The Beatty Brothers firm of Fergus was, by a large margin, the largest 20th century manufacturing firm in Wellington County outside of Guelph.
One hundred years ago this month the company began drawing up plans for a new plant on Hill Street in Fergus.
That new plant, like the firm itself, is a fascinating subject for study. In many ways the Beatty company grew contrary to the trends in Canadian industry: it remained in a small town, rather than move to a larger centre. Though a limited stock company, a controlling portion of the stock remained in the hands of its founding family. And perhaps most important for its success, the second generation of the family proved to be far better businessmen than the first.
The new building followed the latest design concepts for factories, such as a single storey for manufacturing, and a sawtooth roof line to permit natural lighting and good ventilation. On the other hand, the walls were rubble stone, the same as factories and mills built a half century earlier.
By 1900, direct connection with a rail line had become a virtual necessity for a successful factory. The site of the new plant, at the northwest edge of Fergus on Hill Street, provided convenient connection to both the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk lines, adjacent to the Fergus stations of both.
The new plant was a huge venture, indeed, a daring one, for the firm. Established in 1874 by brothers George and Matthew Beatty, the firm had struggled as a farm implement manufacturer. Early in the life of the business the brothers took over a foundry building on the south side of the Grand River. That structure, expanded several times by the firm, still stands, occupied by the Fergus Marketplace.
Success in the early days was fleeting. Credit listings for Beatty Brothers rated the firm as a poor risk, at best capable of handling only limited obligations. By 1896, the business was bankrupt. It resumed operations on a limited scale, as a limited liability company with a few shareholders outside the family. For a couple of years, the company shared its plant with the T.E. Bissell Company, which afterward moved to Elora.
A turnaround came after 1900, when George Beatty’s sons, William G. (Will) and Milton, joined the firm after graduation from the University of Toronto. Their timing was perfect: the Canadian economy was in the midst of a boom, and the brothers were determined to take full advantage of it.
Part of their strategy was to shift some of the production to domestic appliances from the farm implements that had been the firm’s mainstays. They also introduced lines of metal barn stabling and barn cleaning equipment. The new plant would permit efficient production on a large scale, and good rail access would facilitate shipment to the warehouses they planned to set up across Canada.
The financial situation for the firm in 1910 had improved considerably since the reorganization as a limited company, and with the new management methods introduced by Will and Milton. Nevertheless, financing the big new plant strained the resources of the company.
Will Beatty approached Fergus council, asking for a loan of $25,000. Council and Reeve A.C. Steele were sympathetic, but the measure had to be submitted to the ratepayers. Council scheduled the vote for the same day as the elections for the 1911 council.
Fergus ratepayers showed their confidence in the firm and the second generation of the family by approving the loan, 291 votes to 18. When the new council met, Will Beatty was back with a further request. The firm desired to have a portion of Maple Street, plus two other short streets, Pine and Cedar, closed and transferred to the company. The new building would extend over those streets. Council voted final approval for the loan and street closures at its meeting of Feb. 6, 1911.
Construction began in the spring of 1911, continuing at a rapid pace through the summer. Compared to other small town factories, this was a large one. The main building measured 320- by 80-feet – close to a half acre. Additions, constructed in a similar style over the next two decades, would multiply that area many times.
On the Hill Street frontage, at the western end of the plant, was the office, a three-storey structure measuring 80- by 50-feet. The main floor consisted of a large room with individual desks, a half dozen typewriters, and two private offices. Each of the three floors had its own vault.
The new facility came into use in stages, beginning in December 1911, with some of the office functions moving in. There was also a lot of new equipment, including shearing machines to cut quarter-inch steel, lathes, grinders, and punches. The firm’s management was in great haste to expand the line of barn stabling, which had met with unexpected success, and had become, in only a couple of years, the most popular brand in Canada. The old facilities could not keep up with the demand.
Of particular value was the shipping department and the rail facilities. In 1912, the firm expected to use more than 1,000 tons of steel. Hauling all that tonnage to the Grand River plant and back would be both costly and labour-intensive. With the new facilities, factory crews could unload a car in less than three hours, and pile the material conveniently for processing.
At the beginning of 1912, the Beatty work force in Fergus was up to 85, from fewer than 10 in 1900. With expanding markets and plant additions, that number would top the 600 mark by the late 1920s.
As well as the plant, construction included a cistern 40 feet square and seven feet deep to store the roof runoff for use by the boiler. Supplying the power for the plant was a 115 horse power steam engine, manufactured by Goldie-McCullough, of Galt. Drive shafts transferred the power to various machines. The plant was laid out so that, with future expansions, the power house would be in the centre of the complex to make power distribution efficient. An 82-foot chimney towered over the complex.
As well as construction of the building, the project required significant levelling and earth moving. The eastern end of the property had to be raised several feet to allow the loading platform beside the railway siding, leading from the Canadian Pacific line, to be at floor level. The shipping department contained 162 bins holding various items of stabling equipment. Orders could be filled quickly, packaged, and loaded into a waiting boxcar in short order, using only a hand truck.
Expansion was part of the planning for the plant. One exterior wall was a temporary one, made of wood, to permit an addition in the near future.
The firm followed a wise policy of using local contractors wherever possible to construct the building. That kept some of the expenditure – including the loan from the municipality – circulating in town and contributing to local prosperity. Wilkie and Company completed the stone work, and Frank Ibbotson had the contract for framing and carpentry.
Some of the contracts were large. Quinn & Wilson, for example, had to lay 88,000 square feet of concrete flooring. Norman Stafford, of Elora, with members of his family, secured the contract for brick work and plastering.
The company retained the old Grand River plant, and continued to expand that facility in later years. But the main manufacturing functions were at the new Hill street plant, and continued there as the firm added new lines, particular the Beatty washing machines that became the firm’s best-known products in the 1920s and after.
The new plant, planned 100 years ago this summer, was the first major step in what quickly grew into a significant industry, and one that shaped the destiny of Fergus through the 20th century.