Fergus mill made oat flour for Cheerios, other brands

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 is the fourth and final part of the history of Monkland Mills.)

In the early weeks of 1933 N.L. Martin, the bankruptcy trustee for Monkland Mills, advertised for bids on the mill property. When he opened the offers on Feb. 10, the high bidder was George Walkey, at the time the reeve of Harriston.

An astute businessman, Walkey defied the Depression conditions of the early 1930s by making a number of business investments. Among his Harriston holdings at the time were a broom factory (employing 65), and a feed mill. He also had business interests in Arthur.

Walkey paid $17,000 for the mill, far less than had been invested in it, but still a considerable price for a business that had been losing money for several years.

Walkey reassured the Fergus community by announcing that he would retain all 18 employees in the mill, and he showed he was serious about the business by immediately ordering 15 carloads of oats. There was also deferred maintenance to attend to. Most important was the dam, vital for powering the mill. James Wilson had done some repairs in recent years. Walkey finished the job in August 1933 by rebuilding the southern two-thirds of the dam. This job required three carloads of cement to replace the old wooden structure.

Mindful of low water periods, Walkey installed supports on top of the dam for boards so that the water level could be raised if necessary.

Walkey decided to retain the old name of James Wilson & Sons for the business. The Wilson name still commanded respect locally, and the Wilson brand already had a strong presence on the British market. It made no sense to change it. John D. Walkey, at a youthful 19 years of age, took over the day-to-day management of the mills.

Under Walkey management, Monkland Mills soon overcame the bankruptcy crisis, and it was then business as usual. The firm retained its overseas markets during the late 1930s, and enjoyed a strong export market to Great Britain during and after the Second World War.

In 1946, John Walkey undertook a one-month sales trip to Cuba, Jamaica, Colombia and Venezuela to open up new markets for the firm’s oat products. He found new customers, but it was not always easy to collect payments from them.

The business was incorporated in 1945 as James Wilson & Sons Ltd., with ownership held by members of the Walkey family. By this time there were only four producers of oatmeal and oat products in Canada. The others (Ogilvie, Quaker, and Robin Hood), were large conglomerates. Monkland Mills was the only independent producer in the Dominion.

Export markets diminished after 1950, but the firm found new opportunities in Canada. Oat flour became a major product due to the booming breakfast cereal market. Monkland Mills oat flour, at the rate of 60 tons per week, was shipped to General Foods and General Mills for manufacturer into well-known cereal brands.

At one time, Monkland Mills supplied all the oat flour for Cheerios. Oatmeal customers included cookie manufacturers (Dare and McCormack) and baby food producers (Heinz and Gerber).

By the 1950s the firm was using high-protein oats from western Canada exclusively. This grain had a consistently higher quality than Ontario oats, and was much more suitable for milling purposes. All this grain arrived by rail. Monkland Mills was able to take advantage of through grain freight rates, which permitted grain to be unloaded, processed and reloaded at the same rate as grain shipped directly to a port.

The firm constructed concrete silos on the north side of St. Andrew Street in the late 1950s to increase storage capacity. Western oats could be unloaded from railway cars by a conveyor over the street, and supplied to mill as needed by the same method. In addition, there was storage for 200 tons of grain in the mill itself.

New equipment was added from time to time, but some of the older machinery, installed after the 1917 fire, remained in use until the mill closed. The barley mill, in the old storage building at the east side of the property, remained in operation until the late 1950s. The firm added a feed and chopping mill sideline, and again became a purchaser of local grain for feed.

The mill always used water power from the Grand River. The old turbine, installed long before the 1917 fire, remained in use up to the end. In 1983 a hydro-electric generator was installed in the mill. Upgraded in 2006, it continues to spin, producing electricity for the Town of Fergus.

The production level at Monkland Mills reached a peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but the firm continued to be a major presence on the oatmeal market after that time, much to the annoyance of its large corporate competitors.

Monkland Mills suffered from the downgrading of rail service in the 1970s. When the railways applied for permission to close the lines into Fergus, Monkland Mills management raised the only local voice objection. The abandonment of the railways amounted to a death sentence for Monkland Mills. The firm could not compete without a direct rail connection and reliable rail service.

Consumers became more conscious of their diets in the 1980s, and oat products enjoyed a strong revival. Monkland Mills could have profited from this growth, but without rail service, it could not be a major player in the market.

The last oats went through Monkland Mills in 1983. Thus ended the longest-lived industrial establishment in Fergus. This mill was always a major force in the local economy, and during the 1880 to 1915 period it was the largest industry in town.

Its 127-year life shows well that a small independent producer, with careful management, can carve a niche in a marketplace dominated by corporate giants.

Monkland Mills continued to produce feed for several years after milling operations ended. Even after the mill closed, the firm of James Wilson & Sons was very much alive as a producer of livestock feed, under the management of the Walkey family, in 1995, when this column was first published.

(Special thanks to Mark Anderson for information regarding the current power generation at the mill.)

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Sept. 27, 1995.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015