The Plymouth Cordage Company marked the beginning of Welland's major industrial period. The history of Plymouth Cordage began in the United States in 1825 when Bourne Spooner was granted a charter for producing cordage in Plymouth, Massachusetts for the marine market.
At that time, in the United States, the use of slave labour was a common practice. Bourne Spooner was an abolitionist who viewed slave labour as inefficient. Spooner wanted his company to be established with free labour. This philosophy of business led to his innovative employee relations and benefits. He believed happy employees would make better workers.
The land that Spooner chose as the location of the Plymouth plant in Massachusetts was far removed from housing or ready transportation. In early 1825 six family houses with a rent of $40 per year were built for employees of the company. These houses included a living room, two fireplaces, a kitchen, a pantry, two bedrooms and a cellar. By 1838, the Plymouth Cordage was employing women at its factory in the United States.
The company's Canadian history began in 1904 when a twenty-five percent tariff was placed on imported rope in Canada. This created a fear that a similar tariff would be placed on binder twine in the near future. At that time Canada was one of the world leaders in wheat production and distribution. This tariff created a need for the company to establish in Canada in order to keep their Canadian market alive. The company stated that their reasons for expansion into Canada were to directly challenge the Canadian rope market and to increase their already existing binder twine market in the Canadian West.
Welland was chosen for the location of the Canadian branch for its proximity to the United States, availability of electricity through a long-term contract with Hamilton Power Company and excellent transportation facilities by way of rail, water and the Welland Canal.
The Plymouth Cordage Company was the first major industry to relocate to Welland when it was still a village. The company located on one hundred and seventy-eight acres between the Grand Trunk Railway, Lincoln Street and the Michigan Central tracks. It was necessary to purchase this land from four farmers; fifty acres from the Morwood farm, fifty acres from the McCoppen Farm, sixty-three acres from the Leitch farm and fifteen acres from the Gunn property.
Credit for the company's arrival in Welland went to Welland's Liberal M.P. William Manley German and Byron J. Bide McCormick, owner of Welland's first real estate company. Welland City Council extended corporate limits to encourage the United States company to locate in Welland. McCormick did most of the negotiating with the company. The Mayor of Welland saw the arrival of Plymouth Cordage as a step towards Welland becoming a city. The arrival of the Plymouth Cordage Company encouraged the Bank of Toronto to locate a branch in Welland. The Cordage Company's location in Welland influenced other American companies to follow.
The company was able to negotiate concessions with Crowland for twenty years fixed assessment of $20,000 and a supply of municipal services to the company. The land chosen permitted cheap electric power to be bought from Niagara suppliers. Additional amenities were dockage facilities and a small turning basin on the third Welland Canal.
The construction of the Plymouth Cordage factory began in 1905 at 229 Plymouth Road. Material used for construction of the factory building and storehouse came from local and Canadian sources. The cast iron needed was made at Robertson Machinery of Welland, Ontario, the windows were purchased from Cutler Mill, the stone was extracted from the Queenston Quarry and the lumber used was Canadian. The company installed private railroads to run through the yard and among the buildings to make transport of equipment easier. The company used their own locomotive that was powered by compressed air instead of the commonly used steam.
The threat of fire from tarring hemp forced the Plymouth Cordage Company to locate outside town limits. This situation made it difficult for employees to get to work with the minimal transportation available at the time. Plymouth Cordage brought their housing and welfare policies to Welland from Massachusetts. As in Massachusetts, the Plymouth Cordage Company built homes for their employees. The construction of the Cordage district began in September 1905. Lincoln Street, the Welland Canal and the Michigan Central Railroad tracks and the CNR tracks bound the company housing. Homes on Plymouth Road were reserved for Cordage executives. The houses were offered at low rents to employees. The company provided tradesmen to do repairs, including plumbing, carpentry, electrical work and painting. The plant also supplied coal and wood for heating the homes.
The company's location in Welland created the areas first planned industrial community. The design of the community provided Plymouth Cordage employees with a self-contained and almost self-sufficient community. The Plymouth Cordage Company extended Welland's boundaries by adding several new streets including Plymouth Road.
The houses were built in the Cape Cod style common in the United States. The company supplied their workers and executives with fifty modern homes that were divided into two and four family units. These were made available for rents at a lowered rate. Boarding houses were made available for those who needed temporary lodgings. In 1947, Plymouth Cordage offered its employees the opportunity to purchase company homes and provided loans for those who could not afford them. Within two years all employee housing at Plymouth Cordage in Welland had been purchased.
The location of the Plymouth Cordage Company in Welland saved the city from industrial decline and also added ethnic diversity to the community. In anticipation of language barriers, the Plymouth Cordage Company sent four foremen to Welland to start up the Canadian operation. One of these was Italian, one French, one German and one English. In 1905 and 1906, Italians arrived from the United States to fill the labour shortage in Welland prior to the First World War. The Plymouth Cordage Company guaranteed jobs to all and soon Germans, Hungarians and Romanians followed. In 1906, operations at the Crowland Plymouth Cordage plant began. The Welland factory started production at one third of the United States subsidiary.
Although the company offered lower wages than other Welland factories, the benefits of working there outweighed the liabilities. Other than housing benefits, employees were offered disability pensions, life insurance and old age pension plans based on years of service. The company gave employment opportunities to a large number of women, allowing for dual-income families in Welland. The Cordage established the first successful Credit Union in Ontario at the Welland Cordage plant. The company hired Miss M. Olive Bradley, Canada's first industrial nurse. Many of the welfare benefits offered at the Plymouth Cordage Company were new to the Canadian workforce.
Between 1908 and 1916, the company hosted an annual fair and field day. From 1906 to 1969, there was a company sponsored baseball team. In 1908, construction began on a Plymouth Hall in Crowland. This facility offered many company events and recreational activities. The hall included a dance hall, billiard tables and a bowling alley. Outside, there was a lawn bowling green and across the road from the hall the Cordage Farm was located with horses, a soccer field, a baseball field and tennis courts. The hall was used for cooking and sewing classes as well as a kindergarten. The company provided Christmas trees to families every year. In the mid-1950s the Plymouth Recreation Hall was donated to the YM/YWCA.
The First World War produced many difficulties for the Plymouth Cordage Company. Many of its employees went overseas. The Welland plant could not operate at capacity due to labour shortages created by the war.
Complications also arose following the bombing of Davao and Mindanao, two fibre-producing islands. Cordage companies had to produce another durable fibre because Japan controlled 60% of all hard fibres. This situation cut American and Canadian supplies of manila and sisal fibres to make rope when the demand was at its peak. The Plymouth Cordage Company worked hard in research and development to make use of the fibres available to meet their quota of rope for the war effort. These materials included cotton, hemp, jute and nylon. Plymouth Cordage was one of the few industries that continued manufacturing their primary product during the war. The manufacturing of cordage for rigging for ships and binder twine for wheat was just as important as the production of weapons. The company encouraged civilians and employees of their factory to cultivate Victory gardens to help maintain the food supply and aid rationing during World War One. The company gave $1 to $8 to each family to start a garden.
In 1917, the Plymouth Cordage Company negotiated an agreement with the British Government to allow three hundred Chinese men from Hong Kong to work at their Welland plant. These men had been in military training in British Columbia. The citizens of Welland were fearful of this large number of foreign workers and petitioned the city to keep them in barracks on company land enclosed with high chain link fences. They also requested that these workers be allowed downtown only a few at a time and wanted Plymouth Cordage to be fully responsible for their actions. In reality, the city of Welland could not restrict their employment. These Chinese workers left the plant in the late 1920s to seek employment in other parts of Canada.
In 1938, Plymouth Cordage bought out its major Canadian competitor, Consumer Cordage Company. The Second World War created a situation in which the Cordage had to hire more women as rope makers. Three years into the Second World War, the Canadian government applied regulations to cordage fibre.
Profits fell with the introduction of the harvester-thresher. Plymouth Cordage operations in Welland ended on July 18, 1969. The market for binder twine and rope had disappeared. The company sold its assets to Tancord Industries of Brantford, Ontario. All facilities were demolished in 1970, except for the Plymouth Cordage office, which was used by the Air and Sea Cadets until 1984. The land was eventually purchased by the Welland Hospital.