Thursday, March 20, 2014

We used to make things in this country. #145: Elgin Handles Limited, St. Thomas, Ontario

I recently made an axe handle, and needed a steel wedge to complete the job of securing the axe head.  Fortunately, I had picked up a package of wedges at a thrift store, with an original price tag indicating that they had come from Home Hardware:

In 1866, the John Heard & Company was founded in Lambeth, Ontario and moved to St. Thomas, Ontario twenty years later where they built a factory in 1887.  They were engaged in the trade of making wheels, spokes, whipple trees and other wooden parts for carriages.  Only the St. Thomas area and the Thousand Islands offered a good supply of shellbark or shagbark hickory to make these products.  The company had its ups and downs but by 1906 they were employing about 50 workers.  The worst was to come as the automobile replaced the horseless carriage, and the company failed to adapt, being reduced to a workforce of 12 by 1912.  Their factory was bought in 1915 by George P. Smith, Joseph Lewis and his son Charles to be the site of the Elgin Handle Company, which they had founded in 1909.  The Lewises brought the knowledge they had gained working for the J.H. Still Handle Company (at one time the biggest manufacturer of hockey sticks in Canada).  The company bought most of its raw material locally, but in the early 1930's the chestnut trees in the area where killed by an insect pest, forcing the woodpeckers to turn their appetites to the hickory trees, ruining them for use as handle material.  As a result, hickory had to be imported from Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and other southern U.S. states.  The original brick building survived five serious fires.  In 1983, the company opened a second plant in the St. Thomas industrial park.  At that time, sixty percent of their handle material came from Tennesee hickory, and the remainder from local white ash, maple and some woodpecker-pocked hickory. The company was selling its products all across Canada, and exporting to the U.K., West Germany, Norway, New Zealand, South Africa, and the U.S.

It looks like the company was acquired in 1988 by the giant IXL Group of Bernie, Missouri, which had been making handles since 1892 and which at one time produced over 50 percent of the hammer handles sold in the U.S.

Elgin Handles continued after this.  IXL was acquired by Ames in 1997 (which subsequently became Ames True Temper two years later). Sometime in the ensuing decade, the company folded.  So ended "First in design, first in quality."  

Last fall (2013), students from Fanshawe College came up with some designs for developing the Elgin Handle property into a multi-use residential centre for community living clients.  It remains to be seen if this will go ahead.

For an 1979 TV interview about the history of the company, go to you tube.  While the interview has a sometimes bizarre "Between Two Ferns" quality to it, some interesting stories are told if you can bear with it.

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