A catalyst in a golden era of industry. Powered by the waters of the Second Welland Canal. A surviving remnant of the past that has withstood fire, neglect, time, and significant change. The Independent Rubber Company building, with its towering smokestack, is an enduring testament to Merritton’s industrial heritage.
On this episode of History from Here, host Sara Nixon visits the former site of the Independent Rubber Company, now The Keg Steakhouse + Bar.
The first factory to operate at this site was a wood-frame mill, which produced cotton from as early as 1857. Established by W.W. Wait, Beaver Cotton Mills manufactured yarn, twines, cotton bags, and wadding for the emerging textile industry in the area. It was the first factory of its kind in Canada. Surrounded by the waters of the Welland Canal, the mill sat on essentially an island– the water being used for transportation, as well as a source of power. A weir was located behind the building, and a flume directed water to two waterwheels inside the factory that powered the cotton mill. This was the beginning of a golden era of industrial prowess in Merritton that lasted through the First World War, ushered in by the Second Welland Canal and the arrival of the Great Western Railway. A second cotton mill was built across the road in 1861, and other industries soon followed. By 1879, Merritton Cotton Mills, as the factory was later called, was one of the village’s largest employers with 100 workers. Merritton had a population of 2000 at the time.
In 1881, a fire destroyed the mill. The factory was quickly rebuilt, this time of stone. In fact, the local red sandstone used in construction was also used to build Merritton Town Hall and Riordan Paper Mill, both located nearby. The cotton mill continued operation for 25 more years.
After sitting vacant for a brief time, the factory was taken over by the Independent Rubber Company in 1912, manufacturing rubber footwear. Despite expanding the facilities on site to increase production, Independent Rubber could not keep up with their competitor in Port Dalhousie, and the factory closed its doors in 1919.
The industrial complex once again stood vacant, this time until 1935, when a local paper manufacturer purchased the site to use as storage.
In 1961, the site once again met a fiery catastrophe. Filled to the brim with paper products, the facility was quickly engulfed in flames after children playing with firecrackers allegedly got carried away. It was Victoria Day weekend. The smoke and flames were said to be seen from as far as Buffalo and Toronto. Only one building survived the blaze: the old powerhouse, which once housed steam sheds and water turbines for the factory.
In the following decades, the site fell into disrepair as the Merritton community continued to grow and change around it. Then, in the late-1990s, out-of-town developers began to take interest in redeveloping the land for retail opportunities. After learning of plans to raze the historic building, as well as the surrounding Second Welland Canal remnants, the community sparked into action to protect the remaining heritage. In 2001, the building came into the hands of a local developer intending to preserve its vital connection to Merritton’s industrial legacy. The structure was restored, and its interior renovated for use as a restaurant. In 2002, the building was reopened, entering its new cycle of life as The Keg restaurant. Its signature brick smokestack still a landmark in Merritton, and remnants of the old canal locks and weirs that once sustained its operation still meander the park in the background.