Fergus did not emerge as largest centre in Wellington until 1920s

An interesting exercise for those interested in both local history and business history is to examine population figures for the various municipalities from year to year and the changes in them over the past 175 years of human settlement in Wellington County.

Many people are surprised to learn that the county, outside Guelph, reached a peak in population in about 1880, and that after that the population declined slowly, but in a constant trend, until the First World War.

Changes in the economy account for some of this decline, but an equally important factor was the change in family sizes.

For much of the 20th century the larger families were Roman Catholics, but over the past few decades the religious differences have become less and less.

In the 19th century the largest families tended to be Presbyterians. But for most of that century, families of all denominations were much larger than in the 20th century. It is obvious that some sort of birth control was being practiced widely before 1900.

The demographic changes that resulted from smaller families were dramatic. The populations of towns and villages declined, but the number of households increased.

After 1900 there was an explosion in the number of single-person households. Many of these people were spinsters and bachelors living in houses that had once contained 10 or a dozen people. As the overall population dropped, the number of people in the workforce rose in most municipalities.

Along with the changes in family size, the economy overall moved toward larger manufacturing units, and those tended to congregate in the larger centres. There were dozens of small plants and workshops in Wellington County in the late 19th century. A few grew to a larger size, but most fell victim to the general trend.

The county released population and other information each year after making the annual assessment for property taxes. In the first half of the 20th century those figures are very useful for detecting trends and comparing municipalities with one another.

One of the first to analyze the numbers systematically was Hugh Templin, editor of the Fergus News Record. In 1930 he took a good look at the numbers for the decade since the end of the Great War, and noted some interesting developments.

The three largest centres in the county had once been Mount Forest, Harriston and Palmerston. These were the only places in the county to achieve a population of more than 2,000 to qualify for town status. All three lost significant population after 1880.

In 1918 Palmerston was the largest place in the county, with 1,843 people. Mount Forest was next at 1,767. Harriston had suffered greater losses than any other place, dropping to 1,424 people from about 2,300 at its peak 30 years earlier.

In 1928 Palmerston showed a slight loss from 1918, dropping to 1,792, a loss of 51 over the decade. Most, if not all, resulted from a drop in the number of people on the Canadian National Railway payroll.

Mount Forest, reversing a decades-long trend, rose to 1,911, a gain of 144. Harriston dropped significantly to 1,145, losing 279 people over the decade. Loss of a couple of manufacturing ventures explains the decline there. Harriston was the only centre in the county to show a significant decline over the decade.

Both Elora and Fergus showed major gains during the 1920s. In both cases the growth was spurred by increases in manufacturing employment. Elora had the new Elora Furniture Company, plus production increases at the much older furniture maker, the J.C. Mundell Company. As well, there was major expansion at the T.E. Bissell Company, maker of disk harrows.

Elora’s population had peaked close to the 1,800 mark in the late 1870s, but had dropped to below 1,100 at the end of the war. During the 1920s the population rose – to 1,244 in 1928. That number might have been larger had it not been for the motor car, which allowed workers to come to the Elora plants from a distance.

For years Elora’s population had been almost the same as that of Arthur. For a time in the early 1920s Arthur was larger, but that soon changed as Arthur lost population during the decade while Elora gained.

By 1928 Arthur had dropped to 1,010 people, 234 below Elora. By then Elora had overtaken Harriston to become the fourth largest centre in the county. The possibility of the annexation of Lot 18 and even Salem into Elora was still a live issue in the 1920s, and many observers expected to see the village rise to the number one or number two spots. But that never happened.

The three smallest places in Wellington: Erin, Clifford and Drayton, remained virtually unchanged during the decade.

Clifford varied somewhat, from 487 in 1918 to 493 in 1928. In two of the years the number topped 500. Drayton dropped from 602 as low as 540, but recovered to 575 in 1928. Erin had losses as well, but minor ones: 434 in 1918 to 411 a decade later.

None of those three towns had any significant industrial base in the 1920s, and all survived as retail centres for the surrounding farmers and as a retirement community when older farmers left their homesteads.

The one place that did not share the trends of other towns was Fergus, which by the 1920s had become a company town under the domination of the Beatty Brothers plants. Though the Beatty plants expanded in the early 1920s, and there was some other industrial activity as well, the population did not grow greatly until after 1925.

Part of the reason was that some of the workers lived in other centres or on farms. Some were single people boarding with local families. As well, there was very little housing available in Fergus. In 1918 Fergus had a population below 1,800, placing it smaller than Palmerston on the list. In 1924 and 1925 Fergus ranked neck-and-neck with Mount Forest.

Then the big gains came, a result of growth in the Beatty payroll and a push for new housing.

By 1928 Fergus had 2,286, making it easily the largest centre in the county. Economic activity in Mount Forest suggested continued population growth, but even the most optimistic boosters there thought the town would be lucky to top the 2,000 mark in the near future.

Fergus continued to grow quickly. When the assessor added up his figures in 1930, the total had passed the 2,500 mark.

Despite the depression conditions, the Fergus economy remained strong through the 1930s. The population held constant, and even grew a little in some years. No other place in Wellington County would ever again offer a challenge for population or the strength of the local economy.

The substantial growth in Fergus meant that the municipality qualified for town status by 1930. There was much grumbling and pressure at county council for that step to be made, as town status meant that the municipality would have greater responsibility for its own expenses. The tight-fisted Fergus council made it clear that they had no intention of becoming a town.

That only aggravated old animosities. Fergus and county council had argued regularly for decades, usually over expenses that Fergus thought properly belonged to the county.

Fergus eventually did become a town. But that was two decades later, and is a story for another time.


Stephen Thorning