Thursday 9 June 2022

The Canada Ingot Iron Company was a long-lived Guelph business

For only about $22m, you could own an intersting piece of Guelph history. The Armtec properties, residing at 41–44 George Street, are now for sale. (The Armtec properties from above. Courtesy of Google Street View.)

Once developed, a substantial group of condominiums may soon loom over the banks of the Speed River from this site.

The company began as the Ontario Metal Culvert Company in 1907. The founders were R.W. and D. Gladstone in Guelph along with H.B. and A.L. Sharman in Russell, Manitoba (Contract Record 1908, v. 23, n. 4, p. 23). As the name suggests, the company made iron culverts of the type that resemble a series of large rings stuck together on their sides to form a tube. These pipes were commonly used to provide drainage under roadways and so on, and were made using a pattern owned by the American Rolling Mill Company (ARMCO) of Middletown, Ohio. In fact, investors from ARMCO had provided the money to begin the Guelph operation in order to move into the Canadian market.

(Ontario Metal Culvert Co. postcard, ca. 1910; printer unknown. From the author's collection.)

Robert William Gladstone was born on a farm in Kent County in 1880 and became a teacher after finishing school and taking a short teacher-training course at the age of 18. In 1899, he "went west," as the common expression then was, to seek his fortune in business. He became a salesman for Massey-Harris, then the largest agricultural machinery supplier in the British empire.

(R.W. Gladstone, MP, on a military stand on Wyndham street, Guelph, ca. 1943. He is the one with his hat off. Detail of Guelph Civic Museums 1979.75.45.)

In 1907, Gladstone became associated with ARMCO, which tapped him to lead their new venture in Canada. Guelph was chosen for its favourable location in south-western Ontario and the old Inglis-Hunter foundry beside the bridge at Norwich and Perth (now Arthur) streets was selected for its first home.

(The Inglis-Hunter foundry, built ca. 1850. Now condominiums at 196 Arthur St. N. Courtesy of Google Street View.)

Business was good and the company expanded. In 1910, it changed its name to the Canada Ingot Iron Co. to reflect both its expansion across the country and the fact that it had diversified its product line beyond culverts. By 1915, it employed 25 to 40 people in Guelph and had branches not only in Winnipeg but also Montreal and Calgary.

(An Armco culvert made by the Canada Ingot Iron Co. Courtesy the Globe, 23 April 1927.)

Gladstone's timing was impeccable. With the widespread adoption of automobiles in that era, public demands for road work increased dramatically. Iron culverts were much more durable and reliable than their wooden predecessors and cheaper than their concrete competitors. Burgeoning government road contracts led to a huge and profitable market. Other important customers were railways and airports, as air shipping and travel become more common.

The company began to expand its product line into other metalic, road-related hardware. For example, when the name of Berlin street was changed to Foster Avenune in the wake of the Great War, new street signs were donated to the city by R.W. Gladstone (Mercury, 18 December 1918).

By 1920, as the firm expanded its product line and sales, it sought out a bigger space to house larger facilities. It purchased a site between George and Clarence streets, and added adjacent properties where it could build factories to suit its needs. One building for culverts and another for other roadway supplies were put up at the direction of Donald Soper, engineer of the Beatty Brothers firm of Fergus, which had recently built similar structures for themselves.

(View down George St. to the Canada Ingot Iron Co. Limited foundry, ca. 1930. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2009.32.911.)

The site also had the advantage of lying beside the Canadian Pacific Railway line connecting Guelph to Goderich, making shipping trainloads of goods a straightforward proposition.

(Advertising card for the Canada Ingot Iron Co., date and publisher unknown. From the author's collection.)

Besides road signs, the new space allowed the Canada Ingot Iron Company to expand into items such as roadside guardrails and road graders, featured in its advertising of the period.

(Advertisement for the Canada Ingot Iron Co., showing road grader and guardrails of their manufacture; Mercury 20 July 1927.)

In 1946, the name of the company was chagned to the less inspired Armco Drainage and Metal Products of Canada, as the concern apparently became a subsidiary of its American parent.

("Aerial Photograph of Armco Company c. 1940." Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 1979.57.11.)

One interesting development of this period was development of prefabricated metal buildings under the moniker of Steelox. The Steelox system consisted of standardized metal panels, connectors, etc., that could be assembled to form a building, such as a schoolroom.

In 1948, the Paisley Road Public School sought to rapidly expand its classroom space in order to accommodate the increasing population of the post-war suburb springing up in the district. By 1953, it had put up five different buildings, containing 11 classrooms, and a "spacious auditorium-gymnasium," all for the low price of $170,000 complete with furniture (which was not steel, I assume). A report in the Globe (24 June 1953) notes that, although not as pretty, the steel buildings may improve in eyes of residents as they behold their lower tax bills compared to the cost of a nicer, regular school building.

("New Grade One classroom of Armco STEELOX construction at the Paisley Road School—Guelph." Mercury, 31 January 1953.)

The article goes on to give a detailed description of the new campus:

The five buildings which make up the school are arranged in a semi-circle around a foreyard. The central unit contains the principal’s and nurse’s offices. The gymtorium, as it is called, is built on behind. All but one of the buildings have two classrooms each, and the odd one has an extra room built on behind to form a T.
Steel panels about one foot wide which lock together were used as walls and roof. Made by the Armco Drainage and Metal Products Co., here in Guelph, the panels make an airtight, strong building which needs no frame. Insulation is inserted in between the steel and plaster board which forms the inside wall. Teachers said their classrooms were warm all winter.
The classrooms have windows on two sides and each has two exit doors, one of them opening directly onto the playground. Each building has its own oil furnace, concealed in a small room opposite the main entrance.
Was the insulation made with asbestos? Could be.

The article notes that much of the cost saving of this modern school derived in no small part from not having any corridor space. As is usually the case with portables, when students move from one room to another one, they do so outside. The Principal, J.A. McCallum, also remarked that this arrangement had reduced discipline problems: With corridors gone, corridor infractions disappear too!

Curiously, enthusiasm for Steelox buildings did not extend to the administration, which built a conventional structure, with interior corridors, to house the school offices.

As it happens, Armco's own office building was also not made of steel.

("Armco Drainage and Metal Products Staff, 1957" in front of Armco's George St. offices. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 2013.9.100.)

All was not completely above board in the culvert business, however. In 1957, the the Restrictive Trade Practices Commission delivered a report to the federal Minister of Justice finding that Armco Drainage and Metal Products of Canada, Ltd., Guelph, along with other foundries, had been involved in a long-standing price-fixing scheme (Globe & Mail, 17 August 1957).

According to the report, the cartel had been organized 30 years previously among members of the Metal Culvert Council. In essence, they refused to undercut each other's unit prices and charged customers the same amount for shipping regardless of the distance between factory and delivery site. Of course, this practice reduced competition between manufacturers and raised prices for governments and other purchasers.

Another report by the same Commision in 1970 found that Armco Drainage and Metal Products of Canada Ltd., Guelph, among other suppliers, were again engaged in price fixing (Globe & Mail, 31 July 1970).

In 1987, Armco severed its relationship with its American parent and became Armtec. Now, after more than 100 years at its current site, Armtec is pulling up stakes. Like its culverts, this old Guelph concern will soon be out of sight.

Besides his leadership of the Canadian Ingot Iron Company, Bob Gladstone had political ambitions. In 1925, he entered the fray as the Liberal candidate for the Wellington South riding. This contest pitted him against the popular and ensconced Hugh Guthrie, who had been the MP for the riding since 1900, first as a Liberal then as a Conservative.
("Robert William Gladstone," ca. 1945. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, 3216073.)

Not as polished a campaigner as Guthrie, Gladstone made headway in Elora, Erin, and other rural townships. However, Guthrie's strong showing in Guelph and Fergus put him comfortably back in office.

In 1935, Guthrie retired from politics to assume an appointment to the Board of Railway Commissioners. Having steered the Canada Ingot Iron Company through the early years of the Great Depression (and being involved in a price-fixing scheme, it would seem), Bob Gladstone threw his hat into the ring once again. On this occasion, he was successful, defeating Hugh Guthrie jr. and punching his ticket to Ottawa, where he remained for the rest of his career.

One of the projects that Gladstone had a hand in was the construction of the Shand Dam, begun in 1939 and completed in 1942. He was also a member of an all-party committee that set out to design Canada a new flag. The committee approved Gladstone's proposal of the red ensign with a single maple leaf in place of the coat of arms. The proposal inspired little support and the matter was dropped for 20 years.

In 1949, Gladstone was in ill health and suffered a long stay in hospital. As a result, he was unable to run for office again. However, fortune smiled upon him and he was appointed to the Senate. Still a senator, he died two years later of a heart attack on 2 June 1951.

Another figure of distinction associated with the Canadian Ingot Iron Company was Louis Elgin Jones. Born in St. Thomas, Ontario, in 1877, he graduated in engineering from the Unviersity of Toronto and taken up the post of assistant city engineer at Vancouver until the outbreak of the Great War.
("Col. L.E. Jones." Mercury, 4 March 1949.)

In April, 1915, Jones enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and went overseas as a captain with the 18th Battalion. He had a distinguished career, receiving the Distinguished Service Order on two occasions, and being made a Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. He also rose to the rank of Colonel.

After the war, he resumed his profession as a civil engineer, partly with the Ontario Department of Highways. He most likely became acquainted with the Canada Ingot Iron Company in that connection. In 1925, he became Ontario sales manager for the company and was appointed general manager of the Guelph operation ten years later. There he remained until his retirement in 1946.

He was also active in other walks of life. He was actively involved with the militia, being commander of the Wellington Rifles and, during World War II, was appointed honourary colonel of the 11th Field Regiment, Guelph.

In addition, he as a city alderman (councillor) in 1943, 1944, and 1947.

Finally, he had the additional distinction of being presented to King George and Queen Elizabeth in 1939 on their visit to the Royal City during their whirlwind tour of Canada.

So, the old Armtec site is in many ways a historic one.

If you do have $22m on hand, then you may be interested in the video tour below:

Works consulted include: