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.
In the 19th and early 20th century, Wellington County enjoyed a reputation as one of the leading agricultural counties, based on a large and varied production of grain crops, the activities of its livestock breeders, and the products of implement manufacturers.
Today, agriculture remains by far the most important economic activity in Wellington, a fact that is all too often overlooked. The implement manufacturing sector, though, has in large part disappeared.
In 1910 it was possible to equip a farm entirely with implements made in Wellington. This week I want to take a look at one of these firms: Ernst Brothers of Mount Forest, makers of harvesting equipment.
Quite a number of old time readers, no doubt, will be familiar with the “Favorite” threshing machines turned out by the Ernst Brothers in the first half of the 20th century. The firm, though, is one of the pioneer industries of Wellington, dating to 1859 and a foundry established by Robert Kilgour.
In its early days, Kilgour’s foundry employed only three or four men. Like most smaller manufacturers, Kilgour began by making replacement parts and making repairs to farm implements.
After a time he began manufacturing tillage equipment, using a combination of purchased components and his own castings. Situated on Durham Street, the foundry had no access to water power, and used a steam engine from the beginning to run the equipment.
Fire destroyed Kilgour’s foundry in 1861, but he rebuilt immediately. In the late 1860s he claimed an annual production of 500 ploughs, plus other cultivating equipment, drag saws and cast iron stoves. Employment at the foundry averaged about 15, and sometimes rose to 20.
By the 1870s, Kilgour had expanded to the manufacture of harvesting equipment. His “Eclipse” brand mowers and reapers found wide popularity. Kilgour’s sons, Robert Jr., Joseph and John, ultimately joined the firm, afterwards known as Robert Kilgour and Sons.
The Kilgours sold the business in 1889 to Archibald Filshie. Though his name is known today to only a few history buffs, Filshie played a major role in Wellington’s farm implement industry during a career that spanned more than 40 years and a half-dozen firms.
Born near Glasgow in 1847, Filshie apprenticed in the foundry business and then emigrated to Canada as a youth. He wound up in Guelph in the late 1860s, working in a couple of the foundries there. His employers immediately recognized that he had abilities in the office as well as the foundry floor.
Restlessly ambitious in these years, he struck off on his own, opening a lumber yard on Quebec Street in Guelph at the end of 1870. This venture proved to be short lived, and Filshie’s activities for the next couple of years are something of a mystery.
Early in 1874, he resurfaced, this time at Elora, as secretary of the Elora Agricultural Machine Company. This was a joint stock company, incorporated in 1873 by a group of Elora businessmen, to take over the foundry of D.M. Potter and expand it into a manufacturer of farm implements, specializing in ploughs and threshing machines, and acting as sales agents for the makers of other implements.
Though only 27, Filshie came with a strong reputation as a man who knew everything about the implement industry. The new firm was foundering, and the directors expected Filshie to rescue the business. Implements made by the company had done well in competitions, and they were selling moderately well, but costs were out of control.
Early in 1875, after a stormy shareholders meeting, Filshie took over as general manager. He immediately began an aggressive sales campaign to sell the Elora threshing machine.
Not happy as a mere employee, Filshie, in his spare time, made plans to start a new business in Lucknow. He had a property lined up, but this project fell through when the Lucknow council refused to give him a loan to get started.
Meanwhile, Filshie made some improvements to the design of the Elora threshing machine, and during his first year as manager increased the foundry’s output by 50% while keeping expenses constant.
Disagreements between the directors and Filshie, always simmering under the surface, erupted during his second year as manager. The directors refused to supply more capital to the firm, and they would not take in Filshie as a major shareholder.
He left the Elora Agricultural Machine Company at the end of 1876, and leased the Salem foundry. This business had been established by Isaac Modeland in 1864, and was situated on the east bank of the Irvine River.
Filshie operated here for the next 12 years, turning out implements similar to those he had made at the Elora Agricultural Machine Company. His restlessness and driving ambition mellowed a great deal during his years in Salem, and with the quiet prosperity of the firm he was able to accumulate some capital.
Filshie did not hesitate to borrow ideas and technology from other makers to improve his own machines. This practice landed him in court more than once for patent infringement; for example, in 1876 over the design of the Filshie Gang Plow, and in 1901 in Mount Forest over design improvements to the Favorite threshing machine.
Archibald Filshie cancelled his lease and left Salem in January 1889 to purchase the Kilgour foundry in Mount Forest. He brought with him at least 15 years of experience with threshing machines, and about 25 years of experience in the farm implement industry. He adapted the Kilgour’s designs to his own, and soon began turning out early models of the Archibald Filshie separator, a threshing machine that, within a few years, he renamed the Favorite.
Filshie called on his old marketing skills, and soon was selling the “Favorite” across Ontario, and by the late 1890s, in the western provinces. Eventually there were so many improvements that he renamed the machine the New Favorite. Filshie was one of the pioneers in the use of a blower to remove the straw from the machine.
There were other products as well. One was the Filshie Horsepower, a device for generating power by having teams of horses walk around in a circle. A driveshaft from the horsepower could be hooked up to a threshing machine, a large saw, or other equipment. Filshie also produced his gang plow, an implement he had first produced at the Elora Agricultural Machine Co. in 1875.
In 1907, Filshie sold the business to a couple of his employees, George and Jack Ernst. They had been with him since his days in Salem, and had gained a solid knowledge of all sides of the business. Filshie retired because his health was starting to fail. He died in 1915.
George and Jack Ernst took over just as the firm was going through an expansion phase, fueled by burgeoning sales in western Canada.
Flatcars loaded with New Favorite threshing machines became a common sight at the Mount Forest railway stations. The payroll of Ernst Brothers frequently had 60 names on it, and the bell at the factory marked time for what had become the major player in the Mount Forest economy.
Threshing machines dominated the production, but Ernst Brothers also produced ploughs, straw cutters, wood saws and other products. Some of these lines had been made there since the days of Robert Kilgour.
Both the Ernst brothers became active in the community during their years in Mount Forest. George sat on Mount Forest council, and served as mayor from 1935 to 1940. Jon Ernst gained a notable reputation as a fisherman, itching each year for the start of the trout season. The brothers retired from day-to-day involvement with the firm in 1939. Angus Smith became president of Ernst brothers when the business was reorganized. George Ernst died in Mount Forest in December 1955, and his brother seven months later.
The New Favorite remained in production, with improvements, through the 1940s. The firm mounted a special display and demonstration, for example, at the 1949 International Plowing Match at Burford, at a time when combines were beginning to dominate the market.
The New Favorite was a remarkable machine, being in production for some six decades, and standing up against the competition of much larger firms. The total production figures are not known, but many hundreds of them carried the names of Filshie and Ernst, as well as that of Mount Forest, across the Dominion.
The 2000 International Plowing Match held at Elora featured Wellington County farm machinery in heritage displays. I have it on good authority that a mint condition New Favorite was among the attractions.
(Update: The Wellington County Museum has in its collection the “mint condition New Favorite” mentioned above. The Wellington County Archives would be very interested in any documents or photos related to the farm implement industry in the county, including anything related to the Mount Forest company.)
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Oct. 29, 1999.