The day beck’s Circus came to town

By Steven Cook in Community, People

The history of every successful enterprise is one of change. Change and subsequent reactions to it, ebb and flow through the history of an enterprise, from it’s small beginnings to its greater ambitions which maturity and longevity hope to bring. With the growth of an enterprise, be it a successful company or successfully managed homestead, there comes the necessity for more conveniences. So after the adaption to change, it is seen that from very simple beginnings the successful company or homestead, will soon find itself in a more comfortable and prosperous position. During that period of time from the 1900’s to the 1920’s there was a great surge of improvements or changes. Such improvements included, cream separators, hay-loaders, litter carriers, manure spreaders and gas engines. Additionally, there was the telephone and the automobile and a full commitment to the use of ‘white coal’ or hydro-electric power to modernize and electrify our local towns and villages.
Prior to ‘electrification’, wood was the fuel of the day. Dry cedar shavings and fine kindling had to be prepared each night for the mornings start to the day. The kitchen stove required finely chipped pieces of birch or poplar for quick heat, while maple and beech were used to last longer periods. Wood was purchased by the cord and piled to dry for winter use. Gradually over time, coal became the main fuel source coming in various grades of peanut size, furnace size (hard coal) and lumps of soft coal. With the coming of coal however came the requisite coal bin which had to be installed in the cellar to store the four or five tons of the dusty material for the winters supply. If soft coal was used in the neighborhood, it was impossible to keep the clothes on the washing line clean and dusting the house was a full time chore. The burning of coal and its clean up were just as chore-filled as managing a wood pile, if not more. Ashes needed to be cleaned out of the heat source each morning and removed to the ash pile. The householder also sifted these ashes by hand shaker and removed all the unburnt lumps to be gathered for re-use. While the ash-man carted away the ash pile each spring, the amount of ash and unburnt lumps to be removed must have been tremendous. In our yard today the remnants of this unprocessed fuel still exist. In and around our home the ash pile must have been located near to our dahlias. For just as dutifully as we tend our flower beds, we are continually separating good, rich soil from shards and clumps of unburnt coal.
Ontario is blessed with water courses of unrivaled stature. The ‘age of electrification’ revolutionized both urban and rural spaces. It revolutionized farm life by providing bright light and electrified conveniences to both house and barn. Although it was the urbanized areas that first experienced the benefits of electrified utilities, rural areas closest to town benefited early, with those located on the main roads being supplied next. It was to be much later, commencing in the late 1930’s, that hydro-electricity became available, with it’s extension further into rural Ontario with the passage of the Rural Hydro-Electric Distribution Act. Even so, some rural areas did not receive hydro-electricity until after 1945, due mainly to the early cost, but also due to the effects of World War II owing to a shortage of men and materials. It was the cost and application of utilities, only to those areas that could afford it, which soon became the social challenge in the early 1900’s. As a rule, light, heat and power generation have been all supplied, until the coming of the age of electricity, by private enterprise. In order to effectively distribute the benefits of Ontario’s “white coal’, the Government embarked on a policy of public ownership. With this ideal in mind, a Government Commission, known as the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario was created.
The Province of Ontario has no coal deposits, so until the age of electricity, Ontario had to import vast quantities of coal from the United States. Expensive coal was imported from the Pennsylvania coal mines, partly for heat and partly for the production of gas or steam required by our maturing industrial plants. It was a great day for Ontario and Canada at large, when it was fully realized that water power could be used to generate light, heat and power. It could provide everything coal could do, but cheaper and cleaner. The result was that there sprang up in South Western Ontario a demand from businessmen for Government action in supplying them with cheap hydro-electric power, chiefly for manufacturing, but also for light and heat.
In 1903 the Ontario Government authorized a commission to investigate the problem of the supply of power. The result of this report, completed in 1906, led to the foundation of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission and with it the authority to generate and transmit electrical energy to municipalities. The Government was aware of the need to
co-ordinate the hydro-electric resources of the province to meet future requirements and to facilitate this they established the commission. The commission was to function as a self-sustaining, corporate public enterprise and was given powers to supply electricity throughout the Province at cost and any municipality could apply to the commission for electrical power for energy, lighting, heating and general power purposes.
The Commission was further instructed, by the Government of the day, to take an inventory of available water power, gather information on existing companies in terms of cost and expense and make recommendations for policy on the generation and distribution of hydro-electricity. In 1903 the Ontario Government authorized a commission to investigate the problem of the supply of power. In later years, the success of the commission was a result of the chairmanship of Mr. Adam Beck. “The gifts of nature are for the public” he was noted to have said, and the gift of nature he was most determined to harness was the hydroelectric potential of the Niagara River. On October 11, 1910, Adam Beck held his first ceremonial “switch-on” in Berlin (now Kitchener). He activated a switch, and a street sign saying “For the People” promptly lit up and those at the town gathering celebrated exuberantly. Reviews of municipalities electrical requirements and the subsequent flamboyant presentations at community fairs and the like highlighting the benefits of the new ‘age of electricity’, soon came to be known rurally as “The Beck Circus”. The highlight of the electrification roadshow, that came rolling into town, was a modified 3 ton truck carrying all manner of gadgets and electrified tools, at times driven by Beck himself.
In 1912, the Hydro-Electric Power Commission reached into our rural area. Mount Forest was involved in an early inventory of the business community to better understand the requirement for hydro electric power. Early findings from the Commission of businesses in our area were noted by a representative of the day. The representative provided notes and replies from local companies. One such report notes, “Mount Forest has a municipal electric light company and water works plant. (corner of Queen and Arthur street). Its coal consumption is 35 tons per month serviced in ¾ lumps. The cost is $4.34 per ton (fob) town”. (Most of the coal was housed and distributed, in latter years, through the Brebber Coal Yard on Main Street.). “The town has 1000 lights connected and 60 transformers in service varying from 20 to 200 lights. The lighting plant operates from dark until 1 am.” (It was pointed out however, in other local municipalities, that only the criminal element were up after 11 pm, so why should lighting be made available at such a late hour?). Excerpt from the Municipal Report for 1910.
Ernst Bros (Threshing Machine Mfg)
“18 to 24 machines per year. Has 25 hp engine, burns wood altogether, cost $2.00 per cord and uses 200 cords per year. Operates 10 hours per day. Could use a 20 hp motor.”
Murphy Woolen and Grist Mill
“Owned and operated by Mr. Murphy, Utilizing two water passes on the South Saugeen, owning all water rights. At one development is a 14 ft head at which 2 48 inch wheels and a 40 inch wheel are installed. The other development being a 6 ft head and one 48 inch wheel. The above wheels are all Vulcan. As a stand by for low water he has an 80 hp engine which he uses about 1 month to 6 weeks out of the year. Mr. Murphy states he has no demand.”
Mount Forest Casket Company
“Have a 60 hp engine, belt driven to shafting, burn refuse altogether. Operate about 3 days a week, 10 hours per day. States no demand.”
Mount Forest Carriage Company
“80 hp engine, uses refuse and coal. Could possibly use a 40 hp motor.
The Commission’s representative further notes, ‘Mount Forest has had set backs from the industries settled here, for which bad management was advanced as the cause. However up to the present no attempt has been made to improve the lighting power situation in the Town. Approximate demand if hydro-electric power was available is estimated at 150 hp. In comparison, Hanover’s demand is 300 hp and Meaford 250 hp.”
Early on the Commission was criticized for being too optimistic, yet by 1912, it found itself unable to meet domestic and industrial demand. (so came into being Niagara and Chippawa power stations commissioned by now Sir Adam Beck). The beauty of hydro-electric power is its simplicity. A pipe of water is directed over a cliff, through a tube called a penstock and then released at the bottom to turn a propeller or blade. The moving propeller, or turbine, drives a shaft to spin the electro-magnets. The result is electricity. As a service to the people of Ontario, the Commission provided light, heat and power cheaply and cleanly to the majority of the people to an entire province. Sir Adam Beck’s power generation sites included Niagara, Chippawa, and locally Eugenia. For our local area, the interest lies in Eugenia, situated in the Grey Highlands on Grey Road 13. Power from generators from local water sources, such as was to be found in Eugenia, whose thundering sound of those crashing waters was said to be heard fully down the Beaver River Valley and still audible in Flesherton produced some of our power.
As early as 1890, William Hogg had the idea to harness the power of the Beaver River for electricity generation. Five years later, in 1895, a small, square structure squatted over a canal beside the river, while a paddle wheel underneath turned the generator providing electricity to Eugenia and nearby Flesherton (approx. 5 miles to the south). Hogg’s station, however, generating perhaps 70 kw from a 6 m (20 ft) head of water was hard pressed to meet even the needs of just two small villages. Hogg realized the potential of the water course, but was unable to successfully convince any local businessmen to invest money in its expansion. William Hogg died around the turn of the century, his tiny power station still the only source of electricity on the Beaver River. In 1905, the Georgian Bay Power Company bought out William Hogg and rebuilt his small mill. After plans for larger development fell through, the Hydro-Electric Power Commission purchased both the electric station, as well as surrounding land and expanded the site which was deemed both needed and economically feasible. The plant would provide power for the concrete factories of Owen Sound and the busy shipyards of nearby Collingwood, as well to Mount Forest and Grand Valley. Approval was granted and construction started in 1914. The construction of the Eugenia Falls Hydroelectric Development was completed on November 18, 1915 with the official opening of the plant presided over by Sir Adam Beck, the Commission’s first Chairman.
Sir Adam Beck was one of the most influential Ontarians of his day, born in Baden, Ontario, June 20, 1857, he was an industrialist who became the Mayor of London, a Member of the Provincial Parliament for Ontario (1902-1919,1923-1925) and the first Chairman of The Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario until his death in 1925. Beck was instrumental in developing the 450-megawatt Queenston / Chippawa power station at Niagara, which was at the time, the largest power station in the world. Sir Adam Beck believed passionately that electricity should be made available and affordable to everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful and he lived to see power begin to flow across Ontario. For his vision and his devotion to the public good, Adam Beck was knighted by King George V in 1914 for services to the Commonwealth. Today his statue still commands the intersection of University Avenue and Queen Street in Toronto.
Further references to Sir Adam Beck can be found in the Wilmot Heritage Archives of the Corporation of the Township of Wilmot, while Sir Adam Becks ‘truck’ is part of the exhibits at the Waterloo Region Museum.


Beck's Truck

Beck’s Truck