Wool, Card and Spinning: My Grandfather’s Story

It is with great fascination that I continue to delve into my paternal grandfather’s history in the textile industry, beginning in Hamilton.  The image below is a photograph taken of a page in a beautiful promotion manual available in the store of the Custom Woolen Mills.


In his own words, in a journal put in writing by Darcy Rollingson, my grandfather said,

After father died (Etaples, France May 19, 1918…bombing of Canadian General Hospitals), I don’t feel I did the right thing by Mother.  I must confess that.  I always tried to be a good boy around home and I was never a bad boy, no jail business or anything like that.  But I got expelled from school when I was 13 years old.  We had moved to Hamilton and I was going to a new school.  I was in a drafting class and the teacher was an Englishman, Mr. Elliott.  He had quite an accent.  He always called us Mr. So-and-So.  Once he said to me, “Mr. Moors, from ‘ere-to-ere- is ‘alf-an-inch’ and from thar-to-thar is square’, referring to the drafting lesson.  He told me to repeat what I had told him.  I did, but complete with accent!  He lambasted me a good one.  He insisted I go see the principal, but on the way I met the janitor, Mr. Honeycastle, mopping the stairs.  I kicked over his mop bucket and water went flying all over the place!  The principal and everyone decided I needed a flogging.  While they were getting a witness, I high-tailed it out of there!  My mother was notified that I was expelled unless I came back and took my flogging.  I wouldn’t do it so that was that.

At the time, mother said, “There’s one thing about it; no son of mine will ever be a bum! Now, that is understood, young man!” I said, “Ok. What’s next?”

The next morning, Mother and I went up to the T. Eaton Company (Eaton Knittiing Co.) where the General Manager had been a friend of my father’s.  She decided I would get put in a job where I would learn something and where I would work hard.  We waltzed up to the company mill offices and we were ushered into Mr. Archibald’s office.

He was a very kindly old gentleman.  Mother asked him if he had a place for me and sure enough, they could put me in as an apprentice boy in raw stocks, carding and spinning.  Mother wanted to know what future the job held.  Mr. Archibald told her that when I was through I’d have my textile engineer papers and that I’d do alright if I did alright by the company.

So, my mother signed the articles on my behalf because I wasn’t old enough to sign them on my own.  At the age of thirteen, I started with the Eaton Knitting Company for the grand sum of $11.00 a week, ten hours a day, 60 hours a week.  Of that, $11 a week, Mom took $8 from me for room and board, clothing and so on and she insisted that I put $2 in a bank account that I was never allowed to touch.  I was given $1 a week to spend.

I was placed in the picker houses of the woolen department.  From there, I worked out into their rag picking business, then into carding and spinning and so on.  When I was eighteen, I was moved to the machine shop where I learned the rudiments of machine shop work relative to the textile machinery.  After spending about six months there, the T. Eaton Company sent me to Philadelphia where I went to the Philadelphia School of Textiles for ten months at the expense of the company.

When I got back home at the age of 19, I was given the position of Night Superintendent and a raise of $40 a week.  Well, owing to my tender years, I didn’t make too much of a success of properly supervising all those men who were twice my age and older.  When I got a demotion, they called me into the office and said I would be made a day Boss Spinner and be back at my regular wage.  I only stayed about another three weeks.

I was a red-headed monkey, too, in my youth and fiery tempered.  After that amount of time, I went up to Mr. Archibald’s office and was ushered in.  I told him I was quitting.  He said, “John, you’re making a big mistake!  You go back out there and I’ll guarantee you a place in this office right across from me!” Now, Mr. Archibald was the manager of the whole company.  He said that I would be an assistant until he was through and then I would step in.  “We have further things for you,” he told me.  I said, “No! I quit!”  That was the number one mistake of my young life.  And I knew it the minute I got out of the door!  I was too bull-headed, though, to go back again and say that I was sorry.

Later…and after marrying my Grandmother, Florence…my grandfather told…

After I was home for a couple of days, Charles Schofield of Schofield Woolen Mills came and asked if I thought I was well enough (this, after a medical emergency) to run two machines and take care of any problems that might come up.  This was during the Great Depression, and Mom (Florence) just about had a fit, but we owed a bill of over $60 for the stove, $18 for coal and around $40 for groceries.  I went up there and when I came home at night my legs would just pull up under me with cramps.  Not strong enough.  It was cruel but I had to work or go without.  There was no relief for days.

We came through the Depression though.  Towards the end of it, we moved to Penman’s in Paris, Ontario.  It was a much better job.  I became a Consultant to seven different mills.  Consequently, I was away from home quite a bit.

Penman's Mills Paris, Ontario Penman's number 1 mill Paris Ontario Penman's employee picnic 1924

Florence was quite an industrious young lady.  She sewed and baked and did everything for our home.  One of the things she sewed from the cloth I brought home from the mill was long johns for the girls.  I’m sure they’ll remember this because they would object like the deuce.  These drawers were ankle length and you had to pull your socks over the tops of them.  Their legs were so skinny that the long johns would show up.  They had to walk a good 3/4 of a mile though, for school, so they had to wear them.

For the sake of one of my auntie’s struggle with asthma, it was recommended that my grandparents and their children get to a healthy climate…about this time, my Grandfather said…

The next morning I was reading The Star.  In the Want Ads, it said:

“Wanted: A man to write a brief on a woolen mill in western Canada.”

We talked it back and forth and I ended up by writing to the Alberta Government about it.  Not long afterwards, a Mr. Clash from the marketing services division of the Government of Alberta, came to our home.  He explained that they had a woolen mill in a place called Magrath, Alberta and that it had gone bankrupt.  The Social Credit Party was interested in keeping the industry in their province and wanted me to go out and write a brief on it.  I said that I would.  Well, when I got there and saw it, I thought, “Holy smokes! What am I getting into?”  I wrote the brief saying that it could be made to run efficiently under proper management and so on.

…the journals share, at this point, much about the discussion of my auntie’s health and then Grampa said,

Next we moved to Saskatchewan where I worked for Saskatchewan Wool Products.  When I got fed up with the company and the labour disputes and what not, we invested in a summer resort.  (this…for three years)

I sold the resort because Earl Tanner came to me and asked if I would go back to the woolen mill.  I said, “No,” but he kept pestering me, so I finally gave in.  That was a bad mistake there.  I paid $6,000.00 for that resort with a 99 year lease on ten acres of land.  I started off with just a store and I had nine cottages built.  I sold it at a nice profit, but the same place changed hands not long ago for $120,000.00.  I let it go.  Of course, I had no regrets at the time.  However, after moving back to Magrath, this woolen mill got itself into trouble again.

Before I moved, a wealthy 76 year old man named Page ran the mill.  He and his family had a woolen mill in Brownsville, Oregon and the family finally convinced him to pull out of Magrath and pay more attention to it.  When he left, he left the mill high and dry.  Earl Tanner and I got on our horses and tried to find someone to put money into the business.  We found George Ross, a multi-millionaire who bought a controlling interest.  Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack only seven or eight moths after that.  He had three sons, but they were ranchers with tremendous holdings and didn’t want anything to do with a woolen mill.  They shut it down, not even bothering to try and sell it.

I had to make a living somehow so I circulated in the textile circles where I was well known.  The Hornes Brothers of Ontario hired me to erect some machinery.  After completing the contract, the Alberta Government asked me what I planned on doing with the mill.  I told them, “Absolutely nothing!”  I wasn’t going to put my hard-earned money into it with no help from anybody else.  They made me an offer I couldn’t afford to turn down.  They offered me any machinery in the mill at a very nominal price.

The Tanner Building Supply wanted to buy the building that the mill was in and while they were dickering about the building, I was dickering about the machinery.  I decided to go into carding and spinning, but leave the looms alone because of the amount of money needed for inventory purposes and raw stocks and so on.  I spoke to the government and said I would take spoolers, skeiners, one spinning machine and two sets of cards and the rag house.

I owned the business for about 18 years and made quite a success of it.  Florence and I were well-blessed with it.

Woolen Mill 03

Going back to Hamilton this summer and walking those streets, I reflected a lot on my grandfather and his hard work, from the age of 13.  I remember my grandfather whenever I smell a skein of natural wool.  It is very emotional for me.

Eaton’s Knitting Co. of Hamilton was demolished in 1965, like so many other buildings.  I have yet to locate the archives about this event, but I DID take photographs of the Cannon textile location…as a way of connecting with the architecture.  Recently, Hamilton is looking for alternative possibilities for these buildings and I really enjoyed reading the post by Not My Typewriter, another writer with family roots in the Hamilton textile industry.  Please visit the article in order to enjoy recent photographs of the interiors.

The equipment that my grandfather used and treasured for so many years is currently located in Carstairs, Alberta.  From their site, this…

Processing Wool at Custom Woolen Mills…

Our wool is produced on machines dating back to 1886. Custom Woolen Mills started in 1975 as a small family (My family) business and has grown from 40,000 lb/year to 100,000 lb/year production.

©Photo Credit: Kathleen Moors

©Photo Credit: Kathleen Moors


©Photo Credit: Kathleen Moors


©Photo Credit: Kathleen Moors


©Photo Credit: Kathleen Moors


©Photo Credit: Kathleen Moors


©Photo Credit: Kathleen Moors


©Photo Credit: Kathleen Moors


©Photo Credit: Kathleen Moors


©Photo Credit: Kathleen Moors

2 thoughts on “Wool, Card and Spinning: My Grandfather’s Story

  1. Pingback: Ruth Purves-Smith and David Holloway | The Chapel

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