The History of the Whitelaw Company of Woodstock, Ontario, Canada

Unusual tractor

This unusual tractor is an Imperial gas 35 x 70 H. P. four cylinder horizontal opposed engine.

Verle A. Marsaa

Content Tools

Burgessville, Ontario Canada

One thhing much different from other big tractor is that it has four exhaust pipes, one for each cylinder. This giant weighs eleven tons and was built in 1912 by Valentine Brothers Manufacturing Company of Minneapolis, Minnestoa. The proud owner of this tractor is John Messner of Sanborn, North Dakota. It was bought new by John's father with a 36 x 58 Red River Special thresher. It was never used for field work except for threshing only. It always has been kept in a shed and kept in good mechanical shape by its owner. The last few years it has been a real big attraction at Central North Dakota Steam Threshers in New Rockford, North Dakota. It can be seen in action each fall with its owner doing some threshing daily. No restoring was needed for the fine running tractor. Courtesy of Verle A. Marsaa, New Rockford, North Dakota, 58356  

We thank Mrs. M. B. Harrison, President of Whitelaw Machinery Company Limited for permission to publish the Whitelaw History.

The Whitelaw Co. was one of the pioneer companies of the Woodstock area. Some readers may ask, where is this city of Woodstock located? I will give a short history of the city and county where it is situated.

Woodstock is the county seat of Oxford County. It is located about midway between London and Hamilton. The first white settler on this site was in 1798. This area was rather slow to attract settlers because of the density of the forest. This area was all very heavily wooded and before any grain or hay could be grown they had to clear the land, and this must have been a real problem. There were millions of feet of the very best lumber that was burnt, and then the stumps had to be pulled out. Acre by acre the land was eventually cleared.

The early settlers soon realized that soil that would grow a dense forest was very fertile and it would grow good crops of corn, grain, potatoes etc. It was this type of soil that Oxford County was composed of, and today it is a very rich and productive County.

By 1800 the settlement of Woodstock was still little more than a clearing, having one store and one tavern. In 1830 settlers began to arrive from Scotland and England. In 1839 it became the County seat of Oxford and in 1851 Woodstock was proclaimed a Town and fifty years later - 1901 it was incorporated as a City and named the Industrial City.

In 1852 the present City Hall was built in design similar to the Town Hall in Woodstock, England. This building over 100 years old was designated an Historical Site in May, 1956 by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. This building is now a museum and in it are valuable and interesting historical records, pioneer implements and utensils. The natural history and science section includes many studies of nature which are not found in museums of comparable size, a rare and valuable collection.

Now to get back to where I started. The Whitelaw Company -Robert Whitelaw was born in Roxboroughshire, Scotland in 1827. The first foundry of the Company was established west of Woodstock in 1856. Eighteen years later he located in Woodstock proper. Business was good and the Company prospered. Mr. Whitelaw began to seek means of expanding his business.

Mr. Whitelaw must have been a very busy man during these years when he was building and managing his Company, as he had the time, talent and energy to be very active in the municipal affairs of the town of Woodstock. He served on the town council and also on the water and light committee.

In 1874 when the plant was considering an expansion program, the town of Woodstock was in complete agreement with the Company. The town council must have had confidence and high respect for Robert Whitelaw and his Company as they offered Mr. Whitelaw a grant of $8,000.00 which would not have to be repaid, if his factory continued to reproduce equipment in Woodstock for eight years. The same Company in the same building is still in business today, 100 years later.

As I mentioned earlier, the soil in this area was rich agricultural land and this statement is proven to be correct because the grant agreement between the town of Woodstock and Mr. Whitelaw specified that his factory make certain agricultural machinery such as steam engines, portable and stationary, separators, turbines, sawing machines, cheese making equipment, and castings.  

The original depicts very fine workmanship, as it is complete in every detail.  We believe this picture was produced in 1875, just after the completion of their new building in 1874.

Just a few years ago, the company was remodeling the office and they found some of these pictures in a partition that6 they were removing. How they got there - nobody knows, but it was a good storage space for them.  When they unrolled them, they were just as fresh looking as they were when new. Courtesy of Russell Orth, Burgessville, Ontario, Canada

In 1874 when the Company was rebuilt and the machinery shop and foundry were consolidated in the town of Woodstock, it was known as The Oxford Machine and Foundry, R. Whitelaw. The Whitelaw stationary boiler was very popular in this area. Machine shops, hospitals, commercial buildings, saw and grist mills etc. obtained their heat and power from these boilers. A few years ago I attended an auction sale and back behind the farm buildings was the remains of an old saw and grist mill. The wooden building was completely deteriorated and there were remains of some of the line shafting and you could tell where the saw was located and also the cement base where the grain grinder was fastened to and at the other end of the building was the remains of the boiler. There were huge holes rusted through the boiler but the castings 'at the back of the boiler and the cast fire doors were still intact, and wouldn't you know it; on this casting the words 'Whitelaw, Woodstock' were as plain to read as it was when it was new.

I was unable to find out when the Company stopped building steam engines but it must have been a good many years ago, because strange as it may seem, I do not know of a restored portable Whitelaw engine in this area. There is one on exhibit at the Agricultural Museum in Saskatoon, Sask. On the brochure attached to this engine it states this is a very rare Whitelaw engine, built in 1883. If anyone reading this article knows where there is a Whitelaw portable, I would be very pleased to know about it.

In September, 1970 I had the chance to buy a Whitelaw stationary steam engine, so on a Saturday a friend of mine went with me to get it. When we reached the place where the engine was supposed to be we found out that only part of it was there. The owner had dismantled the engine in preparation for restoration, so we loaded up what parts were there and had to drive another 15 miles or so and there we got the base and some more parts. The remainder of the engine was at his father-in-laws, another 15 miles or so. Finally we got all the parts in the back of the half-ton truck and started for home. The following winter I started to clean it up. The original owner must have thought paint was a good preservative, as I have never seen so much paint on an engine. It must have been an eighth of an inch thick, it had been painted black, green, yellow, and red. One colour just painted on top of the former colour. When I finished scraping, soaking and digging I must of had a half a bushel of paint that had protected the engine down through the years. Come spring and I had the engine freshly painted; green and red and finally got it assembled. Since then we have had it to several shows in Ontario. Sometimes we belt it up to a shingle mill; this makes an interesting exhibit. This engine would be about 10 or 12 H.P., like the ones that operated the machinery in a cheese factory or creamery. There is no identification on this engine regarding age but we think it would have been built in the 1800's.

The Company has had several changes in management down through the years. Robert Whitelaw died in 1920 and his son Oscar took over the business which was later managed by the company's Secretary - Treasurer, Joseph Schaeffer, and was finally sold in 1944 to a former employee, S. J. Harrison, whose wife continues as President of what is now known as Whitelaw Machinery Co. Ltd.

Mr. Harrison was not the only Whitelaw employee to move into his own business. Alex Weiler founded the Weiler Machine Co. Ltd. after leaving Whitelaw Machinery, and Gordon Crawford left to start the Crawford Machine and Foundry Ltd. These two companies are operating in Woodstock at the present time.

The Whitelaw Machinery Co. Ltd. is at present a very active place of business in Woodstock and we hope they have many years of activity in the future.