Re­mem­ber­ing a gi­ant

Look­ing at the clo­sure of Cour­taulds Canada’s Corn­wall plants, 25 years later

Standard-Freeholder (Cornwall) - - FRONT PAGE - TODD HAM­BLE­TON

The Cour­taulds tex­tile fac­tory closed its doors in Corn­wall 25 years ago this month.

It’s a num­ber that has Joe Mercier shak­ing his head.

“It’s hard to be­lieve it’s been that long,” said Mercier, of Corn­wall, who worked at Cour­taulds for 33 years and had a very im­por­tant role to play af­ter the clos­ing.

Cour­taulds Canada Inc. was a sub­sidiary of a Bri­tish com­pany, built in 1924, that would be­come a big sup­plier of rayon, tire yarn, plas­tic wrap and other tex­tiles.

At peak pro­duc­tion, the bustling fac­tory in Corn­wall’s east end em­ployed close to 3,000 peo­ple – it was the largest em­ployer any­where in the city or in Corn­wall Town­ship, and it even had its own po­lice force.

Un­able to keep up with com­pe­ti­tion from over­seas, the fac­tory closed its doors in 1992.

Mercier, now 88, re­mem­bers it all well. He re­called work­ing for over a decade at a Cana­dian Coloured Cot­tons Ltd. fac­tory in Corn­wall, un­til it closed in 1959.

It wouldn’t be long be­fore Mercier, who was in his early 30s, got em­ploy­ment at Cour­taulds.

“It was an ac­count­ing job, the low­est job you could have,” Mercier said.

But he was pretty de­ter­mined to rise in the com­pany, and two weeks af­ter be­ing hired Mercier found an ac­coun­tants’ course he could do by cor­re­spon­dence. He’d study at night for six years, and grad­u­ate in 1966.

And grad­u­ate to the sec­re­tary/ trea­surer job at Cour­taulds.

Mercier re­tired in May of 1992, six months be­fore the plant closed.

But Mercier’s ser­vices were still needed.

He was given a se­ries of one-year con­tracts and worked un­til 1995.

“I was hired to look af­ter the pen­sion plan,” he said. “We had $36 mil­lion in there.”

Much of the ear­lier Cour­taulds story is told in great de­tail at the Corn­wall Com­mu­nity Mu­seum, which has a large Cour­taulds file and sev­eral re­lated ar­ti­facts.

Cour­taulds came about in Corn­wall be­cause of the Cana­dian mar­ket for rayon, or “ar­ti­fi­cial silk.” So Cour­taulds Ltd. dis­patched an en­gi­neer, John Dou­glas, to Canada to in­ves­ti­gate sev­eral po­ten­tial sites.

He’d look at over 30 ci­ties and towns in On­tario and Que­bec, and end up rec­om­mend­ing Corn­wall for three key rea­sons: plen­ti­ful sup­ply of wa­ter from the St. Lawrence River, in­ex­pen­sive elec­tri­cal power, and the lo­ca­tion was fairly cen­tral.

The sprawl­ing Cour­taulds prop­erty had pre­vi­ously been part of the 97-hectare (240-acre) Bran­dard But­ler farm and ap­ple or­chard, which ran a full three con­ces­sions deep. The But­ler fam­ily had mi­grated from Pots­dam, N.Y.

The orig­i­nal mill in 1924 would un­dergo a se­ries of ex­pan­sions; Cour­taulds would op­er­ate other mills on the same par­cel of land on Lot 4. Trans­par­ent Cel­lu­lose Film (TCF) of Canada Ltd. be­gan in 1971. It would be­come Bri­tish Cel­lo­phane Ltd. (BCL) Canada Inc. in 1980, and was later re-branded as Cour­taulds Films, op­er­at­ing at 1309 First St. E. to the north­west of Cour­taulds. TCF Plas­tics Ltd. op­er­ated from 1966 to 1975.

Wil­liam Cowl­ing, from the City of Coven­try in cen­tral Eng­land, and who would work his way up from be­ing a chemist over a 42-year ca­reer with Cour­taulds, in his rem­i­nis­cences de­scribed mov­ing his fam­ily over­seas to Canada, to Corn­wall, for a two-year ap­point­ment to Court aulds (Canada) Ltd., as as­sis­tant tech­ni­cal man­ager in the mid-1950s.

“We trav­elled to Canada in the very com­fort­able first-class sec­tion of the old Cu­nard Liner ,‘ Scythia ,’ and ar­rived at Halifax,” Cowl­ing wrote. “We went by train to Mon­treal, and were picked up by the Cour­taulds’ chauf­feur, and driven to Corn­wall, where a nice, fully-fur­nished mod­ern house awaited us at 113 Jarvis St., at the east end of Corn­wall and near to the fac­tory. It was early Novem­ber, and we were sur­prised how mild was the weather, be­fore the on­set of the se­vere Cana­dian win­ter.”

Cowl­ing would even­tu­ally have a sec­ond ap­point­ment to Corn­wall, in 1964, a per­ma­nent po­si­tion as man­ager, and he’ d go on to be one of the last pres­i­dents of the plant, from 1973-84.

Cowl­ing, who passed away at age 91 at his Corn­wall-area home this past spring, be­fore his re­tire­ment had suc­cess­fully con­vinced the com­pany to in­vest in au­tomat­ing parts of the plant in­stead of shut­ting it down, and his ac­tions were cred­ited as a big rea­son the clo­sure was de­layed for al­most an­other decade.

Back in 1926, in the Bri­tish tra­di­tion, 11 cot­tages were built for man­age­ment across Mon­treal Road from the mill. Al­to­gether, Cour­taulds would build 12 cot­tages.

One of the cot­tages was floated down the river and re­lo­cated when the area was re-de­vel­oped, but the other cot­tages re­mained, and were put on the open mar­ket in 1996. Along with sev­eral new house son the for­mer Cour­taulds park­ing lot, they would form a hous­ing sub­di­vi­sion.

Cour­taulds Films ceased op­er­a­tions in 1989, but a crew was kept on un­til 1993 to dis­man­tle the fa­cil­ity. A strip mall, the Galaxy Cin­e­mas lo­ca­tion, now sits on the north­ern edge of the site, fronting Sec­ond Street East.

Cour­taulds had shut down the re­main­der of its Corn­wall op­er­a­tion in Novem­ber of 1992, leav­ing the fi­nal 360 work­ers look­ing for work.

Why had it hap­pened? There were nu­mer­ous rea­sons, in­clud­ing a re­duc­tion in de­mand for rayon in North Amer­ica, a world­wide re­ces­sion, and more pres­sure be­ing put on the Corn­wall op­er­a­tion by in­creas­ing ex­ports lower-priced fin­ished tex­tile prod­ucts from the Far East.

Only the for­mer Cour­taulds of­fice build­ing re­mains – which has been the home to sev­eral ten­ants over the years, in­clud­ing the Stan­dard Free holder, which moved into the build­ing in 2010. tham­ble­ton@post­media.com twit­ter.com/Free­hold­erTodd

HAND­OUT/CORN­WALL STAN­DARD-FREEHOLDER

This photo pro­vided by the Corn­wall Com­mu­nity Mu­seum shows a Cour­taulds leav­ing the plant to make a de­liv­ery in the 1950s.

TODD HAM­BLE­TON/CORN­WALL STAN­DARD-FREEHOLDER

Joe Mercier, 88, for­mer sec­re­tary/trea­surer at Cour­taulds, rem­i­nisc­ing with his copy of the Sou­venir Book of Cour­taulds in Canada 1924-1992.

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