Fires at Mundell factory marked end of an era

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.


(This is the conclusion of a four-part series on the Mundell furniture factory.)

Disaster occurred on the morning of March 5, 1954. Fire departments from Elora, Fergus and Guelph, aided by an army of Elora volunteers, were unable to extinguish the fire at the Mundell plant on Mill street. (This is the building at the northeast corner of Mill and Price Streets, currently under reconstruction by Pearle Hospitality.)

There were great fears that the flames would continue into nearby buildings.

Fire was an old foe of the Mundell firm, and it had struck again with a vengeance. The plant was entirely destroyed by fire. The cause was attributed to spontaneous combustion in the finishing department.

It was the most disastrous blaze in Elora in decades. The fire departments of Fergus and Guelph were called in for support. Dozens of men volunteered to assist; one local minister was seen wrestling with a fire hose while dressed in a business suit. The local women’s institute and the Rebekah lodge served sandwiches and coffee to the firefighters through the day and into the night.

All that could be done was to prevent the conflagration from spreading to neighbouring buildings.

Within days, Harry Herbert announced plans to build a new finishing plant on the south side of the river. Although the firm owned land adjacent to the southside factory, its officers preferred building on a more level site. Elora council was easily persuaded to close Allan Street, permitting the plant to be built on the former street.

This was one of the most unfortunate decisions in local planning history, because it permanently closed off public access to the south side of the river.

The new plant was a steel structure in three sections. It was built as an extension of the old plant, and was completed over the summer of 1954.

Fire struck again the following year. On Sept. 22, a blaze of unknown origin reduced the old factory, built in 1875, to a ruin.

If anything, it was a more spectacular fire than the earlier one, with burning embers and cinders soaring high into the air. The loss was estimated at $300,000, and the entire workforce, about 70 at the time, was unemployed. The newest addition, though damaged slightly, was saved.

This time there was no hurry to rebuild. Partial operations recommenced about a month after the fire, but all that was left of the plant were the finishing and upholstering departments.

More changes were in store for the firm. In March of 1956, Harry Herbert died while vacationing in Florida. The remaining shareholders decided to dispose of the firm, and it was sold to Peppler-Selig Ltd., a partnership of the Peppler Furniture Co. of Hanover and the Selig Company of Leominster, Massachusetts.

The sale marked the end of a 105-year tradition of furniture manufacturing that had made the names Elora and Mundell synonymous. The new owners abandoned the extensive lines of wooden and upholstered furniture that had been made under the Mundell name and, in many cases, designed locally.

In its place they brought in a line of modern upholstered living room furniture, much of it in the Scandinavian designs that were so fashionable in the 1950s. For some styles, the firm was only a distributor for furniture made in Denmark.

A frame shop was added later, but in the first years after the 1955 fire, the frames were made by Morette’s, of Hillsburgh. The cloth cutting and sewing departments eventually found a home in the Armoury hall (now the liquor store).

In 1965, the business was purchased by Simmons Ltd., and eventually became known as the Grand River Division of Simmons Ltd.

The new owners injected fresh capital into the firm, and in 1970 a new plant was constructed on York street. This consolidated all the Elora activities under one roof, including the office, which moved from the cramped Mill Street location. As well, the factory included a hide-a-bed assembly line, which had begun in temporary quarters in Guelph.

Employment levels fluctuated widely under Simmons management.

At one point, 250 people worked in the factory, but layoffs were frequent. Management personnel were transferred in and out of the Elora plant. They were not active members of the community; indeed, their names were not even known by most people in the village.

As well, fewer Elora residents worked in the plant. The former close relationship between the business and the community eroded at a quickening pace, and the ups and downs of the business no longer had a major impact on the local economy.

Under the old regime, the firm and its people had been heavily involved in community affairs. Senior employees Art Badley and W.S. Duncan both served terms as reeve, and the firm had a close association with the Labour Day lawn bowling tournament, donating many of the prizes.

Assistance was gladly given to community groups without charge. For instance, Mundell employees had designed and built props for productions of The Elora Players, the local theatre troupe. Such a relationship could thrive only when the business was owned and controlled locally, and when management embraced objectives that went beyond the bottom line.

The 1980s were not good years for the factory. The plant changed hands several times, a pawn in corporate takeover schemes and, later on, corporate dismantling.

For a time, Simmons was part of the Gulf and Western conglomerate. At the end, the Simmons Canadian division was being re-organized as an independent company. Though details were never revealed, it appears that financing may have been a problem.

In any case, management complained of massive losses at Elora, including $470,000 in one six-month period, and employment declined to low levels.

In 1989, the woodworkers’ union called a strike in response to management demands for wage concessions. After several weeks, the company responded by closing the plant permanently. The workforce at the end was 105, only about 20 of whom were Elora residents. By this time, the hide-a-bed was the principal product, the balance being various styles of sofas and upholstered chairs.

Though a severance package was worked out, many of the workers remained very resentful over the course of events at the factory. The closing of the plant ended a manufacturing business that stretched back 138 years – by far the longest of any of the Elora’s industrial enterprises.

Most former Mundell employees look back to the years before the fires and takeover with a mixture of fondness and pride. For decades, the firm had been intimately linked to the social and economic vitality of Elora.

Elora people worked in it and owned it, and the factory used the water of the river for its power.

Mundell furniture had carried the village’s name across the country. Mundell furniture is still a prized possession of many Elora households – and it will be as long as the Mundell name remains a proud one in local memory.

(Note: I wish to thank the dozen or so former Mundell employees who were gracious enough to grant interviews, supplementing my research notes with valuable anecdotes and memories dating back, in some cases, to the late 1920s.)

 *This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Feb. 5, 1991.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015