Elora Furniture Company received financial aid from municipality

Back in the early 1990s, when this column appeared in the now-defunct Elora Sentinel, I did a brief survey of most of the industries that had operated at one time or another in Elora.

One of those was the old Elora Furniture Company, which, under two generations of the Walser family, operated for much of the 20th century.

The shell of the old factory building still survives, without a roof, on the south bank of the Grand River in Elora. It is scheduled for reconstruction as part of the Elora Mill redevelopment.

The Elora Furniture Company began operations in this building in 1910, but portions of it date back to the 1850 era. At various times it was a store, a brush factory, and a furniture factory. The stone walls have survived fires in 1886 and 1896.

Four men from Waterloo County took over the property in 1910, intending to set up a furniture factory. Louis Jeannerett provided much of the capital, but the public face of the new business was Joseph Walser. Within a couple of years Walser was the owner in partnership with his brothers Emil and Conrad.

Elora ratepayers welcomed the new business that was taking over a major eyesore, unused since the 1896 fire. They approved a tax exemption for the firm by a vote of 216-1. Production was under way during the summer of 1910, with 16 men on the payroll. The early lines were bedsteads and frames for upholstered living room furniture.

The firm was immediately successful, but remained short of working capital. In 1911 Joe Walser went back to council, requesting a 10-year loan from the municipality to finance an expansion. The voters approved the loan enthusiastically, with the provision that the payroll be at least $7,000 per year.

The firm purchased the property immediately to the south of the plant on the west side of Victoria Street between Ross and Carleton Streets. There had once been stores on the property, but it had been vacant since a fire in 1879. Elora Furniture and constructed a two storey building on it. They originally planned a metal-clad building, but in the end used stone, which made the building look like it was decades old. The new building connected to the older one with an overhead passageway above Ross Street.

There were further additions to the plant in 1914. Unlike the J.C. Mundell Company, Elora Furniture failed to secure war contracts. Employment fell as low as 12, but the firm managed to maintain payments on its loan from the municipality.

Joseph Walser’s skills as a manager became evident in the early 1920s. The payroll by 1925 passed the 40 mark, and the plant frequently worked overtime, producing dining room furniture, chairs and beds. Much of the output was shipped unfinished.

In 1928 Walser made it known that he was looking for new quarters. The existing plant was awkward, and cost of shuttling raw materials and finished goods to the railway stations was a further burden on the operation.

The following year Walser took an option on land near the Canadian National Railway station, now the site of Elora’s Tim Hortons location. In late April of 1929 Joseph Walser revealed his plans to the Elora Express. Contrary to rumours, he said, there were no plans to leave Elora. Instead, Walser stated that the current plant was “entirely inadequate” for the needs of his company, and that he was turning own orders for lack of manufacturing capacity. He believed his company would need to grow to achieve economies of scale and to remain profitable.

Walser wanted to build a new plant, roughly 350 feet by 80 feet, and serviced by a pair of sidings from the nearby Canadian National Railway.

To help finance the new plant, Walser wanted the village of Elora to purchase the old plant and to find a new occupant for it. He complained that he had discussed the matter in early March with Reeve Udney Richardson, but had heard nothing more from either him or other councillors.

That interview with Joseph Walser, and another article in the Guelph Mercury, stirred Elora council into action. At the regular meeting on May 6, the week after the newspaper items appeared, councillors stumbled over themselves to express their support for Walser. It was quite a contrast to the first time council considered the matter five weeks earlier. At that meeting there was no enthusiasm. Council referred the matter to its industrial committee, and then failed to schedule a meeting.

Though Reeve Richardson made no effort to speak with Walser either formally or informally, he was furious that the Elora Express had accused him of inaction during the previous six weeks. Now stirred to do something, he scheduled a public meeting for the very next night, May 9.

Though it was called on short notice, the public meeting attracted an overflow crowd, including most of the businessmen in Elora, to the public hall at the old Elora Town Hall. Discussed were proposals to form a joint stock company to take over the old Elora Furniture plant, to form a committee to work with the railway to construct new sidings, and the organizing of a company to fund a loan privately to Walser.

Former reeve A.J. Kerr chaired the meeting. He called on Walser to outline his proposal. Walser did so, repeating much of what he had told the Elora Express a week earlier. Reeve Richardson was next. He stated that it would be illegal for council to take over the old factory. Even if they could acquire the property, he believed that it would be very difficult to find a new tenant.

Richardson also stated it would cost roughly $100,000 to construct the desired railway sidings, and he doubted that Canadian National would fund that project. In essence, though he expressed enthusiasm, the reeve did all he could to pour cold water on the proposal.

Richardson concluded with some oblique references to the Elora Express, suggesting that editors sometimes write of things that they know nothing about.

William Arthur, the Elora barber, rose to ask why Richardson seemed to be making the situation so complicated. He suggested that help be granted in the traditional way, a municipal loan to Walser following approval in a plebiscite. Several people thought a company should be formed to dispose of the old factory, and that the energy and contacts made might lead to further new businesses coming to Elora.

W.O. Mendell, a former councillor, rose to tell the meeting that direct municipal grants and loans to businesses were no longer permitted by the provincial government, and the best they could do was to grant a fixed assessment on the new plant. Anything more would be overturned by the Municipal Board, he cautioned.

Walser told the meeting that he planned to spend about $30,000 on the new building. Harold Arthur, of the T.E. Bissell Company, thought the estimate of $100,000 for a railway siding was far too high, and that it could be built for less than a third of that amount. An agent of Canadian National was at the meeting, and he said he would look into the costs.

Everyone at the meeting, it seems, had ideas and suggestions, but no particular course of action seemed to dominate the thinking. The only resolution was the appointment of committee of seven to investigate the situation further. Tim Wardley, manager of the T.E. Bissell Company, headed up the committee as chairman, with postmaster I.C. Bricker as secretary.

(Next week: The special committee submits its report, and further developments by Joseph Walser.)



Stephen Thorning