Last week’s column, describing two 1897 incidents in the history of the Beatty Brothers firm in Fergus, provoked a few calls and emails from visitors.
Several readers wanted more on that fascinating company, but one gentlemen was interested in the fact that the second generation possessed far greater business ability than the founders.
The caller was correct. Most family firms have difficulty in persisting successfully through two generations, and three generations are rare. It is one of the characteristics of several firms in Wellington County bumbled along under the first generation, and did not achieve distinction until the second took charge. One in that category is the John C. Mundell Company, of Elora.
The original John Mundell, like the first Beatty Brothers, was a Methodist Irish immigrant. He came to Elora in 1848 and opened a cabinetry shop. The business was modestly successful, and Mundell soon employed a handful of workers, and added a sideline as the village undertaker.
Though a skilled craftsman, Mundell was uncomfortable with the bookkeeping and business aspects of his firm. His American-born wife, Annie, frequently dealt with salesmen and customers while her husband laboured in the factory’s bench room or lacquered tables in the finishing room.
Mundell’s prosperity rose and fell over the decades. At times he had more than a dozen employees, but various setbacks, including fire and economic downturns, sent him down the ladder of success.
In 1880, he lost his factory to creditors. Undaunted, he began again, on Elora’s Mill Street in rented premises that had been a hardware store. He had but a single employee and his 17-year-old son, John C., as a general helper.
As he had several times before, Mundell enjoyed modest success, and expanded slowly. Young John C. wanted to expand more quickly, because demand for the firm’s tables and chairs exceeded the number that they could produce. Old John, though, was reluctant to borrow money, having been badly burned by banks several times in his career.
Five years later, John Sr. took his son into a partnership. The 22-year-old seemed to enjoy the office work more than the workshop. It was time, the father concluded, to see what the young man could do. He was more than happy to pass on the paperwork he hated so much.
The following year the business moved to larger quarters, in a long-vacant store on the south side of the Grand, at Victoria and Ross Streets. They retained the Mill Street quarters for storage and finishing. By 1890, John Mundell and Son employed 30 men. John C. Mundell formed a close relationship with the local private bank of Farran & Archibald, securing a steady supply of working capital.
I|n 1894, the Mundells purchased the factory that the elder John had lost to the bank in 1880. It was a proud moment for him. But two years later a fire claimed the building on Victoria Street. The blow was a severe one for the elder Mundell. His health broke down, and he died in 1897.
Now fully in control, John C. Mundell recognized that the Canadian economy had entered a boom period, and he wanted the business to prosper with it. He planned expansions to the manufacturing capacity almost every year. Only weeks after the death of his cautious father, he wired the factory for electricity and added a night shift. Eyeing the national market, rather than a local one, he sent three salesmen on the road, securing orders for an ever-expanding line of household furniture.
Soon there were high-end, fancy chairs and tables coming from the plant, in designs that would have shocked the utilitarian elder Mundell. Indeed, John C. Mundell even abandoned the family’s loyalties to the Methodist church. He became the most prominent member of the St. John’s Anglican congregation.
Mundell did not ignore the local market. He opened a retail outlet in Elora, and shortly after the turn of the century he took over the former Farran & Archibald private bank’s office on Mill Street for the company’s office. By then, the business was an incorporated company, with shares held by several Elora residents and a number of employees.
The size of the payroll reflected John C. Mundell’s success with his expansion plans. There were 50 men in the plant in 1898, 80 in 1902, and 210 in 1911. By then, the firm dominated the village economy. Elora’s population at that point was about 1,200. A major order, adding greatly to the firm’s prestige, was for all the bedroom and dining room furniture for Toronto’s new King Edward Hotel, the showplace of the city.
In 1916, Mundell secured the rights to the Kiddie Kar, a wooden tricycle, and purchased the old Potter Foundry for a factory. Much of the equipment came from the Raymond Sewing Machine plant in Guelph, which had recently closed. The shell of the building still stands, and is still known locally as the Kiddie Kar Factory. The First World War also brought orders for wooden shell boxes and furniture for the army.
Prosperity continued through the 1920s, though the payroll fell to the 150 range. Orders continued to pour in from buyers as far as Nova Scotia and British Columbia.
Mundell sent some of his furniture to England for show at the 1924-25 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, and visited the show himself. While there he met King George V, who made favourable comments about Mundell’s furniture. It was the proudest moment of his life.
Though always outwardly friendly, John C. Mundell was a quiet and modest man personally. He felt a responsibility to the village, and supported all organizations that made Elora a better place. He was a particularly strong supporter of the Lawn Bowling Club, of which he was a founder.
That set the tone for his employees. Senior Mundell men played major roles in most clubs and societies in Elora.
Mundell’s health suffered in the late 1920s, and he died at his home on April 20, 1931, at the age of 68. On the afternoon of the funeral, April 23, all stores and factories in Elora closed.
Members of the Masonic Lodge marched in formation from their lodge rooms to the house for a brief fraternal service, and the employees of the firm marched from the plants to St. John’s Church for the public funeral services.
The church, the front of which was crammed with more than 100 floral tributes, accommodated only a portion of the mourners. A Masonic choir sang appropriate hymns. Canon Naftel, a former minister, noted Mundell’s outstanding business ability, his concern for the welfare of Elora, and his ability to make friends.
Mourners included mayors of several cities, businessmen from Guelph, and representatives from other firms in the furniture industry. The pallbearers were all Masons, and all were prominent in the village, including both Elora doctors, the dentist, and senior men from the company.
It was easily the largest funeral in the history of Elora. In a sense it marked the end of an era, where one man could hold such a powerful influence over a town and still be held in high esteem. For example, when W.G. Beatty died in Fergus, 26 years later, public sentiment was not nearly as generous.
Mundell had been married twice. After the death of his first wife, Annie, he remarried in 1904 to Mary Baird, of Buffalo. He had a daughter, May, and a son John. It would appear that there were long standing difficulties amongst members of the family. A brother, William, went to California and was employed on railways there.
He never returned to Elora, and died, impoverished, in Los Angeles.
John C. Mundell’s son also went to California, and did not return for the funeral, though in 1931 it would have been difficult for him to do so in the time between the death and the funeral.
The only relative at the service, other than his widow, was one grandson.
The firm, under the direction of Mundell’s nephew, Harry Herbert, carried on as an independent company for another quarter century.
But, as the old saying goes, that is a tale for another time.