Historical Cordage Factory to Warehousing Op to
111 Sherwood Drive,
From 1901 to its sale in 1968, the site was the home of Brantford Cordage, a major manufacturer of ropes and binder twine.
A history of Brantford Cordage can be found in A CITY'S INDUSTRIAL HERITAGE: The growth and demise of fifteen major manufacturers in Brantford, Ontario, by Mike Hand. Please see below for earlier historical information obtained with permission from this important book.
At the time of its closure and sale it was owned by a company named Tancord. It was purchased by four local businessmen, Leon Rotberg, Jack Rotberg, Paul Abeles and Jack Brown.
At the time the site included an office building on the opposite side of Sherwood Drive, as well as approximately 212,000 square feet of manufacturing space on 12 acres on Sherwood Drive near West Colborne Street. The new owners sold off the office building and that building has been used as a group home for some years.
The new owners rented the entire 212,000 square feet to a company called Traffix, operated by Bill Neumann, who was experienced in industrial warehousing, and he successfully operated a large warehousing company until the late ‘80s. The business was so successful that in the early 70's the owners built two concrete block additions totaling 100,000 square feet to allow for the warehousing company's growth.
Due to their increasing age, the four local business owners sold the complex in the late 80's to a group of Toronto businessmen. Mr. Neumann ended his long involvement as the tenant shortly thereafter. The new owners attempted to carry on a similar warehousing business, but they were unsuccessful. The buildings lapsed into disrepair and eventually the original local businessmen had to take back the property under a mortgage foreclosure. Unfortunately, the Toronto owners had run up some $400,000 in property tax arrears and had erected some illegal partitions. The property was becoming quite a challenge for the by-then elderly group.
The group, by then represented by Howard Rotberg, the son of Leon, and a practicing real estate development lawyer in Kitchener for 20 years, and by Jack Brown, the former proprietor of Brown’s Clothing on Market Street and a former Brantford City Councillor, tried for a couple of years to find managers to run the business. As the managers could not overcome the challenges of the older buildings, Rotberg made the decision to retire from his law practice and run the business hands-on (and also to become active in the development of affordable rental housing in converted heritage buildings in Southern Ontario). He was joined by the newly-retired Jack Brown who commuted from Toronto for a couple of years before his death in the early 2000's and the warehousing business became known as Brantcord Warehousing.
Through commitment and hard work Brantcord was able to pay back to the City of Brantford the entire $400,000 in tax arrears which it had inherited when it got the site back. There is no doubt that such an additional expense substantially slowed down the ability to improve and repair the site, but Brantcord took the view that such a payment evidenced its commitment to being a good corporate citizen.
Over time, two of the oldest buildings became structurally unstable. With flat roofs and wooden beam construction, the entry of water through the roof began a process of rotting structural supports and these two sections had to be demolished. These buildings were approximately 60,000 square feet at the front of the property, and a 40,000 square foot section of a larger building right behind the main office. Part of that building had a sloped roof, and so it was able to be saved, but the part with the flat roof was condemned by structural engineers.
There still remained more than 100,000 square feet of historical buildings and 100,000 square feet of newer buildings. Among the historical buildings are architecturally significant former manufacturing areas, especially the 60,000 square foot building on the east side of the property, and some smaller double brick units with beautiful wood panelled high ceilings, including one triangular shaped unit of about 6000 square feet, and others fronting on the former railway spur line which serviced the property until the railroad discontinued operations and removed all the tracks 6 or 7 years ago.
Still proudly standing are two small office buildings and a nice brick four bay garage, the latter of which is hoped to become three small artisan studios.
Over the years some environmental remediation was done. Underground gas tanks were removed and soon, a buried rail car which had historically stored oil (subsequently pumped out some years ago) will be removed. Under the City of Brantford’s Brownfields Financial Tax Incentive Program, some contamination was removed behind a large triangular warehouse building sitting on the northeast corner of the property. For years this building had been rented out to a flooring wholesale operation, but when it moved to a new location, Rotberg used his expertise as an affordable housing developer to re-develop the building into 28 affordable housing suites, constructed by Waterloo’s King Street Holdings. This innovative project, named ‘The Cordage Lofts’ to maintain the historic name connection, utilized a development technique pioneered by Rotberg in Kitchener, where the building site was environmentally remediated and the adjoining area, contaminated with petrochemicals many feet below the surface but not moving, was kept in the original ownership but, with municipal approval, was granted a parking easement in perpetuity, for the tenants of the apartment building in the old warehouse.
Additionally, environmental remediation was undertaken along the northwest boundary of the property where some additional land, formerly owned by the railroad, was purchased from the City, along with some land owned by a neighbour, and all of it was remediated and certified by engineers to provincial standards. This site has now been severed and rezoned for retail, and will host a retail plaza with offices above. Again, some land which cannot be remediated will serve as paved parking areas only.
As their industrial warehousing business grew, Brantcord expanded by purchasing the 50,000 square foot former Magnetic Metals plant directly behind it, fronting on Spalding Drive. This was used mainly for warehousing until the Company decided to reduce its presence in the industrial warehousing market, and the property was sold earlier in 2012.
Over the years of his operation of the complex, Rotberg endeavoured to keep a balance between industrial and commercial warehousing and small defined-area units leased to small shops and companies undertaking their own warehousing and distribution activities. By the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century however, Brantford’s newer industries which had grown and flourished from the 1970s on, started closing. This was in part due to competition from China and other lower cost environments, and also because many had been purchased by American companies, which were forced to close their Canadian locations when US economic conditions made it more efficient for them to consolidate their operations in the US.
Over the past several years, new residential growth in Brantford flourished in the West Brant area from Shellards Lane, stretching south along the new Veterans Memorial Parkway. Some 5,000 new single family homes have already been constructed, with another 5,000 to come over the next few years. Thus, the ‘West Brant’ area of Brantford, once viewed as the ‘poor cousin’ of the main part of the City on the east side of the Grand River, began its new stature as home to middle, and upper-middle class housing. Accordingly, the Cordage site, once on the western fringes of the City, now sits in the exact centre of a fast-growing West Brantford, surrounded by houses, both old and new, Cockshutt Park, and the Arnold Anderson Baseball Stadium.
West Brant, home to so many new houses, still only has the small retail area on West Colborne Street and some newer strip plazas, including a large one hosting a 24-hour supermarket and a Pharmacy. Except for sports and recreation areas, the area still lacks a commercial centre with interesting commercial and cultural aspects.
The combination of the declined manufacturing creating a decreased demand for industrial warehousing, the ever-increasing need for services for the spate of new residents, and West Brant’s proud new image as a vital and growing part of the rest of Brantford, has resulted in Brantcord deciding the time is right for a redevelopment of its historical industrial site.
Many renovations are needed to evolve the once derelict industrial site into the vibrant centre of West Brant, which will include a creative community of artisans, a weekend marketplace and a museum district. The first phase of renovations, which includes paving, landscaping, lighting, and improvements to the heritage buildings, has already commenced.
Brantford Artisans' Village has already welcomed its first artisans including woodworkers, candlemaker, ropemaker, watercolor/acrylic artist, personal trainer, pet urn maker, printer, publisher, boat restorer and more.
This site is now Brantford's only heritage industrial site left still standing. In 1914 Brantford was the third largest exporting city in Canada.
We hope to make the former Brantford Cordage site into one which all Brantford residents can be proud of, and where commerce, culture and tourism will flourish. For further information email BrantfordArtisansVillage@gmail.com
A History of Brantford Cordage,
1901 to 1972
As West Brant Centre renovates and restores our industrial heritage site, we think it appropriate to review the history of the company that occupied this site and built many of the buildings - Brantford Cordage.
In fact, of the dozen or so major industries located in Brantford, at a time when it rose to become the third largest exporting city in Canada, only the Brantford Cordage buildings remain intact and are being used.
The other industries which made Brantford an economic powerhouse live on in the memory of Brantford’s older citizens but there is hardly a trace today of such massive industries as:
Massey Harris – Massey Ferguson
Waterous Engine Works – Koehring Waterous
Buck Stove Co. – Happy Thought Stoves
Paterson & Sons – George Weston
Cockshutt Plow Co. – White Farm Equipment
Goold Shapely & Muir – Goold Cycle
Verity Plow Co.
Ham & Nott
Brantford Screw – Stelco Fastener – Genfast
Pratt & Letchworth – Can Car
Adams Wagon Company – Brantford Carriage – Brantford Coach & Body – Trailmobile
For an excellent short book on the history of these companies, see Mike Hand's, A City’s Industrial Heritage: The growth and demise of fifteen major manufacturers in Brantford, Ontario. See www.mikehandbooks.com. We thank Mr. Hand for permission to draw upon his work in the following history:
Brantford Cordage was built at the site of a very small rope factory called Continental Cordage Company, which was established in the later 19th century, once a good bridge was built over the Grand River. That company had closed after the government removed import duties on twine, as it could not compete with American manufacturers.
Mr. C.L. Messecar came from a farm family south of Brantford, attended the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, and for a number of years after graduation, sold farm implements and worked for a time at Massey Harris. Then, he decided to buy the closed small cordage plant.
With competition from the U.S. and other plants in Canada, Messecar knew that the only path to success was to manufacture and sell the best product at the best possible price. This required innovative manufacturing, efficiencies of scale, astute purchases of raw materials from overseas and experimentation to increase the quality of the product. In these areas, Messecar was successful, and as farmers understood that binder twine from Brantford Cordage Company was breaking less frequently than other brands, Messecar was able to increase production and gain the much needed economies of scale. Raw materials including sisal from Mexico, manila from the Philippines and hemp from New Zealand were purchased at the best price possible and stored in the new warehouses he added to the site. Messecar’s diligence and intelligence resulted in annual twine production by 1909 reaching 2,000 tons and Brantford Cordage succeeding while some 12 Canadian competitors closed up shop.
Although a fire destroyed the warehouse in 1913, it was able to be rebuilt and a second warehouse and a second mill were added in 1915, leading to increased production of 8,000 tons annually and exports to the United Kingdom, Europe, Greece and Argentina.
By 1925 the company had some 300,000 square feet of manufacturing, warehouse and office space, and a Brantford Expositor article noted that the name Brantford on so many balls of twine made the City of Brantford known to people in most of the grain growing countries of the world.
The author, Mike Hand, in his comments on the Brantford Cordage, notes the consistent maintenance of the hundreds of automatic machines used throughout the huge plant and excellence in the control of raw material purchasing. In the strength of its management, the Cordage shared a winning attribute with the other growing Brantford factories, whose local management reflected due care, intelligence, steady growth, and community involvement. The sad story of the decline of Brantford manufacturing plants is one of international corporations buying the results of all this hard work and then closing the plants due to mismanagement or consolidation elsewhere.
In 1931, C.L. Messecar passed away and was succeeded by his son, W.M. Messecar, who after service in World War I, had spent years learning every aspect of the business and continued its profitable history. Mike Hand notes how, when W.M. Messecar learned that the Canadian government was going to pass a 4% import duty but was not going to include binder twine, he threatened to close the factory because he would still pay import duties on raw material imports but would be uncompetitive with American imports coming in free of tax. The government backed down the same day as the threat was made by agreeing to include binder twine in the import duties.
The local management continued to deal with the ups and downs of the agricultural market for its products. Then in the 1940s, the introduction of the combine harvester and its manufacture by Brantford companies, reduced the demand for binder twine. So, by 1948, management implemented a plan to move some production from binder twine to baler twine. Binder twine was confined to one mill, but at the same time the machinery was completely updated. Baler twine winders were purchased and an attempt was made to adapt existing spinning and preparation equipment. When the product thereby produced was deemed unsatisfactory, the company gutted one mill and installed all new equipment, again showing how skilled was the local management. In addition, the third mill was changed over to the manufacture of ropes and the sales force was retrained to sell the new products. Soon, these new ropes included sisal and hemp cables up to 7 inches in diameter for use in marine applications. Brantford Cordage was now one of the largest manufacturers of twine and ropes in the world, with a workforce that reached 900 men and women.
The family management was typical in the years before 1950 in that, while working conditions and pay rates were quite inadequate compared to the present day, the managers had a paternalism that caused them to work hard enough to keep employment levels stable, even in the Depression and in times when farmers were buying less product. When the UAW succeeded in organizing the workers, the family had to deal with a third party between themselves and the workers, and a third party that was more expert in the metal processing sector. In the U.S., the competitors were often dealing with textile oriented unions who were more flexible as they understood the particular problems of the cordage industry.
Whether this was the reason, or there were more personal reasons, the Messecar family sold Brantford Cordage to the Gairdner Group in Toronto in 1958. Mike Hand mentions that this group had a money-losing division producing leather and it is speculated that the Cordage was purchased for the purpose of offsetting the leather losses against the Cordage income. The Cordage was now part of the division within the Gairdner Group called Tancord Industries.
The managers of Tancord sought to overcome the profit swings that were part of the business of selling to farmers by seeking to diversify. They added a synthetic sacking and then an extrusion of a mixture of propylene and polyethylene to form a sheet simulating leather. Unfortunately, neither of these products was very successful.
By 1968, the company was losing a lot of money and the president blamed in part the importation of twines from third world countries where workers were paid less than a dollar a day. But by 1970, the company had returned to some profitability and some 350 employees were working there in 3 shifts. The company had started in the 1950s using synthetic fibres for rope production, and by 1970 some 65% of rope and twine was now being made from polypropylene, nylon and polyester. These synthetic fibres had the advantage of not being subject to rotting and deterioration which is possible with natural fibres. The company was now producing coloured synthetic chord for boats and custom orders were being fulfilled for product up to 9 inches in diameter.
However, the new managers did not seem to have the same commitment and drive as the original family owners and they tired of the huge efforts that had to be made to make stable profits. They put the business up for sale, and with no interest from buyers, they closed it in 1972 after 70 years of operation, throwing nearly 300 employees out of work.
The history of Brantford Cordage has many similarities to the histories of other local factories started in the 19th century by resourceful, committed, and often-times brilliant, local entrepreneurs or those who moved to Brantford to join this centre of manufacturing located in the centre of southwestern Ontario, with good rail and highway links. Like these others, the eventual sale by the early owner-managers or their family members brought in larger corporations with diverse holdings, which did not hesitate to close local factories if the bottom line of the conglomerate so dictated.
For a number of years in the 1990s, with the development of many new factories in the Braneida Industrial Park and along the new highway 403, it seemed that Brantford might achieve a renaissance in manufacturing. But once again, the purchase of factories by large entities, often based in the U.S., meant that the Brantford factories were expendable in accordance with the price of the Canadian dollar, international competition, and especially the maturation of manufacturing in China.
As owners of the Brantford Cordage property, we at West Brant Centre are mindful of the industrial heritage of our property, especially as most all of the other major factories in Brantford, which started in the same era, have been demolished. We feel that the return of large factories may well be unlikely, but with the heritage of manufacturing, there is no reason why small artisan shops cannot continue to exist and even grow. Over the last few years, we have attracted a wide variety of artisans, involved in woodworking, ceramics, stairs and railings, boat restorations, printing, candle-making, pattern making and even a rope-making company, run by a former employee of the Cordage. There could be no better salute to Brantford’s industrial heritage, than its continuation on a smaller, more diverse scale, in the refurbished buildings of this heritage industrial site. To this we plan to add compatible uses, such as a Crafts Marketplace, artist studios, museums, and sports and leisure facilities.
Restoring older buildings is in many ways, more difficult than building new, but West Brant Centre Inc. is committed to this redevelopment.