Fergus beer brewing business ended with a bang

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. (Note: This column concludes the account of Holland and Co.’s Crystal Spring Brewery on St. Patrick Street, Fergus.)

The fortunes of Holland and Co.’s Crystal Spring Brewery began to slide at the end of the 1870s. There were several causes.

A general economic turndown occurred during these years, but there were also problems within the firm, as profit margins narrowed and then disappeared. It is also possible that the hard-drinking and erratic Dr. Orton made some unwise business decisions. Art Holland seems to have left the firm about this time, and the absence of this competent brew master may have reduced the quality of the beer.

In February 1879 John Carling of London leased the brewery after his own brewery was destroyed by fire. For about eight months Carling beer was made in Fergus, and shipped to the London-area customers by rail. By year’s end Carling had his London facility back in production. This lease suggests that Holland and Co.’s own customer base had eroded badly.

The 1880s were volatile years for breweries all over Ontario. Temperance agitators, using the Scott Act, forced prohibition plebiscites in most counties, beginning in 1878. Wellington was one – it voted itself dry in 1886, then three years later reversed the decision. It was still legal to brew beer, but it could only be sold legally in wet counties.

In practice the Scott Act proved to be a farce. Hotel owners openly defied the Act, and convictions were rare at first. Authorities tried to put some teeth in enforcement by hiring special officers and an army of part time informants. The circumstances put a financial strain on breweries: they often had to ship their beer surreptitiously, and they could not use legal measures to collect debts for beer sold illegally.

Soon after Art Holland left the firm, another partner joined. J.C. Morrow, a Fergus hotel keeper, had done well as proprietor of the Tecumseh House and later the North American Hotel. His contacts in the hotel business were also useful in helping the firm circumvent the Scott Act.

Financial problems plagued the brewery during the mid-1880s, in part due to the Scott Act, but also to other factors. With Art Holland out of the business and Dr. Orton in Ottawa, brawling his way as the MP for Centre Wellington, effective control of the brewery fell into the hands of John Armytage.

In 1888 The Imperial Bank demanded a mortgage on the property to secure a stagnating operating loan. The firm, by now operating as the Fergus Brewery rather than Holland and Co., continued to operate until the fateful night of Feb. 13, 1889.

A few minutes before 10pm, John Thom, a teamster and labourer at the brewery, was shutting down the boiler and draining the water from the system.

Without any warning, the boiler exploded, completely demolishing the brick engine house. Flying debris damaged a half dozen houses to a greater or lesser degree. One stable was totally demolished. Parts of the boiler flew up to 150 feet, and one brick crashed through the wall of a woodshed 300 feet away. The concussion shattered windows as far away as the stores on St. Andrew Street.

Miraculously, no one suffered any injury except for a Miss Shea, who was struck by a brick as she stood near the door in Martin Carroll’s house.

No satisfactory explanation was ever offered for the explosion. Did one of the owners engineer the explosion to spite creditors who were muttering about foreclosure? Was it a disgruntled temperance worker who couldn’t bear the thought of the brewery prospering with the repeal of the Scott Act? Was it simply a mechanical failure? No one will ever know.

The explosion decisively marked the end of commercial brewing in Fergus. The building and machinery were hopelessly damaged, to the tune of $5,000, and the property was not insured for damage by explosion. Orton, Armytage and Morrow made no attempt to resurrect the business.

The amount of loss suffered by the Imperial Bank and other creditors is not known. Following the explosion, there was no interest in the property, and in 1895 it was sold for unpaid taxes. The four lots, with the ruins of the brewery, wound up in the hands of James Wilson and Sons of Monkland Mills.

The tight-lipped Wilsons did not announce any plans for the property, though they did use it for storage.

When the St. Patrick Street railway spur line was built, they built a siding into the property for the use of anyone who wanted a convenient place to load and unload railway cars.

Over the years the old brewery slowly faded from memory as the ruins crumbled to the ground.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on April 24, 1996.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015