Harriston furniture factory destroyed by fire in 1920

Though only a few vestiges of it remain, furniture making was once a major industry in Wellington, Waterloo, Grey and Bruce counties.

Its roots date back to the 1840s, when a few small shops turned some of the local glut of wood into chairs, tables and other household items. Many of those businesses were small shops, where two or three men, sometimes five or six, and perhaps an apprentice, turned out furniture for largely a local market. 

By 1870 the more successful of those shops had evolved into full-fledged factories, most employing between 30 and 100 people. With rail service, they were able to bring in more exotic woods, and ship to buyers some distance away.

In Wellington County, Elora, Guelph, Mount Forest and Palmerston boasted factories that were significant producers. Also on that list is Harriston, where a furniture factory was a major industry in the town for just short of 50 years.

Richard Dowling and George Leighton were the original proprietors. Dowling’s name pops up in several places in Wellington before he settled in Harriston as the operator of a planing and sawmill.

Leighton, who had training as a carpenter, was something of a wanderer in his youth, working for periods in New York and California before landing in Harriston. There he became involved as a partner with Dowling and his sawmill. The partners soon expanded into the finished lumber and furniture making business.

Fire was an ever-present danger for 19th century manufacturing, and particularly so for businesses like furniture making, where almost everything in sight was easily combustible.

The Dowling and Leighton factory succumbed in July 1875. Though the economy at that point was less than robust, the two men rebuilt at once. The new and larger plant, two storeys tall, had the boiler and steam engine in a separate building as a precaution against another devastating fire.

Leighton left the firm in 1891, and formed a partnership with Harriston businessman John Howes in another sawmill. Later the two set up Harriston’s first electric generating plant.

Dowling prospered on his own, building the business year by year, and changing the name to the Harriston Furniture Company. There was another setback in 1893, when one of the factory buildings burned down. Dowling rebuilt at once, putting up a two-storey brick building. He was able to secure a loan from the town of Harriston to finance the structure, and an exemption from property taxes for 10 years. By 1900 the plant had become the biggest industry in Harriston, with 55 employees, and a payroll topping $30,000 per year.

The main product of the factory was chairs, in a bewildering variety of styles, and bedroom furniture. Most of the products were made of maple and birch, purchased from local sources, but there were imports of birch from elsewhere in Ontario, and more exotic hardwoods, some from central America.

The Harriston Furniture Company was busy in the years after 1900, but not profitable. There was a major reorganization in 1906, when the company was unable to pay all its bills. Four local sawmills, all suppliers of wood to the factory, stepped in to save their biggest local customer.

They were John Howes of Harriston, Fulton Brothers and W.C. Dryden, with sawmills in Minto near Harriston, and Bill Howes of Drew.

The restructured company was headed by Anson Spotton as president. Harry Leighton, son of one of the original partners, served as plant manager. The revitalized firm expanded its lines of household furniture.

The restructured company had less red ink in the ledgers than the old one, but was not a hugely profitable business. Similar problems plagued the entire Ontario furniture industry. There were too many producers; competition was cut-throat, and most of the firms were not very efficient and had far too many items in their catalogues, which meant short runs of most items. There were several schemes to consolidate some of the firms into larger companies to rationalize production and streamline marketing functions, but none of them succeeded.

After a dozen years of indifferent financial results, the owners sold the factory to the Ziegler Brothers of Waterloo, who were attempting to put together a large furniture company. The Zieglers were happy to sign a contract with the T. Eaton Company to supply inexpensive wood furniture by the carload for that company’s huge national retail and mail order businesses.

Eaton signed similar agreements with many furniture makers. Initially, the contracts looked good, but the profit margins were razor thin, and Eaton’s soon insisted on price reductions and various rebate schemes.

Nevertheless, the plant remained very busy through 1918 and 1919, first with military orders and then with a booming market for the postwar demand in 1919, as returning soldiers set up new households.

The market for furniture dropped somewhat in 1920, but the Zieglers were happy with the Harriston operation. The workforce was productive and experienced, and there was none of the labour unrest that characterized other centres, where workers were attempting to catch up with postwar inflation by staging strikes and slowdowns.

During the spring of 1920 there were rumours that the Zieglers would make some alterations to the plant to increase efficiency and accommodate new equipment. But on the evening of May 20, 1920, those plans were disrupted.

That day had been a hot and humid one, and in the evening a major electrical storm drifted over Harriston. A bolt of lightning struck the main building of the furniture factory, and within minutes it was engulfed in flames.

Harriston’s fire brigade was on the scene in minutes, but they immediately realized they had more on their hands than they could deal with. A call for reinforcements went at once to Palmerston. That brigade was soon on the scene to help. The alarm, and clouds of dark smoke, attracted hundreds of spectators, some of whom snapped pictures that are now family heirlooms.

The fire was too hot to tackle directly. Firefighters concentrated their energies on preventing the spread of the blaze to nearby residences and commercial buildings, all vulnerable with the intense heat and showers of sparks.

The factory, at the corner of Webb and Elizabeth Street, was close to the almost-new library and several commercial buildings. Aiding the firefighters was a pump on the factory property and 200 feet of hose. Directly in front of the factory was a large cistern in the street, one of a half dozen in the downtown area built to aid firefighters.

As the ashes cooled the next day, the company’s owners and managers prowled around the site. Their initial estimates of damage totalled about $75,000, equal to at least $2 million in today’s money. The firm carried insurance on the building of about half that loss. Like many companies, the Zieglers had not increased their insurance coverage to match the rapid postwar inflation.

For several weeks the Zieglers pondered their future course. They were happy to operate in Harriston, but the furniture business had entered a period of decline (which would continue for a couple of years), and they already had ample capacity in their other facilities. As well, rebuilding would require considerable capital on top of the insurance payout.

In the end, the Zieglers deferred a decision, and then decided not to rebuild in Harriston. It was a major blow for the town, which lost its major manufacturer and jobs for more than 50 of its men, many of whom were homeowners and valuable members of the community.


Stephen Thorning