Flax raising and processing – both for the fibre and for the production of linseed oil – are a small but significant part of the agricultural and industrial history of Wellington County.
There were several cycles as flax rose in importance several times, only to fall from favour.
The First World War was responsible for the last big boom, when war conditions interfered with the importation of flax, and demand boomed for flax fibre needed for the making of aircraft wings for the primitive planes of that period.
Several columns over the past couple of years have dealt with aspects of the final flax boom in Wellington.
Arthur and Alma were the big flax centres in the World War I era, and John McGowan of Alma was perhaps the most important figure locally in the industry. As well as processing fibre, McGowan also set up and ran a linseed oil mill at Aboyne, between Fergus and Elora.
The bottom fell out of the flax market at the end of the war, but the industry carried on at a reduced volume into the 1920s.
Perhaps the biggest event to bring about the demise of flax in Wellington was a major fire at the flax mill in Alma on Feb. 19 and 20 of 1921.
On the afternoon of Feb. 19, a Saturday, fire broke out in a storage barn on the mill property. The building was a wooden one, and it quickly became engulfed in flames. Also destroyed was a large quantity of short-fibre flax, or tow, as it is known, plus a great deal of straw.
The fire brought out a large brigade of volunteers; most of the able-bodied men in the hamlet. By the time they got the fire under control the barn was a total loss, but the volunteers were able to stop the flames from spreading to the main plant and to the house of the manager, Mr. Weir.
The flames also threatened other nearby buildings. The roof of the Presbyterian manse caught fire twice, but quick-acting volunteers doused the flames each time using a bucket brigade and ladders.
The firefighters saved Manager Weir’s house, but he lost his prized new motor car, a 1920 Oldsmobile.
By evening, the volunteers believed they had extinguished the fire, and went home. A couple of the firemen had decided to stay on the site as watchmen, but there were no further flare-ups during the night.
A little after 7am, tired and chilled to the bone, and seeing no sign that the fire might flare up again, they decided to go home and get some rest.
The following morning at about 10am, less than three hours after the watchmen had gone home, the flames broke out anew, this time in the mill itself.
A neighbour, Corbett McDonald, gave the alarm and the army of volunteers was soon on the site, but they could do little. Their numbers were augmented as farmers began to arrive in Alma for morning services at the two churches in the hamlet.
Many of the men pitched in to help fight the blaze, despite the fact that they wore their good clothes. The ministers cancelled services so that the men could continue their efforts.
This time the fire claimed the main mill building and a couple of small outbuildings. The main building went up with startling speed and heat. Nothing could be rescued due to the intensity of the blaze.
As on the previous day, the men were able to keep the fire contained, thereby saving nearby houses.
The fire caused much damage. In addition to the mill, main storehouse and several smaller buildings, the flames consumed 250 tons of straw, 1,000 bushels of flax seed, seven tons of flax, a like quantity of tow, and two tons of dressed flax.
Financially, the loss was a major one. The mill had been entirely re-equipped in the final months of World War I, when demand for flax and linen was at its peak.
The mill had employed a half-dozen men. By most standards that was small, but in Alma that made the mill the largest employer in the hamlet. Employment was highest in fall and early winter, but several of the men worked at the plant year round. The loss was therefore a severe blow to the local economy.
The Alma plant had originally been owned by John McGowan, but he subsequently sold the operation, and it then changed hands a couple of times. At the time of the fire the owner was the Canadian Linen Thread Company.
The products of the Alma plant were all shipped as crude fibre for further processing and spinning elsewhere. For a few years the plant was a good customer of the Alma railway station.
It appears that the Alma plant was operating on borrowed time in 1921. Flax production in the Alma area had dropped drastically in 1920, as farmers saw greater profits in crops other than flax. Prospects for the acreage to be planted in the 1921 crop year were not good.
Manager Weir told reporters the plant, the equipment, and the inventory were almost fully covered by fire insurance. That was rare for operations like flax mills, where the risk of fire, and consequently the insurance rates, were very high.
The provincial fire marshal’s office dispatched an inspector to Alma while the ashes were still hot. Suspicious of the double fire, he spent a couple of days nosing around the smouldering ruins, but turned up nothing irregular.
Neither the fire marshal nor manager Weir were able to identify the cause of the fire nor its origin. Weir later revised his estimate of the insurable loss downward, but he was not forthcoming with specific details. The fire marshal put the estimated loss at a little above $10,000, including buildings, equipment and inventory.
Interestingly, the Alma operation does not seem to be involved with flax seed, which was also an important product.
Before advances in industrial chemistry, flax had a variety of uses: the long fibres for making linen cloth, shorter fibres and straw for packing material used in shipping delicate items, and the seed for linseed oil and as an ingredient of paint and some of the earliest plastics.
The operator of the Alma mill, the Canadian Linen Thread Company, seems to drop from the historical record after the fire.
There was never a hint from the management of the company that there was any thought of rebuilding at Alma. Unlike other firms in the flax industry, this one does not seem to have operated at other locations in the area.
Canada Flax Mills, the biggest operator in this part of Ontario, maintained facilities in 1918 and 1919 at Arthur and Drayton before leaving the field locally at the end of 1919.
Flax growing did not become extinct in Ontario after the downturn at the beginning of the 1920s, though it did fall out of favour in Wellington County.
At the end of the 1930s there were three mills to the north and west of this county, at Hensall, Blyth and Lucknow.
For Wellington County, though, the flax business effectively ended with the Alma fire of 1921.