“Who from their labours rest:” Lindsay factory workers reminisce

Ian McKechnie head shot

By Ian McKechnie

Ian McKechnie is a graduate of Trent University and a lifelong resident of Lindsay. He presently works as a freelance writer and researcher, and has been writing for the The Advocate since 2017 on issues of cultural and historical significance.

“Who from their labours rest:” Lindsay factory workers reminisce

Picture it. It’s mid-May of 1919, and you’re a 12 or 13-year-old frolicking in the waters of the Scugog River at the foot of Georgian Street – not too far from where William Purdy and his sons constructed a dam some nine decades before. A little to the west, the tall stone edifice of a flour and feed mill constructed in 1869 casts a shadow over the locks. It’s one of many manufacturing facilities which have sprouted along both banks of the river and beyond in the half century that Lindsay has been called a Town.

There are creameries and distilleries, foundries and tanneries, and various mills which process grain, lumber, and wool. The proximity of these smoke-spewing plants to the Scugog River doesn’t especially bother you – not when your father, uncles, older brothers and sisters are all gainfully employed by one or more of them, toiling at lathes or looms to feed their families. Life is good.

Or is it? For some weeks now, you have been hearing your parents and older siblings talk gravely about the labour situation in Canada. Earlier this month, the union representing machinists presented its demands to the Boving Hydraulic & Engineering Co. Ltd., as well as the Sylvester implement factory – both among Lindsay’s larger industrial concerns, and both employing members of your own family. The machinists are asking for shorter hours and wage increases. Perhaps trying to keep ahead of the times, the Horn Bros. Woollen Mill on William Street North announces that it will be reducing working hours for its employees without a corresponding reduction in wages.

The problems in Lindsay pale in comparison to what is transpiring in Winnipeg. Within a month, growing labour unrest in that prairie city over wages and working conditions has spilled over into violent clashes on the streets. Tensions between civic leaders and strikers are inflamed by unfounded suspicions based largely on cultural prejudice. A streetcar is pushed over, police make dozens of arrests, and two strikers are fatally shot in the melee. June 21, 1919 will go down in history as “Bloody Saturday.”

One hundred years on, the labour landscape in Canada has by and large changed considerably. Shorter working weeks are now the norm, as are minimum wages. The physical landscape in Lindsay has also changed. The Boving and Sylvester factories are long gone, with a Tim Hortons franchise standing on the site of the latter. Many of the old factories have been repurposed; others have been reduced to ruins.

While several local factories have closed up in the last generation, many of the folks who made them hum are still very much with us. Some, like Victoria Booth, began their factory labour careers some three quarters of a century ago, when Lindsay was still a buzzing hive of industry. Hired on at Horn Bros. in the mid-1940s, Booth remembers a whistle blowing at 6:50 each morning, signalling to employees that the work day was about to start. “The girl who lived next door to me wouldn’t get out of bed until the whistle blew!” Booth recalls.

For many, their factory careers lasted for decades, often with the same firm. “Union Carbide came to Ryerson looking for employees for their engineering department,” recalls Arol Fairbairn, who began working at the plastics giant’s Lindsay plant during the summers of 1963 and 1964, while a student at Ryerson University. “There were 400 to 420 employees when I started in ‘65,” he says. Fairbairn rose through the ranks, holding a number of positions in different divisions before retiring in 1999.

Other workers had jobs which took them through a succession of factories. “I lived in Omemee, and they hired every kid in town at Regal Stationary,” says Cynthia Harper, who launched her career at the sprawling plant just east of the village half a century ago. Harper would go on to labour at J.E. Thomas, Bonar Plastics, and Crayola, before retiring as a Supervisor at Mariposa Dairy in 2018. Don Chase, who today can be found working in his machine shop on Angeline Street North, was hired at John McCrea’s foundry in 1973. In short order, he became shop foreman and spent a great deal of time in the drafting room. “McCrea’s was the perfect environment for me,” Chase reminisces. “Every factory in town knew that you could get what you needed at McCrea’s.”

Later, Chase and Harper were colleagues at Crayola, a company of which they both speak glowingly. “They took an interest in their employees, their families, and what they did on weekends,” says Harper. The company made sure employees were looked after, with coffee and doughnuts being available in the cafeteria during long overtime shifts. “We were treated like royalty,” Harper states. Chase concurs, as he and Harper nostalgically peruse an album of pictures Chase took while at Crayola. Many of the machines therein were designed or redesigned by Chase himself to improve efficiency.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. Today, Lindsay’s industrial scene is a shadow of its former self. Chase, Fairbairn, and Harper all agree that employment opportunities for young people in Lindsay aren’t what they used to be. “I consider myself fortunate,” says Harper. “I never had to find work – work found me.”

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