Canada Packers History mirrors Developments in Food Production

By Willa Wick in Community, Food, Places, Events, & History


For over 70 years a loud whistle called the workers back to their tasks at 8 a.m., blowing again at noon and one to mark the lunch hour. An original brass whistle is now on display in one of five exhibits capturing the history of the former Canada Packers plant in Harriston.
The history begins in 1893 with the construction of a three-storey structure at the corner of Young and Margaret Streets where Aaron Wenger had natural ice refrigeration and storage. At first the cold storage was mainly used for butter which was made at Ayton.
In 1900, the Harriston plant became part of Gunn’s Limited which had branches in Toronto and Montreal. They were in the beef, pork and general produce business and later acquired creameries in Walkerton, Centralia, Wiarton, Shelburne, Chesley, Grand Valley, Mount Forest and Clinton. Because the Harriston Gunn’s were able to purchase large quantities of eggs from surrounding counties, the plant was initially used solely for the storage and pickling of eggs.
In 1917 ice cream started to roll off the assembly line – but only in the summer as everyone considered it a warm weather treat.
During the First World War, there was tremendous demand for food, and Gunn’s expanded to meet the need. They began buying directly from the farmers, and to give their plants more of a local connection Gunn’s changed the names to several of their factories. Harriston became the Wellington Produce Company.
After the war, many companies were bankrupt. As a result all shares of Gunn’s capital stock were transferred to the Harris Abattoir Company. A year later shareholders of Harris, plus the Wm. Davies Company merged in a holding company to be known as Canada Packers Limited. Wellington Produce became a unit of this newly formed company. A suitable name for the Harriston ice cream was obtained through a contest. The chosen name was Clover Cream.
In 1925 the Harriston Bottling Works was purchased from Milt Kettles and the equipment, with Milt in charge, began the production of Whistle Brand and Best Dry Ginger ale. Ten different flavors were made with orange being the most popular.

The first Reo transport truck in 1926

The first Reo transport truck in 1926

A new product, mélange, was introduced in the early 1930s (blending of whites and yolks from a large number of eggs and often frozen). There was also a poultry division. Because of rationing during the war, Harriston discontinued making pop and the sugar allowance was transferred to ice cream production.
Until 1926, out-of-town deliveries were made by rail. Ice cream was mostly shipped on Fridays to meet the demand of weekend ice cream parlors.
Eventually the Harriston plant started making its own butter and had trucks running daily farm routes gathering cream. Saturday night in town was a big event when farmers would bring cans of cream and crates of eggs to the plant. Payment would quickly find its way uptown to local merchants. Cream was weighed and graded for quality. Wellington Produce was one of the first plants in Ontario to buy cream on a graded basis. The reason for paying premium prices was to get the best cream possible for Clover Cream Ice Cream. A bonus was paid to those who delivered their cream to the factory. After a two-day process the finished butter was taken out by hand and packed into 90 pound wooden boxes with removable bottoms. A hydraulic press cut these blocks into one pound prints.
The routes of the first small fleet of trucks were north to Paisley, Port Elgin, Hanover and the Sauble Beach area. Although the roads were getting better they were still hard on the machines so in 1926 Stewart Brigden was hired as mechanic for the rolling stock.
By 1939 the plant was able to switch from antiquated brine coolers to electrically refrigerated cabinets. At the same time the first regular ice cream truck was acquired (but the four interior cold plates had to be connected by hoses to the plant’s ammonia system at night).
An uptown store was opened for the convenience of the farmers. Here eggs could be delivered, graded, and paid for. Cream payments were also picked up there (making for much less travel during war time gas rationing).
The biggest operation during the war was shipping eggs to Britain. Being central to egg grading stations of surrounding towns, it was not unusual for six or seven cars to leave weekly for overseas. Before the war was over Harriston had the distinction of being Canada’s largest egg exporter.
During 1947-48 a new building was erected so that milk, butter, ice cream and the powdered milk departments were all housed in one building. About the same time Local 417 of the Canadian Food and Allied Workers came into being.
The poultry division had the capacity of 2000-2300 birds a day, but feather disposal was always a headache. Goose and duck feathers commanded a good price as they were plucked dry, but chickens were wet plucked by machine. Poultry Foreman Jim Morton arranged with Jack Hathaway of Palmerston to make feather driers. By the early ‘50s the complete poultry division was transferred to Walkerton and Harriston concentrated on increased ice cream production. The name York Ice Cream was adopted and delivery trucks with mounted compressors could deliver far and wide. By now most farmers ceased separating milk on the farm and the plant was accepting whole milk on a large scale. Excess skim milk became a problem even though a large amount was used in the manufacture of ice cream. Scotty MacLean hauled many truck loads weekly to the margarine division in Toronto.
Used equipment was purchased from Stacey Brothers, installed on a foundation pad, and a new structure built around this spray drier. Milk processing at Harriston would have ceased had this step not been taken.
The egg operations ceased in 1968 and by that time ice cream was reaching the million gallon mark but freezer capacity was totally inadequate. Major renovations began including new equipment for both butter and ice cream. The biggest and most expensive being a Vitaline automatic frozen confection machine. A portion of the roof had to be removed and a crane lowered the
Vitaline into place.
By April 1, 1962 driver/salesmen on the trucks were paid a flat rate plus a commission on each gallon of ice cream and each pound of butter sold. There was a lack of warehousing to the south so it was decided to service Toronto and Eastern Ontario directly from Harriston After a couple of years, a system of using the dock facilities of York Farms on Highway 401 was put into action. Trucks could be plugged in, and each evening salesmen would phone their orders back home. These orders would be transported overnight to the York Farms dock by tractor trailer.
During 1972 and ‘73 era creameries ceased production and arrangements were made to purchase the cream volume from Clifford, Mildmay, Neustadt, Ayton, Holstein and Mt. Forest. The cream volume was further enhanced when, in 1977, provincial legislation dictated that milk could no longer be shipped in milk cans. Instead a storage tank and necessary cooling equipment had to be installed on the farm for tank truck pick-up.
A ribbon cutting for a $1.5 million cheese plant was held in 1980. In the busy season, it produced 14,000 pounds of cheese per day. In addition a reverse osmosis process was initiated to manufacture liquid cheese for slices.

A York ice cream truck operated by Roger MacDOugall in the early '80s

A York ice cream truck operated by Roger MacDOugall in the early ’80s

In 1984, the ice cream business was sold to Beatrice Foods resulting in 45 lost jobs.
Few believed the end was imminent, but when Ault Foods purchased the Canada Packers plant in 1991, they closed it. Last day of work for Harriston’s major industry was January 31, l991.
To commemorate nearly 100 years of history several Harriston store windows have been decorated to display relics, pictures and memories of “the Packers”. From the big double windows at Dave Anderson’s, and Reica’s Hairstyling which feature Ice Cream, Butter and Cheese, take a walk uptown to Paul and Jenny Yeung’s Acupuncture window. There you will find larger articles plus pictures highlighting staff activities. Next door is the trucker’s paradise complete with models, quilts, trophies and safe driving awards.
The response to these exhibits was so intense that a fifth window had to be obtained to showcase still more and different memories. Even at night the display in the McIntee Real Estate Office window at the stoplights commands attention.
Much of the information for this article was provided by Jim Doig or sourced from the booklet “Looking Back” which was prepared by Mancil Maltby at the time of the 1978 Harriston Centennial.