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Guelph Spring and Axle: From Wagons to Automobiles

When the 1908 Industrial Edition of the Guelph Mercury came out, it remarked that Guelph Spring and Axle was “one of the oldest and most important industries of Guelph.” While its importance may be up for debate, its age is not.

Pepper & Company

The Guelph Spring and Axle Company was started in 1872 by Thomas Pepper (1840-1920) and Company. Located on Wellington Street near Gordon, its focus was producing axles for carriages and wagons. It was not a major concern but, in 1893, the company was busy enough to work overtime. That same year, it was advertising more and claiming its trade extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It did have a market outside of Guelph but how far it extended is questionable. In 1895, the Toronto City Council paid the company $139.40 for repairs to their carriages, etc. for that year.

Working conditions were like those in any foundry. The hours were long; the work was hot, sweaty and dirty. During this initial period, two accidents were recorded. In September 1883, William Keating was struck by a cogwheel and injured. Severely damaged were the third and fourth fingers of his left hand. Two days after the accident, the 3rd finger was determined to be damaged beyond repair. It was removed at the second joint. A few years later, on July 14, 1892, Alex Brigg was working with an iron rod. The piece of iron flew up and struck him under the chin.

Throughout these early years, T. Pepper was the owner of the company. He was not alone, however. He had a changing roster of managers and partners including Joseph Frazee in the 1880s and Alexander Smith in the later 1880s.

Pepper and his Early Partners

Truly little is known about the early owners/managers of the Guelph Axle/T. Pepper and Co. Thomas Pepper was born in Guelph in 1840. He died there in 1920. He lived with his wife, Frances A. Smith (1852-1918), and two children:

  1. Thomas F. (1889 -)
  2. Robert (1890 -)

His residence during this period was in Saint Patrick’s Ward. In 1889, he lived on Toronto Street.

Guelph Axle seems to have been his only business interest. Under his guidance, the company focused on producing – not surprisingly, specific types of axles, including several brands of the time:

  • The Anchor Brand: An American product, it was distributed internationally and found in such disparate countries as Canada and Australia
  • Hurte’s Patent Sand Box Axles: Nothing can be found about this brand. It did require a “sandbox” to produce.
  • The Duplex Axle: this seems to have been locally designed and produced by the company and, according to an 1886 newspaper ad, “to be had at all the principal Hardware Stores in the Dominion.”


Joseph Frazee (-1922)

Joseph Frazee was a manager/painter with Pepper from 1881 until 1886. Why Pepper chose him is unknown. However, Frazee’s wife, Jennie was born a Pepper so, perhaps, there was a family connection.

In 1885, the city was seeking input from various businessmen about the advisability of having “additional railroad facilities. This specifically referred to the CPR. The Mercury quoted Frazee as stating:

 “If the [rail]roads amalgamated, I don’t see we would receive any benefits that we would not get from the Grand Trunk alone.”

Guelph Axle had tried working with the CPR at one point but found they could obtain better rates with the GTR.

Frazee and his wife lived with their daughter, Ida, at 48 Woolwich. Ida died on June 6, 1887, of Diphtheria. Her death might have had something to do with Joseph Frazee’s leaving the company and, perhaps the city. He is no longer listed in the Guelph City Directory after this period.

Alexander Smith

Little is recorded about Alexander Smith including his birth and death. He lived on London Road and worked in partnership with Pepper until 1897. At that point, he took over the company and ran it on his own.

What does differentiate Smith from previous partners and owners was the level of involvement. He seems to have been more active in matters that affected trade. He represented the firm at the 1896 governmental Enquiry into Tariffs. According to the December 12 edition of Hardware and Metal, he

“admitted that the duty on axles was high, but he did not think the carriage- manufacturers had any reasonable cause to grumble as to prices. He did not object to a little reduction in the duty, as his firm was actually selling goods at a point near the American price.”

As the century neared its end, the Guelph Axle Co still concentrated on providing and repairing axles for wagons and the rest of the horse-drawn trade.  The firm remained small and, perhaps, static. Smith sold it in 1899.

The Company Engages the 20th-Century

During the period controlled by Pepper, T. Pepper & Co. aka the Guelph Axle Works waxed and waned in the number of its employees. Estimates of workers ranged from 14 to 30. The output also varied. This was to change under the new owner – a man who could financially afford to make changes.

Alexander W. Alexander (- 1924)                                                                                 In 1899, Alexander W. Alexander took over the operations of the company. Unlike Smith and Pepper, he was not born in Guelph. He immigrated from Thurso, Caithness, Scotland as a youth. In Guelph, he worked as a traveller for the Bell Piano and Organ Company becoming a partner in 1884. Until the company was sold, he retained a large financial interest.

In 1893, he married into money.  Agnes Williamson, daughter of the late JD Williamson became his wife. They had three children:

  1. James Williamson
  2. Helen
  3. Grace

His marriage also explains where he lived. Alexander did not have a home close to the Guelph Axle Works. He lived a distance away in the stately former home of his daughter’s father, James Deare Williamson. This was Idylwild a magnificent three-storey limestone structure with a mansard roof constructed in 1880 in the Second Empire Style. It is located at 27 Barber Ave. just off London Road. Alexander also had a summer home called Kingsett in Muskoka.

The Guelph Spring and Axle Company

In 1899, after purchasing the Guelph Axle Works, Alexander changed the name of the company to the Guelph Spring & Axle Company, continuing in the office of president and general manager up to his death. Under his management, the firm flourished. It immediately began to produce axles and springs for automobiles.

Alexander was not working alone. He had the support of an individual experienced in business – even that related to the carriage trade. This was John B. Mitchell.

John Burr Mitchell (1887 -1946)

Working with Alexander was John B. Mitchell. He had been born in Guelph on July 17, 1887. His parents were John Mitchell (1849-1925) and Mary Elizabeth (Armstrong) Mitchell (1859-). While attending Guelph Collegiate Institute, he worked with his father in a well-known local business – the Guelph Carriage Top Company. Over time, he rose to assume the position of vice president.

However, JB Mitchell was not content to work solely for his father. He bought into the renamed Guelph Spring and Axle. It appears he owned a portion of the firm, but the actual level of his involvement is unknown.

He did remain an active member and eventually, Vice-President of the Guelph Carriage Top Company. He might even have been responsible for or worked with his father to change the name legally to John Mitchell Ltd. in 1922/23.

The Alexander-Mitchell Era

Under Alexander, changes began almost immediately. In 1900, the firm was incorporated. This was followed by the expansion of the structures and the addition of new machinery in 1903 and 1907. However, a name change marked the beginning of a major shift for the company. In 1904, Guelph Axle became Guelph Spring and Axle. Its products now included springs and axles for automobiles.

One vehicle sporting components manufactured by the Guelph Spring and Axle company was the Canadian Crow Motor Co. Ltd., Mount Brydges, Ont. This automobile venture was a short-lived one. Crow’s started production in 1915 and folded in 1918 after producing approximately 100 four-door touring cars and Cloverleaf Roadsters.

This trend towards focusing on the automotive industry was to continue as the company grew. In 1922, it made springs for “different automobile companies” at an outlay of ca. $150,000. Its market expanded and the Guelph Spring and Axle Company became regarded as an important manufacturer in Guelph. Alexander embraced the changes and, not being above a bit of nepotism, hired his son, James William Alexander as assistant manager.

In 1925, the Company was elected to the membership of the Automotive Equipment Association at a conference held in Hot Springs, Arkansas on April 6 and 7. Later that same year, Motor Age reported that the company’s employees were working full-time as the number of orders for automobile springs was coming in, boosting production.

The work did not come without costs to the employees. Flatteners, hammers, axles and axle grinders resulted in serious wounds. The injuries included:

    • 1906 – Alex Brigg: His arm was cut from steel flying off a flattener
    • 1908 – Harry Leader” His shirt sleeve caught in axle causing a deep flesh wound
    • 1908 – William Leader: A hammer struck and “badly nipped” two fingers on his right hand

There are no accidents recorded after this incident. Perhaps it had to do with the new owner.

John Mitchell Sr., president of John Mitchell Ltd. (Guelph Carriage Top Company) died in 1925, at age 77, leaving J. B. Mitchell as a prominent figure in two of Guelph’s industrial concerns. This probably precipitated the next move JB Mitchell was to take.

John Burr Mitchell Takes Over

In 1926, Mitchell took over the company and its presidency. Guelph Spring and Axle was incorporated in October of that year “to manufacture and deal in iron and steel products.” Mitchell continued the push to increase the company’s market presence. The company attended and had a booth at the June 1926 Automotive Equipment Association (ARA) convention held in Montreal. It was the only Guelph company present.

Over the next several years, Mitchell made sure his company attended and contributed to automotive associations and dealerships. In 1927, he spoke at the April convention of the Automotive Equipment Dealers. The following year, he sat at the head table at the annual meeting of the Quebec Automotive Dealers Association with other well-known industrialists, including J. Sully of Sully Brass Foundry. Two years later, on January 30, 1930, Guelph Spring and Axle was once again back in Montreal. This time, they were attending the Garage Equipment Show in Montreal being held in the Queen’s Hotel.

The efforts were paying off. The advertisements in Motor Magazine and Canadian Machinery were being noticed. By 1932, The Guelph Spring and Axle Company was selling worldwide. The following agents represented them:

      • C. Smith Johannesburg, SA
      • Sydney Airens Sydney Australia
      • S. Morris London England
      • RB turner Glasgow Scotland

Through it all, Mitchell remained committed to his company and his community. He was to retire from the presidency in 1934. He stepped back and let his brother take over the helm while he became the Director of the company. JB Mitchell later stepped down completely to become the County Registrar of Deeds. He was still holding this position when he died on April 13, 1946.

What did not change during a major part of the period of the two Mitchells were two people. One held the position of secretary-treasurer for the company; another was foreman. The former was Miss Ann I. Clark. She was with the company from at least 1930 until 1953 when Mrs. Nora F. Sutherland replaced her. The latter was Joseph Kelso (1876-). He was the foreman at the shop from 1905 until his retirement on December 7, 1949.

Douglas Mitchell as President

This was a period of growth. On May 10, 1943, J. D. Oakes won the contract to build a 48×98 foot addition to the existing Guelph Spring and Axle premises. The cost was to be $15,000. The architect was BA James of Kitchener. It is not known whether workers were employed in this structure on July 25, 1945, when the heat was so intense, the sprinkler head on the automatic fire system melted causing the fire alarm to go off.

During this period, Guelph Spring and Axle was performing to its strength. The brand names included “Guelph” and “Monarch.” However, by 1949, the company only had 54 employees.

This is perhaps one reason why Douglas Mitchell made a move in a different direction – a slow shift away from the company’s original products. He became involved in Dexter Lock Canada Ltd. He became its president. The company, an American subsidiary, was in the same premises as Guelph Spring and Axle by 1951. Edward G. Drewery was the treasurer of Dexter and vice president of Guelph Spring and Axle.

The companies continued to work together, but, for Guelph Spring and Axle, the end was nearing. Like Guelph Carriage Top in 1923, it had outrun its extended lifespan. By 1959, no mention is made of the company.

Meanwhile, Dexter Lock had moved out of 24 Wellington. It chose Galt as its new home in 1957. It was later relocated to Kitchener0

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