Furniture big business in Elora under John C. Mundell

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 second column of a four-part series on Mundell furniture company.)

John Mundell lost his factory in 1880, but was soon back in business on a much-reduced scale. He rented space in the former Knowles Hardware Store at the corner of Mill and Price Streets.

The staff consisted of his 17-year-old son, John C. Mundell, and one employee.

The business was successful, but expansion was slow. Experience had taught Mundell to distrust banks, and he was reluctant to finance expansion on borrowed money.

In 1885, John C. Mundell formed a partnership with his father. The younger Mundell was unmistakably the superior businessman. John Mundell Sr. always found more comfort behind a workbench than behind a desk. By nature, he was gloomy and pessimistic, quite unsuited for the role of entrepreneur. He was only too happy to turn the business worries over to his son.

In 1886, the firm secured larger quarters in the building at the south end of the Victoria Street bridge. This structure had originally housed Henderson’s Mercantile Warehouse, and had later been purchased by Robert Dalby for the Dominion Brush Works, one of Dalby’s many business interests in Elora. The price was $1,000.

The Mundell firm found its feet under John C. Mundell’s direction, and by 1890 was employing over 30 men. The Mill Street location was kept for storage and finishing. This building was purchased in 1887.

Much of the growth of the firm in the late 1880s and 1890s was a result of its association with Elora’s private bankers, first Thomas Gale and later Farran and Archibald.

The private bankers provided operating funds and mortgage money that allowed the firm to expand. As well, John C. Mundell formed a partnership with banker James Archibald in several business ventures, the most important of which was the Grand River Manufacturing Co., which processed flax in several old buildings on the south side of the river just west of the present Metcalfe Street bridge, (which was not constructed until the mid 1900s.) The site is now a parking lot.

Farran and Archibald provided the money to permit the Mundells to repurchase their old (1875) factory in 1894. It proved to be a fortunate purchase. In 1896, their Victoria Street building (at the south end of the Victoria Street bridge) was struck by lightning and destroyed by fire. Only the boiler was saved. The loss was $12,000; only $7,500 was covered by insurance.

The firm was out of production for only a couple of months. The Mill Street building was set up as a temporary woodworking shop and several temporary locations were rented. Power was provided by the Elora Mill, through a jerry-rigged system of driveshafts and belts.

The burned-out Victoria Street location was not rebuilt. Instead, the old factory, idle since 1880, was refitted and extended during the winter of 1896-97. The work was facilitated with a $6,600 mortgage from W.W. Farran’s private bank. The village assisted the firm by granting a fixed assessment of $500 for 10 years.

The refitted factory was in full production in the spring of 1897. A month later, John Mundell Sr. was dead. Stress following the 1896 fire had affected his health, and he never recovered. He had been revered by his men during his 46 years in the furniture business in Elora. However, his death was not a major blow to the firm; for the past 10 years the business affairs had been guided by the younger Mundell.

The Mundell firm prospered during the Canadian economic boom of the late 1890s. Additions to the plant were made virtually every year. Electric lights were installed in the factory and a night shift was added at the end of 1897. John C. Mundell began seeking a national market. He kept three salesmen on the road, and soon orders were arriving from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.

The product line was extended. At the high end were fancy extension tables and rocking chairs. There were also lines of cheap, plain household furniture. The firm placed less emphasis on upholstered furniture in this period.

All woodworking and assembly were done at the plant on the south side of the river. The Mill Street site was used for varnishing, finishing and packing. The office was also here. In 1898, the firm opened a retail store in the Mill Street building that now contains the Elora Mews.

While the furniture business was booming, the Mundell and Archibald flax operation was not. This enterprise pressed flax seed for linseed oil, and the remaining fibre was used as packing material for furniture.

The flax mill was totally destroyed by fire in 1895, and attempts to re-establish it were not successful.

The failure of this business, and its heavy losses, spelled the end of James Archibald’s banking and business career. Mundell believed that W.W. Farran had placed unnecessary pressure on Archibald. He withdrew his business from Farran’s bank, and persuaded the Merchant’s Bank to open an Elora branch in 1899.

Major extensions were made to the south side plant in 1901 and 1906. In 1901, the ratepayers of Elora approved a $2,500 interest-free loan to the company to assist with construction. A bylaw for a $10,000 loan in 1906 was not approved by the ratepayers.

By 1900, the Mundell firm had purchased the entire block on the north side of Mill Street between the Commercial Hotel and Price Street. The finishing and packing departments continued here, and other parts of the property were used for storage.

In 1908, the firm began heating both the south side and Mill Street plants from the boiler room at the south side plant. Steam pipes were run along Ross Street and underneath the Victoria Street bridge. Due to problems with freezing, the pipes were moved to new concrete abutments in the river on a more direct route to the Mill Street plant. These abutments survived until the 1990s as monuments to the Mundell firm.

In 1911, Mundell purchased the Elora Foundry property, immediately to the west of his south side factory. (This property is popularly known as the Kiddie Kar Factory.) The buildings here were used at first for storage.

A major construction project in these years involved the rebuilding of the flume and power generation facilities. The flume was deepened and lined with concrete. This ended the winter freezing problems that had plagued the firm for decades. A new turbine was installed at the level of the river below the falls, and connected by a driveshaft to an electric generator.

The updated power-generating facilities put in during the pre-First-World-War years lasted for the rest of the existence of the plant. The boiler room housed two boilers which, in addition to providing heat for both Mundell plants, also provided steam for the bending of wood (such as the rockers for rocking chairs) and steam for two Corliss engines, which drove the lineshaft system in the factory. Machinery in the factory took its power from these shafts by belts.

Fuel for the system was a combination of sawdust and scrap wood, supplemented with coal. The consumption of coal increased greatly during cold spells. During one particularly severe cold snap, 50 tons of coal were burned in 11 days, all brought into the boiler room by wheelbarrow and moved into the fireboxes with shovels. The boiler room was manned 24 hours per day. Few people worried about energy efficiency at that time.

The electrical generating system could be used to power the drive system, and it also provided electricity for the lighting system, a vital utility because the firm was operating a full night shift after 1910. Cables carried the electricity across the river to the Mill Street factory.

Both plants were later connected into the village’s hydro distribution system, but this was only for emergencies. Normally, Mundell’s was completely self-sufficient for power and light.

(Next week: The John C. Mundell Co. during the First World War, and after.)

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Jan. 22, 1991.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015