About 125 years ago, just at the turn of the 20th Century, in the heyday of Ontario manufacturing, Kitchener was not yet a city. It was still a town, a booming, industrial town, full of Germanic Mennonites and Pennsylvania Dutch, called Berlin.
A bit over a mile (a long way in those days) north of ‘City Hall’, toward Waterloo our Twin City, two companies were established, and two buildings were erected. The nearest was Kaufman Footwear, making slippers, shoes and boots. A square, three-storey structure went up. Over the next 50 years, three more additions produced a plant a half a block wide and a city block long, right where the main street crossed the old highway. At its height, it employed hundreds of men (and later women).
I applied for a job as a lab assistant in 1965, when I first came here, but was turned down. I worked for Kaufman for two years, 25 years later, after they’d moved storage and most of the manufacturing to a new plant at the edge of town.
Another block further north, a rubber company was formed. This was the plant I retired from. It began as Merchant’s Rubber, then became Dominion Rubber, then Uniroyal bought it, and later amalgamated to become Goodrich/Uniroyal, though it never produced tires.
The asshole brother-in-law worked there for almost 25 years. After he left, I joined it as Becker’s Lay-Tech, then it became Perstorp Components, and finally, Collins and Aikman drove it and its sister plant down the street where my brother worked for Dominion Textile in 1965/66, into bankruptcy. During its Uniroyal heyday, there were 3600 people working around three shifts. It didn’t grow as neatly as Kaufman. Over 50 years there were 13 ‘buildings’ which became another half-block wide X block-long X 4-storey plant.
A mile further north, in the open fields and meadows between the two cities, dozens – hundreds – of stout little homes were built to house all the men who walked or biked to work at these plants. The wife was born in a sturdy brick house, three doors north of the imaginary boundary of Waterloo.
This neighborhood was once called the North Ward, home to the blue-collar families who worked in these factories. The North Ward is slipping away. The area is called Mid-Town now, and it’s the up-and-coming place for young professionals to move to.
Of course, not everyone in the subdivision could be a mindless plant drone. Her father built a barber shop a block and a half from the Uniroyal plant, and raised 9 kids by cutting hair for men going to or from work.
Two nearby young brothers tried plant work, but found they were more interested in installing and adjusting machinery, so they started a millwrighting/rigging firm in their dad’s garage, to service the two firms. Years later they built a facility further out of town than the Kaufman plant.
I worked for them for two years, and the engineer down the hall, was the guy who didn’t hire me at Kaufman. The structure is now the plastics plant where the son works, and they rent warehouse/assembly space at the nearby ex-Kaufman building, where I once cut shoe/boot parts.
The man whose Portuguese wife sent him to work with delicious sandwiches, started providing them for a friend – or two – or more – soon dozens. He quit the company and started his own catering business, eventually stocking the vending machines, and running the three-shift, hot meal cafeteria in the plant he no longer worked at.
The greatest success story was the local grocer. He also couldn’t take the plant work, but had an inspiration. If it was a mile walk for the men to go to work, it was a lot further trudge, dragging children, to go shopping.
He turned his front living-room into a little ‘corner store’, when such a thing didn’t exist locally, and stocked it with the essentials. GENIUS! He had a captive audience. Soon, he expanded the ‘living-room,’ and then added on….and added on again.
Then he had another flash of genius. In the late 1950s, more families owned cars, and the rise of shopping malls was beginning. In order to get around an hours-of-opening bylaw, a mile outside the city limit, he built Hi-Way Market. In the days of two-lane highways, you could just drive out to the A & W, and turn left across the road. Today, it’s two exit ramps and an access road.
This was the Costco/Price Club of its day, 20 years before Costco was born. He erected a huge big barn of a building, as big as any Costco. Like Costco, he sold everything, and much of it in bulk – canned and boxed goods, produce, meat, bakery, clothing, hardware, electrical. He had a sit-down lunch bar where both the wife and her brother worked, and a postal, and a banking facility.
There were actually two floors, but much of the upstairs was used for storage and staff/administration. He put a photography department up there, which later went independent, and still exists in town. Aside from the main-floor diner counter, he tried a slightly upscale restaurant upstairs. It became famous in the region, as The Charcoal Steakhouse. It built a fancy new home a block further up the street recently, when the original building was torn down.
So much history! So much local commerce emerged from the wife’s neighborhood. The Kaufman plant is now a preppy downtown condo, and my C&A plant had a tiara added and is home to a bunch of Google gremlins.
And so, the ugly duckling has become a swan. 😉