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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

James Gow’s lime quarry a major industry in 1900s

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.

Several times over the past 15 years I have had discussions with my friend Jim Gow about the lime kiln operated by his grandfather, also named James Gow, in Fergus.

Invariably, he urges me to put together a history of the lime business in Wellington County. I always beg off because there is so little useful information about the industry available, particularly in the 19th century.

We know the sites of many old kilns, and the names of the operators are found in directories, but there is seldom a hint about the size and scale of their operations, the period of operation, the markets for the products and the technology employed.

The situation for the 20th century is somewhat better for the three major lime producers after 1900: Gow’s quarry in Fergus, the Gypsum, Lime and Alabastine Co. in Elora, and the largest and longest surviving of them all, Dolime in Guelph, (which ceased operation in June 2001).

Early residents needed lime for the making of mortar. The beginnings of the industry in Wellington date back to the 1830s. The technology used in the early years was a crude one.

A pit, or an excavation in the side of a hill, was filled with alternating layers of firewood and broken limestone. The wood was set afire, and the heat, which needed to reach 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, chemically altered the limestone.

Dozens of kilns of this type operated in Wellington, most in the southern part of the county where limestone is readily available. Many of these operated only briefly, sometimes for a single construction project. Others were managed by masonry contractors.

Limestone is composed largely of calcium carbonate. The reaction produced by the heat releases water from the stone, and the result is calcium monoxide. In its pure form, lime does not make good mortar. Most limestone contains other compounds, particularly magnesium, iron oxides, clay and silica. It is these that give mortar its working and cementing properties.

By the 1870s, the technology had evolved to the stage where lime manufacturers had permanent kilns, 20 feet or so in height, and invariably built of limestone and lined with firebrick. Fuel and limestone were charged into the top, and the draft could be controlled to produce ideal temperatures within. The lime was drawn out the bottom of the kiln.

None of these operators conducted chemical analyses of their products, or of the raw material. Producing quality lime was therefore as much of an art as a science. Contractors often developed a preference for lime from a particular kiln or maker.

James Gow, of Fergus, was in the business for about 45 years, and he witnessed the evolution of the lime industry locally. His big Fergus quarry was the last step in a career that began with his first kiln in about 1871. Over the next 25 years he operated several kilns in the Fergus area.

As the lime industry evolved, it required increasing amounts of capital investment and working capital. The lime business, even in the early decades, was never greatly profitable. These characteristics, coupled with a market that could be volatile in price and demand, put continual pressure on Gow and other small operators through the 1880s and 1890s.

In 1892, he was able to tap into some private investment capital. A couple of years later he began negotiations with George D. Fergusson, son of the co-founder of Fergus and who even then still owned a good hunk of the west side of Fergus, for the use of a site on the south side of the Grand River a short distance west of Tower Street.

Whether this was intended to be a sale of the property, a lease or some kind of partnership, is not clear. In any case, George Fergusson died in 1895, and his executors did not sort out all his business affairs for more than a decade.

James Gow, undoubtedly with the consent of the family, proceeded with his new kiln, which he built on the site in 1896. He began production late that year or early in 1897, but did not get title to the land until 1904.

Gow’s timing was good. The economy had entered a boom period, with considerable building activity in the area and elsewhere. His reputation for quality lime had brought him into contact with customers all over southern Ontario. At the turn of the century the majority of his production went by rail to customers across the province.

For its time, this was an up-to-date facility. When in production, crews worked the kiln around the clock. A steam-powered rock crusher broke up the limestone into uniform pieces. Gow found another market for crushed rock, particularly for municipalities doing road work.

Demand outpaced his production capacity in 1901. To supplement his output he leased the old Carter kiln in Elora, just north of the David Street bridge.

Still short of capital, despite brisk business, he asked Fergus council for a loan of $2,500 for a second kiln. They turned him down.

He managed to put up his second kiln in 1905. When it went into production he ceased production at the Elora site.

Rising costs and wages continued to put pressure on Gow. The operation, by now ranking in the dozen largest lime facilities in the province, was still only marginally profitable. The payroll, while seasonal, typically hit the 30 mark in the summer.

One of Gow’s major expenditures was transportation. He had to take his lime to the railway stations in wagons. This meant he had to care for draft horses and employ extra men. Beginning in 1904 he sought ways of securing a direct rail line to the quarry.

Financial pressure began to mount on Gow after 1911. Ultimately he had three mortgages on the quarry and its equipment, but he optimistically pressed on in the hope that increasing demand and efficiencies would pull him out of the financial hole.

It would never happen. The outbreak of war in 1914 soon brought most construction activity to a halt. Creditors were soon hovering like vultures. They forced James Gow into bankruptcy at the end of 1915. He was 73, and this was the end of his business career.

The quarry closed forever after some 18 years of production. The site is now parkland and the location of the Fergus sewage plant.

Next week: A look at Gow’s efforts to secure direct railway access to his quarry.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on June 9, 2000.


Vol 50 Issue 19


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