It’s no secret that tourism has powered the local economic engine for many decades, but 100 years ago Bracebridge was a much different place both economically and visually.
At that time, Bracebridge’s economy revolved around the town’s tanneries.
The first of these was Beardmore Tanning Company, which was locally known as the “old” tannery and was established along the Muskoka River in Bracebridge in 1877.
The Beardmore tannery first started in the Acton area, where they had extensive operations under company founder George Beardmore. When it came time for expansion, the company considered several options but ultimately settled on Bracebridge, largely due to the massive supply of hemlock trees located in local forests. At the time tanneries transformed cowhide to leather. The process involved the use of tannic acid, which could be readily derived from the hemlock bark that was abundant in the area.
The company (alternatively referred to in historical sources as the Beardmore Tannery, the Muskoka Tannery and the Muskoka Leather Company) struck a deal with the village of Bracebridge (now a town) following a referendum put to the voting-age population. The deal included a $2,000 bonus for the Beardmore Company, plus a 10 year exemption from taxes in exchange for hiring at least 12 men.
As it turned out, hiring 12 men would not be a problem, as the tannery quickly became one of the busiest in the country
Just five years after opening the tannery was sold to Charles Tilson. However, in 1890 the tannery once again returned to the possession of Beardmore after Tilson passed away.
By the turn of the century there were four tanneries in Bracebridge, including the large Anglo-Canadian Tannery.
In his book Bracebridge: Muskoka Heritage, local historian Ken Veitch details an incident in 1916 when an attempt was made to bring 10 Austrian prisoners of war into Bracebridge to work at the Muskoka Leather Company. Many Bracebridge residents and tannery employees were furious with the idea of housing “the enemy” and attended a meeting at the Town Hall to voice their objections. Mysteriously in the late-night hours following the meeting, the building meant to house the POWs burned to the ground.
Despite the economic significance of the tanneries to Bracebridge, the industry ran into increasing problems locally with labour shortages, multiple strikes in 1908 and 1916 and workplace injuries and fatalities. Locals also grew increasingly irritated with the amount of pollution being poured into the Muskoka River, making it virtually unusable downstream for any purpose.
Despite an expansion in 1913, the Beardmore Tannery closed in 1922 as the demand for leather soles declined across North America.
The building was later used to raise poultry but in 1959 a fire killed 4,000 chickens and 3,000 turkeys.
The facilities were never rebuilt following the fire, but over the past decade that section of the Muskoka River in Bracebridge has become home to a waterfront residential community and water quality is now on par with virtually anything in the province.
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