Ask Alicia – Canada Hair Cloth Co.

Hi Alicia,

I’m fairly new to St.Catharines and since I work at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, I thought I’d ask you for some history on the property. What was here before we got here?

Thanks,

Bill


Thank you for your query Bill, and welcome to this beautiful city!

The location of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts was formerly home to the Canada Hair Cloth Company.

4110-R
Photo Attribution: St. Catharines Museum R-4110

The first documented owner of the land was a company that manufactured paint called the Dolphin Mf. Co., which was in operation from approximately 1872-1878 until Mr. R. Bligh purchased the land.  The building used at that time was later demolished.

In 1888 James A. McSloy and his brother Hugh E. McSloy bought the piece of land that sat adjacent to the hydraulic raceway, from Bligh.  This area is now known as the First Welland Canal.  At the time the McSloy’s purchased the property, land in this location was in high demand.  Industries used the water from the canal to generate power. The McSloy’s purchased this land in order to build a manufacturing company / textile mill called The Canada Hair Cloth Company.

4761-N
Photo Attribution: St. Catharines Museum N-3181

James A. McSloy, who was previously in the dry goods and bakery business, founded the Canada Hair Cloth Company in 1884.  The company manufactured cloth out of hair from horse’s tails, for use by tailors in lining and padding garments and sofas.  Horse hair cloth was made by putting single strands of hair from a horse’s tail into a loom, one at a time and weaving it into cloth.  Eventually this practice was changed and they began using goat hair.

S1943-36-4-3
Caption from St. Catharines Standard 1943: “Image is of Mrs. Marjorie Raby picking up a broken thread on a warper at the Canada Haircloth Co. in St. Catharines. Many more women are needed to work in the textile industry turning out much needed cloth for military and essential civilian use.   Photo Attribution: St. Catharines Standard Collection, St. Catharines Museum, S1943.36.4.3

 

The brothers built a large 4 storey brick mill on the land. The machinery was operated by hydraulic power and the building was lit with electricity generated in the plant.   A portion of this building still exists today and has been altered to accommodate Brock University’s new off-campus school building.

Between 1910-1911 the McSloy’s had become so successful that they were able to purchase more land next to the factory, where two more buildings were erected, a project that was completed in 1915.  They were also able to begin another company called Cataract Hair Cloth Company in Niagara Falls, New York.  The brothers sold their finished goods to buyers from Canada to South America.

The company continued to prosper, and when James McSloy passed away in 1926, his son Ivan took over the company. This occurred just prior to the great depression, which forced the company to diversify in order to stay afloat. They began making draperies, hat and coat linings, silk and upholstery fabric.  Business picked up after World War II, however when Ivan McSloy died in 1945 the business was almost ruined by the estate lawyers.

3181-N
Rear of Canada Hair Cloth Co. Photo Attribution: St. Catharines Museum, N-3181

In 1947 Brigadier Robert A. MacFarlane bought out the principal shareholder; Oswald McSloy.  The MacFarlane family remained owners and operators of the Canada Hair Cloth Company for many years. In 1996 Jim MacFarlane, leased the building and all of the equipment to DHJ Canada Inc., who continued to operate a textile mill.  After much negotiation with the City of St. Catharines and Brock University, the City of St. Catharines purchased the Canada Hair Cloth building and property from MacFarlane.  The new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and Brock University Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts was subsequently built and officially opened in 2015.


 

Do you have a question about the history of a person, place or event in the history of St. Catharines? If so, contact Alicia at afloyd@stcatharines.ca.

 

 

 

One comment

  1. Just adding a note: Robert McFarland was the husband of Bessie McSloy, daughter of James McSloy. So although the surname of the owners changed, six generations of the same family owned the building throughout its lifetime as a manufacturing business.

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