humble beginnings

Six Nations land along the Speed River - Our Mill History

the start – 1798

A group of Mennonites from Pennsylvania purchased 90,000 acres from the Six Nations in 1798. The first settler in the area was Abraham Clemens in 1809. In the early 1830’s, Joseph Oberholtzer purchased a large portion of land that would later become part of Hespeler.  Joseph erected a saw mill on our property and ran it successfully from 1837 to 1863, when he sold everything to Jacob Hespeler.

Jacob already had his hands full with multiple businesses and his newly launched (1862) textile mill at the upper dam. He immediately sold the property to his son-in-law, Herbert M. Farr and two others, George Randall & Shubel H. Randall.

The Randall, Farr and Company removed the buildings and erected two new stone buildings in 1864. Estimated costs for the construction was $100,000.

In 1874, Randall and Farr deeded the buildings, land and 3 tenements to the J. Schofield Company. On February 2, 1874, Robert Forbes noted that he bought the Farr Factory and made a payment of $27,000. He also paid Jonathan Schofield’s mortgage on the property and a partnership between the Schofield and Forbes was formed. 

Joseph Oberholtzer operated his saw mill on the property from 1837 – 1863.

Randall, Farr and Company

Randall, Farr and Company early operations.

herbert marshall farr  (1841 – 1900)

Herbert married Jacob Hespeler’s daughter Anna, June 1864. The two would leave the village of Hespeler for Holyoke, Massachusetts in 1873. Randall, Farr and Company was doing well in Hespeler, but Herbert was not happy with taxation laws and wanted a better opportunity south of the border. 

He would go on to start the Farr Alpaca company with co-founder, Joseph Metcalf. The company would become the largest alpaca woollen mill in the world. George Forbes would spend some time there to learn the skills of the textile industry.

Herbert suffered from severe bouts of depression and ultimately took his own life November 1900. Herbert and Anna had two daughters, Linnie (1865 – 1873) and Flora (1867 – ?). Anna remained in Massachusetts until her death in 1915. 

View the impressive success of the Farr Alpaca Company.

the forbes empire

As Jacob Hespeler’s influence waned, Robert Forbes became the local prominent businessman.

Robert Forbes

In October of 1880, Robert Forbes bought out his partner, Jonathan Schofield, and continued his expansion of the business. The company became the R. Forbes and Co. Ltd.

The mill was powered by water early on, but it was a challenge to produce enough power as expansion continued. In 1887, the Robert Forbes and Co. purchased a steam engine from Goldie McCullough in Galt. Between the available water power and supplemental steam engine, the mill was able to keep up with demand.

robert forbes

1814 – 1895

In 1888, the company was incorporated and Robert’s son, George “Duthie” Forbes took over as company President and was joined in running operations with his brother James.

Under the management of James & George Forbes the company grew and thrived. James Forbes unexpectedly died in February 1891, followed by his father Robert in 1895, leaving the company completely under the control of George Duthie Forbes.

Early Days of Robert Forbes Sole Ownership of the Mill

The Mill Power

Natural light and coal oil lamps were the primary source of lighting until a gas plant was built in 1880. The new gas plant was a success, but two small explosions caused injury to several employees. In 1891, electricity for lighting was purchased from Edison General Electric Co. The $2600.00 cost included all lamps, dynamo and installation. The mill supplied its own power for lighting until 1903 when the service was taken over by the Hespeler municipal power plant.

The mill fully moved to electric power for textile production in 1916.  

george duthie FORBES

 1860 – 1934

George takes the reigns in 1895

George Duthie Forbes, known affectionately by all as “the Chief”, continued a series of plant expansions, removing the old wooden frame buildings and using stone and brick building materials instead. 

George was responsible for completing many of the building expansions that remain until the 1980s.

George Duthie Forbes

R. Forbes Company 1908

A 1920’s Film Production

This is a film made several years ago. It shows some of our workers after their shift and some of our worker’s homes beside the mill (Indeed they have long journey for their shift).

It was filmed on early 16mm film and therefore did not include sound.

R. Forbes Co Outdoor Sign

This was the official company sign at the office entrance until 1928. The painted ‘1866’ is based on an original photo of the Mill. However,  Randall and Farr were owners until 1873. It was likely a misunderstanding of the sign maker and it was added in error. The date itself seems to have no significance.

The Mark of Quality

Dominion Woollens Logo

In 1928, George Duthie Forbes sold the business. The business was merged with Canadian Woollens to form Dominion Woollen & Worsted Ltd. The Forbes mill included buildings in Hespeler, Milton and Orillia. The merger brought on locations in Peterborough and Toronto.

George continued to be active in the community but sadly passed away in 1934.

Despite the oncoming Depression, the company continued to be profitable and we are often touted as the largest woollen mill in the British Empire. We’re thankful we made it through the Great Depression. We owe much of our success to the highly skilled and passionate men and women who work so hard here at the mill.

In 1945, we are the largest employer in Hespeler and continue to be a key contributor to the War effort.