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Northern Rubber: From Footwear Manufacturer To Condos

Northern Rubber opened shop in a newly constructed five-storey factory on the corner of Metcalfe (Huron) and Alice Streets in April 1920 with 60 employees. Work on the building had started in 1919 as part of a plan by American-born FE Partridge, owner of Guelph’s Partridge Rubber Company, to expand his company into all aspects of rubber production. However, Northern Rubber was to be a separate entity.

The structure to house the factory was reinforced concrete and red brick spandrels. The building sat on the site of the former Birmingham Quarry and near Gilson’s Manufacturing Company. It boasted the latest technology for the time. 

Originally, the property featured a pond – formed out of a portion of the disused quarry. It was the ideal place for picnics, although a few individuals later mentioned some of the fish were bizarre in appearance. The pond was later filled in to accommodate parking but not after a child had drowned in its waters.

 The First Year

Northern Rubber began to produce what was its main product – rubber footwear, at the rate of 2,500 pairs a day in 1920. They were originally sold as Partridge rubbers. An advertisement in the 1920 Shoe and Leather Journal clearly indicates the direct connection to the Partridge Rubber Co.

The company’s products were advertised extensively in what the journal described as “an attractive catalogue for 1920-1921.” They go on to say that the “cover is in quadra color and one and two colors are used to show the various lines carried by the concern. The booklet is 60 pages and put out in coated paper.” The footwear are described as “outing and sporting lines.

These shoes and boots were originally sold locally but as the attention paid to first the 1920 and then the 1923 catalogue indicates, Norther Rubber was intent on becoming a major player in the footwear industry. 

Early Management

At that time, the management consisted of people who were familiar with Guelph industries although several were not actually born and raised here.  These included members of the Kennedy family, locals who had owned the factory site since around 1892. However, they were not the initiators of the project. The person responsible for the existence of Northern Rubber was American-born F. E. Partridge.  In 1920, he was President and Manager of Northern Rubber. He was also president of the F.E. Partridge Rubber Co. and, later, the Live Wire Co. 

Assisting him in 1920 was A.F. Dwyer. F. W. Kramer was appointed factory superintendent. These two men had substantial experience in the rubber business. Kramer had been involved in the Granby Rubber Co., Granby, and then in Canadian Consolidated Rubber Co. St. Jerome Quebec.

During these early years, employment was small. Although Partridge declared the company would be hiring 500 workers, initially this was not to be the case. The numbers fluctuated. Nor were the initial production levels to be as high as originally estimated.

The company did have a distinct advantage. It was in a working-class area – one in which immigrants arrived seeking work. Northern Rubber hired locally. Most of the employees lived nearby in St. Patrick’s Ward. Many were Italian immigrants, such as the Valeriotes and the Tessaros. However, other nationalities found work there including Julius Broeau, Peter Hendry Jr, Reginald Henshaw, Carl R. McDiarmid, Theodore A. Kieswater and Edward O’Brien.

Growing Rapidly

Over the years, the workforce grew, but always fluctuating from between 300 and 750. The average, dating from 1922, was five hundred. This was also the year broker JE Carter was authorized to sell 8% preferred stock of the company at $100 per share. In his February 21st ad, Carter mentions the company was constructing a large warehouse “and more workmen will be taken on as soon as it is completed.”

The market for the product also expanded. In 1922, the company had a capacity of 6,000 pairs of rubber footwear a day. With the demand increasing, the company said its workers were now forced to produce 8,000 pairs a day. This figure is questionable since it is part of a promotional package to sell the company’s stock. However, by 1932, the workforce of 750 was manufacturing 7,000 pairs of rubber footwear including running shoes, toe rubbers, galoshes and, later, women’s velour slippers in a wide variety of colours. The market for their footwear soon extended beyond Guelph – though most employees and their families bought Northern Rubber products. The company was now selling across Canada. It had, by the time of its closing, agents in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, St. John, NB and Sydney.

Yet, as it grew, it also found itself at odds with its employees. Although recorded accidents were few – one to P. Saralley on February 25, 1921 – a needle went through a finger; the other to William Corstorphino on February 15, 1930 – his hand was mangled by a machine resulting in amputation, employees were becoming discontent with working conditions and wages. The culmination was the strikes of 1939 and 1940.

Organization and Strikes

The company struck twice during its history – 1939 and 1940. The initial strike had as much to do with unionization as it did with working conditions and pay. The 1939 strike was indicative of a conflict going on within Canada’s trade organizations. It was a battle between two branches – those associated with the conservative AFL/CFL and those who supported the more radical CIO.

Like many factories, the workers at Northern Rubber were not members of a union. This was to change during the 1930s. In 1939, two groups vied for the right to represent the 325 workers. These were the Rubber Workers of America – affiliated with the AFL, and a then “outlawed” CIO affiliate – the United Rubber Workers of America.

On July 10th, at a rally, with John Noble the provincial organizer for the AFL supported by the presence of the then president of the Guelph Trades and Labour Council – O. B. Atkinson, and Alderman C. Elgin Fulton, the workers made their choice (although some say it was heavily influenced by comments made from the local Catholic Church pulpits). The employees backed the factory council’s choice. They opted for the AFL/CFL group stating:

 “We will have nothing whatever to do with the CIO” one official stated, “We are connected with the American Federation of Labor only.”

At a meeting held the following day, a temporary organization for Local Union No. 22081 came into being. E. C. Groves became President. However, the executive council for this group and, therefore, in charge of the strike, included two females: Mrs. M. Berridge and Mrs. Mary Tessaro. The other members were:

  •  M. Barbaro
  •  Alderman Harry Woods
  • C. Davison
  • Albert Pettifer

The 1939 strike lasted from Monday, July 6th at 10 am to the 19th. It was a quiet one with more than 350 employees, men and women, taking part. Women received special notice in a Mercury article of July 3rd. The reporter noted: “Large numbers of girls employed at the plant, have taken their places on the picket line and never voiced a complaint, although the temperature went well over the 100 mark in the blazing sun yesterday.” While the strikers did not seem to interfere with materials entering the plant, they did stop products from leaving.

The employees returned to work on a compromise signed by David E. Kennedy and Norman Lynn on behalf of management. Wages were decreased by five and not the original 12.5 percent. More importantly, the firm recognized the union and both the employees and the company agreed Northern Rubber was now a closed union shop.

The next strike happened the following year. The now unionized shop was faced with a change in attitude towards workers. The Second World War altered the perspective of industrial output and companies often took advantage of it to take liberties with union contracts, including the wage rates. The owners of Northern Rubber decided to ignore certain articles within the 1939 agreement.

The employees went out for 4 days from July 15th to July 18th. The Union applied to the Board of Conciliation and Investigations under the Industrial Disputes Act. The employees returned to work under the old agreement. It was the last strike to be held by the workers of Northern Rubber.

The End of Northern Rubber

On May 19, 1941, the management of the Northern Rubber Factory announced they would be closing the factory doors for good at the end of the month. Mr. Norman Lynn, then general manager, stated to the Guelph Mercury the following: “Conditions prevailing in the rubber industry have been unfavourable for some years and the company has decided to close its Guelph plant.” When the company ceased production, the union disbanded. At that point, the Guelph organization showed their support for the ongoing war effort.

1.  The Guelph Rubber Workers’ Union Local made a “generous contribution” to the Mercury’s British Distress Fund.

2. The Union had bought $500 worth of war savings certificates when they were first made available. Upon disbanding, their officials turned them over to the Federal Government with the request they purchase a Bren gun with the money. The Department of Defence acknowledged the contribution and sent a letter of appreciation informing them of the purchase of said gun.

In 1941, the Fairmont Rubber Company was using the factory to store rubber “in case there should be a shortage of supplies among the rubber manufacturers of Canada.” This was a short-term matter. After that, the building lay empty. The manager of the property at that time was the Northern Woodstock Company of Toronto – Mr. Clifford was the manager in 1943. It oversaw all leasing arrangements for this property, although it never occupied the premises.

In April 1943, part of the plant was being used to store wool. Young men from St. Stanislaus unloaded one hundred railroad cars of it. Another part of the building had been taken over in February by Dominion Rubber, a company that also was known for producing rubber footwear. However, they were using it as a research facility. By 1948, Dominion Rubber was still using it as its research lab. It also shared its premises with the Merchants’ Rubber Company. Merchants’ was using the building as a storage warehouse.

Later, the former Northern Rubber became home to Uniroyal Chemical. In turn, Uniroyal was absorbed by an American firm – Crompton Corporation in1999. In turn, Crompton became Chemtura Corporation in 2006. They left the property in 2014. Currently, the property is being redeveloped to turn the main structure into condos and further the investment value by adding another storey. The remaining land is now housing townhouses.

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