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Biltmore Hats: Part II
Bonnie Durtnall
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Biltmore Hats: Part II

Biltmore Hats from the 1930s into the 1970s

The 1930s & 1940s

The 1930s and 1940s saw both changes and challenges. Many arose from the ongoing perception of hats. This was something Biltmore Hats had little to no control over. What they should have managed was the running of the company. While the death of Ramsey in a boating accident in

Many were to do with how the public viewed hats. However, the running of the company also affected its ability to function optimally in a volatile market. In 1940, the death of long-time president Ramsey in a boating accident had serious consequences for the company. His replacement, John Fraser, was, at best, an absentee manager. He saw his role as protecting the Ramsey family interests and, therefore, tended to ignore the needs of the company Ramsey had built.

Fortunately for Biltmore Hats, although Fraser continued to be president during the 1940s, the actual operating of the company fell to someone who knew what he was doing. This was Franke, who had been with the company almost since its formation.  William J. Tiller became VP and General Manager. He also managed to keep the company on the right profit-making track. However, during WWII, he had another job which kept him away constantly from the business. This was as deputy administrator of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board. He was in charge of the men and boys’ wear division. This was where he remained until the Board was decommissioned in 1946.

Post-War Production

Post-War times helped to improve business. Hats remained popular and sold well. Biltmore Hats were still perceived as being a glamorous item to own. The only glitch in the operation was the death of Tiller in 1950. However, the company saw fit to appoint the man who had been running the company all along to the presidency. It was a position Franke was to hold for the next six years.

During this time, Franke helped to make it one of the company’s best decades on record. He:

·        Purchased the Lancashire Felt Company (1950). This included their premises on Morris Street

·        Expanded the existing Lancashire Felt facility

·        Moved Biltmore into it

The latter two events took place in 1957. By this time, Franke was no longer president. He had conceded this role to Norman MacMillan in 1956. As Chairman and General Manager, Franke put his support behind McMillan who had first joined the company in 1926 and worked his way from purchasing agent to GM and Director in 1950. As for McMillan, he applied his talent and experience to make certain Biltmore became a dominant player in the Canadian hat making industry.

Under the two men, the production at Biltmore rose substantially. The average number of hats produced daily in the plant numbered around 2,400. These products were labour-intensive. They were also the result of approximately 350 skilled employees.  

In the 1950s, Biltmore became increasingly popular in the community. They helped to cement brand-recognition by becoming sponsors of a Junior A Hockey team. This was the now renowned - Biltmore Mad Hatters. Although they had actually gotten behind the team in 1947, it had not achieved much success until the 1950s. The pinnacle was, of course, winning the Memorial Cup in 1952. It was during this period that Biltmore created a tradition that has been the source of much debate. If a player scored three times during a game, the company awarded him a hat. This has since become known as a “Hat Trick.”

The 1960s 

While technological advances were altering the industry and improving production rates, the popularity of hats was also undergoing a sea-change. People were no longer wearing hats of the type Biltmore was producing. Their beaver and other felt hats were no longer popular. To try to regain a market, Biltmore introduced a new line. This one was for the active individual. This was the Rain Away Hat. Another type the company produced with some success was a western-style felt hat. They also decided to produce caps.

Fabric choice was also changing. Since beaver felt hats were no longer popular, Biltmore chose to work with fabric as well as straw.

The change in public taste did not, however, affect Biltmore’s expansion. They chose to make strategic acquisitions. One of these was Buckley-Brookes of Montreal. They were, however, competing against another well-known company. The Canadian branch of Stetson was amalgamating its assets by acquiring several small Canadian hat makers.

The Strike of 1968

The stresses of the 1960s also were reflected in a second strike at Biltmore. At noon on February 16,1968, Biltmore workers walked out on their jobs. They did not know it at the time, but they would remain out until April 26 when the union and the company finally struck a deal. At issue were two things:

1.   Wages

2.   Holidays

The union had a membership of at least 185. They were negotiating another three-year contract. Their last one had expired in June 1967. After the walk-out, the first action of workers was to hold a mass demonstration with plans for more to keep up awareness of the strike, what was at stake and the need for negotiations to take place. William Flaherty, local president, represented the union helped out by James Harvey (treasurer)Jack Hack, Marion Keating (recording-secretary) and Pearl Robinson.

Although the strike was a relatively peaceful one, violence did erupt. Picketers and non-strikers were both arrested and appeared in court against Magistrate H. R Hewett on the morning of April 10, 1968. The court was overflowing with strikers intent on hearing the outcome. The strikers’ attorney, Carl Hamilton obtained an adjournment.  

The strike went on. At the end, however, the union achieved its major goals. Employees won a new three-year contract with an increase in wages. They also got one more statutory holiday off a year – Boxing Day. This now meant workers had a total of 9 statutory holidays annually off. Out for 74 days, the union remarked that this had been the longest recorded strike in the history of the Hatters’ Union in Canada.

Previous Article Biltmore Hats: A Major Part of Guelph’s Industrial History: Part 1
Next Article Biltmore Hats: Part III
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