A rough road for Fergus Cold Storage Company

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 second part of an article on the Fergus Dressed Meat and Cold Storage Co. building. This building, on the Beatty Line in west side of Fergus, was later used by Superior Barn Equipment, and is currently the home of Sharpe’s Feed and the Fergus Welding and Machine Shop.)

The Fergus Dressed Meat and Cold Storage Co. went into production on April 16, 1903, when the first steer was led up the ramp into the slaughterhouse.

Almost three years had passed since the enterprise was organized, and nine months had passed since construction began. Considering the delays and problems encountered during construction, it was good progress.

The slaughterhouse and cold-storage plant attempted to incorporate the latest technology of the time, though scaled down considerably from that used by the major meat processors. The operation had a capacity of 75 head of cattle per day, handled on an assembly line using an overhead rail and small carts on tracks on the floor.

Like major processors, the Fergus Cold Storage tried to make use of everything: blood, bones and intestines emerged as fertilizer, and fat was processed into edible and non-edible grades. The latter made use of fat and droppings washed from the floor and skimmed from a settling tank.

The refrigeration plant was capable of cooling the storage rooms to sub-freezing temperatures, although it does not appear that frozen meat was ever shipped from the plant. A large part of the basement was refrigerated, and the company rented space it did not need itself, to local produce dealers and butchers. Railway cars, cooled by ice, could be parked on either side of the building, and loaded either from a dock or directly through large doors in the building.

The commencement of production renewed local faith in the project, and the company was able to sell its remaining shares during May 1903. The demand for shares had disappeared as a result of the problems during construction, and the building was completed only through the support of the local cattle buyers.

Two of these buyers, John Black and Andrew Shortreed, took an ever-increasing interest in the business, and soon after production began, they leased the operation, under the partnership of Black and Shortreed.

Black had built up a huge business during the 1890s, buying and shipping grain and cattle; his grain elevator in the railway yards was a Fergus landmark. He may well have been the wealthiest man in Fergus at the time. Shortreed operated a wholesale butchering business, and was familiar with the meat-processing technology, though not with an operation on the scale of this plant. James Beattie ran the office and handled the paperwork.

Problems had plagued the building and financing of the business, and problems continued through 1903, even for successful businessmen such as Black and Shortreed. Production never approached the capacity of the plant. It appears that this was due to difficulties with the equipment and to the inexperience of the workforce. Few, if any, of the employees had ever worked in a plant such as this one. As well, some of the shareholders felt that they had a claim on a job for themselves or a relative, regardless of their qualifications.

Black and Shortreed continued to operate the plant through 1904 and into 1905, processing cattle, sheep, poultry and hogs. The orders received exceeded the production of the plant, but red ink spoiled the appearance of the account books. Details from 1904 and 1905 are sketchy, making it difficult almost 90 years later to determine the precise reasons why Black and Shortreed were unable to operate the business at a profit.

According to oral traditions, the Fergus Cold Storage had a major contract with one of the steamship lines on the north Atlantic. In one version I heard recently, the business failed when two carloads of pork bound for the Cunard line sat on a rail siding in the blazing sun for several days.

In any case, the two years that Black and Shortreed ran the plant were unsuccessful ones for them.

This was a situation typical of the industries that were financed by a relatively large group of local investors.

The Fergus Cold Storage had over 100 shareholders, but no one among them, the lessees or their hired staff, possessed the technical background to set up and run the business.

A few shareholders may have regretted rejecting the advice of the Imperial Bank manager in Fergus, who had recommended to them in 1902 to hire or lease the plant to a qualified man before construction began.

In August 1905, the shareholders accepted the offer of William Ryan & Co., of Toronto, for assets of the business. This was a wholesale produce firm that supplied perishable food to stores, restaurants and hotels. Ryan offered $17,000, less than the $20,000 the shareholders had poured into the firm. Ryan would pay $10,000 down and the balance over seven years.

During the fall of 1905, the plant remained idle, as Ryan rebuilt it completely, though it was only three years old. The original 100-horsepower (HP) boiler came out, and two new ones, of 150-and 60-HP went in. A new 25-HP steam engine powered the refrigeration equipment, and a smaller one ran the rest of the plant. A dynamo provided electricity for 60 light bulbs. Surprisingly, the plant had not included electric lighting when it was built.

Structural work included an addition to the stone part of the building at the rear, a rebuilt boiler room, and a two-storey structure for smoking hams and bacon. The rebuilding resulted in a doubling of the assessment of the property.

Ryan planned to specialize in pork products. New pens went up at the back of the plant to hold carloads of hogs, which were to be processed at the rate of 50 per hour.

When Ryan put the plant back into production in December of 1905, he had 30 men on the payroll. He brought in the key people: H. Bible, the plant superintendent; H.G. Cooper, the business manager; and W. Bartja, the power plant engineer.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Jan. 12, 1993.

Thorning Revisited