Submitted by Jim Simon, R.R.# 1 Shubie, Nova Scotia, Can. BON 2H0
It was during the First World War and the start of the Roaring Twenties that Acadia Gas Engines Limited of Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, was said to be the largest manufacturer of marine engines in Canada.
Ships driven by sail and power tied up along the LaHave River waterfront and unloaded Number 3 Albany moulding sand from New York and soft coal and coke from Cape Breton. The moulding sand was used to gather impressions from which marine engine parts would be cast. The soft coal heated the company's complex of six buildings and the coke was used to fire the cupola or melting furnace.
A designer from Boston designed the parts and later a pattern was formed. In the foundry, the patterns were used to mould cavities into which molten metal was poured. The castings were further refined in the machine shop.
Finally, the castings were assembled to produce a finished engine.
'Here was a small firm going through all the motions of a giant,' says Glendon Feindel of Bridgewater who, for many years, served as plant superintendent for Acadia Gas Engines Limited.
'It was a small plant but it was set up on a mass production basis,' say Mr. Feindel. 'The operation was very specialized. One fellow would be there all day doing nothing but boring out cylinders. Another would be machining crank shafts.'
'Other than a few purchased parts, the old two-cylinder engine was pretty well made there,' says Stan Forbes, who served as a mechanical engineer for the company.
Company founder Winfred Theodore Ritcey, a man with a natural bent for engineering and a solid academic background in accounting, returned to his native Lunenburg County from Massachusetts with a dream of making marine engines.
His dream was very timely. The inshore fishing fleet was replacing its oars and sails with two-cycle marine engines.
'They (the inshore fishermen), were dependent on oars and sails. Once the marine engines were available, they were glad to be rid of the oars and sails,' says Mr. Feindel.
Mr. Ritcey founded his company in a small building on Bridgewater's King Street in 1907. Parts were machined and assembled there.
At first, the company didn't have a foundry and castings were brought in from elsewhere. But by the time of the First World War, there was a foundry.
The plant employed about 130. Because it supplied tools for food producers, it was considered important to the war effort. There was one of the most up-to-date machine shops east of Montreal.
'The machinery would be antiquated today,' says Mr. Feindel. 'Still, it was top-notch at the time.'
The success of the two-cycle Acadia gas engines was in their simplicity.
'They were primitive and anyone could do the repair work,' says Mr. Feindel. 'This was important because the engines were used in the outports. There were no service stations. You had to use your own imagination.'
These engines also gave years of dependable service. In 1941, it was claimed that 30,000 of the marine engines had been made and that 20,000 of them were still in operation. 'In fact,' states Mr. Feindel, 'some are still in use today.'
Naturally enough, the fishermen of Newfoundland took to the Acadia gas engines. The single-cylinder engines, as they gasped their way to and from the fishing grounds, were affectionately nicknamed 'One-lungers.'
Eventually, two and three-cylinder engines were made. An early catalogue lists the price of a four to six horsepower engine at $140. A six to eight horsepower engine sold for $175.
At one point, sales to Newfoundland accounted for 60 percent of the Acadia Gas Engine Company's output. A sales and service operation was set up in St. John's.
The popularity of these make-and-break engines spread across Canada. Engines were also marketed in South America, England and the West Indies.
The company diversified. It constructed a stationary engine that proved useful in the Canadian west. This engine was put to use pumping water, grinding grain and driving saws.
As an automotive pioneer, Mr. Ritcey took over the local General Motors dealership and constructed a stone storage garage. In the 1920's when most cars were put away for the winter, an innovative lift system whisked automobiles upstairs in the garage where they were stored on blocks for the winter for a fee.
Through it all, W.T. Ritcey kept tabs on everything that was going on in every phase of the business. He was seldom at his desk, preferring to be on the shop floor. He drove himself hard and his mind was agile and inquiring.
'He was always thinking up new ideas,' says Stan Forbes. 'He kept a notebook by his bed and jotted things down. His house was across the street and I'd see him coming down to the plant. He'd have an idea for something we were working on, a new carburetor or something. We'd draw up a sketch for it. We'd cast it in the foundry. It was always interesting.'
Mr. Forbes found the company so interesting that he signed on for a few months to do design and drafting work after completing his engineering degree and stayed on for 38 years.
'It was a very close-knit place,' he says. 'There wasn't any hiring a big crowd and laying off a big crowd. Some of the fellows were there for years and years.'
Sales peaked during the spring months and often overtime hours were needed to keep up with the orders. But by mid-summer sales would start to drop off. Luckily, that was during the vacation period and by fall the company would start building up stock. The inventory build-up would continue through the winter months in preparation for next spring's rush. That way the labour force was retained at a fairly constant level, says Mr. Forbes.
The thriving company brought in its rewards. It paid a stable work force a good wage for the times. It was also good for its investors, at one time paying a 50-percent dividend.
Company founder Ritcey became a community trendsetter and served for a time as mayor. He was also the first in town to drive a closed automobile. He was the first to heat his home with oil. 'I never saw anybody before or since who could take his place,' says retired gas and diesel engine mechanic Don Pentz of his former boss Mr. Ritcey. 'He knew the machine. He knew the engines. He knew the pattern shop. He was a hard working man.'
Mr. Pentz, meanwhile, knew at an early age that a career in mechanics was for him. He was a mechanic for a small freighter working between Bridgewater and Riverport, but was very glad when the opportunity arose to go to work for Acadia Engines. 'I don't know where you'd go today to get the type of mechanical experience the gas engine company offered,' he says.
Mr. Pentz worked at assembling parts, assembling engines and servicing them. Eventually he went on the road throughout the Maritimes and Quebec to service the machines.
'In a short time, I could straighten out the trouble,' he says. If he couldn't do it on the spot, he knew which parts to send back for the repairs. Mr. Pentz also did some selling but feels his salesmanship was not up to his mechanical ability.
'I sold what, to the best of my knowledge, would suit your boat,' he says with a chuckle. 'That was a poor salesman.'
In all, Mr. Pentz worked for the company for 46 years. 'There was no place like it for a young fellow to go and learn a trade,' he says.
The Second World War saw the company again encouraged to continue making its engines to serve the fishermen who were harvesting food for Canada. But the company also did contract work for the Royal Canadian Navy.
Wartime was difficult for Mr. Ritcey, says Mr. Feindel, his son-in-law. Mr. Ritcey was an individualist and the bureaucratic red tape needed in dealing with government took a toll on him. It is often felt that those wartime pressures led to the stroke which claimed Mr. Ritcey's life in 1946.
Mr. Feindel, meanwhile, joined the company in 1942 and served for 25 years before going on to his appointment as the first curator of Bridgewater's DesBrisay Museum. Mr. Ritcey saw to it that Mr. Feindel got a solid foundation in all facets of the gas engine factory, sending him from the pattern shop, to the machine shop and the foundry. Of the shops, Mr. Feindel jokes: 'The work I enjoyed most was the dirty old foundry.'
All told, his time at Acadia Gas Engines Limited 'was a great experience.'
The company ran under the regional management team until 1964. The facility served in a number of industrial capacities until the 1970s.
Today the site of the gas engine factory is visualized as a luxury residential development. The firm of Acadian Landings Limited is to build initially a multiple-unit residential project.
Golden days may well return to the site of Bridgewater's historic Acadia Gas Engine company.