Young Toronto flax harvesters ran afoul of the law

Last week’s column described the revival of flax growing in the Arthur area in 1918, when there was an insatiable demand for fibre to manufacture linen for aircraft wings.

Arthur Township was not the only area in Wellington producing flax during that brief boom. Several hundred acres of the crop were under cultivation in the Drayton area, in Peel and Maryborough Townships.

In fact, the Drayton area had been the most consistent area to row flax during the previous half-century, through good times and bad for the crop. At times the acreage was minuscule, but a processing plant existed for decades in Drayton, though some years it was idle. After 1900, when the seeds became more valuable than the fibre, most of the crop was baled and shipped by rail to the linseed oil mill at Aboyne.

That changed in the spring of 1918, when government appeals resulted in a much increased acreage. As in the Arthur area, the great problem was securing sufficient labour for the harvest. The flax had to be cut by hand, and left in rows in the field to cure in the sun and wind. The rows had to be turned over frequently so that the flax would not rot. That was particularly important when the flax was rained on.

By 1918 the Drayton flax mill was operated by the Canada Flax Mills Company, a  conglomerate that had taken over the production of flax. The company signed contracts with farmers, who planted and cultivated the flax in return for a flat payment per acre. The company looked after the harvesting, finding labourers, housing them in tents, and looking after the shipment of the fibre to its mills.

Canada Flax Mills agents scoured the countryside looking for labourers, but found insufficient numbers to handle the crop in the Drayton area. Most farmers were also short of help for the grain harvest that year. Some of their sons and hired men had enlisted, and others found good paying jobs in factories in faraway towns and cities. In addition, rural and small town residents knew that flax pulling was backbreaking work. They would do it only when no other employment was available.

By August of 1914 the recruiters turned to downtown Toronto to find labourers. They made wild promises that good workers could make as much as seven dollars per day. The pay was based on a piece work basis. No one ever got close to seven dollars per day, which in 1918 was about three times the average factory wage. Many people signed up, but most returned to the city after a day or two in the flax field, nursing sore backs and bleeding fingers.

One group of eight young men, hired by a recruiter, arrived in Drayton on Aug. 6, 1918. A company agent took them to the Riordan farm, on Concession 16 of Peel. There they were assigned tents to live in. The company had authorized credit for them at a store in Drayton for their food and supplies. The store provided a record of purchases for each employee to the company, which would deduct the sum from the wages of the employee.

The boys, apparently, believed every word the agents had told them; that the work was easy, and that their wages would be very generous. At the store they loaded up with expensive items, and left for their tents with about $10 of goods each.

They began work the next morning. The boys managed to stick it out until Friday night. Their wages to that point amounted to between three and four dollars for three days work, far short of what had been promised.

Company agents soon noticed that the eight had vacated the camp, and after consulting with the merchant who had supplied them with their supplies, they called on police magistrate E.J. O’Callaghan. He issued warrants for their arrest.

As well as skipping out on their grocery bill, the company claimed the boys had defaced the tents by painted obscene pictures and foul language on them. The tents were government property, supplied to Canada Flax Mills to expedite the flax harvest.

After leaving the Riordan farm the boys had split up. Five of them found employment picking flax for T.B. Farrell, who had several fields on his own farm, and additional acreage on the Justin Morrison farm, just south of Arthur.

The authorities quickly located the five, and arrested them late on Sunday, Aug. 11. They denied having defaced the tents on the Riordan farm, and claimed they had no intention of defrauding anyone when they left that farm. They had begun working for Farrell that very day.

It was unusual to work on a Sunday in 1918, but the boys were Jewish, and had observed their Sabbath the day before.

The constable, though sympathetic, had to comply with the warrant. He arrested the five, and took them to the lockup in Arthur, where the five spent the night in cramped quarters.

The next day the five appeared in court before Magistrates E.J. O’Callaghan (who had issued the arrest warrants), Blair, and Woodman. After hearing the evidence against the young men and their defence, the three magistrates agreed to dismiss the case. They all believed the claim of the young men that they had nothing to do with painting obscenities on their tents. It appears that the boys may have encountered anti-Semitism while at the Riordan farm, either by co-workers or their employer. Nothing, though, was published to that effect. They would not be the first to encounter anti-Jewish sentiment in the Drayton area, and would not be the last.

H.A. Griffin of the Arthur flax mill, their new employer, appeared in court on behalf of the boys.

Griffin paid the Drayton company the amount the boys owed for their grocery purchases there. In return, the boys agreed to work for Griffin and the Arthur mill until the amount was paid off.

The five remained in the employ of the Arthur mill until the end of the harvest. Presumably, their skills improved, and consequently their wages, permitting them to return to Toronto with full pockets. As well, they were grateful to their new employer, for the support shown to them during their appearance in magistrate’s court.

The shortage of labour in the flax fields certainly was a factor in the lenient treatment of the five boys. In their defence, there was no indication that they were fleeing the tough work connected with the flax harvest, only conditions prevailing on the Riordan farm.

There were reports of other labour difficulties on acreage managed by the Canada Flax Mills operation in Drayton. The Arthur mill enjoyed much better relations with its workers than did the Drayton operation. With a shortage of labour, it was a wise policy to stand up for their workers, and to retain them as they became more productive and gained experience.

The three young men of the original eight who did not sign up with the Arthur mill seemed to have returned to Toronto, deciding that the flax harvest was not for them.

There was no repeat of the farm labour conditions of 1918. Flax was never again grown in the large acreages of that year, and it was never again necessary to recruit farm workers from downtown Toronto to work on Wellington County farms.


Stephen Thorning