Business on the Hill
The churches might have their Sundays, their Christmases and their Easters, but Victoria Day, the 24th of May, was easily Richmond Hill's grandest secular holiday during the 1880s. Everywhere in late-nineetenth-century Ontario, the 24th of May was celebrated as Queen Victoria's Birthday, but Richmond Hill went one better, for the 24th was also the day of the annual Spring Fair sponsored by the Richmond Hill Agricultural Society. Children celebrated a school holiday, their more sombre elders worshipped at the shrine of Empire - and everyone went to the fair.
Victoria Day and Spring Fair celebrations in 1884 were highlighted by a grand parade along Yonge Street, led by a loud and enthusiastic brass band. This was a most unusual march, for it featured a quarter-kilometre procession of self-binders and other agricultural implements owned by York County farmers. "It was certainly the finest display of harvesting machinery ever witnessed in Richmond Hill," commented The Liberal, "and the feeling among the crowd of farmers who witnessed it was general that it reflected great credit on the firm represented." 3
With no labour unions or employee militancy, Patterson Brothers was able to run a patronizing yet benevolent operation for their "family" of workers, many of whom lived in company-owned cottages or boarding houses in the company town of Patterson or "The Patch" along Vaughan Sideroad. The firm demanded hard work, but rewarded its employees with fair wages. And in an era when factory conditions were generally far from satisfactory, the Patterson works were exemplary - well ventilated, neat, clean, and efficient. 5
President Peter Patterson carried his positive approach into public life, serving as reeve of Vaughan Township from 1868 to 1871 and as a member of the Ontario Legislature from 1871 to 1883. He was also president of the Richmond Hill Agricultural Society (formerly the Yonge Street Agricultural Society) at the time of the grand parade of Patterson agricultural implements along Yonge Street on May 24, 1884 - a time when prospects appeared rosy. Company output for the year was expected to be 400 reapers, 500 binders, 500 horse rakes, 600 mowers, 1000 spring-tooth cultivators, 1500 ploughs, and 2000 spring-tooth harrows manufactured for shipment throughout Canada. 6
By 1885, however, Patterson's found itself in difficulties. The firm wanted to enlarge operations to keep pace with rivals like the Massey, Harris, and Wisner companies, but it desperately needed a connection with the Northern Railway to improve its shipping arrangements. Unfortunately, neither the company nor the railway was prepared to invest the $16,000 to $17,000 needed to build a spur line. Then the town of Woodstock - located on a main railway line - offered Patterson's a bonus of $35,000 to relocate there. 7
"While we are sleeping, other villages and towns are wide awake," charged a letter in The Liberal, "and are loudly calling for what we have so long enjoyed and are carelessly allowing to slip from us." 8 In June 1886, Richmond Hill village council offered a $10,000 bonus towards building the Richmond Hill Junction Railway, but the proposal was too little and too late. The Northern Railway refused to lower freight rates on its main line, Woodstock ratepayers endorsed their council's $35,000 bonus, and Patterson's moved "lock, stock and implements" to Woodstock in late 1886 and early 1887. 9
For Patterson Brothers, the move only delayed the inevitable at a time of rapid turmoil within the agricultural implement industry, for by December 1891 the company was absorbed by the emerging Massey-Harris giant. Locally, the move killed the community of Patterson, as workers' cottages were sold and moved away and the post office was closed. 10 A century later, however, a few of the company houses and buildings remain in use as residences and commercial buildings, reminders of the old company town of Patterson.
The departure of the Patterson works and the decline of the Patterson community produced a severe economic shock for Richmond Hill. After losing both a major employer and a chance for a branch railway line, Richmond Hill seemed poised to follow other Yonge Street communities into general economic decline. "We surely do not indulge in groundless fears," concluded The Liberal, "when we say that a few years will see our prosperous village sunk into the condition of a Thornhill or a Newtonbrook." 11 But Richmond Hill survived both the loss of the Patterson company, a decline in population from about 850 in 1880 to 650 by the end of the century, and the general slump in economic activity that characterized much of Canada from about the mid-1870s to the mid-1890s. "Because of its interior position, being midway between the two great arteries of business, the Northern and Nipissing railways," observed William Harrison in 1888, "as a village we are not likely to make any great rise among our sister villages, neither do I suppose that we shall be so unfortunate as to make any great fall." 12
Apart from the Patterson loss, commercial activity in Richmond Hill remained relatively stable throughout the last decades of the nineteenth century. The Trench Carriage Works on the east side of Yonge Street and the Newton Tanning Company of Elgin Mills continued as leading employers of village labour. The Yonge Street business district of 1890 would have struck the observant stroller as not too different from the Yonge Street of ten years earlier. On both occasions, the observer would have noticed a number of businesses that endured to become community landmarks:
Copyright © Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991