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Memories of the Mill

Last week, I walked through Kingston’s Inner Harbour and along the shoreline of the Cataraqui River. I tried to imagine the Inner Harbour at its industrial peak, bustling with the activity of people, boats, trains, and horses. I tried to imagine the sounds of whistles and the men shouting, the sight of goods being loaded and unloaded, the rumble of the trains approaching, the smells of oil and coal and smoke. What was the Inner Harbour like 50 years ago?

Talking to Ken Cuthbertson helped to answer my question. Ken grew up on Rideau Street just west of the Inner Harbour in the 50s and 60s. His house was around the corner from the Woollen Mill, and although Ken didn’t know anyone who worked there, it made quite an impression on him:

When I was a kid, you could hear whistles, morning, noon, night. It was announcing the shift changes … They were characteristic because the whistle would go at 7:30 or something, announcing it was time for work, and you used to see people – if you’ve ever seen the movie Norma Rae, it was like that, you know – [The Mill] had these shift changes and [you’d see] all these women with their kerchiefs on, primarily women, with their lunch buckets under their arm, walking down the street. When the whistle blasted at noon they’d all stop for lunch and 20 minutes later or whatever, it would blast again and same thing in the evenings, at like 4:30 or 5:00.

Ken remembers how he and his friends would stick their heads through the open windows of the factory’s first floor, where “row upon row upon row upon row” of looms were worked by the employees, usually two per person. The kids would shout, “Hey, got any pop bottles!?” over the constant and ear-shattering clickidy-clack, clickidy-clack, clickidy-clack of the looms. If they were lucky, they would get a few empty bottles passed to them through the open windows and with these prized objects in hand, they would immediately run off to the corner store to trade the bottles for candy. A bottle was worth 2 cents and Ken could get 3 pieces of candy for a penny. Honeymoons, toffee-like candies coated in chocolate, were among his favourites.

The Cotton Mill, under Dominion Textile Co. c. 1905. From A Souvenir of Kingston, courtesy of Queen’s University Archives

The Woollen Mill, run by Hield Brothers from 1931 to 1966, was built as a cotton mill in 1889. Producing everything from “grey cloth” to WWI khaki, the Cotton Mill employed hundreds of skilled labourers in the neighbourhood. But the Great Depression hit Kingston in 1929, forcing the mill to close its doors. Because the closure left hundreds without jobs, the City of Kingston offered incentives to the Hield Brothers, an English company, who converted the mill to the production of worsted woollen fabric. Five years later, the company had 150 employees and 130 looms, an astonishing accomplishment considering that the Depression still affected most of Canada. With the outbreak of WWII in 1939, Hield Brothers’ success continued to grow. The wartime demand for wool for uniforms and blankets made the mill an “essential industry.” Most of the cloth the mill produced during the 1940s was used to outfit the Royal Canadian Air Force and other branches of the army.

For more information on the history of the Woollen/Cotton Mill and its various transformations, take a look at But Before That… A History of the Woollen/Cotton Mill by R. Bruce Warmington.

Special thanks to Ken Cuthbertson for his wonderful stories.

— Bronwyn Jaques