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Biltmore Hats: More Than A Hat Trick

In 1917, Fried-Grills Hats 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. 

However, with low wages, long hours and dangerous working conditions on the line, several workers decided to strike. Thirty-five employees walked out on Tuesday, June 28, 1927

The 1927 Strike

The 35 employees were part of the sizing department. At the heart of their strike was a demand for reduced hours. These employees worked 10 hours a day. They wanted a reduction to 9.5. It was something the company refused to even consider. The workers remained out until July 4th. The result was a compromise.

Biltmore Hats from the 1930s into the 1970s

The 1930s 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. It was affected in its ability to function optimally in a volatile market. The workers were also, once again, discontent. 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 in bad working environment. They complained about the dust, the heat and the unsafe conditions of the machinery. Management did not listen.

The arrival of the Hat Workers Union in 1938 brought about a chance for the workers to express their concerns. They listened to what the union had to say and opted for change. They walked out.

 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. However, during its 13-day duration, things got heated. 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.” However, while denying the existence of the union and stating no one had talked to them, Ramsey and his management team tried to continue to operate the plant. While office workers were allowed to enter, anyone who worked on the plant floor was not.

On July 15, the mood changed considerably through no real fault of the strikers. The strikers, as usual, showed up for their shift and continued to try to stop people from entering the plant. However, it grew ugly when one of the four police officers ordered to ensure employees entered the plant safely, drew his club 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, fewer workers tried to enter than had done so yesterday. Instead, many joined the picket.

Meanwhile, the strikers were receiving support from a commissary set up to provide the strikers with food. The meals came through donations from local firms who supported the strike and strikers.

The next few days provided evidence of community support. This is demonstrated from residents and businesses doing everything from bringing 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 and soon the driver reappeared. He was told to take the goods into the plant. This caused the strikers once more 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.

1.   The support of Guelphites was an integral component.

2.   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.

The War Years

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 textiles and clothing – more specifically, he focused on men and boys’ wear. This was where he remained until the Board was decommissioned in 1946.

The Strike of 1944

This is not to say, the employees were content throughout the 1940s. Biltmore had another strike in 1944. It was brief, lasting only from July 28 to August 7 of that year. Tiller stated “It is simply a matter of several men – perhaps ten – quitting their jobs.”

He failed to state that the men who did walk off their jobs – 14 members of the back shop, did so because of a dispute involving the failure of an employee to pay union dues. This strike did not go well for the employees. Although their union president, James Oldham, negotiated the return to work of the striking employees, the strike was decided in favour of their employer. This was a result of the actions of 1939 when the company accepted the union but only if it could remain an open shop.

From the War to the End

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. His major accomplishment was the growth of Biltmore Hats through the purchase of Lancashire Felt. Franke addressed the shareholders on October 17, 1952, explaining to them the advantages. They included:

o   The ability to control certain economic factors e.g. provision of felt

o   The consolidation of the Biltmore’s two factories and the Lancashire Felt business into one factory – the Lancashire factory on Morris Street

Moreover, the move would allow the company to sell the two Biltmore structures and put it towards the purchase price. According to The Financial Times, this was $170,000. Of this amount, Biltmore would have to pay $13,500 in acceptance and the rest over an eight-month period.

Franke was no longer president in 1957 when the move into Lancashire Felt and its expansion were complete. 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 of Biltmore hats 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.  

During 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 & 1970s

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.

Moving towards the End

In 1972, Biltmore Hats was sold to Guaranty Trust of Toronto. This marked the first-time ownership was no longer held by Guelph interests – they were outsiders. It was true that those who physically operated the company lived in the city, but they were not responsible to or had a stake in the overall welfare of the community. The result was not an improvement for the company. In fact, as the hat market continued to fluctuate, teetering on collapse, the overall profitability of the company was in serious doubt.

Biltmore tries to adapt to the changing market. They opted for cheaper, more sporty hats. They diversified by selling belts and ties. They even sold products under their label that were not made locally. It was all for nought. Sales declined drastically. The company bankruptcy in April 1982.

Stetson Acquires

The future of Biltmore Hats was now in doubt. Their doors were locked, their workers looking for other employment. This was the case for 2 months. No white knight seemed to be interested.

In June 1982, the company’s luck seemed to change for the better. Stetson Hat Company from Missouri, bought Biltmore. However, the use of the name “Biltmore” vanished on the product. Only Stetson Hats came out of the plant. Biltmore Hats was now only a branch of the John B. Stetson Company.

After what must have seemed a long two years, Stetson ceased to operate in Guelph. They, too, had gone bankrupt. Under Chapter 11, the future looked dire as the Canadian arm was spun off and held by the AJD Cap Company.

From Factory to Townhouses

Yet, Biltmore, once again proved those who saw it defunct were wrong. New investors snapped up Stetson’s Guelph assets. This small Guelph group included a familiar name – Kloepfer. Biltmore once again was free to operate as its own entity.

In October 1988, the company once again began to manufacture hats boasting the Biltmore label. At the helm was President Robert William (Bob) Kloepfer (1939-2016). He worked hard to slowly increase profits and viability. Under his steady had, the company focused on sports hats – specifically golfing hats. He also obtained contracts to provide hats for two important Canadian law enforcement bodies:

  1. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police
  2. The Ontario Provincial Police

 By concentrating on these two areas and reducing in half the facilities, Kloepfer helped improve the company’s bottom line. His successor, Walter Gosk, tried to build on this approach. He diversified further into specialized markets. For whatever reason, he failed. The company once more was facing bankruptcy. In 2004, Biltmore Hats entered into receivership.

Once again, although the end seemed inevitable, Biltmore escaped.  An American accountant and hat aficionado, Eric Lynes, bought the company the following year. From Louisville, Kentucky, his dream was for Biltmore to return to its previous strength – the production of high-quality, fashionable and well-constructed hats. He proceeded to work towards this goal. However, in 2010, Dorman Pacific purchased the company. Although Biltmore Hats continue to be made, they are no longer from the Guelph facility. Dorman closed the Guelph plant in 2011. Today, the land it once occupied, is home to so-called factory-style two houses.

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