My Canada, 98/150: Plowing ahead

The first time I visited a new friend at his home, we walked around and looked at his extensive collection of framed family photos and mementos. One was of a young blonde woman. “My cousin Verity,” said friend John. I burst out laughing. Who names a kid Verity?

It turns out that Verity was a cherished family name and is, in fact, an important part of Canadian industrial and agricultural history.

The Verity family, led by patriarch William H. Verity (John’s great-great grandfather), were ironmongers. When they immigrated to Canada from York in England, they settled in Exeter, Ontario, where there was available land and the Ausable River, a water source for their foundry.

There were five Verity sons and together they developed an alloy and a curvature of plow blade for a horse-pulled plow that was strong enough to clear the rough lands of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, which has shale, rock, and volcanic debris shoved around by ancient glaciers. The Veritys also cast molds to make cast-iron frying pans and pots. Somehow they attracted the attention of Hart Almerrin Massey, a Toronto industrialist, who also was investing in agriculture implement manufacturing. Letters patent in 1892 formed Verity Plow Company and the family moved operations to Brantford, Ontario.

“What these guys were trying to do was to make products to homestead the whole country,” my Verity-related friend John Sterne told me. “People were clearing land from one end of Canada to the other.”

Foundries needed masses of cold water: Brantford had the Grand River and by 1848 the river had been made navigable via canals and locks so the city was joined to the Great Lakes and its shipping routes. As well, Brantford connected by rail lines to Hamilton, Toronto, Port Dover, London, Buffalo, and Detroit. By 1900, Brantford was the third-largest manufacturing centre in Canada, after only Toronto and Montreal.

Prior to the formation of Verity Plow, the Brantford-based Harris and Toronto-based Massey farm equipment manufacturers were in hot competition, particularly over who could manufacture the best “grain binders”, which mechanized the bundling of grain after it was cut, something that was crucial for Canadian farming where an early onset of winter would cut short the time farmers had to hand-bundle cut grain. This resulted in what historians call  “The Binder Wars” which, according to the Manitoba Agricultural Museum, resulted in “hoards of salesmen combing rural areas for prospective sales, field challenges, binder tournaments at fall fairs, sales prospects being taken out to dinner in carriages, parades arranged for binder delivery and handbills announcing successful sales being distributed in rural areas. When a sale was made, opposing salesmen would descend on the farmer in an effort to entice him to change his mind. Fistfights reportedly broke out at times between competing salesmen.”

The binder wars ended in a truce / merger when these two companies joined forces as Massey Harris in 1891. Another farm implement giant, The Cockshutt Plow Company, also grew up in Brantford: it began life as the Brantford Plow Works making stoves, cultivators, and walking plows. By 1903, it built a factory in Brantford that covered 23 acres.

98 massey harris front view
A Massey-Harris tractor on display at a farm equipment exhibition, decorated with  post-1965 Canadian flags. Photo: Martin Keenan

All the families of these farm-equipment makers intermarried and, eventually, the companies did, too, with Verity coming under the Massey-Harris banner in 1914; that company became a world leader after merging with Ferguson, a British manufacturer, to become Massey-Harris Ferguson in 1953, shortened to Massey Ferguson in 1958. Several members of the Verity family had leadership roles in the new company.

According to an article in the Brantford Expositor, in the early 1960s, the company employed more than 40,000 people and sold farm machinery, implements, light industrial tractors, equipment, diesel engines, and steel office furniture in 161 countries and territories. It expanded its footprint its in Brantford in 1964, when the company officially opened a new $13.5-million combine plant.

For the next 20 years, despite its size and market dominance, the company see-sawed between profitability and loss. There were government bailouts, investors, and managers trying to keep the company in a successful furrow. The company renamed itself Varity (a play on the former Verity name) and in 1985 it put several money-losing divisions into a new entity, Massey Combines Corporation. In 1988, this corporation went into receivership owing creditors $290 million; the big Brantford plant, which had employed 2,500 people, was shut down.

Tractors with the name “Massey Ferguson” and the signature red chassis continue to be made by ACGO, an American manufacturer, the brand and designs having passed through other corporate hands. But Brantford is no longer a centre of farm industry: none of the big manufacturers of the past are there, anymore. A 2014 report reveals the largest factory in the city that year employed 800 people to make chocolate candies (Ferrero) and the next-biggest four plants each employed about 400 to make cleaning products, waffle makers, generic pharmaceuticals, and to run a warehousing business.

The Country Heritage Park near Milton, Ontario has become steward to the artifacts of this story: one of its 30 buildings is dedicated to all things Massey, Harris, and Ferguson, that collection largely acquired after the Brantford plant shut down and someone thought to send the factory’s archive of history elsewhere for safekeeping. As well, among the descendants of the Verity family, you may find a large garden ornament that, on closer inspection, reveals itself as a plow blade once strong enough to cultivate the toughest of grounds.

Main photo: Martin Keenan




One Comment Add yours

  1. Carl, Julie says:

    Have you heard anything yet?


    Julie Carl
    Senior Editor
    National/ Urban Affairs & Social Justice
    Toronto Star

    Sent from my iPhone, iMine, all iMine

    Liked by 1 person

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