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

ArteFACTS – Lancashire Clogs

By Melissa Cole, Curator

Originating from northern England, Lancashire Clogs have also gone by the names Northumberland Clogs or Yorkshire Clogs. 

Unlike the more famous Dutch clogs, Lancashire clogs have a leather upper; some lace up like ordinary shoes while others contain an engraved metal clasp, such as the ones in our collection.  Clogs were not only cheaper than leather shoes, they were safer against penetration and less likely to be adversely affected by snow, moisture and mud. They were long lasting and comfortable.  

These wooden soled shoes, with strips of steel attached underneath like a horseshoe, were the everyday footwear of working people in England.  At first glance they may look fairly simple, but in fact their simplicity is what made them popular in Britain from the 1840s until the 1920s. Although traditionally associated with Lancashire, they were worn all over the country.

The wearing of clogs in Britain became more visible with the Industrial Revolution, when industrial workers needed strong, cheap footwear. Men and women wore laced and clasped clogs respectively, the fastening clasps being of engraved brass or more commonly steel.   The soles are carved from a hard wood, such as alder and shod with irons to stop the wood from wearing away.  Nailed under the sole at the toe and heel were clog irons, generally 3/8″ wide x 1/4″ thick with a groove down the middle to protect the nail heads from wear.  The uppers are tacked onto the soles and made from leather. Each component of the shoe is made to be easily repaired. 

Symbolic of the working class, this style of shoe was worn by the thousands of people who worked in the cotton mills throughout northern England.  This particular pair of clogs was worn by Mrs. T.H. Campbell before she emigrated from England to Canada in 1910.    Wherever it was damp or wet underfoot, clogs were the preferred footwear due to their cheapness (to buy and to repair), their long-lasting wear, and their comfort.

In England, the wearing of clogs gave rise to clog dancing, a popular form of dancing that eventually developed into tap dancing. It has been suggested that clog dancing originated with workers synchronizing foot tapping with the rhythmic sounds made by the loom shuttles. The predominant style of Lancashire clog dancing was termed ‘heel and toe.’ Many of the steps emulate the sound of the shuttle and other parts of the cotton spinning and weaving machinery.

Clog dancing was a cheap form of popular entertainment. Not only was clog dancing common, it took place on street corners, there were professional clog dancers and competitions, and proficient clog dancers could improve their situation by dancing professionally in music halls.  One notable Lancashire clog dancer who ultimately succeeded was Charlie Chaplin who performed in a troupe called the ‘The Eight Lancashire Lads.’

Dancing clogs were termed ‘neet’ clogs. They did not have irons on the soles and were lighter than the heavier working clogs. The uppers were usually highly tooled (decorated) and often coloured. 

One final note on Lancashire clogs. Men who wished to settle differences frequently did so by squaring off against each other by “clog fighting.” In Lancashire it was curiously known as “purring,” with a contemporary account from Chris Brady who states the following:

It is all up and down fighting here. They fought quite naked, excepting their clogs. When one has the other down on the ground he first endeavors to choke him by squeezing his throat, then he kicks him with his clogs. Sometimes they are very severely injured.

Chris Brady

Watch Melissa talk about the Lancashire Clogs in our video podcast:

The Williams Piano Company

Richard Williams began The Williams Piano Co. operations in Toronto in 1849.  In 1888 the Williams firm purchased the former home of the Joseph Hall Works in Oshawa and began renovating the building for the manufacture of pianos and organs.

File454-A987.25.5

The building was originally constructed in 1852 and was initially used by the Oshawa Manufacturing Company.  The factory, a three storey brick building, occupied an entire town block on Richmond Street.  Williams spent more than $40,000 adapting the facilities for the production of pianos.  To this end, the buildings were re-roofed with slate, new hardwood floors were laid and new buildings built.  All of this retrofitting and new construction turned the former Hall Works into a building with enough floor space for what was the largest piano works in Canada.  The company’s total floor space was approximately 100,000 square feet.  In 1890, the new Williams Piano Factory began producing pianos and organs.  The company was also located at other locations such as the lumber yard and some other smaller buildings in Oshawa. Only this part of the business moved to Oshawa, as the centre of the business remained in Toronto.  Smaller instruments such as guitars and banjos continued to be manufactured in Toronto.

File5434-Ax998.331.1

The Town of Oshawa granted Williams $20 000 in ten annual installments as an inducement to move the plant to Oshawa.  The Town also granted the new firm a fixed taxation rate of $250 per year for a number of years.  Once in Oshawa, the newly acquired space allowed the firm to manufacture its first large church organ.  This first organ was constructed for a church in Brighton and consisted of more than 100 pipes.

The company was reorganized in 1902, and the piano was revised.  The piano was adjusted in scale, touch, case-design, acoustic, and tone. It took ten weeks to three months to make one piano.  The company constructed its pianos to “the highest degree of excellence in every detail of workmanship” and the quality of its product determined its success.  The ‘New Scale Williams Piano’ and ‘Player Piano’ soon became one of the world’s most demanded products.

File428-A976.15.1

In 1903 after much hard work, Mr. R.S. Williams became ill and sold his business.  The company was renamed “Williams Piano Company”.  The president of the company was Fredrick Bull and the vice-president was E.C. Scythes.  The factory was huge and prosperous by the year 1911, and employed 250 skilled workers.  The company produced approximately 3,000 pianos/player pianos annually.

After the creation of the victrola in 1926, many people found records to be more convenient and popular than pianos.  The Williams factory was forced into the radio business.  Eventually, after three years the company became the seventh largest manufacturer.  The Williams Piano Factory even widened its horizons in order to build canoes and row boats.  The company was branching out and business was great.  People from foreign countries wanted a Williams Piano and the company exported their product on a regular basis.  The Williams piano was well known all over Canada, from coast to coast, and overseas.

File399-A981.15.16.4

The company prospered and began to construct 4,000 pianos per annum.  The company was shipping pianos to seven different countries.  The Williams Piano was also displayed in an exhibit at the Wembley Exhibition in London, England in 1926.  In 1927, one hundred and thirty-five men worked for the company and payroll hit a high of $200,000 a year.  At this time, the company was prosperous, but it did not last forever.

File398-A981.15.16.5

The successful company that was known to so many individuals all over the world was required to change with the times.  Unfortunately, both the depression and mass production of the neutrodyne radio contributed to the demise of the company.  After the closure of this company many other businesses occupied the premises including: Cole of California; Sklar Furniture; and Coulter Manufacturing Company.  The building even acted as a barracks during the war years.

The building was torn down in 1970 in order to make room for the Durham Region Police Headquarters and the Oshawa Times.


References:

Cselenyi-Granch.  Under the Sign of the Big Fiddle:  The R.S. Williams Family, Manufacturers and Collectors of Musical Instruments.  Winnipeg:  Hignell Printing Limited, 1996.

The Oshawa Daily Reformer, October 25, 1926.

The Oshawa Daily Reformer, June 20, 1927.

Oshawa Daily Times, December 8, 1930.

Oshawa Daily Times, September 19, 1930.

Kaiser, M.D., T.E.  Historic Sketches of Oshawa.  The Reforming Printing & Publishing Co., 1921.

 

%d bloggers like this: