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In its heyday, Office Specialty employed 400 in massive complex (18 photos)

In this week's Remember This?, History Hound Richard MacLeod chronicles the rise and fall of Office Specialty, which helped to grow Newmarket from its beginnings in 1896 to its end in 1971

 Office Specialty Manufacturing Company was a major industry in Newmarket for 75 years, employing more than 400 employees and standing as one of the big three in the development of our town.  

The company manufactured a full range of office equipment and, at its height, was the largest manufacturer of office equipment in the British Empire. 

The Specialty got its start in Rochester, New York in 1880, making specialty items for such established companies as Eastman Kodak. Initially called Yawman and Erbe, after the original partners, in 1895, with their business and office product line rapidly expanding, they changed their name to the Office Specialty Manufacturing Company.

A Canadian branch of ‘the Specialty was opened in Toronto in 1895 with a small showroom and warehouse. In 1887, they opened another branch in Montreal. These two locations were primarily sales and distribution centres with products still being produced in the U.S.

In 1891, the decision was made to find a place to manufacture the product line for Canadian distribution. James P. Wildman, who was the Canadian manager, knew of a place just north of Toronto that was perfect for their needs.

In Newmarket stood a three-storey brick building flanking the east side of the railway track and operated by a company called The Novelty Company that manufactured bicycles and baby carriages primarily. In 1894, this company was in liquidation, putting 30 employees out of work. 

Mayor Henry S. Cane, councillor N. J. Roadhouse and town solicitor T. J. Robertson brokered a deal in which the Specialty would pay $1,200, commit to the employment of at least 40 people and guarantee to stay for at least five years. The Town also granted a waiver of all taxes (except for school taxes) for a period of 10 years from Jan. 1, 1896 and a free supply of water for drinking and fire protection.  

This location proved to be ideal with easy access to rail transport for receiving and shipping goods. The factory was operated by waterpower with a flume and head race from Fairy Lake and the tail race into the lowlands north of Timothy.  This eventually proved inadequate and was replaced by steam generation.  

By 1898, there were 80 workers and, in 1898, a loan of $5,000 was given to the company to enlarge the plant. A four-storey unit measuring 236 ft. x 75 ft. adjoined the boiler room area. In 1905, there were now 200 employees and, in 1910, the building was further expanded to Water Street. The plant would now stretch from Timothy to Water Street and employ more than 380.

We must remember that the population of Newmarket in 1904 was approximately 2,300 and, by 1912, it sat at 3,500, largely due to the employment opportunity afforded by companies like the Specialty. New branches were added across Canada from east to west with an extensive sales network being established.  

The Specialty acquired the 15 acres extending east from Timothy to Queen Street in 1910 and, in 1912, a new 153 ft. by 30 ft. factory was erected on the north side of Timothy for the manufacturing of wooden chairs, desks, chairs and filing cabinets. The plant to the south of Timothy to Water street was used primarily for steel fabrication.  It also housed the boiler and power plant. In 1913, a tunnel was constructed between the two building units, under Timothy Street.

In 1920, a decision was made to relocate the head office from Toronto to Newmarket.  Because both plants were working at full capacity, they leased the bottom floor of the Royal Hotel at Millard and Main Street, accommodating 55 office staff.

A further expansion took place in 1929 when a 200 ft. by 60 ft. addition was added to the woodworking section with dry kilns. At this time, the head office personnel were moved into the northern section and a new façade was built to allow an entrance from Timothy Street.

There were more than 400 employees with the work week being from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with one hour for lunch.  A salary was $17 to $20 per week, with no taxes or benefits. The employees were given no holidays except statutory holidays.  This was to continue until the 1930s, when the Great Depression forced shorter hours and the reduction of staff to part-time in many cases. This was the case until the end of the ‘30s.

During the war, competition for available labor forced the Specialty to offer higher wages.  It was not until the 1950s that benefits such as unemployment insurance and pension plans were offered. A union was also formed during that period.

The Second World War brought an increase in business for the Specialty, the Department of Defence being a major purchaser of their product line. Post war, reconstruction further increased their business and the feeling was that the future looked very bright indeed. This led to the Specialty purchasing property on the west side of Prospect Street at Water and in June of 1949, a new three-storey building was opened, and personnel were transferred from Timothy Street. At the same time, a secondary plant was constructed in Holland Landing for steel products.

Unfortunately, the Specialty’s foothold on the business equipment market, which it had held since 1895, was beginning to dwindle as more competition here in Canada grew and the American suppliers came north.  

The aging of their workforce, both in the areas of production and management, most having devoted their working life to the Specialty, brought a huge attrition rate. New legislation required that people retire at 65, which proved to be a problem. Expertise was leaving the firm and the new management seemed unable to cope with the rapid change in the market. Amazingly, many of the senior staff, in 1960, retired with up to 55 years of service, a huge loss.

In 1961, the Specialty was sold to Anthes Imperial Company of St. Catharines, with promises that nothing would change, jobs would be secured, and operations would remain unchanged.  However, in 1966, the paper and printing division was moved to Brampton, resulting in the loss of 36, mostly female, positions locally.

In 1970, it was announced the factory unit located between Timothy and Water streets would close, as well as the offices on Prospect Street. The entire steel fabrication unit was moved to the Holland Landing plant.

In August 1971, the unit to the north of Timothy was closed completely, with staff laid off. This was the end of Office Specialty in Newmarket. Negotiations began for the sale of the office building on Prospect to the York Regional government for $225,700 for the York Regional Police headquarters.

Many of us remember the spectacular fire that occurred in April 15, 1971, which only served to accelerate the demolition of the building. The factory unit to the north of Timothy was left vacant and stood idle until offices and the Elman Campbell Museum were located there. Eventually, the building would be purchased and deluxe lofts constructed, incorporating the old structure.  

You can read more about the story of the Town’s bid to purchase the building for a new complex to also include a town office here.

In the fall of 1977, it was decided to build a new nine-storey, 100-unit seniors citizens apartment building on the south side of Timothy Street.

And there ends the story of the Office Specialty Manufacturing Company, one of the big three industries upon which Newmarket was built.

Sources: The History of Early Industry in Newmarket by George Luesby; The Newmarket Era; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; Stories of Newmarket by Robert Terence Carter  

*************** brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at [email protected].

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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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