Harter Metal Furniture Ltd. came to Guelph in 1955. An American branch factory, it moved into premises at 139 Cardigan Street. It remained here, just north of the Goldie Mills’ site, until the mid 1970s. It then established another plant at 536 Imperial Rd.
The reason for Guelph even being on the American firm’s radar in 1951 is a story worth telling. In 1910, Evan Charles Harter (1887-1941) of Eikhart, Indiana, arrived in Guelph with his wife. He had been hired as an engineer during a construction project contracted by a large Michigan firm. While working here, his wife gave birth to a son. This was Evan Stanton Harter who later became president of Harter Furniture, the company his father was to found in Sturgis, Michigan in around 1939. E.C. Harter was also involved in a company called Kant Kut Tube Products, Corporation
As president of Harter’s, Evan S. suggested expansion into Canada. He surveyed several other communities but settled on Guelph. Harter Metal Furniture then became the representative of Harter Furniture in Canada. The Canadian President and Guelph GM was Guy E. Laughlin, the former manager of the national accounts for the parent company. Laughlin was to hold this position until around 1970. By then, he had become a VP and GM with TR Combs holding the presidency, seconded by another Harter family member, Mrs. Margaret S. Harter.
Between 1975 and 1980, the company operated the two plants. A general manager ran each. In 1978, Gerald Ellis was superintendent of the Cardigan plant while RH Franklin was GM and executive president at Imperial.
By this point, the company had been renamed Harter Furniture Company, dropping the metal from its name to indicate the intent to expand its appeal. They wanted to change their image for metal office furnishings, as fine as the product was, and expand their representation of being “Specialists in Fine Seating.” They wanted to tinker with the products that the founder, had created and patented.
Evan C. Harter began his career with a singular focus. He wanted to create comfortable and adjustable chairs. In 1929, he stated as part of a US patent form the following:
“One of my objects is to provide a chair which shall be of economical construction, strong and rigid, and especially adapted to withstand hard usage.
Another object is to provide such a chair the seat portion of which may be adjusted to the desired height, and other objects as will be manifest from the following description.”
Metal was the major component, but his son, Evan S. Harter was quick to adapt to the times. Although both the American and Canadian branches continued to produce metal office furniture, American patents reveal the move towards lighter metal and the ads from the 1960s indicate softer lines, the inclusion of wood and a generally lighter product.
In 1961, an ad described how the latest Harter chairs represented “a line that is so flexible in styling, price and chair types that it satisfies the tastes and budgets for both general and executive offices.”
This was the Criterion line with its “exclusive cantilever arm.” Other offerings during the 1950s were chairs designed by one of Canada’s better-known designers, Jan Kuypers. In the 1960s, another designer contributed to the success of Harter’s. This was Alex Stuart Design.
The introduction of specific designers and the movement towards a lighter and more flexible furniture line had an impact. It was partially responsible for the name change around 1972 of the Canadian branch of Harter Metal Furniture to Harter Furniture.
By this time, Laughlin was VP together with Mrs. Margaret S. Harter. TR Combs was President while Walter Bowes was manager of office seating. Bowes was to remain with the firm until he retired in 1985. He was plant manager and VP from 1974 to around 1977 or 1978.
Two strikes are listed for this company. Both occurred under the new name “Harter Furniture Company” and after the older management had left or retired. According to HRDC documents, the USWA went out twice. This was on September 06, 1985. It lasted until the 16th of that month. The second strike occurred two years later, running from August 13 until August 20, 1987. In both instances, the issue was wages.
The Canadian company at least had a union. Evan C. Harter fought tooth and nail against any union activity in his shops in the United States. For his actions, he was brought in front of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 1938 by the International Association of Machinists.
The decision given on July 19, 1938, stated, among other things, that the Harter Corporation had been involved in “interference, restraint and coercion” of its employees. They had indulged in discrimination by discharging employees for being a member of a union as well as union-related activity. The NLRB stated that the strike in the American plant had actually been “prolonged by the employer’s unfair labor practice.”
Although the American parent company remains in existence today, having been acquired by among others, JAMI, Izzy and JSJ Corporation, Guelph’s branch has long since closed. The Cardigan plant was the first to close.
From 1986 the Imperial facilities were operated by Reno Zamin. Under his watch and with orders from the American parent company, it closed down in 1988 – never to reopen again.