Biltmore Hats: Capping Off Industry
The Fried Lee Hat Company and the Rise of Biltmore Hats
In 1917, Fried Lee Hat Company made a historic move from Toronto to the northwest corner of Suffolk and Yorkshire Streets in Guelph. Modest production of hats had begun at the Fried Lee Hat Company in 1917, however, a group of Guelph locals led by Frank Ramsay purchased the facility and renamed it Biltmore Hats after the luxurious Biltmore Hotel in New York. For the early years of its development, Biltmore employed approximately 100 workers. Biltmore had been unionized by Hat Workers Local 182 and struck in 1938 in an effort to win better working conditions and better pay with less heat and dust which took a toll on Biltmore workers. Some of the photos featured on this page date from this strike. Following the Second World War, particularly after 1950, business at Biltmore Hats boomed and the company payroll soon exceeded 450 workers. It was during this period that Biltmore Hats officially moved into St. Patrick's Ward. With accumulated capital, Biltmore Hats was able to buy out its supplier, Lancashire Felt, and rebuild their facility on Morris Street and York Road. This became the centre of Biltmore Hats' operations.
Hockey in the Ward: A Biltmore Legacy
Business success wasn't the only kind of success experienced by Biltmore as the company began sponsoring hockey: in particular the Biltmore Madhatters. The Madhatters experienced tremendous success winning the Memorial Cup in 1952. In fact, many of the players from the Biltmore Madhatters went on to play in the NHL such as Andy Bathgate, Harry Howell, Dean Prentice, Ron Murphy, and one of Guelph's most famous players, Lou Fontinato. Lou Fontinato's father came to Canada from Treviso in Northern Italy, buying a house on Ferguson Street and working at the International Malleable Iron Company for 40 years. Lou spent his entire early life in St. Patrick's Ward until, in 1954, "Leapin' Lou" Fontinato was signed by the New York Rangers where he played for 8 years before being traded to Montreal. His career came to a tragic end when, in March 1964, Fontinato fractured his neck while playing against his old team, the Rangers. Fontinato has since retired close to Guelph. Despite his career being cut short sooner than it should have been due to his injury, Fontinato very much represented a group of highly skilled NHL players who got their start on a Biltmore sponsered team on the rinks of the Ward. The NHL players who came out of the Biltmore Madhatters are a testament to the presence of Biltmore Hats in the Guelph community and the immense success they experienced as a business.
The End of an Era
Biltmore, like many medium and large scale industries in the Ward which met their ends near the turn of the century, met its official end with its demolition in 2012 after collapsing as a business in 2011 though this process had been underway since the 1970s.