Early Guelph offered something many companies could use – water power. It was particularly conducive for the operation of mills – not simply grist mills but woollen and carpet mills as well. Situated in the area referred to as the mill-lands, Guelph Carpet took advantage of whatever power the river could provide to produce its product.
In 1867, two brothers, John (1818-1905) and Andrew Armstrong (1821-1894), went into business with John Anderson. These three men formed the Anderson and Armstrong Woollen Mill. Their mill was located in a large house on Huskisson (lower Wyndham). A successful business, it continued to grow, taking over a new stone building at the corner of Huskisson and Surrey.
In addition to expanded facilities, the three men took in another partner. This was Thomas McCrae. The result was a company known as Armstrong, McCrae and Company as Anderson began to withdraw from active involvement in the company.
The new partnership then relocated the company farther upstream on the Speed. In this larger building – once home to the Allan Mills’ Distillery, McCrae increasingly took charge. By 1871, the Armstrong brothers decided to divest themselves from the Guelph or McCrae Woollen Mills. They were joined by Alexander Knight. The result was the Armstrong Carpet Company or Armstrong’s on Neeve Street at the corner of Cross.
This first incarnation of the Guelph Carpet Company occupied a simple but effectively designed structure. According to an article in the 1876 local newspaper, “The building is a neat, compact frame structure, two stories in height, situated near the Neeve street bridge.” It consisted of:
1. Scouring department with two vats for cleaning the yarn
2. Dying kettles
4. Dry house – where the temperatures are kept do high workers can remain only a short time inside it
After these processes, the yarn (filling) was wound onto bobbins before being used in the actual weaving process. The weaver uses a shading paper indicating the right colour scheme to use when putting together a specific carpet. According to the same article, an experienced and skilled weaver working the loom is able to weave about fifteen yards per day and, as the reporter points out, the Armstrong brothers employ “none but workmen of the first water.”
As the company became successful in its line of work, it grew. In 1902, a well-known local architect, W. Frye Colwill (Carnegie Library, Torrance School), was called on to make an addition to the original factory. The intent was to expand into the Brussels carpet market. His involvement resulted in the construction of a two-storey brick structure with a timber frame and a low sloped gable that stretched along Queen Street (Arthur).
This was not the only time Colwill was called upon to help the Guelph Carpet Mill expand. He was to design a three-storey brick structure, in 1907. In addition, a weaving shed was called for in 1907. It was to be 166x122x40 feet high. These buildings were all part of a plan to expand the company’s weaving capabilities – specifically for the manufacture of Tapestry, Art, rug and square carpets. The expansion meant the company now had the space to install 30 looms.
In 1911, it was noted the company planned to build a brick building that was to be 90×30-feet. However, the next major work on the plant did not occur until 1920 when Wm. A. Mahoney (Tytler School) designed another addition – a three-storey section. This new addition stretched from the corner of Queen Street to Cross Street. In addition, an extra storey was added to the two-storey brick structure originally designed by Colwill.
As a result of the building program, by 1948, the carpet department covered 100,000 square feet. By this time, it had incorporated the Worsted and Spinning Mill under its umbrella. The spinning department was also 100,000 square feet.
The Guelph Carpet Company understood that being successful involved more than increasing production capacity. While expanding space for the addition of looms, was not the only reason why by 1916, Guelph Carpet was one of the largest manufacturers of carpets in Canada. Both the proprietors and managers understood their market.
Over the years, Guelph Carpet – alone and as Guelph Carpet and Worsted, adapted to the changing demands and fads. In 1864, they were the only company manufacturing stair carpets. They also made Super Unions Carpets. Over the years, they produced:
· Tapestry Carpets – In 1904, the company was first to produce this style in Canada
· Waterproof yarns – for swimsuits during and after WWII
· Nylon – post WWII
During WWI, the carpet mill produced cotton duck for use in tarpaulins and truck roof coverings. The Spinning Mill provided khaki and blue yarns for the uniforms of all branches of the armed forces.
To be successful meant acquiring the right equipment. In 1900, the company bought 12 additional looms in Philadelphia. In addition, some weavers were induced to come with them. Guelph Carpet also purchased looms specifically designed to produce Tapestry Carpets in 1904 and 10 more in 1911 for the Brussels department. By 1922, the company had 52 looms in operation and could produce broad tapestry carpet, narrow tapestry carpet and both Brussels and Wilton carpets.
To operate these, the company used initially the local water power. However, as the capability of this alone to satisfy their needs decreased, they switched to steam power looms. Power looms placed them level with many of their competitors provincially and nationally. It also placed them on better ground than several local carpet makers, including the Burrow Brothers (Royal City) Carpet Factory. This also meant upgrading their power sources. On August 13, 1941, they received approval from the Department of Munitions and Supply to install new steam generating equipment.
Behind the successful moves and innovations the Guelph Carpet made, were the owners and general managers. These changed over the century the company was in existence in Guelph.