Sawyer Street is one of those streets you just don’t notice when you’re driving by. It’s located across from the Hamilton Community Health Center on Victoria Street and got its name from the Sawyer-Massey plant, a once thriving agricultural manufacturing facility that operated there at the turn of the 19th century. Most of us will probably have noticed this big red brick structure behind The General Hospital. This plant was also one of three plants in Hamilton owned by Hamilton Bridge Works, later renamed Bridge and Tank after WW-II. American Can and Ball Packaging also had short stints in this old factory as well.
The foundry was founded by John Fisher who was born in 1806 in a house with 4 brothers and a sister. John married Catherine Blanchard in 1833 and together they had 3 boys and a girl. John Fisher moved from Londonderry, New Hampshire, his birthplace, to Batavia N.Y where he dabbled a bit in real estate before moving on to Hamilton in 1835.
When John arrived he was watching some farmers threshing wheat with a wheat flail ,basically, two large sticks attached by a short chain beating the grain stocks in order to separate the seeds from their husks. He thought there was a better way. John Fisher then set out to design the first threshing machine in Canada. It was based on a popular design he saw being used in New Hampshire; invented by Scottish engineer Andrew Meikle in 1786.
The threshing machine was the forerunner to the combine and prior to the 19th century they were powered by horses. John Fisher set up Hamilton’s first foundry “Hamilton Agricultural Works” in a small 18’x 24’ wooden structure between Bay and James Street on Merrick Street, York Blvd today. By the way Merrick (York Blvd.) was a straight street between Bay and James then, no curve.
Financially, it was a major struggle for Fisher who was forced to sell off some assets and lay off employees during his first year. Thanks to Fisher’s cousin Dr. Calvin McQuesten a successful medical doctor in New Hampshire at the time, he convinced Fisher to stay after he threatened to stop paying bills and burn the place down. McQuesten put up $1500 to help Fisher and the company’s name was then changed to Fisher, McQuesten & Company. McQuestin then divided his time between his medical practice in Brockport N.H while making trips across the continent promoting company products, purchasing raw materials and equipment needed to run the foundry. Dr.McQuesten sold his medical practice in Brockport in 1839 and moved to Hamilton.
The foundry expanded during the early 1840’s and produced other types of farm equipment. Fisher even built and donated a piece of horse drawn fire apparatus to the City of Hamilton that remained stationed at the foundry during its use. Fisher & McQuesten became one of several contractors hired to build rail cars for The Great Western Railway.
John Fisher served as Hamilton’s 4th Mayor for a year in 1850.Soon after Fisher sold his interests in the company to McQuesten and moved back to New York where he established the Batavia Institute for the Blind. Fisher became a member of the U.S House of Representatives from March 1869 to March 1871. After an unsuccessful second for run for the house he sold fire insurance until his death at 76 years old in 1882.
In 1855 the original foundry burnt down, two years later a new much larger foundry was built on Wellington Street. Calvin McQuestin retired the following year and sold the business for what was said to be worth $500,000 to his three brothers Luther Sawyer, Samuel and Stephen.
Luther gained control of the company and brought in Almerrin Massey who himself was no stranger to manufacturing farm equipment. His father Daniel Massey created Massey-Harris in Newcastle, Ontario. The Massey name is probably more famously known as Massey-Ferguson.
The new plant became Sawyer-Massey Co. Ltd and in addition to manufacturing the “Grain Saver”, the only complete thresher and separator for Steam power in Canada., they made steam powered tractors as well. During the 1910’s and 20’s they built all kinds of tractors, gas, oil and kerosene. Eventually, they stopped producing threshing machines and just concentrated on manufacturing tractors and road building equipment. Sawyer-Massey was well known for their prairie tractors as being one of the most expensive tractors of the era. They sold for $3750 each.
During the war years of WW-I Sawyer-Massey produced large artillery shells and turned out large numbers of steam road wagons which were similar to pick up trucks. They were used to carry freight and military equipment.
After WW-II the plant was sold to Hamilton Bridge Works, well known across Canada as steel fabricators. Hamilton Bridge Works head office was located around Bay and Barton and had works on Depew St. as well as Caroline and Barton Street. It was later renamed Bridge & Tank. Hamilton Bridge Works manufactured the steel used in some of Hamilton’s most iconic manufacturing facilities of the era, International Harvester, Stelco, Dofasco’s Hilton Works, Firestone and Westinghouse. Their steel was also used in the building of the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, huge cranes and supermarkets.
Before Hamilton Bridge Works most bridges in Ontario were made of timber or wooden beams, Iron truss bridges were tried, but were too expensive to be widely used. Some of Hamilton Bridge Works more notable projects were the Bluewater Bridge in Montreal (Oct 10th,1938-westbound),the bridge over the Welland Canal, the Burlington Canal lift Bridge, the Burlington Skyway Bridge on the beach strip and also the famous Lion’s Gate Bridge originally known as First Narrows Bridge’ in Vancouver.
In 1959 Hamilton Bridge Works sold the building to American Can the largest producers of tin cans in Canada at the time. The former American Can Facility had been located at Shaw & Emerald streets since 1911.In 1988 Ball Packaging Products Canada moved in and operated in old factory until 2001.