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Biltmore Hats: A Major Part of Guelph’s Industrial History: Part 1
Bonnie Durtnall
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Biltmore Hats: A Major Part of Guelph’s Industrial History: Part 1

In 1917, Fried Grill Hats arrived in Guelph. Their owners, John Fried and Mr. Grills had previously operated out of Niagara Falls and Toronto. By 1919, the company had settled in premises located at 154 Suffolk Street. Thirty hands were at work producing various types of hats. A year later, they sold the business at the price of $45,000 to be paid over 6 years. The purchasing group consisted of three partners:

1.   Arthur W. Mead

2.   Edward L. Macdonald

3.   Frank Ramsey

All held one third of the company while Ramsey had voting control. It was his idea to change the name of the company to Biltmore Hats. It was intended to conjure up the luxury and elegance of the Biltmore Hotel in NYC. It was, from the beginning, Ramsey’s show. He brought in William Franke as VP/Treasurer in 1922, the same year he bought out his partner’s shares.

By the 1920s, the Company had expanded. They boasted two divisions – one for straw hats at 82 Yarmouth and a regular division on the corner of Yorkshire and Suffolk. From the original 30 employees, the number had grown to more than 165 – a figure that was to increase over the coming years. The company continued to grow. By 1927, the workforce grew to over 100 hands. Even in the Great Depression, people still wanted to wear Biltmore Hats. However, with low wages, dangerous working conditions and union recognition on the line, the workers decided to strike. In 1938, workers hit the picket lines. It was to prove to be a memorable strike for both Guelph and the company.

The 1938 Strike

While Biltmore continued to increase its output and produce quality hats, the workers labored under bad working conditions. They complained about the dust, the heat and the unsafe conditions of the machinery. Management did not listen. However, the arrival of the Hat Workers Union in 1938 brought about a chance for the workers to express their concerns and opt for change.

 On July 14, 1938, 250 workers left their job. The causes were:

1.   Wages

2.   Hours

3.   Reinstatement of fired workers

4.   Union representation

5.   Working conditions

The company refused to talk with the chosen union representatives. In fact, they chose to ignore the existence of the union.

The strike began as a peaceful protest. During its 13-day duration, things got heated. Yet, the strike also demonstrated how a community could help strikers by standing behind them and even taking action. The incident that reveals this occurred on July 15.

At the end of their shift on July 13, close to 300 workers left not to return. They cited “intolerable conditions.” At a rally held in the Guelph Trades and Labour Hall, the employees received a pledge of support from the local Labour Council’s president, CE Fulton. Miss Caroline Wolfe, Toronto, VP of this International Union also assured all those who attended of the union’s support. When on the next morning, close to 200 workers (of which 30 were females) hit the picket lines, Wolfe was among them.

Meanwhile the company said no one had made any representation to the company and they were “open for business as usual.” In fact, office workers were allowed to enter. However, anyone who worked on the plant floor was not.

On July 15, the mood changed considerably through no real fault of the strikers. They continued to try to stop people from entering the plant. A “brief melee” occurred in which at least one of the four police officer ordered to ensure employees entered the plant safely, drew his club. s against the peaceful picketers. This started a melee. It was brief with nobody hurt. However, the strikers were warned not to interfere with anyone entering the plant.

They obliged, but, according to the Mercury, less workers tried to enter and several that had done so yesterday, joined the picket instead. Meanwhile, the strikes were receiving support from a commissary set up to provide the strikes with food. The meals came through donations from local firms who supported the strike and strikers.

The next few days also provided evidence of community support. From providing food for workers to cheering them on as they paraded from the plant to hold their annual picnic on Saturday, July 16. However, things once again heated up when full picketing resumed.

On July 19, workers were once again back on the line. This time they stopped a truck that was intending to deliver some unfinished hats to the plant. While the driver got out and went to a phone to receive instructions on what to do, several picketers pushed the truck up Suffolk St. The on-duty police took out their billy clubs and a brief skirmish took place.

The picketers then withdrew but then the driver reappeared and was told to take the goods into the plant. This caused the strikers to take action. One officer was pushed to the ground and the other knocked around. Meanwhile, several picketers, joined by people who lived nearby, opened the back of the truck and threw the hats out, scattering them down the street. Only the arrival of law reinforcements quelled the fighting and got the truck and its remaining cargo inside.

No further violence occurred during this 1938 strike. Support continued to grow, including financial aid from ex-servicemen organizations. However, the company remained truculent. According to the Globe and Mail “reluctance of the company representatives to negotiate with the union in any way is understood to have left the situation still deadlocked.”

In the end, Biltmore Hats’ management recognized Hat Workers’ Union, Local 182. Although, the shop was to remain open, workers now had a means of ensuring management heard their complaints. A committee was agreed upon. In case of further disagreements arising, a board of arbitration – consisting of one employee, one executive and one member of the Ontario Labour Board was to address the situation.

Several matters of importance are to be noted about this strike. The support of Guelphites was an integral component. The low level of violence should not be ignored. However, what should be remarked upon is the presence of women. Women not only formed the basis for the traditional Women’s Auxiliary, but also sat on the strike committee. They were as much a part of the strike as the men and, for once, were being recognized as playing an important role in this event.

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