Needs during First World War resulted in revival of flax growing

The history of flax growing in Wellington County is a sporadic one.

In the 1870s a number of farmers, faced with declining prices for grain, decided to diversify into flax growing for fibre. Demand for linen, the end product, was strong, and linen was at that time all imported.

Several entrepreneurs set up plants to process the fibre, but the experiment was not a successful one. Flax growing required enormous amounts of manual labour, both in cultivation and harvesting. The plants once harvested, had to be spread in the field for the fibre to cure, and had to be turned over several times. It was backbreaking work. Pay rates were dismal. The flax industry largely died out in the 1880s in Wellington.

A minor industry arose in the 1890s, spurred by the demand of factories for packing material for their products. Flax became the equivalent of today’s foam chips. But there were alternatives, and that use also fell by the wayside.

After 1900 there was another revival. This time the demand was for the seed, rather than the fibre. Flax seed yielded linseed oil, and the demand for that product boomed in the early years of the 20th century. The obvious use was in paints and varnishes, but many new products also used linseed oil as an ingredient. But those industries did not produce a sustained boom in flax growing in Wellington County.

The last local boom for flax came in 1918. The demand this time was military. The primitive airplanes deployed in World War I used linen as the surface material for their wings. Ireland was the obvious source of linen, but that source was largely disrupted. Much of the fibre used by the Irish linen industry came from eastern Europe, primarily Russia, and those sources were cut off by the war. As well, there was a labour shortage in the Emerald Isle, as workers went to relatively high paid jobs in the factories of England rather than work at home.

Further complicating matters was the failure of the flax crop in 1917 in Ireland. That meant there was very little seed available for 1918.

The need for linen for the aviation industry became desperate. The British government offered huge subsidies for linen production in Ireland, and appealed to the overseas dominions as well. The British even set up a Flax Control Board, which appealed directly to the Canadian government.

Flax was already enjoying a minor revival due to the war conditions and the demand for fibre by the Irish mills. Ontario farmers supplied 30,000 bushels of flax fibre in 1917, but a great deal more was needed to supply the needs of the aviation industry. For 1918, the government in April of that year established a goal of at least 8,000 more acres of flax. The provincial Department of Agriculture jumped to the fore, offering tractor rentals for those willing to grow flax. The charge was $2.25 per acre, including the tractor operator’s wages. In addition, the farmer paid for the tractor fuel and had to supply board for the driver. The county agricultural representatives handled the administration of the plan. Three government-owned tractors allocated to Wellington County.

In 1917 there were 33 flax mills in Ontario, many of which had re-opened after several years of idleness, processing the flax grown on about 6,000 acres. The goal of planting an additional 8,000 acres was an ambitious one.

Historically, the flax mills leased the land from farmers, paying $10 to $15 per acre in rent. The farmer ploughed and cultivated the fields, and sometimes planted the seed. The mills provided the seed, the labour to cultivate the crop, and the manpower to pull the crop by hand. Labourers lived in tents during the harvest, and prepared their own meals.

For 1918, the agricultural representatives suggested that farmers undertake all the operations themselves. An acre, on average, would produce nine bushels of seed worth at least $7 per bushel, and about two tons of straw which would yield the desired fibre. The value of the straw was about $15.

Flax seed would be planted in the first week of May, and the fibre harvested in late July. That permitted the same land to be planted in fall wheat. The demands for labour would be eased in part by school boys. New regulations permitted boys to leave school at the end of April. They would be given credit for the year without completing their courses or passing examinations.

About 15,000 boys signed up for the program. The minimum wage for them was set by the government at $15 per month plus board. Demand far outstripped supply. The average wage they earned was $18. Many of them helped harvest the 1918 flax crop.

Farmers in Arthur Township led Wellington County in planting flax in 1918, with about 1,200 acres devoted to the crop. On July 22 the Organization of Resources Committee held a meeting in Arthur to help coordinate the harvest. Arthur reeve J.M. Kearns presided. The meeting appointed a committee of four Arthur businessmen, with Agricultural Representative R.H. Clemens as secretary. That committee’s chief task was to find and co-ordinate labour for the harvest.

The flax industry had long desired a machine that could pull the flax in order to eliminate the huge demands for labour. Experimental machines were in the field for 1918, but they were not a major factor in the 1918 harvest. The Arthur Flax Mills secured a machine which worked in the Arthur area in July 1918 with mixed results.

R.H. Clemens, with much assistance, managed to attract some 300 temporary workers to the Arthur area to pull flax, and during early August the number reached 400. That labour force included, in addition to school boys, about 75 farmerettes (city girls who signed up for farm work during the war), 55 returned soldiers, most of whom had suffered minor injuries, local labour, and some 90 Indians from various reservations. The farmerettes lived in tents at a camp set up on the Owen Sound Road, which was guarded to keep intruders out. The girls proved to be the most productive of those brought in. T.B. Farrell of Canada Flax Mills was in charge of keeping the girls camp supplied with all the necessities and whatever luxury items he could obtain.

The other workers were housed in similar encampments, without the security measures. The 1918 flax crop in Wellington was an excellent one, far above average, and the field work continued into the end of August.

By then Canada Flax Mills, impressed with the yield in the Arthur area and the quality of the labour recruited to handle it, decided to build a new plant at Arthur. The project moved quickly. Lumber for a new building arrived in Arthur on August 26, and a week later the building was taking shape, with about a doze men on the job. It was a two-storey structure, measuring 40 by 80 feet, on a 10-acre parcel of land. Employment was expected to be in the range of 20 or 25, but that would be seasonal.

In September, at the start of the school year, the management of the Arthur Flax Mill appealed to the local school boards to allow students to continue working for a few more weeks. By the time the school officials agreed, the flax had largely been processed.

The war ended a few weeks later. That ended the labour shortage, and it put an end to the overheated demand for flax. Farmers cultivated some flax again in 1919, but in much reduced quantities, and sold it for less than the prices obtained in 1918. So ended the final flax boom in Wellington County.


Stephen Thorning