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.
It is a common misconception that most households in the 19th century baked their own bread.
In fact, bakeries were part of the local economy from the earliest years. Two bakers are listed on the 1851 census, when Elora had only 400 residents.
Most of the early bakeries were small-scale operations, and the bakers drifted from town to town. The exception in Elora was Maurice Halley. He was an Irishman, born in Waterford, and was 20 years old when he showed up in Elora in 1853 to take over a small bakery at the foot of Metcalfe Street (now the site of the Elora Green Space.)
In addition to baking bread, Halley carried a line of dry goods and groceries. The bakery part of the business gradually became dominant. By 1855, he was making candy, cakes and crackers, and catering to parties and special functions.
The following year, he had a delivery wagon serving the village and some customers in outlying areas. A major part of his business in the 1850s was supplying hotels with baked goods.
By the early 1860s, Halley was one of Elora’s established businessmen. He was also the most successful Roman Catholic in the village. There were a number of Roman Catholics in the village by 1860, but virtually all were common labourers and servants who had been victims of the famines in Ireland.
Halley became the unofficial leader of this ethnic group. He led the efforts to establish a separate school in 1866, and headed the building committees for the first Roman Catholic Church in 1854, and the present St. Mary’s Church in 1870. Halley culminated his public career by serving on Elora council from 1867 to 1869.
In the early 1860s, Halley moved further up Metcalfe Street, to a frame building that served as both store and residence (across the street from the flat iron building). In 1866, he began construction of a new store next door with bakery facilities at the rear.
By this time, Halley himself spent most of his time in the store, with the actual baking done by one or two employees. The workday at this time usually began at 4 or 5am.
Halley discontinued the grocery business in 1875, concentrating on the bakery. Bread was baked in a double loaf (two loaves side-by-side) weighing four pounds, and sold for 14 cents. In the 1870s, Halley was producing an impressive variety of biscuits, confectionery and bread. As well, he catered to socials, picnics and teas.
In 1876, Halley sold the business and went to Arthur. He eventually retired to Toronto, where he died in 1910. His successors in the business were John Johns, James Curry, William and James Murdoch, Samuel Spence, Jackson and Pick, and finally James Christie, who purchased the building and business in 1892. Until this time, the buildings had been owned by the Halley family and rented to the bakers.
James Christie operated the bakery for 18 years. These were relatively stable years for the baking business. Christie prepared an assortment of plain and fancy bread and buns, pastries, cakes and confectioneries, and sold from the bakery as well as from a delivery wagon.
Virtually identical service was offered by his competitor, David Massie. The Massie Bakery was one of the most enduring of Elora’s businesses, lasting from 1870 until Massie retired in 1914. Despite the ups and downs of Elora’s economy in the 19th century, the bakeries retained a steady and reliable stream of business.
After 18 years in business, James Christie sold the bakery and store to C.H. Thompson in 1910. He, in turn, was succeeded by Albert Sanderson and then Harold Stark. The scale of the operation increased under these proprietors.
During the 1920s, the market area of the bakery expanded with the addition of delivery trucks serving rural areas.
This is James Christie’s recipe for Christmas cake. It was a popular holiday item in Elora in the 1890s.
Mr Christie’s Christmas Cake
3 cups butter
9 cups flour
1 cup milk
2 cups white sugar
2 cups brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups almonds
4 cups sultana raisins
1 Ib. citron
1 Ib. cherries
The pans are lined with two layers of buttered heavy brown paper. The cakes are baked in a slow oven (250-275 F.) for 1 to 1-1/2 hours for a small cake, 2 hours for a medium cake, and 3 to 4 hours for a large cake.
In 1931, Harold Stark sold the bakery to an Elmira resident, William Feil. The depression had hit Elmira very severely, and Feil saw better prospects in Elora. He enlarged the stock of the grocery store, and opened for extended hours, from early morning until 9pm on weeknights, and until midnight on Saturdays.
The store served a market that would later be filled by variety stores. Many of the customers charged small purchases to their accounts, and paid once each week.
When Feil took over, much of the equipment in the bakery was relatively new. Bread dough was mixed in a large electricity-powered mixer, then transferred to a ten-foot-long trough and allowed to rise. It was then punched down by hand, and, after it had risen again, the dough was cut by hand into loaf-size portions. The loaves were shaped in a molder, then placed in individual pans. The pans were placed in a steam heater, and when the dough had risen past the tops of the pans, the loaves were baked.
The oven was oil-fired, and had a capacity of 350 loaves of bread. At first, the bread was delivered unwrapped, but Feil later added a wrapping machine, which packaged the individual loaves and sealed them in waxed paper. He also purchased a slicing machine, which was a nuisance to keep operating smoothly because the individual knives had to be constantly sharpened.
On the other hand, much of the operation was little changed from Maurice Halley’s day. The two bakers usually reported for work about 8pm, and worked through the night until at least 6am. The bread and buns were still warm when the first customers called at the store, and the delivery trucks sometimes had to wait for the last of the baking to emerge from the oven.
The double loaves of the 19th century had been superseded by single, 24-ounce loaves, but the other products were familiar: buns (raisin, Chelsea, and plain), several varieties of cookies, and cakes for birthdays and anniversaries.
There were apple and cherry pies and butter tarts, as well as the bakery’s staple: fresh white and brown bread. Hot-cross buns remained a favourite at Easter, just as they were in the 1870s.
The Feils took considerable pride in the freshness of their products, and stale products were immediately removed from the shelves. During the depression years of the 1930s, day-old bread and buns and unsold pastry was given away to hobos and unemployed men, sometimes a dozen each day, who passed through the village in a steady stream. William’s wife, Lovina, who managed the store, took pride in the fact that no one was turned away hungry.
The Feil bakery was a substantial operation for a town of Elora’s size. The bakers normally turned out at least two batches of bread (350 loaves each) every night. The products were distributed door-to-door six days per week by four delivery trucks — one north to the Arthur area, another to the Belwood and Damascus areas, one in Pilkington and Peel, and one to the Maryhill area.
In addition, there was a horse-and-wagon delivery in Elora, and considerable sales were made over the counter in the store. Among the Feil Bakery drivers were several well-known local names: Alex Hall, Art Hoffer and Harry Passmore.
Competition was encountered everywhere: there was another bakery in Elora, one in Arthur, two in Fergus, one in Rockwood, and several in Guelph.
Most of these also had trucks on the road, as did the major bakeries, Weston’s and Canada Bread. Many rural customers had their choice of two or three suppliers of baked goods.
Only the county roads were ploughed in the winters during the 1930s and 1940s, and getting the bread to rural customers presented major problems. Horses and sleighs were rented from farmers to serve parts of the rural routes.
At its peak in the 1930s, Feil’s Bakery provided full-time employment to seven men, not including the grocery store. It was a labour-intensive operation that would be impossible today.
Flour was purchased for $1.25 per 100-pound bag, and shortening was eight cents per pound in barrels. Bread sold for seven cents per loaf, delivered to the customer’s door. Skilled bakers earned $22 per week; the drivers $18 to $20. The panel truck that William Feil purchased in 1937 cost $650.
If the bakery were currently in operation on the same scale as in the 1930s, in 2020 money a loaf of this bread would cost between $3.50 and $4.
The Second World War and the economic changes in the immediate post-war years conspired against local bakeries, and Feil’s was no exception. During the war years, the rural routes had to be discontinued when the drivers enlisted in the armed forces.
As well, fuel and parts shortages made it difficult to keep the trucks on the road.
Rising costs after the war presented new difficulties. The truck fleet was aging and had to be replaced. Two new trucks had been purchased in the late 1930s, but the others dated back to the 1920s.
George Feil joined his father and brother Fred in the business after leaving the armed forces, but there were problems in hiring additional bakers and drivers during the post-war economic boom.
Most men preferred the higher wages that were available in factories. Prices were rising, but the prices of baked goods were not rising as fast as the costs of operating the bakery.
In 1948, the bakery was closed, ending over 80 years of continuous baking at this location under ten proprietors.
The store remained open, and Canada Bread took over the remaining rural routes. But there would be no more fresh bread from Feil’s Bakery.
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Dec. 4 and 11, 1990.