When people in Guelph talk about the “Pickle Factory,” they are referring to the Matthews-Wells factory – once located at Victoria and York. It opened in 1938 and closed in 1968. This was where many young men and women had their first job – often as summer employment.
Guelph’s First Pickle Factory
However, Matthews-Wells was not Guelph’s first “pickle factory. Over two decades before, Guelph managed to attract a large American firm. It was Libby, McNeill and Libby founded in Chicago by Archibald McNeill, Arthur Libby and his brother Charles in 1868. Their success story began with a single product – canned, corn beef.
By 1904, the company had expanded its product line to include various other canned commodities. As a result, Libby’s began to grow, building factories and canneries across the American West, including a large cannery in San Francisco. The expansion in Canada was also to be extensive. To accomplish this, in 1914/1915, company officials went to visit several communities in Southern Ontario, to find a place suitable for the Canadian head office.
The scouts for this project included two Americans – Walter Page (whose specialty seems to have been in advertising) and Philip Larmon – general superintendent of the company but better known for his architectural work e. g. the Libby, McNeill and Libby Building on Western Avenue in Blue Island, Illinois. An article in the Guelph Mercury on May 11, 1914, noted they were not as of yet committing themselves to one specific site or city. However, later that year, the Labour Gazette made this official announcement:
“A large pickling factory will establish a branch in Guelph, the Libby, McNeill & Libby Company having leased the property lately occupied by the Rowen, Ogg Company for that purpose.” This was located in a small complex of industrial structures at the corner of Suffolk and Yorkshire. The Libby Pickle Factory was at 155 Suffolk.
The company was to hire around 40 local people. They were to produce one of the growing lines of the company. This was “Mixed Pickles.” The company had begun to produce this and other condiments in around 1907. Other products might have been made here, but it was referred to s “The Pickle Factory” for a good reason.
For the first couple of years, the company seemed satisfied with its choice. It placed ads in national magazines such as Table Talk and Good Housekeeping. On September 5, 1916, it exhibited its products made in Guelph at the Ottawa Exhibition. For that year, Henry L. Anderson was a supervisor in the factory working with several employees – the majority of them women, to produce pickled/canned goods. Alex Campbell was an engineer while Gladys Marriott, Hazel Hignell, Florence Hall, Emily Fife, Edward F. Beyer, Charles Hammond and Leo Driscoll were employed during the period 1916/1917.
In 1917, Libby changed its mind about making Guelph its Canadian headquarters. No reason was ever printed for its choosing to abandon the facilities. By the end of 1917, it was operating out of a new plant on Richardson Street in Chatham, Ontario. While the Guelph factory was small, the one in Chatham grew to be an extensive operation. It employed as many as 300. Libby’s was to actually remain a competitor in the food products industry in Canada and the United States into the 20th century. It did not close in Chatham until 1985. In the United States, the company was sold piecemeal to various companies, including Nestles (1970) and Seneca Foods (1982).