By Brian Hartz
In many ways, the history of Redpath Sugar embodies the history of
industrialization in this country. Step into its museum on Queen’s Quay
in downtown Toronto, and you’re transported to a time before anything
resembling today’s high-tech manufacturing existed.
|Redpath Sugar Museum curator Richard Feltoe studies a portrait of company founder John Redpath at the museum in Toronto.|
In many ways, the history of Redpath Sugar embodies the history of industrialization in this country. Step into its museum on Queen’s Quay in downtown Toronto, and you’re transported to a time before anything resembling today’s high-tech manufacturing existed.
Founded in 1854 in Montreal by Scottish immigrant John Redpath, Canada Sugar Refinery, as it was known at the time, was the country’s first sugar refinery. Today, it’s located in Toronto and bears not only the name of its founder, but also the signature as its famous logo.
Redpath Sugar’s history is so rich with innovation and achievement that it employs a full-time museum curator – Richard Feltoe – who has written three books about the company and the Redpath family. He’s also an original member of the Culinary Historians of Ontario. In early December, he welcomed Bakers Journal for a guided tour of the museum, which he’s been overseeing for 32 years.
A historical re-enactor in his spare time, Feltoe, with his bushy muttonchops, evokes the spirit of the age of industrialization of which he is so fond. As he walked us through the museum, the sense of stepping back into history was palpable.
“The museum is open to the public most days, but please call ahead first,” he says. “We get a lot of school groups – they can pre-book groups of up to 50.”
It’s no surprise that the museum is being used as a teaching tool – it’s chock-full of historical artifacts, photos, tools, artwork, documents and other exhibits that are fascinating to behold. Plus, admission is free. For the kids and teens, there’s even an elaborate display of sugar-work figures inspired by the Harry Potter books.
2009 was an eventful year for Feltoe and the museum as Redpath celebrated the 50th anniversary of its cane sugar refinery on the Toronto waterfront – the first industrial facility to be built in Ontario as a direct result of the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The grand opening, on June 29, 1959, was attended by no less than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, whose signature can be viewed in a carefully preserved guestbook inside the museum.
Among the company’s many other achievements, it holds the honour of having the oldest trademark for a Canadian food product. If you get up and check your cupboards or supply room right now, chances are you’ll spot it right away.
“We sell sugar in amounts ranging from 1 kg to 1,000 kg – and beyond,” Feltoe said as he pointed out small paper packages for retail sale and climbed inside one of the huge, heavy-duty bags used for transporting sugar in its bulk granular form for industrial use.
Other notable dates in Redpath’s history include 1912, when it introduced women to the workforce to produce its new line of pre-packaged sugar, sold in cardboard boxes, the first in the Canadian market; 1978, when the museum opened; and 1980, when refining operations at the Montreal facility closed (distribution continued for some time afterward at that location before relocating to a new site outside of the old downtown core).
After lying vacant for several years, the Montreal site became a run-down, derelict property but gained new life as a stereotypical “abandoned factory” set for big-budget Hollywood movies such as the Keanu Reeves vehicle Johnny Mnemonic.Eventually, the site was sold to a developer who built an upscale condominium community with the Redpath ‘R’ as its logo (with the blessing of the company, of course).
In 2004, Redpath celebrated 150 years in business. Judging by the success thus far, there will be plenty more for the history books to come.
On the web: Redpath Sugar Museum: www.redpathsugars.com/museum_index.htm