Pioneer industry was a key component to the development of early communities and none was more important, nor long-lasting to Owen Sound Ontario than William Kennedy's efforts to build an important foundry and machine shop on the banks of Owen Sound's harbour.
Like any other Canadian community, Owen Sound was established and built by men and women with dreams. 'Through hard work, determination and a lot of risk-taking, some of them found the success they yearned. The success of these entrepreneurs of pioneer industry often meant jobs for others in the community and therefore a flow of capital which created and sustained other business enterprises in the area.
One of Owen Sound's builders of a pioneer industry was William Kennedy, a mill-wright, who emigrated in 1831 to Smith Falls in Upper Canada from Glasgow, Scotland. In 1856, Kennedy came to the then village of Sydenham to install machinery in the Harrison Woollen and Grist Mill. While he worked on the shores of Georgian Bay, he realized that there was an opportunity for him to better his lifestyle.
In 1857, he began a pioneer industry venture which would ultimately impact greatly on the settlement of Owen Sound in its quest to become a thriving Great Lakes port. Kennedy established a planing and matching mill. In 1863, he built a large — for the era — two-storey factory in order to sustain his growing enterprise. One floor was used to manufacture sash-and-door units, while a machine shop was established on the other floor,
By the 1860s, Owen Sound was becoming a dynamic Great Lakes port. Kennedy realized that the growth of a shipping industry in Owen Sound would necessitate the development of an industrial base to sustain a port facility. Therefore, he added to his already successful operation the manufacture of equipment for fishing, passenger, freight and pleasure vessels.
During the 1860s, '70s and '80s, Kennedy’s operation not only included the manufacture of equipment for sailing vessels but also machinery for saw, grist and flour mills. In 1885, William Kennedy died and his son, Matthew, became the president of the company.
The younger Kennedy continued his father's entrepreneurial ways. In 1899, he built a steel foundry. Through continued hard work and determination, Matthew Kennedy expanded the business. This success meant that the original company which William Kennedy had started as essentially a one-man operation in 1857 by 1911 now employed 150 persons from the Owen Sound area in the manufacture of turbines, mill gearings, steel casings and propellers.
Matthew Kennedy Home - Paul White Historic Photograph Collection
Always aware of the opportunity to strengthen the company, Kennedy bought and merged the Owen Sound Iron Works in 1916. Three years later, in 1919, Kennedy purchased the Canadian Malleable Iron Works. The decades between the two World Wars were an extremely volatile period for Canadian companies. The Kennedy operation was no exception. Dynamic expansion occurred in the 1920s while the 1930s was a period of grim economic hardship. However, the good planning and solid foundation created by the owners seems to have been the reason why the company survived while many others failed during this terrible economic period in Canadian history.
The Second World War provided the Kennedy operation with the opportunity to enter the world marketplace. The Owen Sound foundry operation now produced propellers for the Canadian Merchant Marine as well as for merchant vessels in such far-flung places as China and Brazil. Kennedy’s also made a dynamic contribution to the Canadian war effort. Most of the propellers for the naval vessels built in Canada for the Allied forces came from this Owen Sound company.
In 1951, almost a century after William Kennedy established his company in Owen Sound, it was sold to Had-Mil (Canada) Limited, a division of the Millspaugh Corporation located in Sheffield, England. A decade later, Black Clawson Kennedy came into existence when William Kennedy and Sons was sold to Black Clawson, an Ohio-based company.
For almost a century and a half, the pioneer industry that was founded by William Kennedy contributed to the economic base of Owen Sound. Scores of families, my own included, have sustained their livelihood from employment there. It is the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit of men like William Kennedy which enabled places like Owen Sound to grow and prosper.
A version of this article originally appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.
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