Fergus famous for sewing machine manufacturing in 19th 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.

Many people equate the industrial history of Fergus with the Beatty Brothers firm.

They do not realize that the Beatty firm became important only after 1900, and that in the 19th century Fergus had a diverse and volatile industrial sector.

The most significant of the businesses before 1900 was the Fergus sewing machine factory.

During the summer of 1870, the Wellington, Grey and Bruce Railway was nearing completion to Fergus. A local driving force behind this line had been George Fergusson, son of the founder of Fergus.

Fergusson served as a director of the railway. He was also the Fergus agent of the Bank of Montreal, a private mortgage lender, and the dominant man in the local business community. He had championed the railway because he believed it would allow Fergus to build and diversify its economy.

In June of 1870 Fergusson wrote to Fergus council, asking them to approve a five-year tax exemption for a sewing machine factory he was negotiating to bring to Fergus. The firm was Wilson, Bowman and Co. of Hamilton. They needed to expand their manufacturing capacity, and Fergusson was proposing a branch plant for Fergus. Such a factory was only feasible with the low transportation costs available through a railway.

Things could move quickly in the 19th century. Fergus council approved the tax exemption at a special meeting, and within a month Fergusson had plans drawn up and tenders let for construction.

Fergusson constructed the building on land he owned on the south side of St. Andrew’s Street, opposite his own house, and now the site of the Fergus Legion. Fergus oldtimers will remember the building as the Basket Factory (George Fergusson’s house is now the Breadalbane Inn).

The design specified a three-storey stone structure, 40 feet wide and 115 feet long. The building was constructed by local contractors: Andrew Forrester for the masonry work (at $1,740) and J&A Moffatt for framing and carpentry (at $1,930).

Fergusson was anxious to get the building up, and construction took less than three months. The boiler, steam engine, and machinery were installed in the last two weeks of October.

The factory was soon humming, giving employment to about 100 people, and turning out 200 machines per week, which were shipped all over Canada.

It is useful to digress for a moment on the general subject of sewing machines. The basic patents for sewing machines were secured in the 1840s by Elias Howe, and techniques for the mass manufacture of them were developed by Isaac Singer in the 1850s. There were many variants to mechanisms, and soon dozens of manufacturers were in the field.

By 1870 there were over 2,000 patents for sewing machines and improvements of them. Prices declined rapidly as a result of Singer’s manufacturing techniques, coupled with mass-production methods for precision parts developed during the American Civil War for firearms.

Sewing machines quickly established themselves as the first mass-market mechanical device. Prices in 1870 were in the $20 to $30 range, equivalent to the $1,000 range in 1995 dollars, but still within the means of anyone serious about sewing.

Wilson, Bowman and Co. competed in a market flooded with competitors. The machine they made used an American design, patented as the “Lockman.”

Among the other machines sold in the Fergus-Elora area were the Raymond and Osborn machines, both made in Guelph; the Appleton, made in Hamilton, plus the less well known Hespeler, Royal, Gardner and Webster machines. Imported sewing machines included the Howe, the Singer, and the Wheeler & Wilson.

Wilson and Bowman began manufacturing in Fergus on an optimistic note. Demand in 1870 was very strong, and the firm’s machines had captured the first prize at the 1870 Provincial Exhibition.

Prosperity for the sewing machine industry did not last. There were too many makers, and by the mid-1870s most of the people who needed a sewing machine had one. To a large extent sewing machines were discretionary purchases, and demand was therefore volatile, declining rapidly at the first signs of economic downturn.

Employment at the Fergus factory began fluctuating in 1872, and a year later the firm itself was in trouble.

We know nothing about the financial structure of Wilson, Bowman & Co., but it appears that George Fergusson had a great deal of money invested in the firm. Fergusson, in partnership with his brother Robert, owned the Fergus factory in their own names.

Robert Fergusson had been manager of the Hamilton branch of the Bank of British North America, and probably established the initial links between the Fergusson family and Wilson, Bowman & Co.

When Wilson, Bowman & Co. failed, the Fergusson brothers attempted to protect their investment by organizing a new firm, the Fergus Manufacturing Co., which took over the Fergus plant and continued to produce sewing machines, now using another American design, the Barclay.

They organized a joint stock company in 1875, and most of the big wheels in the Fergus business community invested in it. The investors included James Argo, Henry Michie, J.C. Morrow, and John Beattie. The Fergussons sold the factory to the new company, and took back a mortgage for $5,000.

The new firm enjoyed short periods of prosperity, when employment rose to the 150 mark, but it quickly demonstrated that it could not operate profitably. Production of the Barclay-designed machines continued until 1878.

The Fergus Manufacturing Co. proved to be a black hole for money. The investors tried to salvage something out of the business, but in 1884 they finally turned the remaining assets over to their creditors. They had lost their entire investment.

All of the smaller sewing machine companies failed, as the industry went through a period of consolidation. Charles Raymond of Guelph was one of the few to survive and prosper.

Although the sewing machine factory did not enjoy sustained success, it is important as the first large-scale employer in Fergus, and as the business that introduced modern machine-shop and production techniques to the town.

Fortunately, a few of the Fergus-made machines have survived.

Regrettably, we do not know very much about the sewing machine factory under either of the names: the business details, equipment and production methods, or the sales and distribution system. We do not know how much of the machines was made locally, or what components were imported.

The failure of the firm represented a significant loss of capital to the Fergus business community, and to the Fergusson family in particular.

The Fergussons were notoriously tight-lipped about their business affairs.

Because of this, their significant role in the Fergus economy has not been recognized, and they have been overshadowed in the historical record by their father, Adam Fergusson.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on April 26, 1995.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015