Lanark Sweaters: Soft as a Kitten

Each year, in the late summer, thoughts at our house turned to all the rituals associated with going back to school.  This included inspecting last year’s clothing, shoes and boots, gathering up pencils and erasers for the inevitable homework that would take place at the big kitchen table, and checking to see if the old lunch pails were still intact.  Some articles would be passed down to younger members of the family, and some things would have to be purchased new.

 

kitten logo

Glenayr Kitten Logo

It was usually on a Saturday, the first or second week in September, that we made the annual trip to Lanark, to buy a couple of new sweaters at the Kitten factory outlet, and a new pair of shoes, maybe some new snow boots, at Gus Quinn’s store.

 

We drove down the Third Line, turned at Glen Tay, and headed up Highway 7, toward Lanark. The village of Lanark was a nice easy drive from our house – about twenty minutes or so.  I suppose we could have done it in a bit less time, but Mother was never one to let Dad go over the speed limit; she was very strict about that and said that the laws were there for a reason.  Dad would sometimes say that  he ‘had’ to speed a bit, to burn the carbon off of his spark plugs, but Mother never fell for that, and she’d just give him ‘the look’, and he’d be back under the speed limit in no time.

 

After about ten minutes had passed, we’d be driving into Balderson.  Sometimes Mother would stop and get some curd for us kids, and some old sharp cheese for Dad, but that was usually on the way back home from Lanark, so it wouldn’t spoil in the heat.   We all knew the story of the giant cheese, made in Balderson, in 1893, for the World’s Fair in Chicago.  The old timers said that it was six feet high, and weighed over 22,000 lbs.  It was mostly butter and cheese that was produced there, when we were kids, and people would drive for miles around, even up from the States, because it was so good.

Kitten mill along the Clyde

The former buildings of the Glenayr Kitten Mill, along the Clyde River, Lanark, Ontario

Another ten minutes or so and we’d be driving into Lanark.  It was a pretty little village, built along the Clyde River.  Mother said that it had been named for Lanarkshire in Scotland, and had been settled back in the 1820s, mostly by Scottish weavers and farmers.

Dad grew up on the family homestead, on the 11th concession of Drummond Township, not far from Lanark, and he often visited his Aunt Stacia, who owned a home in Lanark Village, right along the Clyde.  Dad said that the Caldwell Woollen Mill, in Lanark, was a big employer back in the early days, but the building had been destroyed by fire.   He said that there had been another huge fire in the late fifties, that destroyed many of the old original buildings in Lanark, and over 100 people had lost their homes.

 

Caldwell mills Lanark Ontario

Caldwell Woollen Mills, Lanark – Perth Remembered

After passing many of the homes and businesses along the main street, we finally arrived at 44 George Street, at the Glenayr Kitten Outlet.   The business was started in 1944, by the Markle family, from Toronto, and Derek, son of the founder worked there as the superintendent of the mill.  Some of the wool was already spun onto cones when it arrived from Scotland, and was knitted by circular machines. In 1951 they began to produce sweaters under the ‘Kitten’ label.

new industry

‘The Ottawa Citizen’, 1953

 

All kinds of sweaters were made at the Kitten mill, knitted with orlon, angora, mohair, lamb’s wool, or pure cashmere.  There were a number of different styles– pullovers, cadet style, cardigans, ski styles, crew necks many different colours, zip front, turtleneck, six button, eight button cardigans, and alpine styles.

Glenayr Kitten also manufactured pantsuits, skirts, blazers, blouses and slacks.

Kitten 1953 photo Mary Graham

Mary Graham, Lanark, Ontario

 

kitten yellow sweater

Buttercup yellow cardigan sweater from the Glenayr Kitten Mill, c.1970s

kitten yellow sweater tag

Label from the yellow sweater

 

Kitten ad Ottawa Citizen Aug 4 1977 p 67

Ad, 1978, ‘The Ottawa Citizen’

Kitten suit 1970s

kitten suit 1970s tag

Blue sweater suit, Glenayr Kitten Mill, Lanark, Ontario

Kitten photo assembling sweater July 11 1978 p 19

Workers at the Glenayr Kitten Mill stitch sweater pieces together

kitten 1960s sweater orange

kitten 1960s orange sweater tag

Terra-cotta orange short-sleeved sweater, Glenayr Kitten Mill, Lanark

 

Kitten bus trip 1982 Oct. 19 1982 p 63

The Kitten Mill stores were a popular tourist attraction, and visitors traveled by motor-coach from Ottawa, Kingston, and the U.S.

Kitten ad Oct 15 1988 p 192

Kitten Mill ad, ‘The Ottawa Citizen’, 1980s

 

kitten 1960s purple sweater

kitten purple sweater tag

Violet, long-sleeve, collared sweater, Glenayr Kitten Mill, Lanark

Kitten 1993 ad with model

Blazer and matching slacks, Glenayr Kitten Mill, 1990s

 

Kitten Glenayr sweater 1

Peach popcorn knit, Glenayr Kitten Mill, Lanark

 

Kitten label

Rumours of Closure – 1992

Kitten article part 1 closing 1992

Kitten closing article 1992 part 2

‘The Ottawa Citizen” – 1992Kitten David Markle 1992 photo plant closing

 

 

kitten pale blue sweater

Aqua, fine, combed-wool, long-sleeve Glenayr Kitten sweater, Lanark, Ontario

kitten pale blue tag

The Kitten Mill Remained Open

Kitten 1993 mill stays open article

1993, ‘The Ottawa Citizen” – Kitten Mill Stays Open

 

Kitten 1996 customers flock article part 1

Kitten 1996 customers flock article part 2

 

kitten jpg

Kitten 2000 David Markle obit part 1

Kitten 2000 David Markle obit part 2

 

 

Kitten Mill Lanark Museum 1

Display at the Lanark Museum, Lanark, Ontario

 

Kitten Mill Lanark Museum 2

Storyboard display highlighting some of the former staff of the Glenayr Kitten Mill,
(Lanark Museum)

 

Kitten Mill Lanark Museum 3

Many items from the glory days of the Glenayr Kitten Mill, Lanark Museum

 

I think one of the things that attracted my frugal Mother to the Kitten outlet, was the fact that they sold ‘seconds’.  They sold some sweaters that had small defects – without labels, and sold discontinued colours, ends-of-lines, and clearance items.  The ‘seconds’ usually sold for between $4.50 and $12.00 at that time, so was very appealing when you were buying back-to-school clothing for a large family.

 

After a busy afternoon in Lanark, we’d head back home, with our  new sweater ‘seconds’, ready for the new school year.  Looking back, we were lucky to live such a short drive from the Kitten Mill, because the sweaters there really were lovely.  Mother always found a way to add on the missing button, or to mend the seam that was beginning to unravel, so that you couldn’t tell that it was a second.  Most of my Kitten sweaters lasted for years, because they were so well made, and were knitted with such high-quality yarns.

 

Sometimes during our visits to Lanark, I’d see huge, sleek, modern buses, pull up out front, and forty or fifty people got off the motor-coach, to shop at the outlets.  I think many of them came all the way from Kingston or Ottawa. We didn’t realize it at the time, but people in the cities had already figured out that in our little corner of the world, folks had crafted their products with skills, passed down over generations, and they took great pride in what they manufactured.

 

Every spring, around the middle of March, we’d see city folks, suddenly appear around the Perth area, because they knew that the best tasting maple syrup came from Lanark County. It was also no secret that the finest tasting cheese in the world was made at the modest, little, factory in Balderson, and, if you wanted the highest quality sweaters, at a good price, and ‘soft as a kitten’, there was only one place to get them, and that was the village of Lanark.

 

(This story is dedicated to the people who worked at the Glenayr Kitten Mill.  Many families had more than one member working at the Mill, and some worked for two or three decades, or more. Thank-you for producing the beautiful, cozy, sweaters, that kept us warm on those chilly days. You won’t be forgotten.

Thanks also to the Markle family, who provided work for the village of Lanark, and who kept their prices fair, so even those with a modest income could afford to purchase one of their high quality sweaters.)

 

 

Kitten reunion 2018

A reunion for former staff at the Glenayr Kitten Mill, was held in 2017 at the Lanark Museum

 

 

This story is an excerpt from – ‘Lanark Sweaters – Soft as a Kitten’  – from the book, “Lanark County Kid: My Travels up and down the Third Line”  ISBN: 978-0-9877026-16

LC Kid

http://www.staffordwilson.com

Balderson Cheese – Craving the Curd

Whenever a kid in Lanark County heard the word ‘Balderson’ spoken at their home, most of the time their thoughts turned to cheese.  The Balderson Cheese Factory was a short drive up the Lanark Road from our place, and they made the best cheese in the world.  People came from miles around to buy Balderson Cheese, curds, and butter, and our family was no different. Usually a visit to the cheese factory took place as part of a Sunday drive.

Balderson was a small hamlet situated about halfway between Perth and Lanark and was one of the earliest communities settled along with Perth.  Balderson, a suburb was also settled partly by soldiers, and partly by Scottish immigrants from Perthshire in the Scottish Highlands.  It was founded by Sergeant Balderson in June 1816.

When we spent time in Balderson during the 1960s and 1970s some of the family names were: Bell, Burns, Davidson, Devlin, Haley, Jones, Kennedy, King, McGregor, McIntyre, McTavish, Myers and Newman.

 

Balderson Cheese factory 1954

The ‘new’  factory, built after the 1929 fire

cheese curds

cheese curds

The Balderson Cheese Factory had already been operating for many decades by the time I first remember it.  The factory was established 1881.  It was formed by a group of dairy farmers of Lanark County.  They were known as the Farmer’s Cheese and Butter Association of Balderson. They decided to use the excess milk that they were each producing on their farms, build a factory, produce Cheddar cheese and sell it locally. They built a small, plain-looking, wood-frame building near the Balderson Corners crossroads.

Balderson Cheese factory

 

Loading dock Balderson Cheese factory

Balderson Cheese Factory – Loading Dock

In the early days, each dairy farmer would bring their milk by horse and wagon and drop it off at the factory.  Later, to become more efficient, special milk wagons were built and routes were established and workers from the factory would go from farm to farm picking up the milk.

Balderson 1905

‘The Perth Courier’, Sept. 20, 1962

 

Just twelve years after opening, the Balderson Cheese Factory was one of the twelve factories that contributed cheese to create the ‘Mammoth’ cheese for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The old timers said that it was six feet high and weighed over 20,000 lbs.

 

Mammoth cheese

In 1929, a fire burned the original factory and all that was left was the concrete floor.

Balderson rebuilt

‘The Perth Courier’, Sept. 13, 1929

 

Although Dad was familiar with the original factory, we had only seen the one that was rebuilt in 1930.  It was a plain-looking building and was built in a similar style to many of the other local cheese factories, in and around Perth.  There was a small sign outside and the inside they had a very small counter and sold three products: cheese –  yellow or coloured orange, cheese curds, and butter. You could buy mild cheese or old cheese, and Dad preferred the older ‘sharp’ cheese and liked to enjoy it with a slice of Mother’s homemade apple pie. The cheese was cut from rounds, wrapped in waxed paper and sealed with a piece of scotch tape.  There was one person working behind the counter that would get your cheese and ring it up on the cash register. Everyone else worked in the back.

Balderson Cheese factory cheese-maker

Cheese-Maker,  Balderson Cheese Factory

Dad would often know the person working behind the counter, and he’d ask if we could go back and watch them make the cheese.  Now, that was really interesting!  There was always a distinct smell in the factory, even at the front counter.  It smelled kind of like buttermilk, and the air always seemed very warm and humid.  It was behind the counter where all the magic took place.

Balderson 1962

‘The Perth Courier’, Sept. 20, 1962

 

There were huge metal vats, filled with heated milk.  I don’t know what they use now, but in those days, they added rennet to the milk to make it curdle.  Rennet was an acid which could be found in the fourth stomach of calves and was used for digestion.  When the rennet was added to the milk it curdled and formed into clumps.  The workers in the factory would walk around with long wooden paddles and stir the vats.  Some were newly curdling and were very easy to stir, others in later stages required quite a bit of muscle to stir because the curds were forming in large, heavy clumps.  In the last vat the salt was added and some of the curds were strained out and sold, but the remainder would be pressed into huge round wooden molds.  The molds were lined with cheesecloth so that the cheese wouldn’t stick when it was time to remove it.

At the rear of the old factory, double walls were built two feet thick, with sawdust packed inside as insulation to keep the cheese cool as it cured.  After the cheese was strained and pressed into molds it was stored in the curing room. The whey, the liquid that was strained from the cheese, was stored in big tanks.  In the old days the whey was returned to the farmers to use as feed, but later when tighter government regulations were introduced the whey was dumped.  Each cheese was waxed, boxed, weighed, molded, inspected, cooled, turned and shipped. The cheese was regularly inspected by Government inspectors and the stock turns over every ten days. The cheese remained in the curing room until it was shipped.

Balderson cheese vat of curd and whey

Vat of Curd and Whey

 

Cheese making was an art form in Balderson and their Master Cheese Maker when I was a kid, was Omar Matte. Mr. Matte had begun making cheese when he was fifteen working for his father in St. Albert.  By the 1960s he had been making cheese for 27 years. In those days, Mr. Matte would mold 120 tons of cheese per year and most was shipped to the Sanderson Grading Station in Oxford where it went on to foreign markets. Ten tons of cheese on average was sold locally in the Balderson area. Over 100 tons of cheese and 9,000 pounds of butter produced yearly by the mid 1960s and sold all over North America.

There were many Master Cheese Makers before him – Chris J. Bell of Perth, James Somerville of Boyd’s, Walter Partridge of the Scotch Line, James Prentice of Perth, Charles Gallery of Perth, Robert Lucas of Jasper and Percy George of Christie Lake.

 

Balderson Cheesemakers

1881-1887  W. Brown

1888-1891  J. Milton 1888-1891

1892-1901  W.D. Simes

1902-1904  E.E. Haley

1905-1911  J.M. Scott

1912-1917  T.K. Whyte

1918-1921  M. Haley

1922-1929  A. Quinn

1930  G. Spencer

1931-1937  P. Kirkham

1937-1939  J.L. Prentice

1939-1941  C.J. Bell

1941-1942  J. Somerville

1943  W. Partridge

1944-1955  C. Gallery

1956-1958  R. Lucas

1959-1960  P. George

1961-1966  O. Matte

1966-1974  Y. Leroux

1975-1980  L. Lalonde

1980  N. Matte

As the years passed by, the cheese gained tremendous popularity, news of the product spread, and the little business was bought by a large company.  After many decades the Balderson Cheese business has changed hands many times.

You can still find Balderson cheese today, and many types and grades of cheese available in all of the major supermarkets.

I smile whenever I see the Balderson name and think of the little hamlet outside of Perth. I remember our Sunday drives to the old cheese factory, and how they made the best curd in the world!

 

cheese curd 2kid eating cheese curd

 

http://www.staffordwilson.com

(story is an excerpt from  ‘Lanark County Kid: My Travels Up and Down the Third Line’ ISBN: 978-0-9877026-16)

LC Kid

available in local book stores: The Book Nook & Other Treasures, and  ‘Bookworm’ in Perth, Mill Street Books in Almonte
Vintage Photos: ‘Perth Remembered’
Newsclippings: ‘The Perth Courier’