For many people, history means learning about their past, their ancestors and where they come from. Living and working and walking the same streets as our parents and grandparents can be a nostalgic experience. This week Gerry H. of St. Catharines is interested in learning about one of the places that his grandfather worked; The Whitman & Barnes Manufacturing Company.
The building that was once home to Whitman & Barnes, or as was locally dubbed “the knife factory” was located on Oakdale Avenue, next to the old Welland Canal between locks 5 and 6, on the site that was previously where John Riordon ran the Riordon Paper Mill. In 1870 the original building was renovated and new machinery was installed. The machines were powered by waste water that ran through the locks of the canal.
The business was managed by George Burtch and Samuel Collinson and was originally called Collinson, Burtch and Company. In 1880 Burtch and Collinson consolidated with Whitman & Barnes Company, a branch of Canada Knife Works, and therefore changed the name. The company had other branches located in the United States, France and England. The St. Catharines location manufactured blades for various cutting tools such as mowers, reapers, binder straw cutters, and planers. They supplied local paper mills with cutting apparatus but also shipped their goods far and wide to the United States, Europe, South America, Africa and Australia. The company began with approximately 20 employees but at its peak there were around 160 individuals working at the factory.
During the First World War, Whitman and Barnes lost some of its employees to the war effort. Of the men who left the knife works to serve their country in WWI, 23 were killed in action. Eventually, due to lack of demand the company went out of business. Just after the end of the First World War, McKinnon Industries Ltd. bought the building.
In April 1966 the building was severely damaged by fire. Between 1986-1987 the building was renovated by the Welland Canals Preservation Association and the Welland Canals Society who had received funding of $47, 500 for the restoration. The plan was for the Association to move its offices into the historic building, but they dissolved shortly after moving in.
In 1991, the City of St. Catharines acquired the building. It was determined that the building needed repairs to the roof and west wall which would have cost a minimum of $135,000. In 1994 the heritage advisory committee toured the building in order to make a decision about whether or not the building should be given heritage designation. In the end it was not designated due to its state of disrepair. Unfortunately in February 1997, the building was again destroyed by fire. Fire officials stated that the supporting beams of the building were twisted by the heat and the building was no longer stable. Structural damage was estimated at over $30,000. The building was inevitably demolished.