Kenilworth enjoyed bustling economy starting in 1890s

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.

Last week’s column dealt with some of the early history of Kenilworth, and the failure of Elora speculators to turn a profit on their projected townsite, even after the railway passed through the hamlet. This week, the focus is on the renaissance of Kenilworth after the turn of the century.

Despite its location at the virtual centre of Arthur Township, and the fact that it was far enough from Arthur and Mount Forest to sustain local businesses, Kenilworth did not prosper through the 1880s.

A single store (with post office), a blacksmith shop, and a hotel constituted the entire business sector. The Canadian Pacific station did a small business in freight. Passengers wanting to ride on the two passenger trains each way had to flag the engineer to stop.

Signs of a turn in fortunes appeared about 1890. Half a mile north of the Kenilworth intersection, on the west side of the Owen Sound Road, T.J. Dillon opened a butter and cheese factory. The early years were shaky ones, with several changes in proprietorship. 

Some time after 1900 the Woodstock firm of Lawrence and Lamont acquired the business. They concentrated exclusively on the production of butter, most destined for overseas markets.

Meanwhile, at the railway station, Hay Brothers of Listowel constructed a large grain elevator. This family had been mainstays of the Listowel business sector for decades, as grocers, and grain buyers, and later as owners of a flour mill and wagon factory. Their activity in the grain market led them to open a private bank in Listowel in 1881.

As the family prospered, its business activity took on a regional character. By 1890 it operated elevators in several towns, had opened branches of the Hay Bros. Bank in Chesley and Tara, and picked up a broom factory in Arthur. Its Kenilworth elevator was only a small part of the family empire.

After 1900, other developments boosted Kenilworth. The Roman Catholic Church figured prominently in the early decades of the settlement, with a log church and a resident priest. Church officials removed the priest and closed the crumbling church in 1870. Three decades later the Catholic Church returned.

Sacred Heart Church, the most notable landmark in Kenilworth, was constructed in 1903 as the focus of a newly created parish. Two years later a separate school went up. These had only a minor direct economic impact, but they strengthened Kenilworth’s sense of community and its place as a social centre.

Rising agricultural prices through this period raised farm incomes, and prompted farmers to make improvements on their farms. Many began shifting their activity from grain to cattle raising. That affected the volume of export business at the Hay Brothers elevator, but soon grain was coming in as well as going out.

There was much short hauling of grain. Before the age of good highways and motor trucks, the railways transported grain for trips as short as 15 or 20 miles.

The growing importance of cattle resulted in a new businessman, the cattle dealer. By 1905 four firms shipped cattle from Kenilworth, two of which, Cantlon & Langdon and Sherry & Seitz, maintained offices at Kenilworth. 

Those firms brought in cattle from the west to be fattened, as well as mature livestock to market. Volumes soon rose to the range of 150 to 200 carloads per year. By agreement among themselves, with dealers in other towns along the line, and with the railway, much of the cattle traffic was handled on Fridays. This permitted the railway to operate a special cattle train each week.

The volume of business in grain and cattle at Kenilworth was sufficiently strong by 1906 to interest the Royal Bank in opening a branch. Established in November of that year, the office initially functioned as a two-day-a-week sub branch of the Arthur branch, opened at the same time.

Rather than send in an outside manager, the Royal Bank decided a local man would be better. With an eye on farmers’ business, Royal Bank officials appointed W. Pinder as manager.

He had no previous banking experience. Born in Peel Township, Pinder had farmed for several years. He then went into the insurance and real estate business at Arthur, which he continued as a sideline after joining the bank. Pinder remained manager of the Arthur branch until he retired in 1931.

The business at Kenilworth exceeded the bank’s expectations. In 1909 it removed the sub branch from Pinder’s supervision, and set it up as a full branch under W.C. Koenig. This was another astute move by the bank. Koenig’s German ancestry allowed him a quick rapport with the large number of German farmers in the area.

The increase in business activity proved to be good news for the railway. Passenger business increased to the point where the Kenilworth station became a scheduled stop for all passenger trains.

The rising fortunes of Kenilworth after 1900 owed much to its two storekeepers. H.C. Goetz ran one of them. Trained as a butcher, Goetz stocked a wide range of groceries, meats, stationery, clothing and footwear.

The other store was owned by George Cushing, who was also postmaster. He was the son of one of the pioneer Arthur Township settlers, and the leading booster of the community. Cushing rebuilt his store after it was burned out in 1900. He sold dry goods and groceries, with a sideline in coal, and a small lumber yard.

Cushing’s three brothers achieved considerable success in the west as proprietors of Cushing Brothers, sash and window manufacturers, with plants in Calgary, Edmonton and Regina. William Cushing served as the first Minister of Public Works when that province was created in 1905.

Rounding out the 1910-era Kenilworth business sector were the shops of blacksmith D.D. Kelly, the wagon and blacksmith shops of James Lyons, Thomas O’Neill’s hotel, the hardware store of S.A. McDonnell (a branch of his Arthur store), and O’Neill’s chopping mill and saw mill.

The latter enjoyed only a short life. At noon on May 16, 1910 the boiler blew up. The spectacular explosion totally demolished the mill and caused carnage to neighbouring properties. Luckily there were no injuries.

Kenilworth had finally achieved a level of business activity that allowed farmers to transact most of their business in the hamlet, rather than go to Arthur or Mount Forest. This era of prosperity proved to be short lived. 

The hotel closed in 1920, a victim of prohibition. Ab O’Neill rebuilt his sawmill and chopping mill, but they were destroyed again, this time by fire, in 1927.

More serious were the inroads made into the grain and cattle business by motor trucks. By 1925 much of the cattle business had been diverted away from the railway. At the same time, farmers began to acquire automobiles, and increasingly drove to Mount Forest and Arthur and the larger variety of retailers available in those towns.

By the 1960s, the station had closed. Kenilworth’s days as an economic hub were gone.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on May 10, 1999.

Thorning Revisited