Flax mill became Drayton’s largest employer

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.

Last week’s column described the efforts of Drayton to expand its industrial base a century ago, and ended with the confirmation by Drayton council to lend $10,000 to the Drayton Felt and Shoe Company in 1901. 

The story picks up there this week.

The men who organized the Drayton Felt & Shoe Co. proposed to expand greatly the business already operated by John Peel in Drayton. A shoemaker by training, Peel operated a shoe store, did repairs to shoes and other leather items, and manufactured leather goods, boots and shoes. 

The new company would expand this base into a full scale, modern factory.

Nothing worked out as planned. The directors were not able to sell sufficient shares in the company to open on the scale they envisaged, and other sources of capital did not materialize. 

It is not clear whether Peel ever operated under the Drayton Felt & Shoe name, but in any case, the firm failed to meet the requirements set out in the loan from the village.

Peel and his associates, though, were not prepared to give up. Late in 1902, John Peel, O.B. Henry, J.M. Robertson, J.G. Coram, and Henry Schieck and William Sturtridge approached Drayton council with another proposal, scaled down from the first. All had been investors in the ill-fated felt and shoe company, and Peel, Henry and Coram had been directors.

This time the businessmen wanted to borrow $5,000, repayable over five years, to manufacture leather leggings and footwear. 

They predicted an employment level in the 25 to 50 range, and proposed to renovate a brick building owned by Dr. Bob Lucy near the weigh scales, rather than build a new structure.

As required, the ratepayers had to approve the loan, with two-thirds of those on the voter’s list in approval. Council called the vote for Feb. 16, 1903. 

The result was 112-19 in favour, but the “yes” vote was short of the required two-thirds of those on the voters list. It appears that a number of voters, apprehensive after the false start of the earlier firm, registered their discomfort with the loan by staying home rather than coming out to vote against it.

This time Peel and his associates were determined to push ahead. They had ordered machinery before the vote was called, and it started to arrive the day after they lost the vote on the municipal loan. 

The factory was up and running by the end of April 1903, specializing in leather leggings made to a patent secured by John Peel in 1902.

This time Drayton had a winner. Peel’s factory stabilized at an employment level of about 30, and managed quite well without the municipal loan. 

In 1905 some 14 families moved to Drayton, drawn by the employment opportunities. For the first time since the 1870s, Drayton experienced a housing shortage.

By 1907, Peel & Co. was operating at full capacity in the existing building. Plans were under way to for expansion to double production and raise the payroll to the 50 range when disaster struck.

Late in the evening of July 31, 1907, fire broke out in a corner of the boiler room. Flames quickly engulfed the entire premises. Only the books and paper records from the office could be removed before the heat forced back the volunteer fire fighters.

John Peel put the loss in machinery at $6,000, and the loss in stock, patterns and inventory at more than $6,000. Like most industrialists, he was under insured, carrying only $6,500 in fire policies. 

Similarly, Dr. Lucy had the building insured for only $600. In 1908, portions of the burned out structure were recycled into a livery stable and blacksmith shop.

Peel & Co. firm never resumed production. It was a major blow for Drayton, and one of several in a short period of time. Less than a year previously, E.E. Dales, who had been reeve between 1899 and 1903, and who had spearheaded Drayton’s effort to diversify its economic base, died suddenly at the age of 45. 

Several other businessmen in the community moved on to other opportunities between 1905 and 1907. And another business, the Drayton brick yards, was also in trouble, after a reorganization in 1902 and a change in ownership in 1906.

On the other hand, there were a few bright spots. The saw and planing mill, owned by Fisher, Pollock and Henry, expanded in 1903, tripling the capacity of the mill. Two years later they added a new power plant that featured an 80-foot brick chimney. Some 40,000 bricks went into the structure, which for decades remained a Drayton landmark.

E.C. Haack enjoyed a growing market for his clay tiles. He added a new kiln to his plant in 1906, some additional facilities in 1907, and a steam plant in 1910 that permitted him to maintain production virtually year-round, rather than closing down for the winter.

A small venture appeared in 1905, when Charles Caldwell, a hay and feed dealer in Toronto, set up a hay press at the Grand Trunk railway station. That year he shipped 4,000 tons of hay to the Queen City, in the process putting extra cash income in the pockets of Peel and Maryborough farmers.

Altogether, though, it was a far cry from the small but vital industrial sector that E.E. Dales and his friends had desired. 

The two major businesses, the tile works and the sawmill, employed a total of about 25 men at the busiest of times. Dales had desired eight or 10 times that number of industrial workers, in at least three or four strong firms.

Drayton’s tide turned again in April 1911, when the Canadian Flax Mills Co. proposed a factory for the village. Dominated by Toronto investors, this firm had been involved in quiet discussions for some months with Drayton council and reeve George Fox, who shared the industrial vision of his predecessor, E.E. Dales.

In the tentative agreement worked out, Drayton would give the company a $4,000 loan repayable over 10 years, a partial tax exemption, and a piece of land near the fair grounds worth $400 as a site for the plant.

In return, the company agreed to invest $7,000 in buildings and equipment, be ready to process the 1911 flax crop in Drayton, employ an average of 15 adult workmen, all of who were to be residents of Drayton, and give the village a first mortgage on the property.

After 1900, most of the flax in Ontario had been grown for its seed, used to produce linseed oil. Canadian Flax Mills bucked the trend in producing flax fibre for linen cloth. 

Traditionally, this had been a low-paid, inefficient, low-profit business. This firm sought to introduce efficiencies in the growing and processing of flax fibre.

At the time they made the proposal to Drayton, they were already operating seven plants in the province. Rather than buy flax, they rented land, and cultivated it with their own employees. Even before the loan from Drayton council received approval, the firm had rented and seed over 300 acres in the Drayton area.

The loan went to Drayton ratepayers for the required vote on July 21, 1911. Reeve Fox campaigned vigorously for it, and he was not disappointed.

Drayton’s property owners approved by a majority of 172-1. Within a week, the contractors hired by Canadian Flax Mills had 100 men employed, rushing the new plant to completion in time for the 1911 crop.

Reeve Fox had another scheme up his sleeve. In October he convinced the firm to add additional generating capacity to its power plant to supply Drayton’s street lights and retail electric consumers. 

An electrical system had operated in Drayton for years, but it was hopelessly outdated.

Canadian Flax Mills agreed to the proposal, seeing a year-round stream of income to augment the seasonal flax business. The electrical system eventually involved an investment of over $5,000 by the company.

For 1912, the company offered several contract plans for farmers who wanted to grow their own crops. Canadian Flax Mills supplied the seed, a special variety imported from Holland. The Drayton operation was an immediate success, with a payroll more than double the promised 15. 

In August and September, Natives from the Saugeen reservation augmented the workforce, assisting in the labour intensive harvesting and curing process for the fibre.

The electrical power plant turned out to be less lucrative than anyone anticipated. Few of Drayton’s storekeepers or homeowners showed much interest in electric light or appliances. The firm tried to boost consumption by renting electric irons to housewives beginning in 1912.

Two years later, Drayton council was still appealing to citizens to hook up to the electrical system, while the company threatened to shut it down as unprofitable. 

To find more customers, the company in 1914 installed a line east of town into Peel Township, along Concession 10 towards Goldstone.

Canadian Flax Mills processed large quantities of flax at their Drayton mill for only three seasons. Farmers in the 1914 crop year planted less flax than formerly, and the company transported most of it to its plant at St. Catharines.

Desiring to have the Drayton operation productive year-round, and to keep the workforce of 35 employed, the company started to move woodworking equipment into the plant in the spring of 1914.

That year, hockey sticks were the major product line. One order alone was for 5,000 dozen sticks, to be delivered by July 1915. The new equipment also turned out axe handles, tool handles, and other small wooden items.

After 1914, war contracts kept the factory busy, and it remained busy for a couple of years after the war, returning to flax processing in a major way. Drayton area farmers grew more than 600 acres of flax in 1920.

Things were not so good for the other industrial employers in Drayton in the postwar years. The tile yards closed, and the sawmill operated on a much reduced volume.

Inflationary pressures and a declining market for linen and flax fibre soon caught up with the flax mill. It remained closed for the 1924 season, reopened a year later, and closed forever in 1925 when Canadian Flax Mills encountered financial difficulties.

A year later, liquidator J.H. Campbell of Toronto started to dispose of the assets. Twice he took Drayton to court over the assessment on the idle Drayton facility.

Thus ended Drayton’s effort to establish a viable industrial sector in the first quarter of the 20th century, and with it the dreams of E.E. Dales, George Fox, and the Drayton businessmen who wanted to build a strong and diverse small-town economy.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on May 25, 2001.

Thorning Revisited