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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015




The ill-fated battery factory of early Rockwood

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

 

Most of the villages and towns in Wellington County experienced failed attempts at industrial development in the first decades of the 20th century.

I have written about the ill-fated Cooper Shoe Co. of Arthur. This week I will look to the south.

I wonder how many readers know that Rockwood once boasted a battery factory.

Rockwood in 1920 was floundering economically. The long-established hamlet had gained police village status in 1903, but the economy rested largely on Rockwood’s place as a shipping point on the Grand Trunk’s Toronto-to-Guelph rail line.

The flour mill had seen better days, and the one major industry, the Harris Woolen Mill, was unable to maintain the production and sales volumes enjoyed during the First World War.

Rather than wring their hands and agonize, a group of businessmen from the Rockwood area decided to take matters into their own hands. For one reason or another they concluded that the Canadian market could support another battery manufacturer. The result was the Guarantee Battery Company Limited, incorporated in 1920. They set the authorized capital at $300,000.

The officers were S.R. Peart, F.S. Hamilton and M.P. Barry, all of Rockwood, and J.S. Wheeler of Guelph served as president. Other Rockwood-area investors and directors included Nathan Dredge, George Brayfield and Robert Erickson.

It appears the firm secured the manufacturing rights for a new design for a large-size battery, to be used in automotive and lighting applications. The market for batteries of all types seemed to be bright in 1920, and the directors believed they would have little difficulty in building a large and sustainable market.

In the summer of 1920, the new company purchased a lot on the south side of Rockwood’s Main Street, west of the bridge. On it they constructed a three-storey factory. The style, done in concrete with large, open interior spaces, ranked with the most modern industrial structures of the era. The interior space totalled some 16,000 square feet of usable area.

Heading the day-to-day management of the new firm was E.B. Gady, a gentleman about whom I have uncovered virtually nothing. He held the title of general manager and director of sales. In the last two months of 1920, Gady spent much time setting up a network of agents across the Dominion.

Construction on the new factory building, which dominated Main Street, concluded in mid December 1920. To celebrate the event, the directors decided to hold a dance in the structure on Dec. 20, before the equipment and raw materials started arriving. They hired an orchestra from Guelph to provide the music for what they hoped would be one of the most memorable events in Rockwood’s history.

Optimism that night wafted through the air like the scent of bouquets of spring flowers.

By spring, the directors boasted to anyone who cared to listen, the payroll would total over 70 people, turning out 150 batteries on each shift. Dozens of families would want to locate in Rockwood.

On the strength of the predictions, local builders and investors made plans to put up a couple of dozen houses as soon as the snow melted.

Gady was able to begin manufacturing in the third week of January 1921. Initially, the production amounted to about 45 batteries per day.

Already, though, there were dark clouds on the horizon.

Inflation, labour difficulties, and raw material shortages characterized the years immediately after the war. Construction of the factory building and the necessary equipment had both gone over budget.

Despite the problems, the directors pressed on. The township assessor in 1921 placed the value of the building and business at $8,500, second only in Rockwood to the long-established Harris Woollen Mills at $12,000.

Obviously, with such a large investment, the directors intended this new industry to be a big part of the Rockwood economy.

To keep the venture afloat, treasurer Michael Barry loaned the company $4,000 at the end of January to provide a pool of working capital. The amount proved to be insufficient. He dipped into his own fortune again at the end of March, providing $7,000 more. As security, he took first and second mortgages on the building and its contents.

For Michael Barry it was money down the drain. The sales forecast prepared by Gady soon proved to be a chimera. No one, it seems, wanted to buy Guarantee Batteries. Unpaid creditors began closing in long before the first year was over.

By the end of 1921 the business was in the hands of a trustee G. Powell Hamilton of Guelph and two inspectors, Joseph Todd and James Harrison. It was all over for the Guarantee Battery Company. The last Rockwood battery had left the loading dock.

Winding up the affairs of Guarantee Battery took far longer than setting up the business. Powell Hamilton disposed of the last of the scant assets in January 1924. The building went to Michael Barry to settle his outstanding mortgages.

There is no record of the total invested in the firm by Rockwood-area investors. Michael Barry, with his mortgages, headed the list of losers. And now he had a large vacant industrial building on his hands, and no tenant in sight.

In the mid 1920s, Barry set up the unheated ground floor of the building as a skating rink. Upstairs was a dance hall, with the elegant title “Terrace Gardens” to camouflage the fact that it was actually a disused manufacturing facility at the top of two long flights of stairs.

Barry recovered only a fraction of his investment in the battery factory when he sold the building in 1939 to Ralph Cook for $1,500.

Six years later Cook found a buyer with a real use for the property.

John H., Frank, Clarence and Leonard Schneider were the owners of Schneider’s Reliable Sweets. This family business dated back to 1923, when it began the manufacture of chocolates in Brampton.

Eleven years later the firm moved to Guelph. Growing demand and limited manufacturing capacity prompted Frank Schneider’s search for better premises.

Rockwood’s Guarantee Battery building suited him perfectly. Finally a real use for the concrete structure materialized in 1945, when Schneider’s Reliable Sweets moved in.

Schneider prided the reputation of his business for high quality handmade chocolates, and eschewed rapid expansion and mechanization. The business grew slowly, reaching 14 employees at the time Schneider sold it to Pat Herne of Kitchener in 1979.

After more than 40 years in Rockwood, the Schneider’s chocolate business moved to Guelph in the 1980s. It was one of Rockwood’s longest lasting industries.

And to those who possess them among old family papers, the stock certificates of the Guarantee Battery Company are a reminder of a failed attempt to establish a strong industrial sector in Rockwood.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on March 23, 2001.

 

Vol 50 Issue 47

 
 

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