Townhouses are being built on the land at 249 York Road between Morris and Huron Streets. Beyond the tracks that subdivides the land is a parking lot. This property was once home to the Gilson Manufacturing Co. From 1906 to 1977, the plant produced a variety of items beginning with gas engines and ending up with a full line of washers and freezers. During its long life, it went from being a minor Canadian subsidiary of an American Firm - the Gilson Manufacturing Co. of Port Washington, Wisconsin, launched in 1850 by Theodore Gilson, to being a nationally recognized Canadian owned and operated company.

The American Branch Plant

The Gilson Company arrived in Guelph in late 1906 as a branch company. In 1908, the plant at York Road is described as having a floor space of some 13,700 square feet. It was constructed of brick. Sitting on a parcel of land covering 2.5 acres, it had room to grow. This it was do over the next few decades.

The newly built plant was at first operated by an American. Edward Barelman, transferred from the American plant, held the position of president and general manager when, in 1907, it produced its first “Made in Canada” Gilson gas engines for agricultural equipment. These included pneumatic ensilage cutters, Gilson Silo Fillers and Hylo Silos. To all appearances, they were identical to those made by the parent company in Wisconsin.

In addition, this early plant made chair fixtures (which they produced until 1961). According to its promotional material, it was a “leading manufacturer” in this line. However, it was the gas engines that drove their profit margin upwards.  For these, the Guelph company had both a selling point and slogan - one that stuck. It was “Goes Like Sixty.”

However, during these early years, all was not well with the workforce. The 15 moulders, members of local IMU 212, went out on strike in 1913 from May 19 until August 23. They were part of a protest staged by the moulders working in the foundry departments of two other shops: Raymond’s Sewing Machine Manufactory and Griffin’s. All were looking for a raise of 25 cents a day. This would increase their salary to $3.25. The moulders also expressed concerns over the intention of increasing the amount of advanced money for pieceworkers. Yet, while the disputes at Raymond’s and Griffin’s were resolved with a compromise, that at Gilson’s did not have such an ending. The company closed the foundry forever, putting the men out of work.

Becoming Canadian

In 1916, the ownership changed. Although John Gilson () president of the American firm, was listed as Vice President in 1919). The American Gilson’s was purchased by Harry Bolens (1864-1944). He was not interested in the Canadian company. Instead, it was bought by a group of Canadian investors including Horace Mack.

Horace Mack (1895-1959) was a Guelphite. He had started working for Gilson’s in 1911 at age-fifteen as an office boy. He parlayed hard work and determination into a career at the company, rising to become Manager of the Engine and Silo Feeder Depots by 1919 and president when Edward Barelman died in 1927.   During this period, he had the support of several men including R.K. Dawson (company director in 1919) Ferman and Stanley Koch (Koch was Secretary and Manager of the Tractor and Thresher Depots in 1919) and H. Cooper. Later Dawson was to become plant foreman then VP of the company.

Initially, both the American and Canadian companies produced similar products. They both made stationary gas engines. This was to change in 1917 when the American firm stopped making them. The Guelph plant continued to do so until around 1927.

Around the end of the First World War, Gilson had begun to manufacture farm tractors. They used Foote Brothers’ transmissions and Waukesha engines in their three different sized tractors:

1.   11-20

2.   12-25

3.   15-30

Tractor models included the Gilson Standard Tractor and the “Light Weight Dixie- Ace.” The experiment was short lived. With competition from other companies, it was not a viable product. After only manufacturing around 100, they stopped making them in 1922. Instead, a year earlier, they began to produce warm air furnaces and, in 1925, the first “Snowbird” Washer. In 1929, they added refrigeration units to their production line. It was to help them replace the revenue they had once achieved from making gas engines.

Along the way, Gilson’s created ad campaigns that stayed with the public. Although they only made three cars in the early 1920s, the slogan “Goes Like Sixty” remained a part of their iconography. In 1918, it was written beneath an ad for the “Gilson Standard Tractor.” Their furnaces were advertised with the catchphrase “Gilson Products make many warm friends.” In addition, a popular means of promoting their furnaces was through piggy banks in the shape of a Gilson Furnace.

The 1930s were trying times. Nevertheless, Gilson’s managed to keep operating. Even going so far as to produce the first ever standard production freezer in 1937. When the plant on York Road needed a new roof in 1930, the company chose to employ only local labour to do the repairs. They also borrowed as much money as they could to make sure the plant on York Road stayed open at least a few days a week. This was a company that, under Mack, seemed to care about its employees.

However, the two accidents recorded for Gilson’s also occurred during the 1930s. Until then the company has no known listed ones. On February 17, 1931, Reuben Hatley was killed when the wheel he was working on broke into sections. On July 6, 1939, William Elliott was working on a machine. It crushed his hand resulting in the amputation of 2 fingers.


World War Two

World War II was a time for expansion. During this war, Gilson’s became the go-to for refrigeration units. These were not domestic products. Rather, they were for Canada’s navy. In fact, Gilson refrigeration units were on all naval vessels built in Canada for the war. 

After the War ended, it dived into the production of domestic products – specifically electric washers, dryers, furnaces and refrigeration equipment. It was tied to a growing interest in modernizing the basic appliances in a home. Their ads proclaimed washers of various types including the ever popular Snow Bird line – even for those home that lacked electricity. In fact, Gilson’s became the acknowledged expert in both domestic and commercial refrigeration during the 1950s. It was in the late 1940s that plant square footage grew from 13,000 to 130,000 square feet allowing it to accommodate the escalation in their domestic product production.

Horace Mack and Bird Sanctuaries

Horace Mack was a naturalist. He worked with the Guelph Field Naturalists Club, the Grand River Conservation Authority and the Speed River Flood Control Committee. However, he is best remembered for the creation of the Eden and Niska Game sanctuaries in the 1930s and post WWII.

His company’s extensive grounds were home to various native and exotic wildlife. The well-manicured grounds were maintained by an Englishman, Mr. Copp. He also took care of the various “exotic” wildlife that were either penned on or roamed the grounds. These included a bear, dingo dogs and pheasants. In the 1930s, as times became harder, the company had to take measures to prevent the locals from poaching the wildlife.

On his properties located in Eden Mills and Niska (the latter then a short distance outside of Guelph), he established a place for breeding and rearing various types of wild birds and waterfowl. By 1952, a great percentage of the area surrounding the Niska property had been declared a federal wildlife sanctuary. After his death, the property soon fell into the hands of the Ontario Waterfowl Research Foundation. They purchased it in 1961, turning into a sanctuary. However, the costs of maintaining it were high. In order to defray it, they opened a portion of it to the public in 1961. This became known as the Kortright Waterfowl Park. However, poaching continued to take its toll of the waterfowl and in 2005 it was closed to the public. The birds were transferred to other locations over time. When the Grand River Conservation Authority took it over, they began the process of returning it to its natural form.

Later Years

Although the company had expanded its facilities, finally topping off at 130,000 square feet of floor space, it was sold once again in 1948. This time, the purchaser was the Robert Elder Company. Mack continued to work for the new owners as Chairman of the Board until his death in 1959 while Elder took over as president. It was under this new management that Gilson’s second strike took place. This time, it was over a wage increase recommended by the Conciliation Board previously. The company had not put the recommendations into place. The result was a strike on April 7, 1953. One hundred and ninety-eight household appliance workers walked out and formed a picket line. They stayed out until May 12 when the new agreement was reached. It contained a wage compromise to support both the company’s and the workers’ demands. 

At this point, Elder sold the company to A.L. Geller and several others. For whatever reason, they were not adept at managing it. In 1961, Gilson’s filed a bankruptcy claim for more than $800,000. The end result was the purchase of the majority of company shares by former employees in 1964:

·        A. James Kendrick – President in 1967

·        Cyril M. McDonald – Plant Manager for Gilson’s in 1967

·        Edward (Ted) C. Carroll - who was the service manager for Gilson’s in 1967

·        Russ F. Flanigan – who was treasurer for Gilson’s in 1967

·        James K. Simmons – who was the industrial engineer at Gilson’s in 1967

 They sold the original plant on York Road in 1966 and focused on producing freezers at their other facility.

By this time, the company had added another plant. This one was located at 53 Victoria Road at the junction of Elizabeth Street. Although Gilson’s was never a major employer along the lines of IMICO, it did hold steady over its existence at 100 employees. During a boom during the 1920s, the workforce rose to a fluctuating 250.

Gilson’s tried to shake up their product time in the 1970s. It added the Trashpak to its products line. Whoever, this did not have the impetus they needed and the company was once more up for sale in 1972. This time, the owners were McGraw-Edison of Canada Ltd. By this time, the Victoria plant was the only one in operation. It had reduced its product line to Gilson, Queen, Simplicity and Speed freezers. The number of employees had also decreased. On April 1, 1977, when the plant became a subsidiary and closed for good, only 50 worked in the Victoria plant. 
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On the first Monday in September, Canada celebrates Labour Day. This began when the government designated it as a workers’ holiday in 1894.  In Guelph, the current mode of celebration is a Labour Day Picnic. This has not always been the case since the city’s first Labour Day celebrations took place on September 1, 1902. 

Organization and Co-operation 

The Labour Day parade of 1904 indicates the depth of involvement and the extent of external support that the GTLC was able to elicit from other regional locals. The weather was described as “delightful” and the Guelph “moulders, as always, made a strong showing,” but that year’s favoured group was the Bell Piano and Organ Workers with their very “natty appearance.”

Floats were provided by several companies and music was supplied by various bands. Berlin’s (Kitchener) Local No. 20 of the Amalgamated Woodworker’s International Union marched in the parade, as did 15 men from the Berlin Local Brotherhood of Painter, Paperhangers, and Decorators of North America. Unlike in 1902, women were not found in the procession. According to one account the women did not wish to be displayed in public procession. Even if they had chosen to be part of the event, they would not have been allowed to walk. Women in Guelph, as was the case across Canada, would have been required to ride.

Guelph’s First Labour Day Parade

That bright sunny day, 600 members – including several women, actively took part, while 3,000 citizens were found on the grounds. Labour Day events lasted all day, starting early in the morning with a greasy pole challenge near City Hall. At 9:30 a.m., the unions assembled in Market Square, joined soon by bands, some representing the local factories. The procession wound its way, in a circular fashion, from Market Square as far as Woolwich and back, where the floats were then judged for prizes. In the afternoon, sporting games and events took place in Exhibition Park followed, in the evening, by a band concert.

By all accounts, the event was successful. It reflected the ability of Guelph’s young labour council - the Guelph Trade and Labour Council (GTLC) to galvanize its members and the community into creating a memorable Labour Day celebration. Such an achievement was built on the realization by workers that Labour Day presented them with a chance to demonstrate to the public what they stood for and who they were. 


The Triumvirate

Co-operation among councils and regional unions was key to creating a successful event. Guelph union men reciprocated this support from other councils by attending parades in their cities. The usual partners were

                Berlin                                      Galt                                   Brantford.


In fact, in 1906, three of these communities, Guelph, Galt and Brantford, combined their efforts in the creation of a joint and rotating celebration. Each year, one of the three cities would act as host. The rationale, was that a larger and better demonstration would result, and this would be “more beneficial to labor.” 

As a result, in 1905, Berlin hosted the event, and then the “Big Three” took over. Labour Day was celebrated in

  Guelph in 1906  

                                                               Brantford in 1907         

  Galt in 1908

                      Guelph in 1909

The big addition in 1906 was a “Baby Show.” The attendance of regional union groups for that year was also wider. Members of Galt,  Elmira,  Hespeler and Brantford unions walked in the Trade Procession that wound its way in a circular route from Carden Street and back to the Market Square.

Four years later, the Labour Day Parade was put together in Guelph by the Moulders’ Union. The GTLC did not have the time that year since they were hosting the annual conference of the national Labour Council. This parade, like all the others, was declared a success by all who attended. It was to continue to remain popular and well-attended until World War I changed everything.                                                  

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