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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015




Potter building repurposed as Kiddie-Kar factory

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.

 

(This is the conclusion of an article on the Potter foundry).

The ruin popularly known as the Kiddie-Kar factory is a local landmark. The name dates to the 1920s and 1930s, but the building is much older. It was built in 1873 as part of the complex of structures of Potter’s foundry. (The site is directly across the river from the Elora Mill.)

When D.M. Potter resumed operating the Elora foundry under his own name (around 1884), the business was no longer a major Elora industry. The buildings were set up for manufacturing, but Potter made only a halfhearted attempt to sell new implements. The payroll was down to a handful of men, and the majority of the income came from repair work.

Potter himself was back on the shop floor. He was a skilled machinist, and over the previous two decades had secured several patents for his innovations.

At its peak, the business had required a wide range of skilled labour: moulders, foundrymen, mechanics, machinists, blacksmiths, painters and woodworkers (because wood was still a major component of many farm implements).

As the foundry scaled down its operations, these skilled men drifted away from Elora to seek more reliable employment elsewhere.

To supplement the income of the business, Potter bought a secondhand machine to turn out cedar shingles. For a while, he operated a lumberyard and sawmill at the foundry, putting the woodworking equipment to good use.

By now, his son Alex, trained as a machinist, was involved in the business, but the problems were not over. In 1885, a fire destroyed most of the oldest buildings (those closest to the river). Three months later, Potter was bankrupt for the second time.

Potter was not to be counted out. The foundry was back in business in the late 1880s. Then, in 1890, he harnessed himself to something new: electricity. The Potter and Cone Electrical Manufacturing Co. was set up to install electric-lighting systems in mills and factories. There was already a secondhand market for electrical equipment at this early date, and the mysterious Mr. Cone acquired this equipment, cleaned and repaired it in the old foundry, and assembled it into systems that would work sufficiently well to illuminate a string of light bulbs.

This business lasted until Mr. Cone disappeared permanently in 1892, leaving a pile of unpaid bills. One of the creditors was John Connon, the future Elora historian, who had worked as an electrician and installer for the firm. D.M. Potter was bankrupt again.

While Potter was sorting out his finances, he began a part-time business as a beekeeper. His wife, Betsy, became the nominal head of the firm. A chopping mill was installed in the foundry, and grain was chopped into feed for farmers at four cents per bag.

The foundry and machine shop continued in operation through all this, though by now much of the work was actually being done by sons Alex and David. A cider press was designed and manufactured, and the firm offered to repair virtually anything mechanical.

Prospects actually looked good in 1896; some renovations were made to the facilities and a new water turbine was installed. Unfortunately, Potter had overextended himself again, and the operation closed down in 1898.

Potter was now 73 years old, but he showed no inclination to retire. He made one last effort to revive the foundry in 1901 - turning out a few plows, and making repairs - for a few months. This was the last gasp of the Elora foundry. Potter’s younger brother John, meanwhile, had pursued an equally interesting career, though fewer details are known. He was a traveling agent for the Elora Agricultural Machine Co., and operated a sawmill in Elora on at least three separate occasions.

For a while, he ran a lumbering operation in Luther Township when that area was first cleared. At other times, he was a produce agent in Elora, and for several years he resided in Brooklyn, New York, presumably trying to outfox the Yankees. When all else failed, he acted as manager of the foundry; he was, after all, trained as a foundryman.

After the foundry failed for the last time, the Potter brothers finally gave up on Elora. D.M. Potter sold the foundry buildings to John C. Mundell, and the brothers headed for Saskatchewan to seek fresh business opportunities. Both were in their mid-70s.

John Potter died in Weyburn, Saskatchewan in 1912; D.M. Potter returned to Elora and died here in 1909. Some Elora oldtimers may recall D.M.’s son, Captain John Potter.

The Potters were easily Elora’s most persistent entrepreneurs. Both were intelligent, resourceful men.

Their fate would eventually be shared by other Elora industries and much of small-town industry everywhere: they lacked the technological and financial resources to compete in a market that was becoming dominated by large firms and more complex products.

A development during the 1920s was significant to the Potter Foundry building: the popularity of the Kiddie Kar.

In 1916 John C. Mundell, who had purchased the Potter property in 1911 and was using the buildings for storage, secured the Canadian rights to manufacture the Kiddie Kar, a small wooden tricycle for young children.

The old Potter Foundry building was fitted up for this production and the name has stuck to the building ever since. The Kiddie Kar was so popular that production was increased in 1926.

Mundell purchased the woodworking equipment of the former Raymond Sewing Machine Co. in Guelph for use in the Kiddie Kar factory. Power was provided by a separate boiler room and engine. Thomas Q. Biggar, former proprietor of the Commercial Hotel, was for a time a salesman for the Kiddie Kar.

The old Kiddie Kar factory, originally built to assemble agricultural implements in the 1870s, is a crumbling ruin.

It is all that is left of what was once Elora’s largest industry.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Feb. 19, 1991 (additional material was added from columns published in the Sentinel on Jan. 29 and Nov. 19, 1991).

 

Vol 51 Issue 36

 
 

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