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JB Armstrong And Family: From Carriages to Automobiles
Bonnie Durtnall

JB Armstrong And Family: From Carriages to Automobiles

Carriages were the main form of transport for individuals and businesses alike in Guelph during the 1800s. Blacksmiths were responsible for the horses that pulled them. They also made repairs to the carriages, wagons and carts used for carting goods and conveying people in, around and out of Guelph. Among them, the Sallows family remains the most recognized for their work in this trade. They had a large shop at the corner of Gordon.

However, blacksmiths did not make carriages. In Guelph, this trade fell to several individuals. Those who had shops included Charles H. Thain – who is better known for his agricultural equipment and Robert Anderson. However, the most prominent and successful Guelphite in this competitive trade was J. B. Armstrong, son of Robert Armstrong.

Family Ties

Robert Armstrong opened a small shop on MacDonnell Street in 1834. Originally from Scotland, he arrived with his wife, Janet, and ran a successful business until his death in 1845. His wife took over the estate, renting the business to Thomas Anderson, a blacksmith wainwright and wagon maker. Under him, the shop continued to thrive.

John Belmer Armstrong – almost always referred to as JB, worked under Anderson as an apprentice before heading off to Newark, New Jersey to further his training and development. He settled in the Ohio Valley where he started his own business. However, the beginning of the American Civil War made matters difficult so Armstrong decided to return to Guelph.

Upon his arrival, he leased the MacDonnell premises with his brother David from his mother. They called the newly found company JB Armstrong and Brother. A short time later (1868), he purchased the business from her and began to build up Armstrong’s once again. At one point, his brother left and JB continued along alone.

The J.B. Armstrong Co. developed quickly under his management. It won 6 first prizes at the Provincial Fair held in Toronto in 1870. For that period, it was known both as the Guelph Carriage Goods (or Works) and J. B. Armstrong and Company.

A Growing Concern

Two years later, JB partnered with partnered Thomas H. Scarff. In 1876, now incorporated as the JB Armstrong Manufacturing Co., JB made further strides, building the Armstrong Block on MacDonnell Street. His staff grew to 75 in 1886 and, by 1890, the company was established enough to open a branch company in Flint, Michigan. This was the same year Armstrong’s was shipping regularly across Canada and to Australia where they had agents. Their products during this period included:

·        Buggies

·        Carriages and carriage parts

·        Democrats: A single light buggy often used by professionals

·        Hearses

·        Runabouts: A light, open buggy possessing four wheels and used for utilitarian visits or deliveries

·        Sleighs

·        Surreys: A doorless, two seated carriage with four wheels and different tops

·        Wagons – usually light delivery types

The success of the company came as no surprise to those who had bought or even tried the products produced by JB Armstrong’s. They were of high-quality. In fact, JB was always striving to improve his carriages and wagons. During its existence, the company registered at least 44 Canadian patents. He also registered several in both Great Britain and the United States, including one listed in 1893, a year after his death. It was for an “Apparatus for shaping, hardening and tempering steel plates, etc.”

While the various patents were listed under his name, this did not mean they were all of his own devising. Some came through the ingenuity of his employees. Among them was one by a young AR Woodyatt for a steel-processing technique. Woodyatt, was to go on to start his own company with Auld and later launch AR Woodyatt and Company, the precursor of the better-known Taylor-Forbes.

The Factory

The building housing Armstrong’s factory was an impressive one. A description of it for Old Home Week in 1895 – the year following JB’s death, described it accordingly: The works of the firm comprise a splendid building of stone, having 140 feet frontage on Macdonnell street, and running through back to Quebec street.” In 1901, under the management of Richard Torrance, another 2 storeys were added to the central structure. This came to be known as the Armstrong Block.

From these modern facilities, JB Armstrong’s employees produced world-class carriages, including the Eureka Buggy which, in 1885, made its way to China. In 1895, they also sent goods to Yokohama Japan and Irvine Scotland.

Working at JB Armstrong’s

Employees, such as AR Woodyatt, did learn a lot from working with JB. He was smart enough to value their skills. Nevertheless, Armstrong followed the traditional approach of many employers at his time. He arranged for excursions and picnics during the summer and, at Christmas, he rewarded his employees with a turkey. His wages were comparable with others for the time and trade. Like other business of this nature, the work was difficult.

Depending upon in which department you worked, you were exposed to sharp cutting edges or molten metal. This meant the very real potential exposure to accidents. While no fatal accidents occurred at Armstrong’s, some serious ones did. The first recorded accident took place in 1878. Interestingly enough, Woodyatt was the individual who had his hand caught in gearing. The result was minor, on a scale of severity for the 19th century workplace. He escaped with only a torn palm. In 1883, Joseph King was not so lucky. He lost two fingers to machinery.

It was not unusual for many of Guelph’s factories to have at least one accident a year. Armstrong’s did not always. In fact, the manufacturer would go a year or two without any incident occurring. The same could not be said for Bell’s Piano Factory or Raymond’s Sewing Machine Company. Admittedly, the number of employees they had on their payrolls was higher, but conditions in which their employees operated were similar. However, Armstrong’s saw a spate of one or two accidents annually during the early 1900s. This included the loss of a thumb and two fingers by John Higgins on March 29, 1900. Rather than let the company get away with what had happened, Higgins took them to court. Unfortunately, he lost his case.

Yet, in spite of the challenging working conditions, Armstrong’s never had a strike during its history. This cannot be said for many Guelph companies, including Raymond’s, Crowe Iron Works or Bell’s.

Personal Life

JB Armstrong married Margaret Dryden on Oct. 3, 1865. They had two sons, only Robert Thompson (1871-1932) survived infancy. Robert was to marry Maude Lora O'Neil on September 19, 1899. They had three children:

•     Margaret D. Armstrong (1903-1961)

•     Robert Torrence Armstrong (1904- ?)

•     Lawrence Belmar Armstrong (1906-1938)

Like many employers, JB Armstrong believed in giving back to the community. He became a member of city council for the East Ward in 1876. He also took an interest in his church, St. Andrews on Norfolk Street. As a Presbyterian, he was a member of the St. Andrew’s Society. JB sat on the Board of Trade and the Central Exhibition Committee. He was a provincial director for the Guelph Junction Railway Company. In a somewhat questionable move in 1887, as executive Director for the Guelph and Ontario Investment and Savings Society, he loaned this company $60,000.

However, arguably, his major contribution honoured his father, his craft and all the city’s blacksmiths. JB donated to the city of Guelph what is now known as the Blacksmith Fountain. Its inauguration took place on Queen Victoria's birthday in 1885. Although it now resides in Priory Park, it once stood proudly in the middle of St. George’s Square. The arrival of streetcars forced its relocation in 1922.

Death of One Company and the Rise of Another

By the time of JB’s death from possibly a stroke (the cause listed is hemiplegia) in 1892, the company had established agents in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Scotland. He had invested beyond Guelph with the infamous James Walter Lyon (1848-1933) - a speculator and publisher, and Robert Bathgate. Together, they had bought and refurbished a property in Winnipeg – the Old Gas Works, later selling it for a tidy profit of $57,000.

However, upon his death in 1892, things changed. His son, Robert (Bert or Bertie), was still a machinist. This was to put him into a difficult position where his father’s company was concerned. JB held and clearly expressed his belief that the company was to be managed only by someone who was both skilled and stable. In fact, JBs will of 1899 stipulated Bert could only gain control of his own inheritance at age 25 if, and only if, he could demonstrate himself to possess characteristics his father felt were requisite to successfully operating a business. This included frugality, stability and industriousness.  

As a result, Bert was not to become manager of the company. The running of the business fell to JB’s nephew - Robert Lindsay Torrance, already vice president and assistant manager of his Uncle’s company. He was assisted by Mr. W.P. Bayley is secretary/assistant manager.

This did not leave Bert Armstrong many options. With Torrance in charge, RT Armstrong remained, only as long as it took him to rise in the ranks to factory manager in Guelph. This was in 1894. He then made the decision to leave the Guelph plant for the branch located in Flint, MI.

Robert Armstrong Comes Into His Own

Like the Guelph company, Armstrong’s American branch plant also produced axles and springs. One of their customers was Buick. The Armstrong factory delivered springs to the Flint Buick plant on Kearsley Street in the early 1900s. In fact, according to Buickman2’s website, they provided the springs for the company’s very first Flint-made Buick.

Robert Armstrong remained with the company until 1910. At this time, the Western Spring and Axle took it over, making the former Armstrong plant a subsidiary. Later, the plant was again taken over. This time, it was absorbed by Standard Parts (1918).

Upon completing a new, modern plant in Flint for the manufacture of springs, Standard Parts decided to divest themselves of the company. They sold it to Robert Armstrong. In 1920, he renamed it the Armstrong Spring Company.

Originally, Armstrong’s produced springs for carriages. With the arrival of the automobile, it began to manufacture the same product but for automobiles. As president and general manager, Robert Armstrong operated the plant with some success until it was taken over by General Motors (GM)four years later. Robert Armstrong’s capabilities and position were such that, even under the new owners, he retained his position.

Robert T Armstrong died in 1932. His life indicated he had met and even exceeded his father JB Armstrong’s expectations. A question remains. If Bert and not Robert L Torrance had been at the helm of JB Armstrong’s following JB’s demise, would the company have gone on to greater things instead of entering into voluntary receivership on Valentine’s Day in 1913?

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