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Synonymous with elegance, affluence and impeccable style, the Biltmore moniker was chosen as the new name of the Fried Hat Co. when it was purchased in 1920 by three Guelph men; Frank Ramsay, Arthur W. Mean and Edward L. Macdonald. Within 6 years, Ramsay had bought his partners out and grown the company to more than 5 times the amount of its original work force and a company value of nearly $10 million dollars. Operating at the corners of Yorkshire and Suffolk streets, Biltmore Hats sailed through the Depression under the leadership of Ramsay, expanding to provide felt hat forms made from rabbit fur to milliners across the country and a second, straw hat division on Yorkshire street.
Despite successfully weathering the lean times of the twenties and thirties, the company was temporarily set back by two key events at the beginning of the Second World War. A workers’ strike in 1938 angling for improved working conditions, wages and recognition of their union temporarily halted production and led to the creation of the Hat Workers Union Local 182. Then, in the summer of 1940, Frank Ramsay went missing during a boating excursion on Lake Huron. Mr. Ramsay’s death, attributed to a boating accident, left the company in the hands of the Vie-President, William Franke, and the General Manager, William J. Tiller. Tiller’s expertise in the industry led to his appointment as Deputy Administrator of the men’s and boy’s wear division of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board until 1946 when the Board was disbanded.
Business continued to grow after the War and in 1947, Biltmore sponsored the local Junior A Hockey Team launching the Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters. Biltmore’s association with the team helped popularize the “hat trick” as all players scoring three goals in a single game were given a new Fedora. Within 5 short years, the coveted Memorial Cup had been won by the “Biltmores”. During the team’s 13 years in operation, the team produced 4 Hockey Hall of Famers including Andy Bathgate, Rod Gilbert, Harry Howell, and Jean Ratelle as well as numerous outstanding NHL players including Eddie Shack.
In 1952, the Biltmore Hat Company purchase the Lancashire Felt Co which had been housed in a factory on Morris street. Consolidating the two companies led to the refurbishment of the Lancashire factory and the enlarged plant opened in 1957 at this location. Under President Norman Macmillan, the company’s 350 hatters were producing 2400 hats a day, approximately 1/3 of the total Canadian volume. Biltmore became a significant employer for the skilled Italian immigrant labour settling in the Guelph area and was at the pinnacle of its success.
Decline started in the 1960’s and by 1970, production had fallen by nearly 70%. The changing tides of fashion and a decline in the fur hat industry eventually led to the Biltmore Hat Company into bankruptcy in 1982 when it was acquired by the Stetson Hat Co. who filed for bankruptcy themselves in 1987. In 1988, the floundering company was purchased by a group of Guelph investors who aimed to rebuild the company. By 2004, the company was in receivership again. In 2005, the company was purchased by American Eric Lynes who has steadily rebuilt the American market for the Biltmore fedora. In 2012, Lynes made the difficult decision to close the factory in Guelph and operations were moved permanently to Texas.
Although Biltmore no longer makes hats in Guelph, their story remains ingrained not only in the fabric of this city but also this site, where the Biltmore company defined excellence in quality and design.
Today, the Bilmore
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