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 first of four columns that tell the story of the Monkland Mills complex. These stone structures are a good example of the re-purposing of heritage buildings; they are now condominium residences.)
For several generations the names of Monkland Mills and James Wilson & Sons rivaled that of Beatty Brothers in establishing the identity of Fergus.
Monkland Mills functioned as an economic mainstay of the town, and its oatmeal found ready buyers on the international market.
The business was established in 1856 as a flour mill. The key figure at the beginning was not James Wilson, but his father-in-law, John Gartshore. A skilled machinist, Gartshore had been in Fergus in the early 1830s, outfitting and operating the first flour mill in Fergus. His wife’s family, the Moirs, were part of the Bon Accord settlement northeast of Elora.
Although he moved to Dundas in 1837, Gartshore maintained lifelong contacts with his fellow Aberdeen natives in the Fergus area.
In Dundas Gartshore established a foundry and machine shop. His firm pioneered in the manufacture of steam engines, milling machinery and factory equipment. Many of Ontario’s mills and factories in the 1840s and 1850s installed Gartshore equipment. Business boomed, and by the mid-1840s he employed 100 men, making this one of the largest businesses in Canada.
James Wilson, an immigrant to Dundas from Glasgow, married Gartshore’s daughter. In 1854 Gartshore used some of the profits from the machine shop to build the second flour mill in Fergus, at the eastern end of the town on St. Andrew’s Street. He leased the business to a partnership composed of his son-in-law and Robert Steele. The latter had been employed as one of his millwrights. He acted as superintended of the mill; Wilson looked after the business details and paper work.
Although this mill would eventually build its reputation on oatmeal, it began as a flour mill exclusively. We know very little about the capacity or business details of the mill in its early years. Unlike most other mills, it had access to plenty of working capital through the deep pockets of John Gartshore, who had become a very prosperous man.
Robert Steel left the business in the early 1860s, establishing a flax mill. By 1871 he had become a grain dealer, and an important figure in the thriving grain market in Fergus (his wife and sons established the well known Steele Brothers store in 1876).
In 1866 James Wilson purchased the mill from his father-in-law, and for the first time used the well-known name: Monkland Mills. The terms and price are not known, but Wilson appears to have done well as a miller. He quickly added a woolen mill to the property, west of the flour and oatmeal mill, and a sawmill across the Grand River. Wilson financed these additions without a mortgage.
Wilson welcomed the arrival of the Wellington, Grey and Bruce Railway in 1870. Better transportation allowed him to compete effectively on the provincial grain market. Anticipating the completion of the line, he had stockpiled flour for several months, and hauled to the Elora railway station during the summer of 1870. The railway was completed to Elora in June, but not to Fergus until September.
After about 1870 successful millers required solid business acumen. The grain market had moved to a cash basis, and millers had to pay for their grain months before payment arrived for the flour. Immense sums of working capital could be tied up in inventory. There was also the cost of storage. Wilson constructed a large warehouse immediately to the east of the mill to store grain, flour and oatmeal.
As well, many millers began playing the markets, timing their purchases of grain and sales of flour to take advantage of price movements. At the same time margins became increasingly slender. A bad decision could be the end of the business. To maximize the use of the mill, Wilson operated 24 hours a day. This was made possible by the introduction of oil lamps for night illumination.
In 1871 Wilson sought major credit support for the first time. The Merchants Bank backed him for the purchase of 20,000 bushels of wheat on the Chicago market.
The Merchants Bank continued to support Wilson with an operating line of credit in succeeding years, but in 1876 the relationship turned sour. Much of the profit had gone out of flour and Wilson’s loan began to stagnate. He and the bank eventually agreed to settle the account for $20,000, payable over three years. In 1995 dollars, this would be the equivalent of about $2 million (in 2016, this would be the equivalent of well over $3 million).
After 1875 the market began to show a strong preference for roller process flour, rather than the stone ground flour produced by Wilson. To remain in the flour business, Wilson took out a $15,000 loan in 1877 to finance the new equipment. Interestingly, Wilson reduced his flour capacity with the new equipment from 125 barrels to 100 barrels per 24 hours. These barrels had a nominal capacity of 196 pounds of flour.
In re-equipping the mill, Wilson had decided that his future was with oatmeal, and that flour would be a sideline. Nevertheless, he was unable to cope with his increasing debt load. His brother, Richard Wilson of Dundas, bailed out the mill in 1879 by purchasing it and settling the outstanding accounts. Once again, Wilson was a tenant in his own mill, although he continued to make all the day-to-day decisions.
Tragedy struck on Oct. 15, 1886, when a fire reduced the mill to a ruin in two hours. The blaze started when a back draft sent flames out a damper in the oat kiln. The fire was being fuelled with oat hulls, and those lying about immediately caught fire. Flames spread quickly through the dry wood interior of the mill.
Volunteer citizens (there was no volunteer fire department at the time) formed a bucket brigade to save the adjoining grain warehouse. Fortunately, the wind carried the flames over the river, and both the woolen mill and grain warehouse were spared. The fire continued to smolder for five days. All that remained were the outside stone walls.
Insurance covered the $2,000 loss on the inventory, but as a cost-cutting measure, Richard and James Wilson carried only $3,000 on the building and equipment. Replacement costs were estimated in the $15,000 to $20,000 range.
In the months preceding the fire about $8,000 had been spent on new machinery, most for oatmeal. Some of it was not even installed yet.
The fire cast a spell of despondency over Fergus. The local economy was very weak at the time, and Wilson’s grain purchases sustained much local business activity. He had become the major buyer of oats in the region, and the loss of the mill was expected to affect the local grain market significantly.
With smoke still rising from the ruins of Monkland Mills, James Wilson and the citizens of Fergus lost no time in making plans for rebuilding. Six days after the fire, on Oct. 21, 1886, a public meeting considered aid to Wilson.
Most citizens, and a majority of the town council, were opposed to a direct subsidy to Wilson. As well, any aid from the town would require a vote and would delay the rebuilding. Everyone wanted to get the mill operating as quickly as possible, and something had to be done immediately because the stone walls were very weak.
Instead, a committee of local businessmen and councillors, consisting of James Argo, George Beatty, John Beattie, John Black, John Craig, George Fergusson and Robert Steele, began canvassing for voluntary donations in both Fergus and the surrounding countryside.
Within days $1,000 had been raised in Fergus and $300 in the townships. Eventually the total passed the $2,000 mark. There were also donations of labour. The Fergus business community considered it vital to keep the mill operating, and district farmers wanted to preserve their market for oats.
James Wilson had to juggle his own finances to pay for the rebuilding. There had been only $7,000 of fire insurance on the building. Actual ownership of the mill was in the name of Richard Wilson of Dundas, James Wilson’s brother. The Wilsons were able to scrape together some $12,000 for the rebuilding, some apparently from family sources, and some from increasing the mortgage on the mills. We do not know the details, and James Wilson was notoriously tight lipped about his business affairs.
In any case, things moved quickly. Wilson let a contract for the rebuilding to Whitelaw of Woodstock in the first week of November, and the mill was back in operation in the first weeks of January 1887.
Altogether, he spent some $14,000 on the building and new milling equipment.
Wilson took advantage of the fire to specialize in oatmeal exclusively. He did not replace any of the flour milling equipment, correctly perceiving that the flour business was becoming unprofitable.
Anxious to keep the mill operating continuously, he added a boiler and steam engine to the property, in an addition on the west side of the mill. He still used water power primarily, but was no longer a victim of freeze ups and low water levels.
Monkland Mills was back in business!
(Next time: another fire and good years for Monkland Mills).
*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Aug. 2 and 16, 1995.