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.
The ruin popularly known as the Kiddie-Kar factory is a local landmark. The name dates to the 1920s and 1930s, but the building is much older. It was built in 1873 as part of the complex of structures of Potter’s foundry (the site is directly across the river from the Elora Mill.)
The origins of the Potter business are similar to those of Mundell’s furniture factory. It was established by Charles Allan in 1848, and rented out to ambitious operators.
From the beginning, this business was more than a foundry: with poor and costly transportation facilities, there was a need in every village for a shop that could repair anything metal or mechanical, in addition to manufacturing simple tools and hardware.
Several operators had charge of the business during its first eight years. In 1856, the lease was taken over by John Potter and James Mathewson. This firm manufactured stoves, saws, sugar kettles, cultivators and other agricultural equipment.
There was also a small blacksmithing and machine shop. Among the employees was Mathewson’s brother-in-law, Thomas Biggar, who would later desert his trade as a moulder to become Elora’s best-known hotelkeeper.
Potter and Mathewson undertook a major expansion in 1858. By 1860, the firm was making nuts and bolts, mill gearings and lathes. Threshing machines were assembled, partially with components from other firms. The foundry also turned out castings for its own use and for sale to other manufacturers. As a sideline, a planing mill was established to turn outdoor frames and window sashes, both popular items at a time when Elora was expanding rapidly and farmers were building new houses.
The partnership was dissolved in 1862. Although an experienced foundryman, James Mathewson abandoned the business to take up farming in Minto.
His partner, John Potter, had come to Elora in 1854 as the hired manager of the Elora mill, but had lost his job in 1856 when the mill was sold. The Potter and Mathewson partnership was one of many business ventures that filled his long career. In 1862, his elder brother David (known as D.M.) took over the foundry, and John occupied himself as proprietor of a sawmill.
D.M. Potter continued the expansion of the business started by his brother. This was by far Elora’s largest industry in the 1860s, employing 20 men in 1861 and 35 a decade later.
The foundry part of the business was closest to the river. The main building, a two-storey stone structure, was attached on the south side (part of the front wall was standing until about 1987).
Although Elora’s largest industry in the 1860s, reporting invested capital of $22,000 in 1861, the business was on a shaky financial foundation from the beginning, and was heavily mortgaged. Financial difficulties continued for the life of the business.
By 1870, the business was known as the Elora Foundry and Agricultural Works. A full range of implements was offered for sale, but the extent of manufacturing is not clear. The foundry did not have the capacity to make steel components, and it is probable that many of the implements included components manufactured elsewhere.
D.M. Potter believed the only way to survive in the increasingly competitive farm-implement business was to expand.
At the same time, other business leaders in Elora desired to increase the industrial base of the village. Their solution was to form a joint stock company, known as the Elora Agricultural Machine Co., capitalized at $30,000, in the early months of 1873. D.M. Potter leased the foundry to the new firm and served as its vice-president.
Construction was under way on a major addition to the plant (the building now known as the Kiddie Kar factory), when the famous 1873 fire occurred. The blaze started in the planing mill (by this time no longer under Potter’s control) and spread to the Mundell plant on one side and the Potter foundry on the other. The loss, shared by Potter and the Elora Agricultural Machine Co., was $6,000, which included $2,000 of completed implements. Potter’s stone house was also consumed, but was rebuilt.
Like most industries of the time, the foundry was under-insured. Unable to pull his finances together, D.M. Potter declared bankruptcy in 1874. The Elora Agricultural Machinery Co. managed to carry on. The new building was completed (the building now known as the Kiddie-Kar factory), and the firm actually showed a modest profit in 1874.
Almost every businessman in the village was a shareholder. Many were dissatisfied with the firm’s performance, and directors’ meetings were rancorous affairs. The affairs of the company improved markedly with the hiring of Archibald Filshie as the general manager in 1875. Filshie had earned a reputation as an administrative superman in Guelph, and he would have a long association with the farm-implement industry in Wellington County until his death in 1915.
Filshie fulfilled the expectations of the directors. He streamlined the operation of the foundry, and began entering competitions with other manufacturers. Under his direction, the firm found great success with threshing machines, but the biggest profits came with improved models of gang and beam plows.
In 1875, the firm showed a net profit of $6,600 on sales of $26,000. A quarter of this was repair work. Employment rose to over 40 in 1876, and the foundry was turning out a dozen plows each day in addition to other work.
Filshie left the firm at the end of 1876. The company then began a rapid decline. A lawsuit launched by a Fergus firm for patent infringement was unsuccessful, but costly nevertheless. Many of the Elora businessmen lost interest in the company and sold their shares.
By 1880, the major owners were James Gladstone, operator of a shoe-peg factory in Salem, and John R. Wissler, owner of the Salem mill.
Both the new owners became actively involved in the firm, but were unable to make a success of it. Wissler blamed the firm’s problems on the National Policy, which was intended to protect Canadian industry. His argument was that the tariffs raised the price of many of the raw materials used by the firm, making it uncompetitive with larger firms that could make more of their own components.
The Elora Agricultural Machine Co. folded quietly after a ten-year life. The business was taken over by two employees, Laird and Edgar, but they failed as well after a year.
D.M. Potter still owned the buildings, and in 1884 the foundry was back in business under the Potter name.
Next week: The conclusion of the Potter saga.
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Feb. 12, 1991.