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Chemical Companies: Spills And Takeovers But No Thrills

Guelph had become known for its piano and sewing machine companies, foundries, woollen mills and hardware manufacturers during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Its textiles and clothing companies also made their presence felt. However, Guelph also entered into the less commonly touted chemical industry beginning with E.C. McFarland. This small company, of which little is known, was located at 96 Quebec Street.

This was the only chemical company located in the downtown core. Fielding Chemical chose to establish its business somewhat outside – on Perth and Norwich, while Hart Chemicals moved into premises on Victoria Road.

The Fielding Chemical Company

In the early 1900s, the Fielding Chemical company arrived in Guelph. Recently incorporated, the company chose Guelph as its headquarters. The provisional directors were:

  • William J Fielding
  •  Edward Fielding
  • Norman Allan
  •  Duncan A. McPherson
  • George C. Campbell

The company moved into the former premises of the Guelph Linseed Company which, in turn had once housed the Wellington (Inglis and Hunter) Foundry. The city provided Fielding Chemical with a grant of $1,000 to renovate the old factory for their purposes.

The stay, unfortunately, was of short duration. Although active in 1905 with 25 employees, it was in the hand of creditors in February 1907. Livingston of Baden was in charge of the liquidation process that saw, ironically, 25 creditors seeking redress.

Hart Chemicals (Products)

Hart Chemicals was an American firm with a branch plant in Guelph. In 1941, it moved into the old Dominion Linen plant on Victoria Road – right beside the river. They realized the presence of a siding for the Guelph Junction Railway would facilitate receiving ingredients for and shipping of their products. Hart set about establishing its presence in the city. One means they accomplished this was through participating in community events. Their float, part of the Labour Day Parade in 1946, appeared on the front page of the Guelph Mercury on Tuesday, September 3.

Hart Products of Canada originated in Jersey City, NJ in around 1940. Its Guelph plant began to produce specialized products with the main market originally being the textile industry. In January 1951, the Guelph Mercury wrote that the “Hart organization is one which is prominently identified with the progress of Guelph…Hart Products Company is known across Canada as being identified with the nation’s top-flight chemical engineering organization.At the top of  the “staff and management” was Emmanuel (Mannie) I. Birnbaum – President of Hart Chemical company. After retirement, he became Chairman of the University of Guelph’s Board of Governors where he had served on three different committees. Birnbaum had been a member of this Board since it was first founded in 1964. During his lifetime, he was a member of good standing in several groups including:

    • Ontario Welfare Council – past president
    • Children’s Aid Society of Guelph and Wellington County – past president
    • Guelph Rotary Club – past president
    • Guelph Recreation Commission – past chairman
    • Guelph Welfare Council- past chairman
    • Guelph Community Chest – director
    • Guelph Chamber of Commerce – director

In 1951 Birnbaum was named Guelph’s Citizen of the Year.

Other notable employees at Hart’s included 

    • Harry Zimmerman – Chief Chemist at Hart Chemical (1967)
    • John Helwig
    • Cecil P. Braye
    • Ronnall B. Burrows – IBM operator for Federal Wire (1967)
    • John Gilbert
    •  James (Jim) Thring – An Engineer at Hart Chemical (1967)
    • Lewis J. McKeon – still there in 1967
    •   Gordon E. Male – The Shipping Foreman for Hart Chemical Ltd (1967)
    • John Bulge
    • Sam Laughrin
    • Louis P. Maschio – later a salesman for Williams-Hamilton Ltd. (1967)
    • Roy Smith
    • E. Barber
    •  N. Laughrin
    • I. Ritchie

Hart Chemicals was a growing concern. Although starting small, by 1962, it had 120 employees. They expected to increase this by 60 people with the construction of a new hydrotrope plant that same year. The company also undertook a $3,000,000 expansion programme in June 1966. This was all under the guidance of the company’s president Mannie Birnbaum. He remained at the helm from the company’s inception until around 1968 when he became a consultant to the chemicals’ coordinator of Unilever – the company that had taken over during Birnbaum’s later years.

Changes

In 1960, the Lever Brothers purchased Hart Chemicals. The name, however, remained the same. In the 1970s, the property was being shared with another chemical company – Witco Chemicals. Founded in America in 1920 as a chemical distributor, the company made its move into Canada in the 1960s. Little to nothing about the company’s sojourn in Guelph is currently available.

A change in ownership took place once again in 1992. Texaco Chemical purchased the company from National Starch and Chemical– owned by Unilever. At this point, Hart Chemical Company, Guelph, was manufacturing specialty surfactants. Their market included such industries as

    • Detergent
    • Energy
    • Mining
    • Personal care
    • Textiles

The handling, production and shipping of chemicals and chemically-based products, together with the location of Hart Chemicals, created a situation that could have been highly toxic to the community.

Spills

Chemical companies come with a risk. When situated by a river, the issues double. The spilling of chemicals into the river has been a problem with the companies that have occupied this building and this site. Dominion Linen and Guelph Flax were two previous occupants. They were said to have dumped toxins into the river.

While nothing is remarked about any material entering the water during the early years of Hart Chemicals, a “Biological Survey of the Grand River and its Tributaries”  released in 1960 named Hart Chemicals as one of the companies that released chemicals into the river rather than direct it to the Guelph Sewage Treatment Plant. The paucity of data is probably not due to the company’s not reporting such incidences but rather the lack of intense scrutiny. This is at least valid for the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Company and government records do disclose such incidents occurring during the 1980s.

The earliest noted incident took place in 1982. Propylene oxide made its way from the plant into the river. In 1983, it was propylene glycol that escaped the factory.

Typical of chemical and related companies of the time, Hart’s put into place a protocol which included warning the nearby residents what to do when such an event occurred. Pamphlets were sent out and a few informative meetings were held for those living in the immediate area.

Hart Chemical also began a campaign to indicate they were pro-Guelph or at least a supporter of research at the University of Guelph. The company helped support chemical research by students and faculty. It also contributed to several research grants including “Grant-in-Aid for Research .” Current and former Presidents of Hart Chemical were responsible for ensuring several scholarships were funded.  Charles S. Humphrey, former president of Hart Chemicals and a longtime friend of the University was one such contributor in 1994 and 1995. Presidents and other personnel also took part in symposiums and seminars. In 1989, Graham Knowles, president of Hart Chemicals Ltd. – although ownership had changed – was a speaker at a Sustainability Seminar Series. 

After Hart

Hart Chemicals no longer operates on this site. Huntsman Corporation (Huntsman PetroChemical Company of Houston, Texas) acquired the plant in 1986. It was managed by Ralph Shapiro and Rae Walton (operations manager) in 2001 who were involved in improving the reputation of the chemical industry in Guelph.

In 2000, the company won an award from the Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO) for waste reduction. They showed further environmentally progressive tendencies when, in 2003, they reduced the potential risk to the environment by removing several chemical substances from their production.

Two years later, Huntsman closed the Guelph plant. The Corporation felt the size of the Guelph facility no longer made it economically viable. Although the railway branches made it appealing, trains were regularly backed-up with as many as 11 sitting on the tracks waiting to load or unload their contents. 

PDI took over in 2006 and has remained there into 2024. 

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