during these unprecedented times.


To hear Ward’s memories as relayed by him, take a listen to our video podcast:


The audio transcription project is being facilitated over our Google Drive – volunteers can sign up for which audio file they want to work on, and the MP3s are accessible from that same online folder.

If you are interested in helping with this project, please email Lisa at membership@oshawamuseum.org

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