Saturday, March 22, 2014

We used to make things in this country. #146: Beaver Knitting Mills Limited, Alton, Ontario

The first woolen mill in Alton was built on the Credit River in 1845, where it produced yarn and blankets.  It was rebuilt by Benjamin Ward in 1880 and converted to the production of long underwear. This garment was very popular in the latter part of the 19th century, when homes and workplaces were heated by wood and were consequently cold at times.  As a result, long underwear was worn night and day.  

In 1882, he sold the mill to John M. Dods, his son-in-law.  Further down the river, William Algie had built another mill, the Beaver Knitting Mills, which at its height was employing 65 men to make long underwear. Conditions in these mills was unpleasant:

"Much of the work in the mill at that time was dirty.  The wool was greasy and had to be cleaned.  The soapy wool had to be pulled out of the machine after it was washed.  It was then bleached by hanging it over a pot of burning rock sulphur and allowing the fumes to bleach the wet wool. The drying of the wool was another dirty job that had to be done by hand."

Algie was a "Free Thinker" who believed that books and knowledge should replace the teachings of the church.  To this end, in 1885 he built a "Science Hall" across the river from the mill, where various community events could take place and where invited speakers could give lectures.  

When Algie died in 1916, the mill was bought by the Dods Knitting Company Limited. This mill was sold in 1932 to the Western Rubber Company.  As wood gave way to coal, then oil, and then gas as a heating source, long underwear fell out of fashion.  The upper mill was rented to the Toronto Millstock Company, which retooled it to make woolen yarns for sweaters, heavy work socks, and baseballs, but finally closed in 1966.  It is now the home of the Millcroft Inn & Spa.

Information and pictures from The World of People.  The Western Hemisphere.  (McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1976).

Algie Woolen Mill 1905
If you're interested in more information, I've uploaded The Algie Woolen Mill.

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