Agriculture and commerce in the early 1900s

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 first part of a series on the Fergus Dressed Meat and Cold Storage Co. building. This building, on the Beatty Line in west 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 stone building on the Beatty Line just to the north of the Freshco grocery store on Wellington Road 18 (St. Andrew Street West) in Fergus, has been a local landmark for many decades.

Local people know it as the Sharpe’s Feed building. Some old timers might know it as the Superior Barn Equipment building, but it originally housed a much different commercial venture. This structure was originally built in 1902 as a meat-processing and cold storage plant: the Wellington Dressed Meat and Cold Storage Co.

To understand the reasons for the construction of this building, it is useful to take a quick look at agricultural marketing practices of the turn-of-the-century period.

In the late 1890s, many farmers were looking for ways to improve their incomes. Commodity prices began to rise in the mid-1890s after a 25-year decline, but consumer prices were rising much faster. Progressive farmers desired to retain a larger percentage of the food dollar.

Dairy farmers in Nichol and Pilkington pooled their resources to establish the Kinnettles Creamery in the 1890s. The original Kinnettles Creamery, a low stone building, still stands on Wellington Road 18, opposite the Freshco plaza. Kinnettles is the name of a long-forgotten settlement that is now part of the westward expansion of Fergus.

In the same period, dozens of cheese factories opened in Waterloo, Perth and Oxford counties; many of these were owned by the farmers who supplied them with milk.

Wellington County had established a reputation for beef cattle by 1900. Much of the beef was raised for export to Great Britain. The traditional method had been to ship cattle across the Atlantic on the hoof, but in the 1890s some shippers began to move beef as dressed sides, chilled by ice, or by the latest innovation, mechanical refrigeration.

The refrigerated railway car, chilled by ice, appeared in 1881. It was perfected by Gustavus Swift, who used it to ship meat from Chicago to much of the eastern United States. In Ontario, William Davies used methods similar to the Swift and Armour companies to build a meat-packing and distribution network that eventually became Canada Packers.

By the late 1890s, Davies was processing over half the hogs in Ontario. The obvious profitability of firms such as his, and the quality and cost advantages of shipping meat by the side rather than as livestock, prompted some local farmers to enter the meat-packing business.

Local farmers and businessmen did much talking about a local meat processing plant, but the talk did not become focused until June of 1900, when reeve James Argo, of Fergus, called a public meeting on the subject. At the meeting, John Dunn, one of the country’s leading cattlemen, stated that all beef would soon cross the Atlantic in cold storage, largely because of advances in mechanical refrigeration.

As well, it was a good time for Canadians to capture more of the European market: prices were high, the volume of beef produced by the United States had been declining for several years, and Argentina was removed as a competitor due to an epidemic of hoof-and-mouth disease.

A provisional company was formed immediately after this meeting, with representatives from all the townships in central Wellington, including John McGowan of Peel and Elora; James Lindsay and Thomas Dow of Nichol; Israel Groff, Thomas Marshal, and William Watt of Pilkington; James Argo, Hugh Black, James Steele and Dr. Johnston of Fergus; and J.E. McGee of the Traders Bank in Elora.

“Honest” John McGowan became the president of the new company. He farmed several hundred acres in Peel township, and owned the Linseed Oil factory at Aboyne. Earlier in 1900, he had been elected the Conservative member of parliament for North Wellington.

From the beginning, Fergus men dominated the company. This was only natural. More cattle were being shipped from Fergus than any other town in the county. Both the major Fergus cattle dealers, Black & Shortreed and Kyle & Co., actively supported the venture. No one disputed that the plant should be located in Fergus.

The directors decided that it would be preferable if the majority of shares were owned by farmers and that the plant, when built, should be leased to a skilled and experienced operator. Shares were priced at $10 each, and by the fall of 1900, more than $10,000 had been subscribed. This was about half the estimated cost of the project.

After this promising start, the project stagnated through 1901, for reasons that are not entirely clear. The next year, though, it seemed to be back on track. The company, operating under the unwieldy name of the Wellington Dressed Meat and Cold Storage Co. Ltd., secured an ideal location on the Beatty Line, between the tracks of the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk Railways, consisting of 2.8 acres. The sod turning ceremony took place in July, 1902.

By this time, the project had captured the public imagination. In an era of mergers and monopolies, people happily lined up behind a project that represented local initiative and control. The first sod was displayed in a Fergus store window, and there were many visitors to the construction site through the summer and fall of 1902 to check on progress.

An architect was hired to design a stone building to house the dressing and cold-storage departments. There was also to be a slaughterhouse, various storage structures, stables and cattle pens. The capacity of the plant was to be 15,000 head per year, and the storage rooms were designed for a capacity of 600 dressed sides. Additional cold storage was to be made available to the public on a rental basis.

From a transportation perspective, the site was ideal. Both the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk extended sidings across the street to service either side of the building. Fuel and live animals were to be unloaded at the rear of the building, and dressed meat was to be loaded into refrigerator cars from loading docks at the front of the building. These docks could also handle shipments by wagon.

A series of problems plagued the project in the later months of 1902, delaying construction and raising costs. The design of the building had to be changed several times during construction, and there were delays with supplies. The shares were not all sold and, to avoid borrowing money, the Fergus cattle dealers invested substantially in the company.

Equipment began to arrive late in November; it included machinery to make the offal into fertilizer, a hydraulic drying press and a lard and tallow reducer.

Interior work continued into the spring of 1903. The power plant did not go in until March. It consisted of a 100-horsepower boiler to supply the steam engine and provide hot water, a 45-horsepower steam engine to run the compressor and other equipment, and a refrigeration plant, state-of-the-art for the time, from the Linde British Co., of Montreal.

Despite the delays, the directors looked forward to a startup in late spring of 1903.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Jan. 5, 1993.

Thorning Revisited