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Donald and the Standard Chemical Company

March 19, 2023

Standard Chemical Company at Donald (Toronto Public Library)

When the Victoria Railway pushed north to Haliburton Village, a flag station was set up on the flats of the Burnt River between Lochlin and Gould’s Station and called Dysart Station. Craig & Austin from Kinmount eventually operated a lumber camp and sawmill at Dysart Station: sawing the hardwood right on the spot and sending the softwood downstream to their mill at Kinmount.

Around the year 1900, there was demand for wood alcohol or methyl alcohol for such usages as anti-freeze and explosives. Methyl alcohol occurs naturally in living organisms. One of the easiest sources was from trees, particularly hardwoods like maple. The Haliburton area was filled with suitable timber. The process to distill the wood alcohol could use smaller and cull timber that sawmills wouldn’t use.

In 1908, the Donald Wood Products Company was formed and a huge plant was built on a site outside of Haliburton village on a convenient spot on the Victoria Railway line. The Standard Chemical Company acquired the plant in 1914. This large supplier of chemical products also had plants all over the area, including Fenelon Falls. The company purchased the timber rights from Craig & Austin over a wide area of hardwood that was handy to the site. A large boarding house, individual cottages and a store were built to house and service the plant and Donald became a true company town. The new town was named Donald after the company president. A school was erected in 1909, followed by the famous ‘Opera House.’ This community centre was used as a church as well as for all the events typical to a community centre.

The monster plant was built of cement and steel: an oddity in an era where wood structures were prominent, but because the distilling process required lots of fire and steam, cement was a safer option. The plant had 3 main structures or departments: the distillery, boiler room and the oven house. The distillery was several stories high and housed huge distillation coils. The ethyl alcohol was separated from the steam and could be packaged as 2 forms: liquid alcohol or powdered acetate. The liquid alcohol could be used as anti-freeze or fuel. The powdered acetate form was shipped to Nobel, Ontario, and used to make explosives, especially during the two World Wars.

A crew at the plant consisted of approximately 35 men assigned as thus: 3 boiler firers, 3 distillery men, 4 oven firemen, 2 acetate men, 5 on the charcoal gang, 6 men on wood gang and the rest as general assistants or helpers. Pay was good for the area, averaging $1.90 per day in the early days! Lumberjacks earned somewhat less and had more erratic job security. Workers could live in the company accommodations right in town: a handy thing when 10 hour days were the norm. The Chemical required prodigious quantities of wood to operate. Special carts called ‘boggies’ were loaded with wood and fed directly into the ovens. The quota for a day’s work was 24 boggies which held 50 (bush) cords of wood! Depending on the quality, a cord of wood processed in the ovens could yield 10 gallons of wood alcohol and 60 bushels of charcoal, a by-product left over after the ‘burning.’ The wood yard often contained 15,000 cords of wood at peak season. The wood sat in the yard for as long as 2 years: fully dry wood was obviously better for the whole process.

It didn’t take long for the Standard Chemical Company wood limits to run out, so the company purchased wood from wherever it could get it. Many local farmers and lumbermen were only too glad to sell fuel to the Chemical. In the days when cash was hard to come by, the Chemical was a steady market for what was plentiful in the area. Both local railways were utilized to haul wood to Donald to feed the voracious ovens of the Standard Chemical Plant. At its peak, the Chemical employed an additional 100 men and 30 teams of horses for the winter cutting season.

In 1923, the first Lynn Caterpillar Tractor was brought in to haul wood for the Chemical. This modern marvel could haul 50 cords per trip and was estimated to replace 30 teams of horses. It was a harbinger of days to come as machines began to replace the noble horse.

World War II was the last hurrah for the Standard Chemical Plant. The war effort required all the product the plant could produce, but at the end of the war, the market for wood alcohol crashed. The war itself inspired scientists to invent new, synthetic products to replace wood alcohol. In 1946, the Standard Chemical Plant at Donald was closed and quickly dismantled. All the saleable machinery was sold for scrap and only the cement structure of the mighty building was left. The town itself quickly dwindled as its raison d’etre was removed. Today, the shell still stands in its dignity; surviving all those years amazingly intact, a testimony to the skill of its builders.

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