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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Oatmeal brings good times to Monkland Mills

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 second part of a history of James Wilson’s Monkland Mills.)

James and Richard Wilson, with the help of the local community, quickly rebuilt Monkland Mills after a devastating fire destroyed much of the operation in 1886.

Monkland Mills did well as one of the few oatmeal mills in the country. Employment stabilized at 18 men, working two shifts. James Wilson was able to devote more attention to the business after he leased his adjoining woolen mill to Robert Glen, who had been his office manager for 12 years.

The rebuilt mill had been in operation barely two years when disaster struck again.

On Jan. 18, 1889 a fire started on the top floor of the mill, probably from an overheated journal on a drive shaft. This fire was less intense than that of 1886, allowing much of the stock and other items to be removed from the lower floors. Nevertheless, the entire building was destroyed.

The reaction of the community was much in contrast with that of 1886. There may have been hard feelings because Wilson hired an out-of-town contractor to rebuild the mills in 1886, or perhaps people thought he was grossly careless in allowing a journal to overheat from lack of lubrication. In any case, the community did not rally around Wilson as it had 27 months prior.

Wilson himself could not decide what to do. He carried $6,500 fire insurance on the building, but this was payable to the mortgage holder, the Trust and Loan Co.

Fergus council soon became alarmed and on March 4 discussed whether a tax exemption might prompt Wilson to rebuild. As in 1886, council was opposed to either a grant or loan to a business.

A few days later James Wilson approached council to ask for a $6,000 loan from Fergus. He claimed it was impossible to raise additional money from mortgages, and that he was able to scrape together only three or four thousand from his own and family resources. In return Wilson would give Fergus a second mortgage, and he pledged all the rent income from the woolen mill and the sawmill across the river to pay off the loan.

Council took no action on the request. Three weeks later, Wilson was back with a more modest proposal: a ten-year exemption from taxes, worth in total about $2,200. Fergus council looked at this proposal more favourably, but still warily.

At the June 1889 meeting council passed a seven-year tax exemption, conditional on the mill operating at full capacity for at least six months per year, producing oatmeal and pease meal.

By this time Wilson had found an alternative source of capital, and was rebuilding Monkland Mills. Somewhere he found sufficient money to pay off the mortgage company and purchase the mill from his brother.

Production began in mid-September 1889, eight months after the fire. Sensing an increasing demand for oatmeal, he increased the capacity by a third, with one more run of stones and an additional set of rollers.

Within weeks Monkland Mills was again at the centre of the Fergus economy. James Wilson purchased all the local oats he could find, and brought in additional quantities by rail. The mill worked night and day, turning out 900 barrels of oatmeal per week, and using about 9,000 bushels of oats weekly.

James Wilson’s decision to specialize in oatmeal proved to be very wise. Monkland Mills prospered through the early 1890s, while smaller flour mills struggled with overcapacity, a depressed market and competition from large efficient firms.

While most local mills had difficulty staying afloat, James Wilson was making plans for expansion. Wilson did very well during the 1890s. This would prove to be the longest period of profitability in the history of Monkland Mills.

He added more property to his holdings: first, the old brewery property immediately to the west of the Catholic Church, between St. Patrick and St. George Streets. He probably used this building for storage.

In 1895 Wilson purchased the Broomfield Mills in downtown Fergus (the parking lot immediately across the river from the Fergus Market is now on this site). With this acquisition, Wilson was back in the flour business. His son Matthew managed this branch of the firm. At Monkland Mills James Wilson Jr. took over most of the management duties.

In 1900 Wilson bought John Black’s grain elevator, on St. George Street east of the Beatty Line. The elevator permitted Wilson greater flexibility with his grain purchases. He could now buy grain in large quantities at the most opportune time. The elevator had direct access to a railway siding. Finally, Wilson set up a cattle ranch near Maple Creek in what is now Saskatchewan.

By 1900 Wilson’s business holdings were assessed at $22,500, or about 5% of the total assessment for Fergus. This made him by far the largest taxpayer in town. Then there was the value of a payroll of more than 30, plus the thousands of dollars of local grain purchases from farmers. At the time no business added more to the local economy.

Wilson overcame the small margins characteristic of the milling industry by specializing and producing efficiently in large volume. By 1900 he could see that his local transportation costs had to be lowered. He needed a direct railway connection to Monkland Mills.

Wilson began discussions with the Grand Trunk Railway regarding a siding in 1902, and Fergus council soon became involved.

Grand Trunk engineers proposed a route along St. Patrick Street, which had the advantage of running along the market grounds as well as serving Monkland Mills. The railway estimated construction costs at $10,000.

The Grand Trunk, claiming that future traffic might not justify the siding, asked Fergus to pay the construction costs. By August 1903 a firm proposal was on the table. Fergus would loan the Grand Trunk $9,000 interest-free to help pay for construction. The railways would pay Fergus $2 for each car it handled on the line until the loan was paid. Most of the line would run along the side of St. Patrick St. To raise money for the loan, Fergus proposed issuing $9,000 of debentures, repayable in seven years.

The borrowing bylaw had to be approved by Fergus property owners and the issue became a political hot potato during August of 1903. Opponents argued it would raise taxes, injure private property and create a general nuisance.

The Wilsons made the proposal more attractive to voters by offering to build a siding for public use at the old brewery property and take out $5,000 of fire insurance payable to the town.

Fergus ratepayers approved the loan to the Grand Trunk in September 1903 by a vote of 163-76, and the railway built the line during the summer of 1904. The value of the siding became obvious immediately: traffic on the siding averaged about 140 carloads per month, and Monkland Mills accounted for 40% of the cars.

Meanwhile, there were some changes. James Wilson’s sons - James Jr., Matthew and William - formally took over the firm in 1903. The product line now included some specialty items: pot barley, pearl barley and pease meal.

They added a chopping mill to the complex to serve the growing number of farmers feeding cattle. The Wilson brothers made major additions and renovations to Monkland Mills in 1905 and 1908. But, the good times would not last long.

Next week: The Wilsons’ lose nearly everything in two fires.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Aug. 16 and 30, 1995.


Vol 50 Issue 12


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