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.
(This is the first column of a four-part series on Mundell furniture company.)
Mundell’s furniture factory was the longest-lived of Elora’s manufacturing industries, surviving for just over a century as Eby and Mundell, John Mundell and Co. and finally, J.C. Mundell and Co.
For several decades, it was Elora’s largest employer, with a payroll that reached 210 in the 1910 period.
John Mundell was born in Londonderry, Ireland, and came to Canada in 1843 at the age of 15. He served an apprenticeship in woodworking shops in Montreal and Guelph, and came to Elora in 1851 to operate a cabinet making shop in partnership with John Eby.
The Eby and Mundell shop was located near the south side of the dam on the Grand River in a small frame building. The two partners were tenants; the building was owned by Charles Allan, Elora’s chief promoter of the time. (The building was located on the land that is currently part of Pearle Hospitality’s development.)
The woodworking shop was one of four businesses that Allan had set up and rented. His strategy was to rent to ambitious operators, who were given the chance to buy the business over time. Allan would profit by selling village lots to an expanding Elora population.
Eby and Mundell turned out chairs, bedsteads, and other basic furniture. Their market was entirely local, and they even took produce and lumber in exchange for their products.
The partnership was dissolved in 1854, and John Mundell purchased the business from Allan. He began a cautious policy of expansion in 1857 by opening a showroom. Advertised specials that year included chairs at 50 cents each, and beds for $3.
By the 1860s, the range of furniture had grown to include bureaus, dining-room suites, and upholstered furniture. An interesting marketing technique in the 1860s was an auction of excess inventory each winter.
Owning the only cabinetmaking shop in Elora, Mundell was frequently called upon to make coffins. In 1866, he purchased a hearse and commenced undertaking as a part-time occupation.
The Mundell firm purchased dry logs from local farmers for most of the 19th century, providing them with an additional source of cash income. His highest prices were for walnut and cherry, species that are now uncommon in local woodlots.
He opened a full-fledged retail store in the late 1860s, first in a frame building at the south end of the Dalby House, and later in a frame building at the approximate location of the present Elora Brewing Company (107 Geddes St.).
By this time, Mundell was importing and selling furniture from the United States and Europe in addition to his own lines. The store’s stock included mirrors, mattresses, fancy dining-room furniture, various couches and sofas, and even croquet sets.
Data on the labour force of the firm in these early years is sketchy. In 1851, Eby and Mudell employed only one other skilled craftsman and one apprentice. In 1861, John Mundell’s payroll included six men, two of whom were apprentices. Four of his employees lived with him. This was not unusual for the period; single working men and apprentices frequently boarded with their employer in the mid-19th century.
The 1871 census shows eight cabinet makers in Mundell’s employ; in addition there was a handful of carpenters and general labourers. Employment varied seasonally; the men could be expected to be laid off when the water power was frozen up and when demand was low.
Average pay in the 1860s was between $30 and $35 per month. Skilled men made more, apprentices less. Working 9 or 10 months a year, a skilled man could expect to earn between $400 and $500 per year. There were fluctuations up and down, but this range remained in effect until the end of the century.
Disaster struck the firm in August of 1873. A fire started in Gibb and Gerrie’s planing mill, next door to the Mundell plant, and a strong wind carried the fire to the cedar-shingle roof of Mundell’s building. The factory was a rather ramshackle frame affair, built in stages over the previous quarter century. It was entirely destroyed, but much of the stock and some of the machinery were saved. Mundell also lost his house across the street, but saved most of his personal possessions.
The total loss to the business was $7,000, but insurance covered only $1,200. Fire insurance on factories such as Mundell’s was very expensive due to the high risk of fire and the ineffectual fire brigades of the period.
Mundell’s efforts to rebuild were stifled by the tight economic conditions of the mid-1870s. Reluctantly, he eventually arranged a line of credit with the Merchant’s Bank, and rebuilding began in 1875.
The new factory was 70 feet by 40, and four storeys in height. The basement contained a large circular saw. Logs were cut into pieces here and carried to various parts of the factory by boys. Also in the basement were two planers, a boring machine, two small circular saws, two jig saws, a shaper, and a machine for making circular table tops.
The main floor included the assembly shop and some small machinery for cabinet making. The third floor was the upholstery shop, where mattresses were made and furniture stuffed with horsehair. The fourth floor was for storage.
The new factory had been in operation only a few months when a gruesome death occurred. A 10-year-old boy was gathering up shavings when his clothing caught in the driveshaft from the water wheel. He was pounded to death on the floor of the factory.
Mundell had picked a poor time to rebuild the factory on such a large scale. He had difficulty in making his bank payments and, in 1880, the Merchant’s Bank pulled the plug on him and foreclosed on the factory.
After 30 years of work, John Mundell was forced to make a fresh start. Soon he was back in business with an important new asset: his younger son John C. Mundell.
(Next week: The rebirth of the firm under John C. Mundell.)
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Jan. 15, 1991.