The Lime Kiln…99 years of history
By Mary Cook
Carleton Place Canadian, 1987
The Ottawa Valley, and particularly Lanark County was fast gaining a reputation in the lime industry just before the turn of this century. An enterprising local industrialist, Napoleon Lavalee (after whom Napoleon Street was named) capitalized on that reputation and built what was to be a long lasting, Carleton Place industry. When the end product was realized, lime was carted off to help build some of the most prestigious buildings in the Nation’s Capital.
Napoleon Lavalee built the first kiln on the very site of the present one in the mid-1800s. It was a crude affair, but served the purpose well. Many years later the new owner Bill Cameron updated the equipment, and laid the foundation for what was to become a major contributor to the lime industry in Eastern Ontario.
The stack kiln Bill Cameron built was more efficient than the “pits” put in by Napoleon Lavalee. They rose high in the air, looking like big chimneys. New buildings were added to smooth out the operation, and for many years…going into the 20s, Bill Cameron was able to offer steady employment to a clatch of hard working employees. Then the 30s rolled in with all their ramifications. There wasn’t an industry untouched by the depression. There was no exception. But Bill Cameron was a very unusual man. He felt for his employees, most of them trying to support big families on meager wages. To lay them off would have been devastating.
Margaret Lesway Henderson was just a little girl when her family moved next door to the lime kiln on Napoleon Street. She remembers very clearly those depression years. And she especially remembers how Bill Cameron did everything in his power to keep his men working. The lime business had slowed to a crawl. So the men were sent to the bush lots to cut cedar. Cord after cord of cedar was hauled into the yard. Bill Cameron must have wondered if he would ever use it all, when, and if the lime business ever picked up again. “I was just a young girl, but I can remember so well those huge piles of cedar. And every day the workers would haul in more. Mr. Cameron stock piled the wood just to keep his men employed, because the alternative was to lay them off, and that would have meant terrible hardships for many of the town’s families,” Margaret recalls.
George Briscoe of Beckwith Township was Bill Cameron’s shanty man. Through good management, the business held on all through the 30s. With the 40s came a new interest in the lime business, and prosperity. In 1944, Bill Cameron was ready to call it quits and he sold the Lime Kiln to another enterprising young businessman, Stuart Neilson.
The Napoleon Street business saw its greatest changes after Stuart Neilson took it over. He moved it from a piece meal operation to an efficient, more scientifically run business. It became a 24 hour pursuit. It was moved from a rather primitive procedure to a sophisticated performance that saw many changes and innovations in the Napoleon Street business.
The procedure had to basically remain the same, but Mr. Neilson made vast improvements. He changed the shape and the functions of the kilns and was able to produce twice as much lime as the old time kiln.
However, many of the jobs leading up to the burning didn’t change or changed only marginally. Trucks replaced the horse-drawn wagons for hauling the limestone into town from the 4th and 5th concessions of Ramsay. Shirley Sheinfield can still see in her mind’s eye those trucks lumbering up past her house on Napoleon Street, and the familiar sounds relative to the procedure of burning lime. “You heard this steady ‘bang’ all the time. That was when the big pieces of limestone would be dropped into the kiln. It was like thunder, and it was constant,” she says. She also remembers a horse by the name of Queenie. The horse was used to power the winch which hauled the limestone up to the top of the kiln. “Queenie was kept in a field across the road. Of course, there were no houses there then…just an open field. And I can still hear the man who drove the horse yelling ‘giddyup Queenie’. I guess those are sounds you never forget, because they were so constant”, Shirley said.
John Neilson, Stuart’s son, remembers the horse powered winch very well. He was just a young boy when his father put him to work. “My job was to drive the horse to operate the winch. It was a simple operation. The lime was broken into big chunks in the quarry, then transported into town on the trucks. This breaking process was done by hand with big mallets. Then the pieces were loaded into big steel boxes. The horse was driven in continuous circle to wind up the cable which hauled boxes to the top of the kiln. Then the boxes of lime were tilted at the top by a tripper, and the limestone fell down into the kiln for burning. But it was my job to keep that horse going”, John remembers. He also remembers his father as being a hard task master. There were no privileges just because he was the owner’s son. “He demanded when I did a job, that it had to be done right, or I would have to do it all over again”, he recalls.
Margaret Henderson remembers the yards as a great place for adventure. There were many things to interest a young child back in the 30s. Piles of stone were everywhere, and the robins and ground sparrows used to build their nests in the piles. “We used o position ourselves in front of the piles and watch the birds in their nests. We would even see the eggs hatch out. I remember the horse too. I’m not sure if it was Queenie, because the horse I remember never had a driver. It just knew and would slow down or stop altogether, and then the man on the top of the kiln would let a roar out of him, and the horse would start up again. I can remember that. We used to think that was very funny. Our biggest joy was at Christmas time. Those sleighs filled with limestone would go up the street, and we kids would run and jump on the back of them and get a ride. We loved that. We weren’t allowed to go back where the lime was being ‘drawn off’. That was considered a very dangerous place for a child. But I remember one time two young lads were back there where they weren’t supposed to be. Well, one dared the other to jump in the ashes which had been taken out of the bottom of the kiln. You’d never know they were hot to look at them. The young lad jumped in and he was very seriously burned. He spent months in the hospital, I know. We were never allowed back there, and I don’t know how those got there, but they did”, Margaret reflects.
She also remembers that the Lime Kiln had the only well on the street. “We were all allowed to use it. Everyone who lived on that part of Napoleon Street would go up to the Lime Kiln with their pails and bring the water home. It was years later when water was finally put up the street and we didn’t have to haul it from the lime kiln any longer.”
John Neilson remembers when the business ran 11 months of the year and employed up to 15 men. “Dad kept it going 24 hours a day. We fired with slab wood, and it took a lot to keep it going, but it was a big business right up to about the mid-60s, and hauling in limestone was stopped altogether in the early 1970s”, he said.
By the time this account of the lime kiln is read by Canadian subscribers, most of the antique equipment will have gone on the auction block. A sale today (Wednesday) will all but eliminate the workings of the Lime Kiln. Old machinery, an antique truck, bits and pieces of history of one of the town’s long time industries will have gone to the highest bidder.
But for people like Shirley Sheinfield and Margaret Henderson, memories of that site will be with them always. Last week Margaret took a walk past the lime kiln, up the street she called home for many years. “So many……..flashed that part of the old drive shed where Mr. Cameron kept a beautiful old buggy. It was very fancy. It had lights on it, and a lot of brass. We kids used to pry open the little window closed to our house, and we’d crawl in and sit in that buggy and pretend we were somebody really important. I can remember those weigh scales and the sounds of those trucks rolling over them. I remember the day a team of horses ran away, and how if I hadn’t stepped back, they would have run right over me. Last week I saw those piles of ashes. We kids would get huge cardboard boxes and climb to the top of the ash pile and slide ….was having as much fun as we were having. It will be hard to see that landmark gone.”
But that’s exactly what is going to happen to whatever remains after the auction sale today. John Neilson said the last fragments of the yard will eventually be cleared away. When the final board is hauled away, all that will remain will be memories. Lime is still being manufactured. But the process is much different. The calcining remains the same, but large rotary lime kilns have replaced the primitive stacks.
It will take a long time to clean up the final remnants of the business Napoleon Lavalee started almost 100 years ago, but the memories of the site will remain with many for years to come.