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The Rise And Fall of Gilson Manufacturing Company Ltd.

Townhouses are being built on the land at 249 York Road between Morris and Huron Streets. Beyond the tracks that subdivides the land is a parking lot. This property was once home to the Gilson Manufacturing Co. From 1906 to 1977, the plant produced a variety of items beginning with gas engines and ending up with a full line of washers and freezers. During its long life, it went from being a minor Canadian subsidiary of an American Firm – the Gilson Manufacturing Co. of Port Washington, Wisconsin, launched in 1850 by Theodore Gilson, to being a nationally recognized Canadian-owned and operated company.

The American Branch Plant

The Gilson Company arrived in Guelph in late 1906 as a branch company. In 1908, the plant at York Road is described as having a floor space of some 13,700 square feet. It was constructed of brick. Sitting on a parcel of land covering 2.5 acres, it had room to grow. This it was do over the next few decades.

The newly built plant was at first operated by an American. Edward Barelman, transferred from the American plant, held the position of president and general manager when, in 1907, it produced its first “Made in Canada” Gilson gas engines for agricultural equipment. These included pneumatic ensilage cutters, Gilson Silo Fillers and Hylo Silos. To all appearances, they were identical to those made by the parent company in Wisconsin.

In addition, this early plant made chair fixtures (which they produced until 1961). According to its promotional material, it was a “leading manufacturer” in this line. However, it was the gas engines that drove their profit margin upwards.  For these, the Guelph company had both a selling point and slogan – one that stuck. It was “Goes Like Sixty.”

However, during these early years, all was not well with the workforce. The 15 moulders, members of local IMU 212, went out on strike in 1913 from May 19 until August 23. They were part of a protest staged by the moulders working in the foundry departments of two other shops: Raymond’s Sewing Machine Manufactory and Griffin’s. All were looking for a raise of 25 cents a day. This would increase their salary to $3.25.

The moulders also expressed concerns over the intention of increasing the amount of advanced money for pieceworkers. Yet, while the disputes at Raymond’s and Griffin’s were resolved with a compromise, that at Gilson’s did not have such an ending. The company closed the foundry forever, putting the men out of work.

Becoming Canadian

In 1916, the ownership changed. Although John Gilson, President of the American firm, was listed as Vice President in 1919. The American Gilson’s was purchased by Harry Bolens (1864-1944). He was not interested in the Canadian company.

Instead, it was bought by a group of Canadian investors and Edward Barelman. He remained in charge of the company. At this time, a rising star was Horace Mack.

Horace Mack

Horace Mack (1895-1959) was a Guelphite. He had started in 1911 at age fifteen as an office boy. He parlayed hard work and determination into a career at the company, rising to become Manager of the Engine and Silo Feeder Depots by 1919 and president when Edward Barelman died in 1927. 

During this period, he had the support of several men. They included R.K. Dawson (company director in 1919) Ferman and Stanley Koch (Koch was Secretary and Manager of the Tractor and Thresher Depots in 1919) and H. Cooper. Later Dawson was to become plant foreman and then VP of the company. Initially, both the American and Canadian companies produced similar products. They both made stationary gas engines. This was to change in 1917 when the American firm stopped making them. The Guelph plant continued to do so until around 1927.

Gilson Tractors then Furnaces and Washing Machines

Around the end of the First World War, Gilson had begun to manufacture farm tractors. They used Foote Brothers’ transmissions and Waukesha engines in their three different-sized tractors:

                    1.   11-20

                    2.   12-25

                    3.   15-30

Tractor models included the Gilson Standard Tractor and the “Light Weight Dixie- Ace.” The experiment was short-lived. With competition from other companies, it was not a viable product. After only manufacturing around 100, they stopped making them in 1922.

A year earlier, they began to produce warm air furnaces and, in 1925, the first “Snowbird” Washer. In 1929, they added refrigeration units to their production line. It was to help them replace the revenue they had once achieved from making gas engines. It also led to an increase in employees. although the company usually had 100 workers on the payroll,  a boom during the 1920s, resulted in 250 workers being employed. 

Ad Campaigns and Catchy Slogans

Along the way, Gilson’s created ad campaigns that stayed with the public. Although they only made three cars in the early 1920s, the slogan “Goes Like Sixty” remained a part of their iconography. In 1918, it was written beneath an ad for the “Gilson Standard Tractor.” Their furnaces were advertised with the catchphrase “Gilson Products make many warm friends.” In addition, a popular means of promoting their furnaces was through piggy banks in the shape of a Gilson Furnace.

Surviving the Dirty Thirties

The 1930s were trying times. Nevertheless, Gilson’s managed to keep operating. Even going so far as to produce the first-ever standard production freezer in 1937.

Hiring locals was important to management. When the plant on York Road needed a new roof in 1930, the company chose to employ only local labour to do the repairs. It was one way to help the local economy.

Another was to keep the plant operating. The company borrowed as much money as possible to ensure the York Road plant stayed open at least a few days a week. Mack, seemed to care about its employees.

However, the two accidents recorded for Gilson’s also occurred during the 1930s. Until then the company has no known listed ones. On February 17, 1931, Reuben Hatley was killed when the wheel he was working on broke into sections. On July 6, 1939, William Elliott was working on a machine. It crushed his hand resulting in the amputation of 2 fingers.

World War Two

World War II was a time for expansion.  Gilson’s became the go-to for refrigeration units. These were not domestic products. Rather, they were for Canada’s navy.  Gilson refrigeration units were on all naval vessels built in Canada for the war. 

Post War Production

After the War ended,  the company dived into the production of domestic products – specifically electric washers, dryers, furnaces and refrigeration equipment. This approach was tied to a growing interest in modernizing the basic appliances in a home. Their ads proclaimed washers of various types including the ever-popular Snow Bird line – even for those homes that lacked electricity.  Gilson’s became the acknowledged expert in both domestic and commercial refrigeration during the 1950s.

It was in the late 1940s that plant square footage grew from 13,000 to 130,000 square feet allowing it to accommodate the escalation in their domestic product production.

Horace Mack and Bird Sanctuaries

Horace Mack was a naturalist. He worked with the Guelph Field Naturalists Club, the Grand River Conservation Authority and the Speed River Flood Control Committee. However, he is best remembered for the creation of the Eden and Niska Game sanctuaries in the 1930s and post WWII.

His company’s extensive grounds were home to various native and exotic wildlife. The well-manicured grounds were maintained by an Englishman, Mr. Copp. He also took care of the various “exotic” wildlife that were either penned on or roamed the grounds. These included a bear, dingo dogs and pheasants. In the 1930s, as times became harder, the company had to take measures to prevent the locals from poaching the wildlife.

On his properties located in Eden Mills and Niska (the latter then a short distance outside of Guelph), he established a place for breeding and rearing various types of wild birds and waterfowl. By 1952, a great percentage of the area surrounding the Niska property had been declared a federal wildlife sanctuary.

After Mack’s death, the property soon fell into the hands of the Ontario Waterfowl Research Foundation. They purchased it in 1961, turning it into a sanctuary. However, the costs of maintaining it were high.

To defray the mounting expenses, they opened a portion of the refuge to the public in 1961. This became known as the Kortright Waterfowl Park.

However, poaching continued to take its toll of the waterfowl and in 2005 it was closed to the public. The birds were transferred to other locations over time. When the Grand River Conservation Authority took it over, they began the process of returning it to its natural form.


Later Years

Although the company had expanded its facilities, finally topping off at 130,000 square feet of floor space, it was sold once again in 1948. This time, the purchaser was the Robert Elder Company. Mack continued to work for the new owners as Chairman of the Board until he died in 1959 while Elder took over as president.

It was under the new management that Gilson’s second strike took place. This time, it was over a wage increase recommended by the Conciliation Board previously. The company had not put the recommendations into place.

The result was a strike on April 7, 1953. One hundred and ninety-eight household appliance workers walked out and formed a picket line. They stayed out until May 12 when the new agreement was reached. It contained a wage compromise to support both the company’s and the workers’ demands. 

At this point, Elder sold the company to A.L. Geller and several others. For whatever reason, they were not adept at managing it. In 1961, Gilson’s filed a bankruptcy claim for more than $800,000. The end result was the purchase of the majority of company shares by former employees in 1964:

                  A. James Kendrick – President in 1967

                 Cyril M. McDonald – Plant Manager for Gilson’s in 1967

                 Edward (Ted) C. Carroll –  the service manager for Gilson’s in 1967

                 Russ F. Flanigan – the treasurer for Gilson’s in 1967

               James K. Simmons –  the industrial engineer at Gilson’s in 1967

 They sold the original plant on York Road in 1966 and focused on producing freezers at their other facility. It was located at 53 Victoria Road at the junction of Elizabeth Street.

The 1970s and Afterwards

Gilson’s tried to shake up their product time in the 1970s. It added the Trashpak to its product line.  This did not have the impetus they needed and, in 1972, the company was once more up for sale.

This time, the owners were McGraw-Edison of Canada Ltd.  The Victoria plant was the only one in operation. It had reduced its product line to Gilson, Queen, Simplicity and Speed freezers.

The number of employees had also decreased. On April 1, 1977, when the plant became a subsidiary and closed for good, only 50 worked in the Victoria plant.



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