At the end of the 19th century the town of Harriston boasted an economy that was as diverse and varied as that of any other town or village in Wellington County.
As a market and distribution centre, Harriston had a superb mix of retail businesses. There were several processing and milling operations closely associated with the agriculture of Minto Township, and a healthy handful of manufacturing industries.
Most of that diversity disappeared, bit by bit, during the 20th century. Today’s Harriston economy has virtually no manufacturing sector. Most of the local jobs are in the service sector, and a good proportion of the workforce commutes to other centres to earn a living.
The processing of agricultural commodities was, historically, the most important function of Harriston’s industrial sector. One of the significant firms had its roots in the 1890s, when Aaron Wenger established a cold storage business. The chief product he handled in the early years was butter, which he exported to England.
Iced shipping was the latest thing in food handling in the 1890s. Cold storage buildings, kept cool through the summer with ice, accumulated perishable goods, which were shipped to markets in refrigerated rail cars. Those cars were insulated, and kept cool by ice that was often harvested in winter from lakes and streams.
Wenger’s cold storage building was three storeys in height, with double walls. Filling the place between inside and outside walls was a thick layer of sawdust for insulation. Wenger’s men harvested ice in large blocks during winter from the Maitland River. The system worked so well for Wenger that there was still ice in the building in late fall.
Wenger sold the business to the Gunn family early in the 20th century. By then, the plant was also handling eggs, most of which were shipped in barrels in pickled form. Processing was done on the property. The Gunns hired Barney Whitmore as plant manager, and he came up with the idea of adding soft drinks to the operation’s products. In 1918 he added another line: ice cream.
The first ice cream equipment was very simple, consisting of a 100-gallon mixer and pasteurizer, and two five-gallon freezers. Fred Church and Bob Brandt were the operators of the equipment.
Initially the plant sold ice cream only from May to September, and only in bulk 3-gallon and 5-gallon containers. Distribution was difficult. There were no mobile freezers. Whitmore used large tubs filled with ice and salt to ship the ice cream containers. It had to be sold and eaten immediately.
For the first few years the plant’s ice cream was a novelty item among consumers. Sales rarely exceeded 200 gallons per week, and a year’s production totalled about 3,000 gallons. Whitmore sold some of the ice cream to out-of-town buyers, shipping the ice-filled tubs by railway express.
In 1926, Bill Dewbury purchased a Ford Model T truck, and secured a contract with Whitmore to deliver ice cream. He equipped the truck with three large boxes that could be filled with ice.
A full load for the truck consisted of 66 gallons of ice cream.
In 1927, J.S. McLean purchased the business. He was one of the most important men in the history of the Canadian food processing industry. In the 1920s he bought many small local plants, and folded them together in a new conglomerate he named Canada Packers.
Initially, the new ownership produced few changes in the Harriston operation, but by the early 1930s, Canada Packers management could see a big potential in ice cream. The firm encouraged stores to install freezers. At the urging of Fred Smale, who had succeeded Whitmore as manager at Harriston, Canada Packers supplied freezers to stores on easy payment terms, so that they might keep a supply of ice cream on hand at all times.
With freezers in the stores of many drug and grocery stores, sales increased dramatically every year in the late 1930s. In 1943, the firm produced 52,000 gallons of ice cream. Unfortunately, Canada Packers had to curtail production late that fall due to a shortage of sugar and government-imposed rationing.
Sugar rationing for ice cream was not lifted until the spring of 1947. Sales exploded that summer. The Harriston plant produced 93,000 gallons that year. Demand was so strong that an evening shift was necessary to keep customers supplied. The new manager, Al Harrison, and his wife worked a shift themselves at the plant on Sundays, filling cartons that would go out on Monday morning.
By August, it was obvious that larger facilities would be necessary to meet a market that seemed insatiable. A new and larger plant turned out the popular ice cream, sold under the Clover Cream brand, in 1948. In 1949, the operation supplied customers as far away as Toronto.
In June 1950, Canada Packers changed the brand name to York, to make it uniform with the products of other plants in the firm’s network. By the early 1950s, the Harriston plant was supplying a large area of southern Ontario with York ice cream, from Tobermory to Fort Erie and from Windsor to Brampton. Occasionally, truckloads went delivered to Toronto and as far as Kingston.
During the 1950s, ice cream became a year-round product, as consumers purchased home freezers. Many people liked to keep a supply of ice cream on hand at all times. The result was a continuing trend of production increases through the 1950s and into the 1960s.
As well as ice cream, the Harriston plant produced butter, and beginning in the late 1950s, powdered milk. By then it was a major operation, having survived and prospered while similar operations elsewhere in the region fell by the wayside. By 1960, the plant was the largest employer in Harriston.
The 1960s and 1970s were the best years for the Harriston dairy products plant. Storm clouds appeared in 1979, when Canada Packers passed from the control of the McLean family. The new majority owner was Hillsdown Holdings, a British conglomerate. For their own reasons, the new managers had a strong aversion to supply management, such as that in place for milk producers. They quickly sold the Canada Packers dairy divisions to Ault Foods, part of the Labatt Brewing empire, and controlled by the Bronfman family of Montreal.
Morale at the Harriston plant declined quickly under the new owners. Various rumours kept the work force on edge constantly. The worst of those rumours eventually proved to be true. In mid January 1991, Ault announced that all the Harriston employees would be laid off and the plant permanently closed.
It was a major blow for the town and for the workforce. Many employees had worked at the plant for decades. The older workers had few alternative sources of employment, and those who did find work locally, most in service sector jobs, earned far less than they had at the plant. Others found work elsewhere. Those who were reluctant to move from Harriston became commuters.
And so ended the production of ice cream at Harriston after 73 years. In the 1930s and 1940s, fans of Harriston’s local ice cream considered it the best on the market. It is still fondly recalled by oldtimers who remember it from those years.