Harriston dairy turned out ice cream 90 years ago

As snow piles up it is pleasant to think of hot summer days and a summer time treat: ice cream. In days when refrigeration was still a novelty, ice cream was truly special. Only a few outlets sold it, and for them it was a summer-only item.

Several plants in Wellington County produced ice cream in the 20th century. The most important of them, outside of Guelph, was in Harriston.

The first Harriston ice cream came from the plant operated by Gunns Limited, in the summer of 1918. For its time, Gunns was a sizeable operation, dealing in dairy products, eggs, and meats. The head office and main plant were in Harriston, but the firm had operations at Walkerton, Wingham, Toronto, Montreal, and St. John’s, Newfoundland, operating as Gunn, Langois and Company.

The Gunn firm began in Harriston when the family purchased a cold storage building erected there by Aaron Wenger in 1893. It was a large, three-storey structure, with double walls and sawdust between the two for insulation. Wenger used ice from the Maitland River to cool large quantities of butter, most of which came from his plant at Ayton. He shipped butter from Harriston by refrigerated rail car to Montreal, mainly for export.

Gunn purchased Wenger’s operation in 1900. The new owners continued to deal in butter, and expanded the plant by pickling eggs bought in the summer and shipping them to Montreal and other cities in win­ter, when fresh eggs were scarce. The Gunn firm later added chicken processing and soft drinks (under licence from the Wishing Well company). For a time the top floor of the cold storage building housed hens, up to 6,000 of them.

Another innovation was the introduction of ice cream to the Harriston operation. Barney Wit­­­more, manager of the Har­riston plant, came up with the idea in 1918, and placed that sideline under the care of  Fred Church and Bob Brandt. They cobbled together a 100-gallon mixer-pasteurizer to blend the ingre­dients, and two five-gallon freezers to turn out the product. They used milk and cream purchased through the firm’s butter division from farmers in Minto and points north.

Distribution initially was wholesale only, to retailers who could keep ice cream cold. The plant packaged its ice cream in three-gallon and five-gallon metal pails. Employees placed the pails in large wooden tubs, and  filled the space surround­ing the pails with ice and salt.

Because it had to be sold and eaten before the ice was all melted, the distribu­tion area was severely limited.

During the early 1920s the plant produced ice cream from roughly May 1 until the end of September. Production range from less than 100 gallons to about 150 gallons per week. For a modern ice cream plant that would be insig­nificant, but in the 1920s they were the bulk of ice cream consumption in north­west Wellington. A dish of Harriston ice cream, sold under its “Clover Cream” brand, was truly a rare treat.

In the early 1920s, there was a scramble on hot summer days to get ice cream to one of the railway sta­tions, where it travelled by express to nearby towns for consumption, invariably later the same day. In 1926, Bill Dewbury fitted up a Model T truck with three insulated tubs he filled with ice and ice cream, and delivered the prod­uct to outlets in the Har­riston area that had a large wooden tub to hold the ice cream and the necessary quantities of ice and salt.

In 1927, Gunn was one of four food processing firms bought by R.S. McLean and his associates. They combined the businesses into what became Can­ada Packers.

By 1930, mechanical refri­ger­ation made its appear­ance in a handful of local stores. The technology had been in use for decades else­where, but few small store­keepers could justi­fy the ex­pense of buying and running a freezer. Canada Pack­­ers accelerated the introduction of freezers to stores in the area by placing them in stores that had the highest volumes of ice cream sales. That meant deliveries could be made weekly rather than daily.

When Fred Smale became manager of the Canada Packers Harriston operations in the 1930s he pushed the production and distribution of ice cream. Despite bad economic con­­di­tions, sales not only re­mained strong, but grew signi­ficantly. In 1937, produc­tion hit 19,000 gallons, eight times what it was a decade before.

In 1943, production topped 52,000 gallons and would have been much higher were it not for restrictions on sugar. That put a cap on production, but the plant continued to produce ice cream until the federal govern­ment removed sugar rationing in 1947. That summer, produc­tion mushroomed to 93,000 gallons.

By then, freezers were virtually standard equipment in grocery stores, and in drug stores that conducted a sideline in ice cream. Packaging had moved to retail sizes, particu­larly the pint size “brick” of waxed box board. Sales were so heavy in 1947 that manager Al Harrison and his wife went to the plant on Sundays to make up the cartons to be filled the next day.

Based on the surprisingly strong 1947 sales, Canada Packers decided to build a new plant for the ice cream line and other milk products at Harris­ton. The facility, as modern and efficient as any in the country, went into operation in 1948, and the following year Har­riston Clover Cream ice cream was distributed as far as Tor­onto. Ice cream was by then a year-round product, and had become standard fare in many households.

The local identification of the product ended in 1950, when Canada Packers changed the brand name to York, to be in conformance with its many other products using that name. By then trucks were delivering Harriston ice cream as far as Tobermory in the north, Wind­sor in the southwest, and Brampton in the east, and on a limited basis to Toronto and points as far east as Kingston.

A period of uncertainty for the Harriston plant began in 1979, when Hillsdale Holdings, a British conglomerate, pur­chased a controlling interest in Canada Packers. The new own­ers soon spun off the dairy products lines to Ault Foods, which was then part of the Brascan empire controlled by the Bronfman family.

There were persistent rum­ours of closures and major changes through the 1980s. The axe fell in January 1991. It was truly a shock: the Harriston plant would be entirely shut down. The Canada Packers op­erations in Harriston were the major employer there, with more than 100 full time people on the payroll. In addition, the plant was a significant supplier of jobs for summer students, taking in 50 or more each sum­mer.

The old Clover Cream ice cream was a local favourite, particularly in the northern portion of Wellington County. There are no doubt many readers of this column who recall a refreshing serving of the treat many decades ago. It was but a small part of the story of the food processing industry that was, for much of the 20th century, at the centre of Har­riston’s economy.



Stephen Thorning