George Tanner of Mount Forest was one of dozens of small manufacturers in Wellington County in the nineteenth century. Factories at that time were especially prone to fire, but Tanner had the unfortunate luck of suffering two fires within the span of a little more than a year.
Tanner was one of the early businessmen in Mount Forest. He set up a carding factory in the late 1860s, processing wool brought in by local farmers. Such operations were invariably small scale and marginally profitable at best. Tanner began, as most such operators did: very modestly, with a carding machine. It processed raw wool into parallel fibres for spinning into yarn. Producing yarn and knitting kept many farm women busy during the winter.
In September of 1875, disaster struck Tanner’s plant. A fire burned it to the ground. Tanner had added much equipment over the years, and was then producing various grades of yarns and assorted yard goods. As were most such operations of the time, he was grossly under-insured.
With the insurance money and various loans and credit from suppliers, he rebuilt the operation in another building, which was vacant at the time. His small complex of buildings was on the banks of the river at the south end of town. The main structure was of frame construction.
In December of 1876, just as Tanner was getting ready to resume full scale production, fire struck again. The blaze was discovered about 8:30pm on the Saturday before Christmas. Citizens spotted the fire raised the alarm, but the blaze was out of control when the motley crew of volunteers arrived, and there was little they could do. Despite being one of the larger centres in Wellington County, Mount Forest’s fire brigade was ill-trained and ill-equipped to battle a blaze larger than a bonfire.
Realizing that it was hopeless to try to save the main building, the firefighters tried to rescue what they could of the stock and the machinery. The fire seemed to be concentrated in a narrow space between a new structure for the company’s office, constructed over the summer, and the three-storey main plant, into which the flames progressed rapidly, consuming some 4,000 pounds of raw wool.
The second floor contained several machines: a breaker, finisher, roll carder, and a 240-spindle spinning jack. All were destroyed. The lower floor had three looms, warping, reeling and spooling machines, and a small stock of finished goods ready for shipping. Most of it was damaged or destroyed.
As was the case with most woolen mills, finding steady markets for woolens was a constant problem. There were wholesale firms in Toronto and Montreal, but they could be difficult to deal with for a small firm. As with other woolen manufacturers, Tanner tried to cultivate relationships with local stores. As well, he sold both yard goods and yarn from the mill itself, and for a substantial order he would do a custom spinning or dyeing job.
The basement contained scouring and fulling machinery, and some cloth in the process of being finished. It, too, was destroyed. Also lost were all the contents of the office and salesroom. The boiler house, at the rear of the main building, was burned, but the boiler and steam engine that powered the plant seemed to have survived with little injury. Only one building escaped the fury of the fire – a recently constructed storage structure made of concrete.
George Tanner told reporters that his loss was in the neighbourhood of $12,000 – well in excess of one million in today’s money. Despite the fire in 1875, he carried only $3,800 of insurance on the factory and its contents. Very likely, more than that would have been prohibitively expensive.
The winter of 1876-77 was a poor time for business, especially for wool, and that had led Tanner to limit the inventory he had on hand. As well, it was the normal quiet period for the industry. Farmers did not clip their sheep until spring, and the plant would not be inundated with wool until April and May. At a busy time Tanner’s loss would have been much greater.
More disturbing than the fire itself was the strong suspicion that it had been set deliberately by a fire bug. The timing of the fire itself was strange: it broke out on a Saturday evening, when no one was working in the building, no lamps were burning, and the boiler was not lit.
Prior to the discovery of the fire, a neighbour saw a man running away from the plant. The man kept running when the neighbour shouted at him to stop, and he disappeared into the night. The next morning a small group of men traced his steps, which they followed upstream as far as the Murphy’s flour mill that once stood on the north shore of the river beside the bridge that is now the site of the Highway 6 bridge.
The suspect could not get onto the bank because water was coming from the flume of the mill. The man reversed his path and climbed up the bank on the south side of the river. They lost his trail on the roadway.
An examination of the ruins revealed that the fire seemed to have been started underneath the office. The building was constructed on posts to secure an elevation that was above the flood level of the river. The area under the building open. It was there that a fire had been started. That removed any doubt that the blaze had been set deliberately.
The guilty party had the same advantage as all criminals in small towns in the 19th century: law enforcement was virtually non-existent. Mount Forest had a night watchman, but he had little knowledge, training, or experience in criminal matters. His prime function was to patrol the main street and deal with the numerous drunks who poured out of the nine hotels then in business in Mount Forest.
The Mount Forest Confederate called on “the authorities to take hold of the matter” and for “the guilty parties to be found out,” but everyone knew that the identification, prosecution and conviction of the perpetrator was unlikely in the extreme.
The loss of Tanner’s woolen mill was a severe setback for the town. Tanner was one of the more ambitious men in town, and after a major fire in 1875, he had rebuilt his business and made it once again the biggest industry in town. Indeed, at the time of the latest fire, he was out of town purchasing additional equipment. Now his mill was destroyed for a second time.
Confirmation that the fire had been set sent a chill through property owners in Mount Forest, especially those owning mills, factories and stores. No one had any faith that the perpetrator would ever be caught, and there was a constant fear that he would strike again.
Mount Forest’s boosters feared that the fire would be the end of Tanner’s business activity in Mount Forest, but they underestimated his energy and ambition. With a silent partner named Harris he rebuilt the mill yet again, and the business remained a fixture in Mount Forest for decades.
After 1900 times became increasingly difficult for small woolen and textile mills like that operated by George Tanner. The firm struggled into the 20th century, operating on a marginal basis, until yet another fire claimed the business in 1928. It never reopened.