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Valuing Our History

by Stephen Thorning

Work was abandoned on new Elora factory in 1930

(Note: this is the conclusion of the story of the 1929 request by the Elora Furniture Company and Joseph Walser, head of the firm, for municipal aid to help construct a new plant on the south side of Elora near the Canadian National station.)

The special committee, struck at the well-attended public meeting on May 9, 1929, took less than three weeks to come to their conclusions. Tim Wardley, manager of the T.E. Bissell Company, headed the group, and postmaster I.C. Bricker acted as secretary.

Reeve Udney Richardson, still smarting over accusations that he had stalled in dealing with Walser, called a special council meeting for May 28 to hear and consider the recommendations of Wardley’s committee.

Wardley submitted his report in writing. He wrote that the committee had met several times, and had consulted with lawyers and with the Canadian National Railways. First, the report dealt with the proposed railway siding, which Walser considered necessary to deal efficiently with raw materials and furniture shipments to buyers. CNR officials stated that they would build a siding for $5,000 cash, plus an annual fee of $1,000 as long as the siding existed, to take care of ongoing maintenance expenses.

While costly, that was a small fraction of the $40,000 to $100,000 figures that had been loosely bandied about at the public meeting earlier in the month. Satisfied with the offer, the committee unanimously had taken an option to purchase the property in question, to the north of the railway station.

The committee was also unanimous in its recommendation that the village drain the swampy portions of the proposed site. As direct aid to Walser, they recommended that council hold a plebiscite for ratepayer approval for a fixed assessment on the planned factory of $8,000 for as long as the law would allow.

During the late nineteenth century, many municipalities had attracted and assisted industry by offering grants and loans to industrialists. The results were mixed at best. A number of municipalities found themselves in financial difficulty. The provincial government stepped in at the turn of the century with new regulations that severely restricted the forms of aid that could be offered by municipalities.

Joseph Walser had originally requested the village to take over the old factory on the south bank of the Grand River. Wardley’s committee recommended against that course, but offered assistance in advertising the property for sale and in securing a buyer for it. He expressed overall satisfaction with the recommendations brought forward by Wardley and his committee.

Reeve Richardson was also happy with the report. He told the special council meeting on May 28 that there should be little difficulty getting the proposal passed by council and the ratepayers to approve the aid in a plebiscite. His comments were echoed by the other members of council that night. Only W.O. Mendell was not heard from. He was sick in bed. Before the meeting adjourned council passed a motion “to carry out the recommendations without delay,” and that the clerk take the necessary steps to prepare a bylaw and schedule a plebiscite.

Walser at last seemed to be on course to construct his newer, more efficient plant, but the construction season was advancing quickly. He had wanted to begin work as soon as the ground was bare in the spring, but it was now June, and he still did not have the promised municipal assistance in hand.

An unspoken factor was religion. Joseph Walser was a Roman Catholic, and anti-Catholicism was, in the 1920s, a significant factor in the minds of many people in Elora. Extreme Protestantism had declined in vigour since the 1890s, when candidates for office would run on a strictly anti-Catholic platform.

Much of that sentiment dissipated over the following decades, but many residents remained concerned that Catholics might become too powerful, rich and influential in Elora, and there was a fear that Walser might be in their vanguard. That was certainly a factor in the way Reeve Udney Richardson had delayed action on Walker’s initial request for aid. Apart from his own sentiments, Richardson may well have feared a public backlash should he be seen as too accommodating to Walker. It was best to move as slowly as possible.

As events turned out, there was little action for the next two months. Councillors again seemed to be dragging their feet, but not all the fault lay with them. By then Joseph Walser was having second thoughts and was reconsidering his plans.

The Ontario Furniture industry at that point consisted of more than 100 factories. None of them were very big by the standards of the industry in the United States, and none were very efficient or profitable. Walser wanted to make his operation more efficient, but his own capital was quite limited, and he was fearful of burdening his business with high debt levels.

In any case, Elora ratepayers approved the $8,000 fixed assessment on both “the old and projected factory.” There was a further delay until approval came in mid-summer from the Ontario Municipal Board. Council enacted the enabling bylaw on August 6, 1929.

Though furniture sales as a whole were not good in the latter part of 1929, Walser decided to go ahead with his new plant. The Elora Furniture Company remained busy, though employment had leveled off at 40 men. Walser knew all too well that the industry was cyclical, and it made sense to be prepared to take advantage of the next boom.

The land designated for the new factory was low and wet. The first order of business was installing a rudimentary drainage system. After that, concrete work for the footings for the new plant got under way. Then cold weather and snow shut down work for the season.

By then the stock market had taken its famous 1929 plunge, and the economy started to show signs of trouble. For most people, though, things rolled along as normal, with decent crop yields sustaining business in most small communities.

By the late winter of 1930, though, signs of trouble were becoming more numerous. Factories found that markets for their products were sluggish, and that prompted layoffs, which further reduced demand. Soon the economy was in a downward spiral, and the furniture business was one of the first to be hit.

Walser decided to postpone work on the new factory. As events turned out, it never resumed. The company remained in the old location until the family sold the business in the mid-1960s. The firm retained ownership of the new site, and the floor and foundation of the new plant found an unintended use as storage for piles of wood.

Joseph Walser managed to find sufficient business to keep the old plant humming, but he eventually had to cut back on his own activities due to health problems. His son Harry Walser took over active management of the company. Joseph Walser died at his Elora home on April 4, 1942, at the age of 66. He had spent his entire life in the furniture business, having learned the craft at the old Krug factory in downtown Kitchener in the late 1880s and 1890s.

Under the guidance of Harry Walser and his brothers the Elora Furniture Company became one of the longest-lived business firms in the history of Elora.

This column will return to the subject in a future column.


Vol 47 Issue 05


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