No business in Wellington County dominated a town to the extent that the Beatty Bros. Company Limited did in Fergus during the peak years of the firm, from roughly 1915 until 1950.
During that period the company expanded several times, employed most of the men in the town, and dominated all aspects of life. That influence extended even into local government and municipal services.
The company today is barely known to newcomers to the area and to those under 40 years of age. The original plant, downtown on the south side of the Grand River, is now the Fergus Marketplace. The second plant, now the home of GSW on Hill Street, dates to the 1910 period. Additions extended both plants several times.
Fire was a major hazard for industries in the 19th century. Smaller municipalities usually skimped on fire fighting equipment, and Fergus was no exception. Early in its history, the Beatty firm installed pumps and piping at the Grand River plant that could tap into the Grand River and use river water to fight fires in the plant, using the factory’s steam engine to power the pumps.
The installation was a costly one, but it resulted in significant savings in fire insurance rates. Many factories had such systems in the era when municipal fire fighting resources were inadequate.
The system at the Grand River plant also served as the basis of the first municipal water system in Fergus. A system of pipes and hydrants along St. David and St. Andrew Streets provided a water supply in the downtown core. That can be regarded as the first water system in Fergus, but it was strictly for fire fighting, not household use.
For that first system, the municipality financed upgrades to the Beatty’s pumping equipment as well as installing pipes and hydrants. There were solid benefits to the company. A fire on the north side of the river posed a major threat to the plant, as winds could easily shower the tarred roof of the factory with burning embers.
The Hill Street plant, when built, was at the fringe of the town. There was no access to the river for a water supply. Instead, the company drilled a well and constructed a reservoir should a large quantity of water be needed to fight a fire.
As the company grew, and especially after 1920, the fire fighting capacity of the factories remained a priority in the minds of the W.G. and Milton Beatty and their senior managers. In the 1930s they undertook a major upgrading of their facilities, and a formal integration of their own men and equipment with that of the municipality. The new system was completed late in 1935.
Along with the upgrades in equipment, the firm organized fire fighting brigades at both plants. Management appointed Ross Sedore as the Beatty Fire Chief. He supervised a ten-man force at the Grand River plant and a 12-man force at Hill Street. The internal brigades were trained to deal with minor incidents. Should the municipal force be called in, Sedore would relinquish his authority to the Fergus Fire Chief, Eugene Landoni.
In the event of a major fire elsewhere in town, Chief Landoni could call upon the Beatty brigades for assistance. The arrangement was an unusual one, but it made the best use of the men and resources available in town.
Both of the Beatty brigades included an electrician. That was a necessity, because motors and other electrical equipment could be the source of a fire. Pouring water onto equipment that might contain live electrical circuits was dangerous and potentially deadly.
Telephone operators at the Fergus exchange were also part of the fire fighting system. When someone discovered a fire anywhere in town, they called the telephone office. Operators contacted the appropriate men, and always the engineer on duty at the Beatty Grand River plant. That position was covered on a 24-hour basis. A special buzzer at the homes of the Fergus brigade alerted the town’s firefighters to report to the firehall at once. The Beatty fire fighters could be contacted individually should they be needed.
The siren, which could be heard all over town, had three signals to identify a fire at either of the Beatty plants or elsewhere in town. The Beatty brigades had reels of hose, saws and axes. They conducted regular practices and training sessions equal to those of the municipal force.
At the Grand River plant, the pump could provide a pressure of up to 250 pounds per square inch, and could pump 1,000 gallons per minute at a pressure of 150 pounds. There were 16 connections for hoses with that system. There was sufficient hose and pressure to use the Beatty system to fight fires across the river on St. Andrew Street, and that was done several times, undoubtedly saving several buildings.
A major part of the upgraded Beatty system was the installation of sprinklers at both plants. The sprinkler heads were automatic. A rise in heat opened the valve on each head, dousing the area beneath before a blaze could make much headway.
With such a system there is a danger that water can do much more damage than the fire. The Beatty firefighters were instructed to shut off those sprinkler heads that were not needed to extinguish a fire.
When water began to flow in each section of the system, an alarm bell sounded, alerting employees or the night watchman that at least one of the heads was spraying water.
The upgrading of facilities at the Hill Street plant included some 7,000 sprinkler heads, each with a half-inch outlet. They were fed directly from the Beatty water tank on its tower. It held 125,000 gallons of water. A pump fed the tower from a dedicated well 360 feet deep. The pump could replenish the tank at a rate of 200 gallons per minute. In addition to the sprinkler heads, there were several reels of 2-inch hose available to supply extra water where needed.
Supplementing the water system were a number of fire extinguishers with a 2-gallon capacity. The paint shop had a 40-gallon foamite extinguisher, and there was a similar extinguisher in the oil house, both high hazard areas where water was not an effective way to fight a fire.
The well had another use. It had been inspected and approved by the department of health. Should the municipal well be out of service, the Beatty well could supply the town. That was also useful should a fire elsewhere in Fergus strain the capacity of the municipal well and pump.
As well as the sprinklers at the Hill Street plant, there were also seven hydrants around the property connected to the Beatty system.
The Hill Street plant, which was by far the larger, had the bulk of the fire fighting equipment. The Grand River plant, in addition to the sprinkler system, had a large number of foam extinguishers. There was no water tower there. That system continued to rely on the Grand River for its water supply.
The tight integration of the Beatty fire fighting force and its equipment with that of the municipality was unusual for the time, but by no means unique. Today, such a system would face all sorts of regulatory requirements concerning testing and water quality.
And that is assuming that a combined private and public system would be tolerated at all by provincial authorities. In its day, though, it was an efficient and cost-effective way for the municipality of Fergus and the Beatty firm to operate a first-class fire fighting system.