Gruesome accidents in county claimed two lives in fall of 1929

Farming and industrial accidents claimed lives in the early decades of the 20th century.

Safety regulations were then in a primitive state. Accident prevention was rarely a factor in the design of farming equipment or machinery.

As well, both farmers and factory workers had a cavalier attitude to their jobs. When equipment came with safety precautions, many workers ignored or even disabled them. The feeling of some was that a real man didn’t require safety measures, and that only a wimp would use them.

The result was an epidemic of accidents, many causing injury, and all too many resulting in death. Accident figures rose as powered equipment replaced hand tools. Even today, farming rates as one of the most dangerous of occupations.

Farmers were, and to a large extent still are, the victims of unnecessary accidents. It is all too easy for them to take shortcuts, and engage in practices that are dangerous. That is especially so when practices become commonplace, and farmers ignore the dangers inherent in them.

Gordon Ellis was a bright, mechanically-inclined boy whose family farmed in West Luther Township. He was the only child in the family. His father, William, taught him to operate the farm tractor, and he picked up the skills quickly at a young age.

In 1928, at the age of 12, he did all the plowing on the family farm. He began each day when he got home from school, and plowed until darkness forced him to abandon the work and return to the house.

His father, very pleased with his son’s work, gave him custody of the tractor and plow the following year. In the fall of 1929 he would rush home from school, fire up the tractor, and head off to do the fall plowing, usually out of sight of anyone else on the farm.

Such was the case on Sept. 9. Late that afternoon he somehow fell off the tractor, and landed in front of the gang plow. Before he could scramble out of the way the plow struck him, causing immediate injuries, and then dragging him along the ground.

The tractor kept moving, eventually running through a fence. It then crossed a shallow ditch and stalled when it hit the embankment of the Canadian Pacific’s track which ran from Grand Valley on its way to Arthur.

When Gord failed to return home for his supper, the hired man went out to the field to see what was the matter. He became alarmed when he heard no sound of a tractor. Soon he spotted the tractor and plow at the railway embankment. He approached the rig fearing the worst. Gord was with the tractor and plow but on the ground, his body pierced and lacerated by the plowshares. He was quite dead. It was a gruesome sight that the man never forgot.

There was nothing to show why Gord had fallen from the tractor, but there are dozens of possibilities. He may have been jarred from his seat and lost his balance. Or he may have been attempting to make some adjustment to either the tractor controls or to the plow, and not stopping when he should have for safety. It is probable that his small stature made him unsuitable and unsafe as an operator. There was no inquest.

On Oct. 15 there was an industrial accident at the lime kiln (now known as the Elora Quarry) on the eastern boundary of Elora.

Joseph E. Potter was a longtime employee of the kiln, which blasted limestone rock from a growing quarry, heated it and ground it into hydrated lime, then put it in 50-pound bags for shipment to retail outlets for use in plastering house walls.

Before going through the bagging and weighing operations, the slaked lime was stored in huge bins. On the fateful day some co-workers missed Potter, who worked most of the time on the bagging line.

One of his co-workers soon came upon a sickening sight: a couple of hands showing above the slaked lime in one of the bins. Potter had, apparently, fallen in, either from losing his footing, or attempting to unplug a jammed conveyor that kept the kiln filled. He probably suffocated in the loose, finely-ground lime. He may well have been in agony in his last moments as the caustic powder burned his skin.

The coroner was soon on the scene, and as was usual in cases such as this by the 1920s, he called an inquest. It was convened quickly the following morning and some evidence heard, before adjourning to a later date.

The jury listened to testimony from co-workers and company management, but in the end ruled that the death was accidental, and that no blame for it could be assigned.

Dangers were everywhere at the kiln and its associated plant. Workers were expected to cope with them. There were no guards around the operation to protect workers from whirring drive belts or from falling into kilns or furnaces. As well, dust could be so thick that it was difficult to see, especially when it became blown into the eyes of workers.

Potter’s death was not the only one at the Elora Lime Kiln over the years it operated. It is a sobering thought to recall the accidents and deaths today when visiting the quarry, which is now one of the recreational attractions of Elora.

In addition to deaths, accidents and injuries were common in the 1920s. One such incident happened in Kenilworth a few days before Joe Potter died at the Elora kiln. A young man named Mike Kelly was crushed while making some repairs to a truck. He was working under the hood while the motor was running.

Kelly did not realize that the truck was still in gear, or had slipped into gear. In any case, it started to move. Before Kelly could jump clear the truck pinned him to the side of a car that was also in the garage.

Co-workers came quickly to his aid. He believed that the bone in his leg was crushed and broken, and he was in agony. They rushed him to a doctor, who, after careful examination, could detect no break, a conclusion that was later confirmed by an x-ray. Still, he had a bad wound that was no sight for the squeamish.

Kelly was off work a few weeks while the wound healed. The incident left him with an ugly scar and a slight limp, and perhaps a resolution to use more care and safety precautions when working on vehicles with the engine running.

These were but three of the accidents that occurred in Wellington County in the early fall of 1929.

All could have been prevented by rigorous attention to safety practices and the avoidance of the impulse to work on equipment while it is running. Two men might have lived, and a third could have been spared a painful injury.

Fortunately, safety practices have vastly improved over the decades since these incidents filled columns in the local newspapers. But the temptation remains, both on farms and in factories, to cut corners and ignore safety precautions in order to save time and aggravation.


Stephen Thorning