Mathews Conveyer Company in Port Hope
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Mathews original Port Hope location on John Street, as it appeared in 1955
thanks to Bill McMann, Joan (Cook) Hills, Ted Jex, John Brown, Ron Jay, Rhoda (Clayton) Bullen, Joan (Facey) Ashton, Marie Robson, Margaret (Hills) Treasure, Floyd Beebe, Frank Guy, Fred Rowe and Eric Miedema
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With the Mathews Conveyer Company
from a personal history by John Syme 'Jack' Laurie (March 15, 1911-January 20, 2003)
as told to Ted Rafuse in 2001
After working on the car ferries [in Cobourg], I came back to Port Hope [in 1928]. At this time I went to Mathews Conveyer and said I would do whatever I had to, but I would just love to work for this Company. I was soon contacted by Mr Leonard T Sylvester who was then the Treasurer and Managing Director of the Company. He said, "Come down to the plant, I want to see you Jack." The factory at that time was right on the shore of Lake Ontario. The east part of the factory faced onto the Port Hope harbour. Today it is part of the Eldorado-Cameco plant.
Anyway, I went down to the plant and Mr Sylvester said, "Jack, we've got a job open here. It's a stock room clerk. You hand out things as people need them in the plant. That's the best I can do for now and it doesn't pay much money." But he said, "Would you like it?" I said, "Mr Sylvester, I would be happy to be the stock room clerk." So I got a job as a stock room clerk in 1928 at twenty-five cents an hour. What I did really was keep the stock room up to date and hand out items to the employees as they needed them. I remained with Mathews Conveyer until my retirement in 1976.
I found out later the history of the Company.
Mathews was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mathews Conveyer Company of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. The company was founded following an invention by Rufus P Mathews, Manager of the Midway Warehouse and Forwarding Company. Mr Mathews was in charge of a large warehouse midway between the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. In this warehouse were stored many hundreds of bundles of shingles which were then loaded into railway freight cars for distribution throughout the US mid-west and western states. To facilitate the transfer of these bundled shingles, Rufus Mathews conceived and created a prototype conveyer based upon two parallel rows of cast iron wheels bolted to two pieces of 2"x 4" lumber spaced 12" apart, each unit ten feet in length. Mr H L Jenkins, a local industrialist and financier, was intrigued with this device. Consequently, he established a company to create these conveyers with himself as President and Rufus Mathews as Vice President. As the Mathews Gravity Conveyer Company found it necessary to expand its operations, it transferred its manufacturing facility to Ellwood City, Pennsylvania in 1911 to be closer to the suppliers of materials used in manufacturing its Conveyer system.
During this same year, a Canadian subsidiary was established in Toronto. The parent company appointed Mr O C Sylvester Treasurer, and Mr M J Anderson as the principal officers of the new company, the Mathews Gravity Conveyer Company of Canada. The first plant was located at Sheppard and Temperance Streets, but the company quickly outgrew this facility. About 1913 the company moved to a rented larger plant at 484 Richmond Street West. Following World War I the company once again found it necessary to search for a new manufacturing facility. Impetus for a change of locale came from several sources: fire insurance rates were expensive at the Richmond plant, there was no railway connection when many of the company's products were sent nation-wide by rail, and the plant itself was split between two floors, an inconvenient arrangement for efficient manufacturing. A suitable site was found in Port Hope in 1919. West of the harbour, and on the shore of Lake Ontario, a munitions plant had been constructed during the war, but never actually commenced operation. It had a rail connection, lower insurance rates and a single-floor manufacturing space. So the company moved to Port Hope, and at the same time dropped the word gravity from its corporate entity and became known as the Mathews Conveyer Company of Canada. Mr Sylvester's son, L T Sylvester, who had joined the company in 1912 in Toronto, at this time was appointed manager of the Port Hope plant. In 1925, the Board of Directors elected him Treasurer and Managing Director of the Port Hope operations.
About three years after he had hired me Mr Sylvester came to me and said, "Jack you've got to get out of the stock room. I'm going to put you in charge of shipping and receiving. You're going to look after both." So all of a sudden I was in charge of the shipping and receiving department. I had to take care of the unloading of truck loads of equipment that came into the plant. I supervised the unloading. When we were shipping goods out I supervised the loading onto the big transports or onto a freight car. I did a lot of boxing and crating. I was pretty good with a hammer in a short time. I used to build the crates and build the boxes and get everything ready to go on the transports. The railway had a siding which came down between our plant and the west side of the harbour basin. We shipped a lot by rail freight too. I worked in this area for about five years. While at this job, I was also the greaser boy. I had to grease all the machinery in the factory on a regular basis. That helped me to get familiar with the plant in general.
In later years Mr Sylvester said this harbour plant was not big enough for us, we have to build a new one. So he bought a large piece of land on Peter Street. He was able to put together one million dollars to build a brand new plant. This new plant was about three times larger than the old plant on the lakefront. It occupied about one acre of land. I moved with the Company to Peter Street .
Meanwhile on my own initiative, I took more education in drafting and engineering and blue print reading from the International School of Correspondence in Chicago. This continued for about five years. Night after night, for many hours, I worked on these courses and diligently upgraded my education. Mr Sylvester right from the beginning knew I was working on my own to upgrade my education. I think that because I was doing this extra effort, he was interested in mentoring me within the company.
During my early years with the Company, I had contact with the rum-runner boat 'Mary H.' I supervised the repairs to rum-running boats, including the 'Mary H.' I kept track of the hours that our men worked on them. Once the repairs were completed, I gave the rum runners a bill. They always had lots of cash with which to pay. They thought the world of the Mathews Company. The 'Mary H' was constructed with a wooden hull. Following a skirmish with the US Coast Guard wherein a number of bullet holes pierced her wooden hull, steel plates above the water line were soon attached to her sides. These armour plates were manufactured at Mathews Conveyer in Port Hope. When the next skirmish with the Coast Guard took place, the bullets simply bounced off the steel plate. The rum runners loved that!
Several of the rum-running vessels carried Mathews gravity Conveyers for faster unloading of their contraband cargo. As the original plant was located adjacent to the Port Hope harbour, the Company became a repair depot for these vessels. We carried out numerous repairs to engines, repaired or replaced bent propeller shafts, plugged numerous bullet holes in hulls and provided other maintenance procedures for the local rum-runners. I was the Company contact person for these transactions with the rum-runners in the early 1930s. I loved working in this capacity with the rum runners. They were quite the individuals!
All that was between the lakeshore plant and Lake Ontario was a strip of sandy beach. During the 1930's the lake level increased dramatically and this created problems when a southwest wind brewed. At such times the waves gained height and ferocity and the resultant swells surrounded the building with water. Often the water came in over the door jambs and flooded the plant floor. To prevent this surge of water from hampering operations we developed a ready supply of filled sand bags. I recall several such floods and at these times it was all hands to the sandbags as they were piled up outside and inside the doors. In the early 1940's the water level in Lake Ontario receded, and this terminated our problem with flooding.
Then Mr Sylvester came to me again and asked me how my courses from Chicago were going. I told him I was moving on well and learning a lot and getting much better all the time. He asked if I was able to read blueprints. I responded, "Yes, I make a lot of drawings myself in my courses. I can read any kind of a blueprint." He said, "Jack, I'm going to take you out of the shipping and receiving department and you are going into the factory as a mechanic. You'll build special machinery." So he put me into the factory where I worked for another few years as a mechanic building special conveyers. I operated different machines, including the large punches and large shears and big drills.
We often made special equipment for a customer. For example if a customer had a whole row of cartons coming down a conveyer, and the tops had to be spray-glued and sealed, we would develop a machine that would fold the flaps and glue the carton. We sold machines that did such things as that. I was building those kinds of machines. These were worth quite a bit of money. We made specialized machinery in conjunction with the conveyers.
From the blueprints, we erected the machine. By the time we finished, the machinery was ready for shipping and operation. We bought plate steel that we then fabricated. A lot of the people were very inventive there, particularly in the engineering department. We used to build heavy machinery for Algoma Steel and Dofasco and Stelco. Ken Harvey and Earl Wynn were two of the best men we had in the engineering department, and we had a lot of smart men on the factory floor.
The decade of the Great Depression, from 1930-1939, was tagged the 'Dirty Thirties.' The terrible collapse of world stock markets, led by the New York Stock Exchange, was the forerunner of the Great Depression. Gradually numerous business establishments began to shrink or close their operations. Within a few years great numbers of companies went bankrupt and closed their factories. Unemployment hovered around twenty percent and many industries slowed down to working only two or three days per week. Wages were reduced at the same time, some firms lowering wages to twenty-five or thirty cents per hour.
In the 1930s, we did not have protections that we have today, such as Old Age Pensions, Canada Pension Plan, Unemployment Insurance, Medical Health coverage and many industrial pension, health and unemployment plans. You can then imagine the chaos within families when a father lost his job or had little or no income. Eventually the various levels of government established a pittance of compensation for the poorest of families. This assistance was called 'Relief' and it provided some food for the family table. Usually it was a step backward and a loss of pride to apply for this 'Relief' but many just had to do so. There was no alternative. It was that or starve.
The 1930s Depression caused cutbacks in hours available for work for myself, and others, at Mathews Conveyer Company. Eight or sixteen hours weekly was all that was available to us.
As I was approaching my thirtieth birthday, a man named George Lowthian, a foreman, was due for retirement. Mr Sylvester came to me and said to me, "I'm going to make you a foreman in the factory." So at age twenty-nine, I became a foreman. I had to supervise people, and any problems that came up I had to see that they were taken care of.
I was into a bit of everything as a foreman. Problems of one kind or another came up all the time. We made a lot of very intricate machinery. Usually one person would put together a certain kind of machine and the person next to him would be putting together another type of machine. But everybody found out how to do everything. It was an interesting period in my life.
After some years, Mr Sylvester came to me once again and said that they had lost a person in the office and that he would like to transfer me into that section. That was a separate little building. So I entered the Purchasing Department in 1935. I was there for quite a while. In 1945 I was appointed head of purchasing. After some years, Mr Sylvester again came to me and said that he wanted to see me get into some of the sales operation. So I went into sales part time and for a number of years I worked in both purchasing and sales. In the sales department, I was processing the orders that came in from the field sales people. I would write up the orders for the sales people who were operating in the field. That order would then go through the organization. In purchasing, I was buying everything imaginable. In 1952 I was named the Purchasing Agent for the Company.
Eventually it got to be too much for one person. I told Mr Sylvester that I needed a right hand man. He told me to think of a person and said that they would hire such a person for me. So I thought of Geoff Clack, a friend of mine. He had a little store on the corner of Ontario Street and Bloomsgrove Avenue. He and his wife both worked in the store. Geoff was doing alright for himself financially, but he wanted to do something different. I asked him how he would like to work at the Mathews Conveyer Company. He quickly said, "I would love it Jack." So I hired Geoff as the assistant purchasing agent. And boy did he develop on that job.
During World War II, Mathews won an interesting contract with the Department of Defense. The Department was concerned that enemy pocket battleships or submarines might gain access to Halifax harbour and shell or torpedo land sites or ships gathering to cross the Atlantic in convoys. To prevent such an occurrence, the Department determined to install a battery of heavy guns on Citadel Hill, high above the harbour and the city. A subterranean chamber was built in which to store the ammunition for these guns. Mathews was asked to design and install an automated vertical Conveyer unit to lift the shells from their underground storage area to the breech elevation of the guns. A unit suitable for this purpose was subsequently constructed in Port Hope, and installed on site in Halifax. However, we never did learn of an enemy attack on Halifax so presumably the system was never used for the purpose it was intended.
Women who worked at Mathews in 1954
One of the things we invented at Mathews was the bulk conveyer for the supermarket check out counter. There was nothing like this previously, just a table. Warren Raynor designed this in the 1940s. We made a couple of prototypes for Steinberg's.
They were made of all stainless steel with a bulk conveyer. There was a knee control to send the belt along, or to reverse it. It was then shipped to Steinberg's. After they had used a couple for a short period of time, they ordered fifty. The next thing we knew, A&P ordered one hundred of them. Soon every big supermarket across Canada wanted these bulk conveyers. Boy were we ever selling them. We had a great big machine in the factory that could handle the stainless steel and the cutting and shaping that had to be done. There was no end to the amount of business we were getting. It was going up and up and up all the time. It was almost mad the way the stores were contacting us to buy these. Often our orders amounted to one hundred at a time. It was amazing.
When we got an order for one hundred conveyers, that meant an order for one hundred motors. The requisitions would come to me and I would hand them over to Geoff Clack and he would go after General Electric, or one or two other companies, and get competitive bids. Then he would contact me and we would determine which one to give the order to for one hundred motors. Then we had to have a speed reducer for every motor. Geoff just loved it. Geoff was as sharp as anything. He often got discounts. He was a great negotiator for the Company.
Due to the incredible increase in business, Mr Sylvester determined that we had to have a new plant.
He was able to raise the necessary financing and in March, 1956, ground was broken for the construction of a new facility with 110,000 square feet of manufacturing area. In December of the same year, the company opened its new facility on Peter Street on the east end of Port Hope along Highway 2, just west of Gage's Creek. To assist in the financing of the new one million dollar plant, the old facility at the harbour was sold to Eldorado Mining and Refining (currently Cameco). The move was made over several weekends so as to avoid any loss of production time.
When the move was completed , Allan Brown, who was in charge of the business part of the office, put two or three departments under my supervision. When Allan Brown retired shortly afterwards, Mr Sylvester came to me and said, "Jack, you are going to take Allan's job and be in complete charge of the office. This space occupied all the ground floor space at the front of the plant building itself. It was a large office space. That worked out fine for me and I learned a lot more about the company and how to do things. About this same time I was appointed Assistant Manager and Director of Purchasing, and was elected a Director of Mathews Conveyor Canada Limited.
When the plant superintendent was about to retire, Mr Sylvester came to me again, and said, "Jack, I'm going to give you a shot at something different. You are going to become the plant superintendent." This meant that I was in charge of the fabrication of the orders, making sure that everyone was doing their job in the plant, and trying to do things that were good for the men in the factory. Every two weeks I went into the factory and shook hands with a certain percentage of the fellows operating the machinery. I did this every two weeks and met eight or ten fellows and talked to them about their life one way or another, and how they liked their job.
While I was the superintendent of the factory, Mr Sylvester retired from his office as President of Mathews Conveyer Company of Canada. Herb Winfield, who had been in charge of the sales department, was elected by the Board of Directors, as the new President. Mr Winfield held this position for some years.
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In the early 1960s, one day while I was vice-president, I received a call from the Department of Transport in Ottawa, from an official in charge of federal airports. He said, "Mr Laurie, I have something here to suggest to you, and I hope you will agree to it. I would like to bring a group of people to Port Hope. You get your engineers. We would all go into your board room with a large table. I would like your engineers to meet with all the managers of the Canadian air lines, and the American air lines that fly into Canada, and we'll have a big think tank." I responded, "When would you like to do that?" He said, "Within two weeks." I said, "OK, we'll be ready for you."
All these people came to Port Hope and were sitting in our board room. Herb Winfield was the president at the time. The think tank was started by the Department of Transport. They wanted ideas on how they might solve baggage handling problems at various Canadian airports. At the time, luggage came along a conveyer, then was shoved off this conveyor and tumbled down a large chute about fifteen feet long. People at the bottom of the chutes fought to get their bags. He said, "It's a terrible thing, and we want to improve on that." So we talked and talked away for a couple of hours.
After some discussion Herb Winfield, the president of Mathews, put up his hand. He said, "I've got an idea." I said, "Tell us about it." He said, "I think the answer to the whole problem here today is a carrousel. We could manufacture carrousels and put them in all the airports. The bags would come off a belt conveyer and be dropped onto a carrousel, and the carrousel would go round and round. The people would stand around the carrousel and your bag would be brought to you. No fighting at all." The man from Ottawa said, "Mr Winfield, you've got exactly what we want. Mr Laurie, how quickly can you make a prototype?" Warren Raynor, the chief engineer was present, and I looked at him and said, "Warren, you answer that question." Warren said, "Give me twelve months time and I will have one operating on the factory floor." The Department of Transport man stated that would be wonderful, and he turned to everyone around the table and said to all of the others that as soon as Mathews says they have a prototype on the floor we will contact you and you will all come back here and have a look at the prototype carrousel.
Within twelve months Warren had it all made of stainless steel. It was made with a big rubber tube at the bottom so that when your bag came down it would not be damaged. It was beautiful to look at. So we set up a belt conveyer and asked all the employees to bring their suitcases to the plant for a trial run. We had a lot of 2x4s in the shipping department, so we cut them up into pieces about eighteen inches long and put them in all the suitcases so the weight was there. So when all these people came back, there was the belt conveyer, and the bags that were going to feed the carrousel. Everything worked like a charm. The suitcases came down the conveyer, they came into the top of the carrousel, down they went and hit this large rubber tube. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company built us the tube but we had a terrible time getting the right tubing so that it resisted wearing out quickly. The Department of Transport official proclaimed that this was exactly what they wanted. He stated to all of us on the floor that he wanted to continue the meeting inside in the board room.
He started by stating that he wanted to get us all back inside so he could share information with us. He said to me, "Mr Laurie, we are going to double the size of Dorval airport in Montreal and we will want two of those carrousels as quickly as you can get them for us." I said, "When will you want them?" He indicated that the buildings would not be ready for six to eight months. I told him we could have them ready long before that. As he was leaving he told me that in two days I would get a contract for two carrousels. The first carrousels were round, but later we made them oval in shape. We later got a big contract for all the conveyers and carrousels for Mirabel Airport, north of Montreal.
As soon as we received the order for two carrousels for Dorval, we patented the idea all around the world. It was patented in the name of Herb Winfield. We eventually sent them to every country that had an airport. The carrousel was a tremendous asset to our company. We were building them constantly, with a night shift and a day shift. One of our 1971 advertising brochures indicated how extensive our production was. Over 300 carrousel systems were installed from Vancouver to Vienna, Curacao to Kuala Lumpur, Sofia to Singapore, London to Lima, Beirut to Bangkok, or Albuquerque to Zurich. All these and more had Port Hope-manufactured Mathews mechanised baggage systems installed. It was not just the carrousel but also the bulk carriers that serviced the carrousel, a complete system. A remarkable feat for a local company.
During the 1960s, I was appointed executive vice-president of the Port Hope Operations of Mathews Conveyer.
When Herb Winfield, the President, decided to retire at the beginning of 1970, the American owners of the Company had to decide who was to succeed him. Mathews was then a part of a large organization as it had merged with, and become a division of Rex Chainbelt, Inc, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on December 31, 1964. After a short period of deliberation, the directors of Rex Chainbelt decided to install me as the President of Mathews Conveyer Company of Canada, Ltd. My tenure as President and General Manager of Mathews Conveyer Company of Canada, Ltd, Port Hope, commenced on September 1, 1970.
I served as the Company's President for a number of years. During my tenure as President, I was surrounded by many talented engineers who were constantly creating new products. The airport carrousel continued to be the Company's money machine. It was installed around the globe. We were making money hand-over-fist. We had two plants in the United States but we were making more money than the two American plants. We really had a good thing going here in Port Hope manufacturing supermarket checkout conveyers and airport luggage carrousels. We were booming. We had 325 employees working two shifts in Port Hope and we had 125 employees working in a rented factory in Cobourg. Ward Hoffman was our manager in Cobourg. Meanwhile we were also making hundreds of stainless steel belt conveyers for supermarket checkout counters.