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March 19, 2004
Faded writing in the merchant’s account book told the story . . “January 1923. To do business with The Firm always agree with their opinions, always stay on the good side of the Mrs’s, never discuss the vices, attend church.”
The firm in question was Beatty Bros. Ltd, the largest Canadian company in the manufactory of reaping machines, barn equipment, washing machines, churns, pumps, hay tools, ladders and other wooden ware. As a matter of fact, Beatty Bros. Ltd, by 1925, was the largest producer, and exporter of barn and stable equipment in the British Empire.
“They came from the East,” as some of their employees were known to intone, but instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they brought knowledge of machining and farming. George (1846) and Matthew (1838) were born to hard working Irish immigrants in Albion Township, Peel County, Ontario. George worked as a machinist for a number of years before setting up his own business. Matthew was a farmer. When in 1874, the pair arrived in the predominantly Scottish community of Fergus, they rented the Temperance Hall, 410 St. Andrew Street W., fitting place as both men were against the “evils” of drink, dancing and flirtatious behaviour. George remarked later that it was “foolish, they were not taken seriously during the first several years of their occupancy”.
their reputation for excellent workmanship grew, so did their employee base.
George, the inventor, machinist and pattern maker was prudent about hiring
intelligent, inventive, hard working men to assist with development of his
ideas. Matthew took charge of sales. By 1879 the firm built The Foundry, now
the three storey section of Fergus Market which employed thirty men who worked
on “grey castings”.
The Beatty brothers wed sisters. George married Martha Rutherford of Albion Township in June 1876. Matthew married Katherine in March 1873. George subsequently fathered three children - Ethel, William George and Milton J. Matthew fathered four - John R., Mabel, Janet and Edith.
By 1901 W. George and Milton J, sons of George Sr. had joined the firm and Beatty Bros. Ltd entered a new era, expanding its product line and world market share which prompted further additions at the Queen Street site. By 1911 a new factory was built on Hill Street West. Further additions were made to the Hill Street plant in 1917, 1920 and 1925. The new factory was so large that once around the outside wall constituted a one half mile walk. A stroll from end to end, and return, in the factory amount to one third of a mile. The factory had a 7,000 head sprinkler system fed from a tank with a capacity of 125,000 gallons, the water pumped out of aquifers by a deep well turbine at the rate of 125 gallons per minute. Can you imagine what that would do to a water table?
As the plant expanded so did the Beatty influence over the village. If one wished a job, strict adherence to certain social rules was required. These included no drinking and as little frivolous social activity as possible. Dancing was definitely frowned upon. To achieve “upward mobility” in the firm one also attended the church of “Beatty” choice, the Methodist Church, and after union, Melville United Church.
As mentioned, George was an inventor. His son, W.G. followed in his footsteps. W.G. was said to have more patents registered than any other Canadian. He had help in the guise of Teddy Ecclestone, an excellent blacksmith, along with George and Bob Maude, inventors in their own right before becoming Beatty employees. W.G.’s patents were held in his name. Because Ecclestone and the Maudes were Beatty employees the old question of who should really hold the patent - the employee, the employer or the company - surfaced regularly. One rumour persists that across the files of these three people was written “NEVER FIRE”.
As their influence tightened, employees and village fathers danced “The Beatty Two Step” as it was locally known. One old-timer described it as the “Don’t open your mouth & Keep Sidestepping Reel”. The Beatty brothers did more to ruin the streetscape of Fergus than any other corporation during the twentieth century. Henchmen did the dirty work, buying up properties that served liquor or housed “ladies of the night”, who were driven out of town. Some architecturally significant buildings were demolished because they were “festering drinking holes”. Store hours were dictated by religious beliefs. The library came under the gun to remove all “unsavory” books. Village fathers turned a blind eye when the plant began polluting the water table. Although the Acid Pond between St. Patrick and Hill Street posed a health risk (still does), the firm was never told to clean it up. Instead they had cheap homes built near the site to house returning World War One veterans.
A fatherly employer, Beatty Bros Ltd held two events per year for their employees, the popular Beatty Picnic in June and a Christmas party in December. Employees relished celebrations where they could get a bit back from a firm that was notorious for paying low wages. The town did benefit in 1930 when a swimming pool was opened on the corner of St. David and Queen Streets, and run by The Firm.
Secretarial staff remember the younger Beatty brothers very well. G.E. seemed remote, even cool toward general office staff. M.J., who was in charge of sales, liked to mingle.
“M.J. either sit beside me or stood at my shoulder,” an octogenarian said. “He dictated quickly. He talked. I typed. If he said a word I didn’t know how to spell I’d ask him. My typewriter used to dance on the desk. Mistakes were not tolerated. I was afraid to ask for a washroom break once he got started. And he always said thanks. W.G. never said thanks.”
There is an old saying - “First generation builds a business, second maintains it and the third destroys it.”
The third generation of the Beatty family never really got to run The Firm. The family’s hold on Fergus and its employees held until the Second World War. When men went off to war, young women from across Canada worked on the production lines. These were a new breed of woman, foreign to strict social guidelines. They smoked, drank and danced. Taboos were broken, a wedge was firmly driven into the vice-grip hold of a morally uprighteous family. By the end of the war, Beatty Bros. Ltd. and Fergus would never be the same.
Office and Factory Unions took root at Beatty Bros. Ltd, causing “the old man to turn in his grave” as one organizer put it. Cars were cheap. A more mobile society meant fewer employees willing to bow to the dictates of The Firm when they could find employment elsewhere. Townspeople eventually voted to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages.
In 1960 an eighty-six year old era ended when Beatty Bros. Ltd bought out General Steel Wares. By a twist of fate, The Firm became GSW Ltd - or as it is known among the old wags - “George Still Whirls, Ltd”.
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