The people of Ontario have been wondering for many years whether the various oil companies serving up the fuel that keeps our cars and trucks moving might possibly be in collusion with each other about how much to charge for their product. Price fixing, it is called, and it has been denied repeatedly by the big oil companies. This is not as recent an issue as we might think, and, in fact, it was an open and defiant action taken by those involved in the transport business in times past.
In 1905, for example, all the blacksmiths in the region got together to raise the price they would charge for new horse shoes, and for the labour required to fix them to the hooves of the hundreds of horses upon which the people of the region depended for transport and work the farms. We may complain about the busy roads in the municipality these days, a growing problem along County Road 43 as we await the long-promised expansion of the highway into four lanes.
But in 1905, before cars became a common sight on local roads, horses were absolutely vital for the socio-economic life of the community. Getting from place to place, working the fields, drawing milk, raw materials and farm produce to markets all required the use of horse power. Wagons in the summer and sleighs in the winter, getting around involved the use of a very large number of horses, and blacksmiths were a vital part of that system.
Smithies were always one of the first businesses to establish themselves in the settlements which grew up in Oxford-on-Rideau, South Gower and Merrickville-Wolford. Blacksmiths were very aware of their central position in society, and, in the Fall of 1905, they gathered together and agreed on new rates to charge for their services. Shoes for the horses would now cost 30¢ each, instead of the 25¢ people were used to paying. And to set the shoes, the blacksmiths raised their labour from 10 cents to 15 cents, a huge raise of 50%.
This did not go down well with the residents of the area, and there were those who believed that public pressure on one or two blacksmiths would achieve a retreat from such outrageous prices. But the spirit of union and solidarity seems to have been strong among the tradesmen. On November 1, 1905, they had a letter printed in the local newspaper, signed by all the local smiths, declaring their intention to stand in solidarity and resist any attempt to force a return to the old rates.
Some members of the public believed that, of the twelve blacksmiths involved, one would turn out to be a Judas and betray the others by lowering their prices. The twelve were defiant: “But the twelve blacksmiths who signed the agreement have full confidence in one another and will not believe any stories they hear, knowing that when the agreement becomes public the people would have no confidence in the man who would break it, nor his word whether given verbally written or on oath.”
The twelve blacksmiths operating in the area in 1905 signed their names: from Kemptville, there was James Tobin, T. M. Griffin, George Taylor, William Spotswood and Zachariah Leach. From Oxford Mills were R. J. Kingston and Robert Lindsay. Merrickville was represented by J. F. Hicks and Charles Edward. D. B. Davis and W. H. Derrick were from Burritt’s Rapids, and W. J. Quinn from Andrewsville.
These twelve agreed “as men” to abide by the new prices and rules. Their principle stand (or unfair collusion, depending on your point of view) would not, however, save them from the oncoming storm that would arrive with the new technologies and internal (infernal?) combustion engine. Robert John Kingston, one of the two Oxford Mills blacksmiths, would default on his mortgage in 1921 and lose the property which was the oldest blacksmith shop in the village. It had been opened by Moses Lefavre back in 1854, and that long tradition ended with the default in 1921. For the blacksmiths of the region, a new age was dawning.