This story is part of our partnership with Maryboro Lodge The Fenelon Falls Museum and was written by Glenn Walker. With Bob Allen, Steve Allen, Peter Graham, Julie Mcginnis, James Mullen, Cecil Young, Don Young, Ivan Carpenter, Jim Webster and Jim Taggart.
KAWARTHA LAKES-In the nineteenth century as European immigrants settled in the Kawarthas, most families were farmers, but the largest businesses were harvesting and exporting the virgin pines—typically to Great Britain or the United States. The forests were one of the easiest natural resources to exploit, and as they were cutover, many of the largest businesses were still processing local trees—including pulp and paper, distilling wood alcohol, and wooden manufactures like wagons, carriages, containers and tools. Many farmers spent their winters getting out logs for sale to the many local enterprises, using their team to pull the logs out of the woods.
By the second half of the twentieth century, with the advent of trucks, tractor trailers and later skidders, lumber retailers were shifting towards importing lumber from far away regions, where this machinery could work more efficiently. Though businesses like the Bow Lake Lumber Company continued to sell locally, from the 1960s on, stamped lumber became the norm for construction. Up to the 1960s, a very large proportion of everyday products were made of wood—everything from a carpenter’s toolbox to windows to fruit baskets.
In 1912 Mickle & Dyment, one of Ontario’s largest lumber firms, built a new steam-powered sawmill on the south shore of Cameron Lake, near the mouth of the Fenelon River. Founded by Charles Mickle and Nathaniel Dyment, the company was based in Barrie and operated mills at Gravenhurst and Severn Bridge. By the time they set up the new mill at Fenelon Falls, the old-growth pine forests were long gone. Each winter men would travel north to work in the shanties, cutting smaller pines and other species. By the late 1920s, the river drives were coming to an end with the advent of trucks. Mickle & Dyment no longer found the Fenelon Falls mill viable, and in 1928, about the same time that the last drive made its way down from Haliburton, George R. Allen moved to Fenelon Falls from Toronto and purchased the old sawmill.
George Allen founded the Standard Pattern and Handle Company, which made handles for axes, picks, shovels and various other tools, as well as patterns for industrial use. When the Second World War broke out, he was shifting towards war production, including rifle butts and wooden doorknobs (a stopgap measure, to allow more brass to be used for shell casings). The Standard Pattern and Handle Company had become the community’s largest employer, with about 100 people working in the old sawmill. As a 14-year-old, Jim Allen was helping the company as a truck driver—because more workers were needed for the war, younger boys could drive.
In 1942 the Standard Pattern and Handle Company burned, but George soon rebuilt the factory as Allen Wood Products. During the war, George Allen began to manufacture a few wooden toys, and once peace returned in 1945, this part of the business expanded rapidly. In the 1930s, kids grew up with precious few toys—in many families a girl might have a doll and a boy might be given a wooden truck. After the Second World War families enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. Children would have many different toys, and would receive more every Christmas—whereas their parents would have been thankful to get something practical like a coat or long underwear.
Allen Wood Products soon became one of Canada’s leading manufacturers of wooden toys, as the other parts of the business fell by the wayside. George Allen showed a lot of imagination in dreaming up toys that could be made using the machinery on hand, including figures made from beads (functioning similarly to the plastic action figures that came later), abacuses, hanging crib toys, doll furniture, croquet and baseball bats. Two of the most popular were the Bingo Bed (pounding bench) and the Tinkertoy. Some of the patterns were already mass-produced in other countries, but were not marketed beyond that country. For instance, Allen Wood Products made “Allen’s Canadian Toy Builder” which later became known as the Tinkertoy, when they acquired the license to manufacture it in Canada from the American Company A.G. Spalding.
In later years, it was said that Rider Jim (a bead figure of a cowboy riding his horse) was named after Jim Allen, but his daughter Julie Mcginnis is not sure. “I never heard from Dad that Rider Jim was named after him and I don’t really see Dad reflected in Rider Jim. I would not imagine him as a little boy being a cowboy.” But others in the family believe that he was Rider Jim.
Pedal’n Pete (a bead figure of a boy on his tricycle) is named after George’s grandson Peter Graham. “I knew when I was young that Pedal’n Pete was named after me. One day when my grandfather was visiting our house, he saw me riding my tricycle, and decided to name the toy Pedal’n Pete after me. It didn’t mean much to me at the time, but looking back on it, it was special. …. I am pretty sure I had a Pedal’n Pete, but it was a fragile toy, so if I was young, I probably broke it. I used to get a toy from Allen Wood Products for Christmas, often a Tinkertoy. I probably drove my parents crazy with the bingo bed, and was only allowed to play with it at certain times.” Though, kids loved the bingo bed, the constant CLACK, CLACK, CLACK of the wooden hammer on the pegs could be a bit much for parents at times.
By the 1950s, Allen Wood Products was well established as the largest business in town. It became the sort of thing that everyone took for granted. The wooden toys they made were everywhere—marketed nationally through retailers like Eaton’s or Simpson’s, and at the time few people looked at them and thought they were special or interesting.
When young people were looking for a job, many of them started their search at Allen Wood Products. “It was the biggest factory around,” Don explains. “Lindsay had Dominion Brake Shoe and Viskase. Fenelon Falls had Allen Wood and the Botany Spinners. If you wanted to live in Fenelon Falls, that’s where you worked unless you had your own business.”
Cecil Young started working at Allen Wood Products in 1955, when he was 16 years old. “I wanted to quit school and my father told me it was either work or go to school. I had never worked at a steady job before, I had just worked with my father in the bush logging a bit. So I went to Allen Wood Products, met Bill Allen [George’s son] applied for a job and he said I could start the next morning. That night I was sitting at the supper table and I said, ‘Father, I’m not going back to school.’ He replied ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I was at the high school today, and I don’t like it.’ ‘Well, Cec, in this world you either work or go to school.’ ‘I start tomorrow,’ He put his head down, was quiet for a moment and said, ‘I hope you are making the right decision.’ I worked in the sawmill very briefly, and then I was moved into the paint shop. I spent the rest of my term of employment there.” Later on, Cecil’s younger brother Don would work at the factory too.
When Cecil arrived at work, he did not really know what to expect, it was all new for him. “But the more I thought about it over the years since I quit, I have thought: It was efficient. They had things down to a science, and it was years ahead of its time in Fenelon Falls. It would be something you would expect to see in Toronto, but not in Fenelon Falls. The factory had to be 300 or 400 feet long, and 200 feet wide. It was a lot of floor space.”
Ivan Carpenter has a similar story to tell, “I started at Allen Wood Products in 1956, when I was 15 and a half years old and I worked there for 6 ½ years. I had grown up between Minden and Ingoldsby, and my brother had worked there for a year or two before I did. I did not want to go back to school, so to talked to Mr. Allen he got me a job. I had to go to the county office in Minden, and get a slip signed by my parents so I could work at 15 ½. I lived at Edgar Townley’s, which was a main boarding house for men working at Allen Wood Products. I started work at 5 to 7 in the morning, it was a 9-hour day, with a 55 minute lunch break at 12. We were back to work at 5 to 1, then off at 5. The odd time they wanted you to go back in after supper for something that was a rush, but that was not very often.”
Ivan continues: “When I started out there I was on a table sander, sanding rough bingo beds and anything else that needed to be sanded. They would move you around to other jobs. I enjoyed working on the saw, and finally I moved up to the automatic lathe and enjoyed that too. It was a little more dangerous, sometimes the bigger pieces I was turning would fly off the lathe and knock me on my backside. Then I would get moved to another job and pile lumber for 2 or 3 days. It was all quite an experience.”
Jim Allen’s son Steve, started assisting when he was 12 or 13. “I would help Lorne Robinson pile lumber out to go into the dry kiln. We would be working out there for half a day, with a radio playing, listening to country music. Later on, Lorne owned the bait shop beside Handley Lumber in the parking lot of the Sunoco/UPI gas station. In the summer when I was 14 or 15, I worked in the paint shop. I also worked in the warehouse, shipping and receiving.”
Peter worked one summer at the factory for his uncles Bill and Jim. “I was thankful that they gave me a job, but it was the least enjoyable job I ever had. That summer I learned that working at a factory was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I sat behind a machine sanding the ends of pieces of wood. They were going to be part of some toy, but I had no idea what it was going to be. Word got around that I was Bill Allen’s nephew, and some of the guys made fun of me for it. I much preferred driving the milk truck for Fenelon Dairy.”
“I wanted to work there because my brothers and dad had worked there,” Don observes. “When I went to ask for a job I was only 13. Bill Allen took me out and showed me what I was going to do, but then he never called me. Mother told me I wasn’t going to work there. She said I was too young to work at the factory. Then I didn’t think much more about bit. A few years later, I was working in Toronto, and Bill was looking for someone to run his paint shop. We met at the factory, made a deal, and I started working for him. He showed me all the ropes and the mixtures for the paint, and I was there for about 10 years, until the factory closed.”
For those who did not have a vehicle of their own, the company provided a ride to work. Jim “had an old van, and built benches on each side in the back,” Julie narrates. “There was a gentleman in town looking for a job, so Dad hired him to go around and pick up the employees in the morning to take them to the factory. I will always remember the look of that truck, with the men sitting in it with their lunch boxes. It was kind of like the factory bus.” Steve continues, “some of the women were working there because it was just down the road and they could walk to work.”
By the 1950s, George Allen was getting older, and the day-to-day management of the company was beginning to pass to his sons, Bill and Jim. Bill managed the factory, while Jim looked after marketing. The workers in the factory would still see George on a daily basis, as he inspected operations. While the workers would joke around from time to time, as soon as George appeared, “you had to tow your mark,” Ivan explains. “George Allen would take a stroll through at maybe 1 o’clock or 1:15. Everyone had to be their nicey-nicey and working. But they were good to work for, and it was a good job at the time.”
In George’s later years, he found the time to develop new interests outside of work. In the words of his grandson, Bob Allen, “I remember him being kind with me, but he was a disciplinarian and you knew how far you could go, and how far you could not go. If you went too far, you got a swat on the back of the head. He liked to garden and had a vegetable garden, then a perennial garden, then he planted annuals each year around his Queen Street House. He and Rene liked to go to Florida each winter.”
Bob continues, “I remember walking across the railroad bridge to go to the factory as a young boy, and seeing all the boxes of toys stacked up, being stored for later sale. My grandpa George would be sitting in the office with the lights out smoking a cigar. He would say, ‘You be a good boy when you are in the plant!’”
Bill Allen “was a good Dad,” Bob explained. “He provided for me well. I remember him arranging that I would have a nice new bike, and taking the time to help me learn how to ride. But Dad was a disciplinarian too. There was not much monkeying around with him either, and that would have been the same at the plant. He wouldn’t take too much s**t!”
For many of the workers, their relationship with Bill defined their experience working at Allen Wood Products. Don and Cecil would both say that Bill would be the first thing that they think of when someone mentions Allen Wood Products. Cecil continues, “He was a fairly dominating figure and would put you in mind of a bulldog. He was short and stocky, his head set right on his shoulders with hardly any neck. He was a bull of a man, but at the same time he could be a very nice fellow and I got a kick out of him. He would come out of his office, and set the pace on a machine for you to work at. His arms would be going so fast, and he would tell you that you should be going that fast too. He would do it for 5 minutes, then return to his office, and you would have to do it for nine hours. But I don’t think he would expect anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself. It was hard work, and I have always said if you weren’t a worker you didn’t last an hour with them. If you did your work, they treated you well.” He was strict, but he had his good side and every Christmas he would give each worker a 20lb turkey.
While factory workers dealt with Bill on a daily basis, his brother Jim was “milder mannered,” Bob recalls. “He brought a calming effect to the plant.” Cecil continues, “he was a tall slim lad, and was a salesman, so he was on the road quite a bit, so we did not see him much.” Jim spent much of his time meeting potential customers and travelling to toy shows, and would bring home samples of other companies’ newest inventions. He was nicknamed ‘Big Jim.’
As a parent, “he was a very gentle man,” Julie recalls. “He grew up in a family where Grandpa was very dedicated to the factory, and Jim was just put in that position as salesman. It was probably something that he never really thought about. As young men, I believe that working for their dad was the only job that Bill and Jim had ever had. I think he enjoyed the job, travelling to the toy shows in Toronto and Montreal, and he seemed to have the personality of a salesman. He always seemed calm on the outside, even in later years, when he was under a lot of stress. One right I remember waking up and seeing him at the table with a glass of milk and a cigarette. Then I could see the stress that he was coping with.”
Jim was very devoted to his family, and while his brother was the disciplinarian, it was Jim’s children who perhaps benefitted the most from growing up in a toy factory family. “Dad used to go on the sales trips, and he would get a lot of sample toys, and we would get to play with them,” Julie recounts. The Allen children, had unique opportunities as they helped the adults see how children interacted with the samples. Jim acquired three waterfront lots beside his farm that was across Cameron Lake from the factory, that he was holding for his kids, so they could all have a place together when they grew up. Julie’s oldest sister, Bonnie, married Jim Mullen, who notes, “Jim was a wonderful husband, and loved his wife until the day he died. … he was that kind of guy and that didn’t change, a good father and grandfather.”
Walking into the factory at Allen Wood Products was an experience. “It was noisy, with all the machines running, and it smelled of sawdust, and paint—though the paint shop was closed off,” Julie recounts. “It was quite a sight to watch the busy-ness of all the men working on the machines on the shop floor. As a kid, that was part of the plant where you did not wander around.” Steve remarks, “It was a dusty wood factory, and it was hot in the summer. When the weather was warm enough, the doors were always open for ventilation.”
Allen Wood Products bought in logs and lumber from many different sources. Bill’s father-in-law, Stanley Dancey opened the Bow Lake Lumber Company in 1944, and the company would continue under his son Blake until 1964. They cut around Little and Big Bow Lakes, which were located between Kinmount and Irondale, buying many logs from local farmers. The logs were sawn at a mill near Burnt River’s station, then shipped to Fenelon Falls. Don explains that Allen Wood bought “a lot of pre-cut lumber from the Bow Lake Lumber Company, and when they got a load in we would sort it out in the yard.” Merv Elliott worked in the yard for many years.
The toy factory also purchased logs or bolts that they would saw themselves in the sawmill on site. Charlie, Mac and Darryl Austin cut many logs for it on Grand Island, Balsam Lake. “Darryl was the main logger and they could only get them across in winter when there was ice,” Cecil explains. “I remember Darryl bringing them in on a single axle truck. I was over one time to Grand Island to see him. He had quite a set up over there. He drew the logs out with a single horse, which brought them to a skid rig. There would be a guy there with a cant hook, and the skidway was the same height as the bed of the truck, so they rolled the logs with the cant hook onto the truck, with stakes on the truck bed to keep them there. The Allen’s sawmill just ran in winter.” Don continues: “They were not great big logs like mills would cut now. They were all 8-12 inches around, 14 inches at the largest.”
Once the logs were sawn, much of the material was air dried, but some of it was placed in a kiln, which was located at the end of the room, where women worked assembling the toys. The factory handled many different species of wood, especially hardwoods like maple and ash. Basswood and poplar were also used for some of the toys. Once the wood had dried, there was a sticker that Lorne Robinson used to plane the lumber, so it was ready to be manufactured into toys. Jim Taggart, Jerry Robertson and Leo Hart were three of the men who worked in the mill. Fred Raby was a head sawyer there, having started as a boy and working there until he was in his 20s.
For all of the repetitive work that took place in the sawmill day after day, it was often the memories of the hijinks that the workers remembered. “There were big doors all down one side of the mill, that went up with a rope and pulley” Cecil explains. At the end of a work day, John Barrett “decided to get out a little quicker than everyone else. Normally, everyone would go out the man door at the end of the mill, but Johnny thought he would undo the rope and run out. He let ‘er go, and ran. The door caught him in the head, knocked him out and we had to carry him into the office.”
Like all mills and woodworking plants, Allen Wood Products produced a large quantity of sawdust and shavings. The factory was heated by the sawdust, in an old boiler, with a drum that was about 5 feet high. There was more than enough waste to keep the factory heated, and one worker was devoted to dealing with the sawdust and feeding the boiler—Murdy Woods, then later Roy Bambury. The night watchman, Vic Ferguson tended it until morning. But there was still a lot of excess waste. “When they had the sawmill there, a lot of the sawdust was trucked out.” Some of it was sold to farmers as bedding and what could not be sold was dumped in a vacant lot on West Street, where Young’s Construction stores its piles of material today.
Once the lumber had been planed or moulded in the sticker, it was brought into the factory floor where it was processed into parts that could be assembled into toys. Generally, there was a gendered division of labour, with males working in the sawmill, with the woodworking tools on the factory floor, and in the paint shop—but this was by no means strictly adhered to. Females would assemble the toys, paint the fine details (ie faces or lettering) onto toys, and put them in their packages ready to ship.
Allen Wood Products had a machine to make baseball bats. As Ivan remembers, “you would load up 10 or 12 sticks into a big drum that rotated and it worked OK most of the time. But if one of the sticks was a little loose, the next think you know you’d be yelling ‘look out!’ and cleaning them all out of the drum.”
Ivan spent many hours working on an automated lathe—automated in the sense that it operated on electricity, it was not a copy lathe, so he manually reproduced parts that he was given. Machinist (Bill) “Red Bryans was the main man there, and would set it up.” Working practically his whole life there, Red made sure all the equipment was kept running. “When you finished a part, it would drop into a box at the bottom, and when the box was full you would kick it to the side. Then the parts would be taken into the paint room, where they would knock the sawdust off, put them in a tumbler to paint them, and sort them.” Ivan would often work the entire day, endlessly turning the same small piece, “I would make maybe 5000 of this same piece, then would go to another setting or another lathe to make the next. I would never see the end product put together. I was often just making parts and did not know what the finished toy would be.” Bob Jenkinson also worked on a lathe, basically full time.
Ivan also worked on a machine that made popsicle sticks. “They got in veneer that was 3/16 of an inch thick. The stabber would come in for 2 sheet at a time, as it was feeding through. I would be working on that for 2 or 3 weeks then move on to something else. For a couple of years, they had that machine.”
Tinkertoys consisted of dowels (brought to the factory as dowelling) of various lengths with slits cut in the ends to facilitate them tightening in the hole as they slid into the hubs. The hubs were made on a custom machine designed by Fenelon Falls machinist John (Jack) Demerling, whose business ran out of the east end of the Livery Stable. “It was a fairly big, round table that drilled all the holes in the hubs at the same time,” Ivan explains. Cecil continues: “the drill presses were gravity fed from a big hopper, hoppered down onto the machine with a conveyor belt, with a volley of drills that came down and drilled them all at once. It was the most automated thing I had seen at the time. Everyone was totally amazed that a small town could come up with this.”
John Demerling would occasionally come to the factory to service the machine. “He was a very quiet man,” say Cecil, “who spent his whole life with a leather apron on. Though he never said much, he was always mannerly, and very intelligent. That man could build anything!”
Though Cecil typically worked in the paint room, one week he was sent out to help thread the pieces of a croquet mallet so they would screw together. “There were two guides for the stick so the handle would be straight. You had to hold the stick, and guide it into the drill, which spun the threads onto it, so you could not let go. They gave you a pair of rubber gloves, but these sticks are maple. If you hit a knot as it threaded, you would look down and see that the gloves were smoking. It would burn right through the gloves. I went home numerous times with scalds on my hands.” Don recalls that they went through so many gloves of the same hand, that Bill started buying them singly.
Once each batch of toy parts were made and sanded (as necessary), they were passed into the paint room to be finished with oil-based paint that came in 45 gallon drums, one for each colour. Murray Robinson was the foreman there. Julie spent one summer working there, “it was a messy job and the fumes were not good. A lot of ladies refused to work in there and I don’t really blame them. I worked on a conveyor belt, and would put blackboards on it, then they would pass through a vat of paint. Often they did not come out even, so I would have to sand them out.”
Some toys were painted by hammering them onto nails that projected up from a plate. A wheel would dip the plate into the vat of paint. When they came out of this dipping machine, the components would be placed on a drying rack. Most of the time, the toys were just air dried, but in some cases heat was applied to accelerate curing. But all the parts that could be painted in a tumbler, typically were—say 80% of everything produced. Pieces that had at least one flat side or sharp corners could not be tumbled, because they would stick together once they were covered in paint or leave marks with their corners.
Allen Wood Products had 6 or 8 large tumblers, but only one dipping machine sitting in the corner. Each tumbler was about 15 feet in circumference, and were turned by a belt. “Picture an oversized rain barrel,” Cecil explained. “It had a pulley on each end, and you could open the door. It was made of wood, with a galvanized lining. The items to be painted would come in to the paint shop in a jute bag. The tumblers would roll all the time, and Murray Robinson would add the paint and other ingredients to create the desired finish. When everything was painted, he would stop it, open the door, refill the tumbler, put in another gallon of paint and run it again. It was quite the menagerie of stuff in there, you could not walk around in there and be comfortable.”
The tumbler would accept up to 1000 beads at a time, and Murray would decide what paint and other ingredients needed to be dumped in to create the desired finish. Al Hetherington, the plant foreman, “would come in there each night and count up the work that you had done,” Cecil notes. “If you were over a certain level you got more money, but they didn’t deduct if you did less. Shortly before I quit, they added a spray booth to the factory. Before that spraying was not even thought of.” One night (likely in the 1960s) the paint shop caught on fire, but the night watchman did his job and it was contained to that room.
When Steve was working in the paint shop, some items were ready to ship once painted, and these were put in boxes. Other parts like the dowels, went up an elevator to the second floor. They were taken to a room above the assembly room, where they were stored until they were needed to fill the Tinkertoy tubes. “There were many chutes that went down through the floor, feeding a basket. The ladies filling the tubes would take the parts they needed from the basket, as each put their components in the tube, and passed it to the next person at the table. Each chute would have different components in it. For instance, one would have green dowels, another blue dowels, and another would have hubs. It was my job to run around upstairs and make sure that the chutes were filled. I did not see the ladies filling the tubes, I just had to keep the chutes filled, and if I got behind, then the ladies would not have the parts to put in the tubes. It was a homemade, gravity fed, assembly line.”
Steve describes the assembly room: “There was a production line where they filled the Tinkertoy tubes. There would be 8 to 10 women sitting on stools, in front of a trough. The tubes would go from one person to the next, one would put instructions in, as they passed it around the table. Each station had pieces like dowels and hubs. Which components they put in depended on the size of the tube—each model had its own name. The square shoots that held the pieces went up to the ceiling. I would empty the boxes, so the women would have the pieces down below to put in the tubes.”
When Julie started out at the factory, she was on the assembly line. “In my earlier years I would go into that room and see the toys lined up, the big long table where everyone would sit and put the pieces into the tubes. My first job was putting all the tinkertoys into a tube. I sat at a long table, with many ladies and a couple of girls my own age. We would count our pieces out, put them on in the tube, then pass it along. One person would put all the green, yellow and red sticks into the Tinkertoy, another might put in all the hubs. We often had two or three things to put in before passing it on.” Once the toys were assembled, packaged and had the final touches on their paint, they were ready to ship. Art Paulson was the shipper.
After working on the assembly line, Julie went to college and took a book-keeping course. The next year she helped the ladies in the office with clerical work. “Working at Allen Wood Products was my first experience with a time clock. You would punch it at the beginning of the day, and then again at the end of the day. A steam whistle signalled the end of the work day.”
“For a while we got paid every two weeks,” Ivan explains. “Then it changed and we got paid every week. It was not a big amount, at the time it was sufficient. We were mostly paid cash in an envelope, every Friday afternoon… It just bought the bare necessities at the time.” Cecil continues: “You would see Jackie Webster, a bookkeeper from the top of town, she was a small lady. Everyone in the factory lined up, and it was like a cattle chute going out the door. As you went by the window, she would hand you your pay.” Jackie’s father, Harry, ran Master Feeds on the east side of Lindsay Street, where the Alliance Agri-Turf is now. They lived next door to George Allen on Queen Street.
“At 16, I started out making 49 cents an hour,” Cecil recalls. “After I had worked there for three or four years, I asked my supervisor, Murray Robinson, if there was any chance I could get a raise since I had been there quite a while. He said, ‘I will put in a good word for you Cecil.’ When I got to the office, there were the three Allen boys, George and his two sons, Bill and Jim, sitting around in a circle, with Al Hetherington. They sat me down in the centre, and said I could do better by saving them a little paint with spillage. I felt like I was at a Gestapo meeting, but in the end they said they could give me a raise—I got half a cent an hour. …. By the time I was finished there, I was making 52 ½ cents an hour.”
“It seems like a real low wage,” Cecil observes, “and it was a fairly low wage for the time, but it was a good steady job. It was inside, we were not out in the elements, and we could count on our pay each week.” Ivan continues, “I met a lot of good people passing through, who would only be there a little while. That’s where we got our start.” Many Fenelon Falls residents worked at Allen Wood Products at one time or another, but many moved on. Ivan went to work for Max Jones at the Sunoco Service Station beside the bridge (now Pioneer). “I was pumping gas, changing tires and doing a few oil changes.” He then moved on to the Firestone Factory in Lindsay. “You just called them and could start in a week or two.”
While he was working at Allen Wood Products, Ivan met Mary Jean Gainor, who worked in the assembly room. “At that time, I was young and would talk to any young chick that I could. She was 15 when I met her, and we started hanging out a bit, going out a bit. She was still in school, but we hit it off.” Ivan and Mary Jean were married while they still worked there—he was 19, she was 17—“and we have been together ever since, over 60 years.” Their son, Brian, married Caroline Fenelius, whose father was a salesman at the factory, after it was purchased by SwedFurn.
George was not the sort of person to fully retire from the business, and to the end of his life he continued to stop by at the factory to see how things were going. But by the mid-1960s, it was becoming clear that the world was changing. With the advent of plastics and economical worldwide shipping, less expensive foreign labour began to displace factory jobs. Plastics made new types of toys possible, often made in Japan, and in the generation that followed, a lot of kids grew up building with Lego, rather than Tinkertoys.
Bill Allen seems to have seen the changes coming, and sold his half of the company to his brother Jim, moving to Peterborough to sell insurance. “When I heard that Bill retired, I thought it was going to go downhill,” Cecil remembers. “He was hard nosed. You didn’t lollygag around with Bill Allen there.”
Though Jim had never managed the factory, having always been the salesman, he tried his best to keep the company together. He brought in a management company to look after the factory, while he continued to travel to attend to his customers’ needs. But the company was struggling financially. Jim brought in a consulting firm to look for ways to cut costs. Then one day in 1972, the bank manager showed up at the factory, informed Jim that he was calling the loan and asked for the keys.
“Jim had known it was coming,” Jim Mullen explains. “He had done everything that he could. It did change him and it was 10 or 15 years before he would talk to me about it. He thought the bank should have given him more time. It was like the gambler who wants one more spin of the wheel. I don’t think he could have survived given what was going on in the industry, but he felt betrayed by the bank—but banks do that to people.”
Some might have guessed that things were not going well from the consultants looking for ways to cut costs. To the workers they were “the guys in suits,” as Don recalls. “There was an office manager, I think his name was Grant Grozell.” But, the sudden closure of Allen Wood Products came as a shock to everyone who worked there. “We found out that day it was closing. There was no warning or nothing. It was very sudden. Up to that day, we were making toys, and all seemed normal. When it suddenly closed, we were all out of a job. I just moved on, and got another job.”
Jim would not have talked openly about the troubles he was facing, “you don’t want to spook your employees,” Jim Mullen explains. “And the Tinkertoy was still a healthy franchise at the time.” The sudden closure of Allen Wood Products threw everyone out of work, and the factory was put up for auction in 1974. Ingvar and Maud Skoog bought the property, and turned it into SwedFurn. Some of the employees including Don Young, Lorne Robinson and Red Bryans returned to work at the new factory.
Jim and his family had enjoyed a wonderful life in Fenelon Falls. He was a devoted Rotarian, Mason, member of the Curling Club and Chamber of Commerce. He did not have to declare bankruptcy, but he did have to sell his assets, including his farm, located across Cameron Lake from the factory, and the three waterfront lots beside the farm that he was saving for his kids. “It broke his heart not to be able to pass on the lots on to his kids,” Jim Mullen explains. “Of course he was unhappy, but his wife Barb loved him just the same. They moved to Burk’s Falls, where he managed a wood manufacturing plant.
Jim’s new career was in some ways not all that different than working at Allen Wood Products. Working for Thompson Highland, whose parent company Dialex owned Hespeler Furniture, the mill brought in lumber, kiln dried it, ripped the boards as needed, then laminated panels and furniture components. The mill shipped the components to Hespeler Furniture’s factories in Cambridge and Hanover. Once assembled at those factories, the finished products included cabinets, beds, dressers, tables, hutches.
Steve had started high school in Fenelon Falls, but finished his studies in Burk’s Falls, while working with his father at the mill. “Grandpa and Dad were in the forestry business, so I grew up around it and I had sawdust in my blood. I worked with my Dad at the mill and went to Memphis to get my grading ticket, as I graded the lumber coming into that plant, and also for other plants, including Hespeler Furniture and a Toronto location.” Steve would go on to work as a grader, sawmill manager and salesman for many other companies, including Sklar Peppler, Weyerhauser and Midway Lumber. “I did have a worthwhile career out of it, and I’m going to retire in May.”
After moving to Burk’s Falls, Jim joined the curling club there, enjoyed playing golf, and ultimately retired. But he fell ill with cancer shortly afterwards, and died at age 75. Julie recalls, “I think he missed Fenelon Falls and he was disappointed that it turned out the way it did. He probably felt guilty that a lot of people were unemployed when the factory closed.”
When bank foreclosed on Allen Wood Products, precious little was kept of the family business, other than the corporate seal which Bill Allen came and asked for that day—his son Bob later gave it to Maryboro Lodge Museum. It seemed that nobody in town thought twice about the era of local history that was coming to a sudden end. Practically everyone had a Tinkertoy or a bingo bed, and few thought of the toys as being anything special.
Years later, Jim Mullen began collecting the toys that were made at the factory. “I am a consummate collector—Chinese paper money, stamps, coins, and so on. So I thought, what the hell, why don’t I collect Allen Wood Products, since I was married to Jim Allen’s oldest daughter. I started collecting it in 1990, because I enjoyed it, I liked looking on e-Bay to see what was new. Every day, I got a notice of what vintage toys were for sale.” Within a few years, his basement was filling up with the toys that had once been made by his father-in-law and family. “My wife started to encourage me to get the stuff out of the basement, and the museum in my own community was not interested in it, so I brought it to Maryboro Lodge. Once it was given to the museum, the family began to appreciate it in a new way.”
When Jim Mullen gave his collection of Allen Wood Products toys to Maryboro Lodge Museum, the community was excited to see the old toys once again. For those who had worked there or grown up playing with the toys, it brought back many memories, while younger generations were interested to learn about everything that had once been made in Fenelon Falls. It inspired the creation of the Allen Wood Play Space, and the founding of KidsFest, which started out as a way of bringing to life their many toys. Today Allen Wood Products is a much loved chapter in the history of the Kawartha Lakes region.
For more on Allen Wood Products see:
This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you: [email protected]