Woolen cloth filled an industrial niche in Elora

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.

Next to flour milling, the most common industrial enterprise in 19th-century small towns was the woolen mill. 

Such mills were established to process locally-grown wool through the carding, spinning, dyeing, weaving, and fulling processes. The Elora woolen mill was located at the south end of the dam, across the river from the Elora Mill. The business was one of those established circa 1848 by Charles Allan, Elora’s leading promoter.

In the early 1850s, the woolen factory was leased by Peter Paterson. Five men were employed, including four weavers. Paterson left Elora in 1853, and the factory was taken over by the partnership of Ormandy and Ormandy.

In 1857, John Marten entered the partnership after operating a dry-goods store, and, by 1859, he was the sole proprietor. Although he purchased the business, in 1862 he left Elora, seeking greener pastures elsewhere.

 This rapid turnover was common in Elora’s early industrial and commercial sector. It was a restless, ambitious age, and people moved or changed occupations at the drop of a hat in search of prosperity.

John Bain purchased the woolen mill in 1862. He had come to Elora to work as a moulder at Potter’s foundry. 

He probably inherited some money, because in 1857 he purchased the Commercial hotel, the largest in the village, and his reign there was a memorable one. The woolen mill was only one of his business activities in the 1860s.

Few details of the building are known in this period. A fire did some damage to the factory in 1859, and it was destroyed completely in 1860. Marten rebuilt the woolen mill almost immediately, in stone, but the size of this building is not known.

It was extended when the business was purchased by Bain. Marten took the equipment with him when he left the village, and Bain at first performed only fulling and carding work.

By 1864, the refurbished factory was fully equipped, and Bain was producing tweeds, flannels and winceys.

Improvements had been made to the water power, but, in 1866, Bain found it necessary to install a boiler and steam engine as auxiliary power. The boiler also provided hot water for washing and dyeing, and heat for the drying room.

In 1870, the mill was still doing custom work for those who wished to do their own weaving. Farmers could have their wool carded or spun the same day it was brought in. This was a great convenience to farmers from the north who were in Elora only for a day.  

Wool was turned into yarn for a charge of 14 cents per pound. However, custom work was only a sideline, and most wool was purchased and turned into coarse woolen cloth. The typical year’s purchases were about 50,000 pounds.

In the late 1860s, John Bain Jr. had taken over the active management of the woolen mill. His father died in 1873, at the age of 52. 

The younger Bain took in his brother-in-law, James Grant, as a partner, and the firm concentrated its production on wool blankets, which it claimed were the best and cheapest in the province. These were available in only two colours — brown and black.

By the 1870s, a new factor was becoming important on the textile market in Elora: fashion. The coarse woolens produced by the Bain factory were losing popularity to finer, more delicate materials, particularly cheap cottons. 

At the same time, ready-made clothing was taking over the market, and the cloth produced by Bain became difficult to sell, even locally to tailors and those who still made their own clothing. Blankets were one of the few products that remained salable.

With a declining business on his hands, Bain entered the hardware business in 1884, but that business failed. Through the 1880s, the woolen mill operated only intermittently. It was not a reliable source of employment. The senior employee was John Buckley; he began doing custom weaving in his house to supplement his income.

Overall, the Canadian textile industry was in a boom period in the 1880s and 1890s. These were the years when large factories were established in Hespeler and Paris, among other towns. Bain’s problem was that his factory produced coarse woolens; the market now was dominated by knitted woolens and cottons.

With an improving economy and rising prices in the mid-1890s, Bain decided to change with the times. In 1895, he planned an addition to the factory, and asked Elora council for a tax exemption for the improvements. None was given, but Bain went ahead with a few improvements.

With some new equipment, the firm concentrated on producing yarn, which was sold to other textile firms in Ontario. Bain also established a retail and mail-order sales department for knitting yarn, selling as far away as British Columbia. 

There was still a small, but steady, market for the firm’s blankets, and these continued to be produced.

Bain was back before council to ask for another tax exemption in 1899. The village was skeptical of the prospects for the firm.

The building was in a dilapidated state of repair, and much of the equipment was old and obsolete. As well, his retail department was annoying local dry-goods merchants. Bain was turned down again, but he went ahead with some further improvements, including a new steam engine, and continued to press for a tax exemption.

A few months later, the tax issue was a dead letter. 

The woolen mill was completely destroyed by fire. Shortly afterward, Bain suffered a debilitating stroke, and he died in 1904, at the age of 62.

The property and remnants of the building were sold to John C. Mundell in 1901, and he recycled the stone into some of the additions to his own buildings. Not a trace of the woolen mill remains today.

The Bain woolen mill was never a prosperous industry, but it persisted through the 19th century by filling a small niche in the textile industry. It also provided a ready local market for wool, thus helping to support local agriculture.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Feb. 26, 1991.

Thorning Revisited