Town of Fergus’ first brewery opened in 1867

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.

Note: This is the first of two columns on the early breweries in Fergus.

Nineteenth century Fergus, with its whisky drinking Scottish population, is not usually associated with beer.

In its early decades Fergus supported two prosperous distilleries, a remarkable fact for a town with about 1,500 people. In the late 1860s drinking habits changed, and beer started to come into fashion. A brewery opened in 1867, and for a period of 22 years, Fergus residents could choose locally brewed ale.

Lingwood’s Steam Brewery began production in March 1867. The proprietor, William H. Lingwood, had previously been a partner with John Beattie in a wagon shop. When the partners dissolved their business, Beattie went to Cumnock to open a blacksmithing business and Bill Lingwood began making beer.

The location was at the edge of Fergus on the north side of Garafraxa Street, just east of Gartshore. This was the same site as Lingwood’s Cold Water Tannery, operated by Bill’s brother, Bob Lingwood. It is probable that the brewery and tannery used the same building.

Bob Lingwood had started the tannery business in 1863. The Lingwood brothers came to Fergus some time in the mid 1850s. Bob Lingwood purchased the Garafraxa Street site, consisting of some 60 acres, from St. Andrew’s Church. He had big plans for the property, and named it Woodville, but his tannery complex was the only major development on this land.

Through the 1860s Bob Lingwood did well: he got himself elected to Fergus council, and served as vice president of the St. George’s Society, a fraternal group of expatriates from England. His brother Bill was very much in his shadow. It seems likely that Bob provided space in the tannery to give his brother a fresh start in business.

In any case, Lingwood’s Steam Brewery did not thrive, though Bill Lingwood did regularly advertise “pale and amber ales … in wood and bottle.” His brewery seems to have expired in 1869. We know nothing about his volume, his market area or the reasons for the brewery’s failure. Perhaps it wasn’t very good beer. I have discovered nothing about his expertise as a brewer.

The fortunes of the Lingwood brothers declined significantly after 1870. Only Bob is listed in the 1871 census, and his occupation is quarryman. By this time Peter King was leasing the tannery. Neither brother’s name appears in the 1872 County Directory, but there is evidence that they were still in the area at least until 1874.

Soon another brewery, on a more ambitious scale, was under way. The Crystal Spring Brewery was a partnership formed in the early weeks of 1870 by Arthur Holland, an experienced English brewer, and Dr. George Orton, medic, businessman, sometime politician, and one of the most colourful characters to walk the streets of Fergus. The firm operated as Holland and Co.

Holland and Orton purchased four lots between St. Patrick and St. George Streets, to the west of St. David. The Fergus Curling Club sits on this property today.

One of the attractions here was a spring of pure water that at the time ran into a creek and downhill to the Grand River, approximately where the library is now located.

During the 1870s Ontario malt gained a high reputation with both Canadian and American brewers. Holland and Orton saw a good opportunity and incorporated a sizable malting facility in the building. The completion of the railway in 1870 allowed the firm access to distant markets for both their beer and their malt.

The partners constructed the main brewery building, a large three-storey stone structure, toward St. George Street on land that was part of the curling club’s parking lot.

A brick boiler room, housing a small 5HP boiler, extended to the southeast. There were also some auxiliary buildings for storage and stabling. Construction commenced in May 1870, and the first brew was made in July. Full production commenced in November.

Holland and Orton soon had more than $7,000 invested in the facilities and working capital, a sizable sum for a small-town brewery of that period. The business employed four men, and production soon topped 500 gallons per week, a phenomenal quantity for a beverage that had been seldom seen locally a decade before.

It is probable that Holland and Co. were able to capture former customers of Lingwood’s brewery and Robert Dalby’s Elora brewery, which operated only intermittently after 1870.

The local market, though, consumed only a portion of the production. Holland and Co. shipped their beer by rail to the towns to the north, in Wellington, Bruce and Grey counties.

Through the 1870s, Ontario beer consumption rose by more than 10% per year. There was also a trend to larger, mass production breweries. Holland and Co. pioneered in this trend.

In 1873 Holland and Orton restructured the firm, taking in a third partner. The new man, J.W.G. Armytage, brought an additional $5,000 of his family’s money into the firm. As well, he acted as manager of the business. Holland felt more comfortable as brewmaster, and Dr. Orton was spreading himself thin with his medical and political careers.

As business boomed through the 1870s, Holland and Co. sought additional storage facilities. In 1875 the firm struck a deal with Fergus council to rent the underused Drill Shed on St. Andrew Street (just to the west of the Melville United Church) to store beer. At $36 rent per year, it was far cheaper than building a warehouse.

During the 1870s most of the very small breweries in Ontario disappeared. Wellington County was reduced to four. Doerbecker’s in Salem, and the Sleeman and Holliday breweries in Guelph provided most of the competition for Holland and Co., though the Waterloo breweries tried to make inroads into this area.

Next week: volatile years for the Fergus brewery.

Note: The week following the original publication of this column, Steve Thorning noted that he received a call from Jim Gow providing further information about William Lingwood, proprietor of the first Fergus brewery. On Nov. 14, 1870, Fergus council passed a motion thanking Lingwood for his help at a fire, and expressing sympathy for the serious and permanent injuries he had suffered. Lingwood planned to leave Fergus. His ultimate fate was unknown.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on April 10, 1996.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015