Quaker Oats

Photo of Quaker Oats mill in Peterborough, Ontario, Ca. 1912. ISSN 1206-4394. Used with permission of Trent Valley Archives.

In June 1902 construction of the new Quaker Oats Company started on Hunter Street in Peterborough. At first called The American Cereal Company, it was originally attracted to the county of Peterborough because of the Otonabee River. This location would facilitate the importation and the exportation of goods, while the London Street Dam would support the electrical needs of the building. When the building was constructed in 1902, the mill consisted of a basement and the first 3 floors, and in 1907 a fourth floor was added to the warehouse. A few years later in early 1916, a fifth and sixth floor were added to the concrete warehouse. The plant housed mostly grain storage and saw to the production of flour. However, through the years developed into the production of rolled oats, oatmeal, puffed rice, puffed wheat and corn puff. This was because of the availability of Canadian wheat crops in the Peterborough area.   
In 1916 Peterborough had a population of about 19, 816 people, at this time Quaker Oats employed between 500 and 600 people. Approximately half of their employees were women, totaling to about 250. The women worked in the packaging department or as administrators. They contributed to the war efforts and replaced the men who went off to serve in the military and helped their families financially during the tough economic times.

Quaker received and shipped out approximately 40 carloads of product every day, as war raged on the demands went up. To meet the growing demands, the shifts went up to a rotation of 3 crews running the plant 24 hours a day. These crews were producing a huge number of relief boxes as well as meeting the demands of the home front population in Canada. As the war went on the cost of living in Canada went up. Quaker Oats produced products such as flour to make bread, and oats that was a filling and nutritious source of food for children and families at an affordable price. Many of Quaker's advertisements boasted the affordability of their product using slogans like “Meat Costs 8 times as much as luscious Quaker Oats” and “Measured by cost it looms very much higher. Bacon and Eggs cost five times as much. Steak and Potatoes cost Five times as much…. For the same nutrition, Quaker Oats costs 75% less than the average of your foods…”

Photo of men working in Quaker mill, Ca.1916-1918. Photo by Lee. F16. Used with permission of Trent Valley Archives

Quaker held many overseas contracts, and they were sending many shipments of oats that made their way into the trenches to keep the men feed. In some cases the families would send care boxes to their loved ones fighting the war. A man named Albert Fereday who received a Quaker care package from his family wrote to them in July 1918 “... I received your second Quaker Oat box parcel this morning with the British Weekly and a letter from Daisy Waller. So far I have only just opened the parcel - the "gingers" look "extra"!” Men overseas fighting the war looked forward to receiving care boxes from their families filled with goods from Quaker and letters to remind them there were people waiting for their return.  The boxes may have given them food but it also brought hope, love and a purpose to keep fighting:

“The boys say now that our army is top-dog watching Fritzie in the shell hole. We are issued with plenty of charcoal and coke for fuel and plenty to eat. Then we can buy things at the Y.M.C.A. huts to change the menu. For instance a tin of Quaker Oats and some condensed milk and 10, we have hot porridge in a short time, or vegetable extracts and make some hot soup. We are getting to be some cooks? Well, I should say so. Just wait until we come home and we will show you how to concoct a stew or a pudding, and incidentally lower the cost of living. We have hip rubber boots for the trenches and have been issued with new clothing for the cold winter. Au Revoir.”

With the war raging, the company worked hard running 24 hours a day, split into three, eight hour shifts to meet demands. The cleaning suffered, and as a result the grain dust built up in the warehouse. On December 11, 1916 the Quaker plant in Peterborough caught fire, and exploded killing 24 men, injuring many others. The fire was caused by a spark at 10:00 am in the warehouse from one of the grain grinders, this set off an explosive reaction in the grain dust in the air. This fire hindered the plants ability to contribute to the war effort. The employees were paid through December even if there was no work to be done, to ease the financial stress of the holiday season. The company had a choice to make, either rebuild or move.

Even with this hitch, Quaker had a duty to the country and to the men overseas who were counting on them for strength and energy; they rented spaces all over the city and got their production to resume as soon as possible. The capacity of production was not as large as it was prior to the fire but they kept moving product. Quaker also employed the men who worked in the factory to clean up the debris from the fire so that they could rebuild and resume full production as fast as possible.

Images of the Quaker Oats Fire Memorial in Millennium Park. Images taken by Megan Solomon and edited by Victoria Pelky.

After the war the company continued their production and expansion of the mill, by 1929 the Peterborough mill could produce over 2500 barrels of oat good, 1 000 cases of Puffed Goods, 4500 barrels of flour and so much more depending on the products. Canadian made product was taking over in a short time with the recovery of the war effort in Europe and Quaker Oats was in the middle of it all. In 2017 the city of Peterborough and Quaker oats dedicated a memorial to the victims who lost their lives in the fatal fire on 1916.Today the company stands tall over the Otonabee River in Peterborough continuing to bring employment and prosperity to the city.

Research by Victoria Pelky and Megan Solomon

‘Arthur Jenkinson Photographic Fonds 14’, Trent Valley Archive, Archive Ref: F16
‘Arthur Jenkinson Photography Fonds 14’, Trent Valley Archive, Archive Ref: ISSN 1206-4394
‘Heritage Gazette of the Trent Valley’, Trent Valley Archive, Archive Ref: ISSN 1206-4394
Fereday,, Albert Henry. Letter, July 18, 1918. The Canadian Letter and Image Project. http://www.canadianletters.ca/content/document-1327
Letter, "Cobourg World Newspaper Article," July 12, 1917. the Canadian letter and image project. http://www.canadianletters.ca/content/document-3048
‘Quaker Oats Fonds’,Box 5,  Peterborough Archives, Archive Ref: 1982-04- MG4-16(c)#1B
‘Quaker Oats Fonds’,Box 5,  Peterborough Archives, Archive Ref:  1982-021-5-7
‘Quaker Oats Fonds’,Box 5,  Peterborough Archives, Archive Ref:  1982-04-49-74-2b