Farm equipment a major Guelph industry in early 20th century

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.

Last week I offered a few paragraphs on the farm implement industry in Wellington County. This week’s column focuses on two Guelph manufacturers: Tolton Bros. and Louden Machinery.

The Tolton firm prospered in the early years of the 20th century, but its roots were firmly in the previous century. For virtually its entire life it was dominated by sons of William Tolton Jr., who came to Guelph Township in 1830 with his father from England. 

A 17 year-old lad at the time, William Tolton quickly adapted to the new land. Two years later he married Hannah Parkinson of the well-known Eramosa family. They would ultimately raise a family of 14 children.

Of the sons, Andrew and David were the most important in the life of the Tolton Bros. firm. A skilled mechanic and inventor, Andrew experimented and developed a number of innovations in farm equipment. The brothers began building farm implements in 1866, but the firm was not properly organized for another 11 years.

In 1875, Andrew and David Tolton joined with their brothers John P. and Benjamin, and Andrew Luke, in establishing the Tolton Bros. partnership, with a factory on what is now lower Wyndham Street, just north of the present Guelph fire hall. Like many of the firms of that era, they attempted to make as wide a range of implements as possible, but achieved their greatest success with plows and tillage equipment. Most of these employed improvements developed by Andrew Tolton. David soon took charge of the sales and financial side of the business.

Though the name remained constant, the firm went through several incarnations. The first was the resignation of John and Benjamin in 1887. Later, after Andrew’s death, David Tolton took in W.H. Conway and George Dickieson as partners.

The firm enjoyed modest success during the 1880s and 1890s. Eventually, following the trend in the industry toward specialization, David decided to concentrate on plows and harrows, and on a pea harvester developed by his brother Andrew.

The Tolton Bros. business was able to take advantage of the boom years either side of 1900. Guelph capitalist Christian Kloepfer became involved with the growing firm, and guided it through incorporation in 1904, serving briefly as president. A director of the Traders Bank of Canada, Kloepfer was in a position to tap outside sources of capital to finance the expanding business.

By 1906 Edward Tolton, another brother, had joined the firm as president, with Benjamin back as vice-president. David, with the most experience, was secretary- treasurer and general manager.

In 1907 the Toltons branched out, establishing the Guelph Paper Box Company. With about a dozen employees, this firm made shipping cartons used by a number of Guelph industries, particularly textile firms. Guelph Paper Box eventually became an important industry, but by then it was guided by other hands. The Toltons sold it in 1915, desiring to concentrate their attention exclusively on farm implements.

The Tolton Bros. firm enjoyed its best years from about 1910 until the early 1920s. Its popular models of horse-drawn plows enjoyed a brisk market in this period, and the factory’s payroll ballooned to the 100 mark during busy times.

The increasing use of tractors, though, soon doomed the horse-drawn Tolton plow. The pea harvester also suffered from declining sales. As a family-owned business, there were problems with succession and direction, and there was no one on staff to design new models to keep up with changing technology.

Agricultural prices remained sluggish at best during the 1920s, putting strains on farmers, and this had adverse effects on the entire farm implement industry. By the late 1920s, the Tolton firm was a pale image of its prosperous years.

Alex Rae, head of Rae’s Wagon and Truck Body Works, took over the remnants of the Tolton firm around 1930. For several years he continued to make and sell the horse-drawn Tolton plow and its harrows. He also serviced these implements and sold spare parts for them.

Tolton plows were in production for some 60 years, and today surviving examples are proudly-held artifacts of Wellington County’s agricultural heritage.

The Tolton firm was dominated during its life by members of a well-known and respected local family. The Louden Machinery Company sat at the other end of the spectrum: the branch plant of an American firm.

The Louden company could trace its origins back to 1867, when William Louden patented and began to produce his first hay carrier. During the next 30 years, the U.S.-based Louden firm introduced new models, and branched into manure handling equipment and barn stabling. The latter quickly became popular with dairy farmers.

Desiring to branch out into the Canadian market, and to escape import duties, the Louden firm established a small factory on Crimea Street in Guelph in 1902. The market for their lines was largely undeveloped at that time. Their chief competition, Beatty Bros. in Fergus, was still a struggling company, but one quickly finding its feet. Eventually, it would totally eclipse the Louden name, even though the Beatty equipment was inspired by the features patented by the Louden firm.

In 1902, though, the market was wide open. The initial staff of five at the Louden plant grew to more than 50 by 1910. The 1920s affected the Louden firm to a lesser degree than makers of tillage and harvesting equipment, because its products contributed directly to the productivity of farm labour.

The depression of the 1930s proved to be too much for the Louden Machinery Company when the collapse of commodity prices forced farmers to cancel or postpone their barn renovations.

After closing, the Guelph Louden plant remained closed and boarded up for a time. In 1939 the Leland Electric Co. took over the old Louden Machinery plant on Crimea Street, refitting it for the manufacture of motors and generators.

Leland’s had been established three years earlier in Toronto as the Canadian branch of an American firm. War contracts and postwar demands resulted in several additions to the plant, and production would boom through the mid-1950s, supplying new equipment for the 60-cycle electric conversion program in Ontario.

Behind the extensions and new wings, the original Louden plant continued to serve its new owners.

Next week: more on Wellington County’s farm implement industry.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on July 21, 2000.

Thorning Revisited