WISNER, JESSE OLDFIELD, manufacturer; b. 24 March 1811 in Amity, Orange County, N.Y., son of Moses Wisner, a farmer, and Dollie Howell; m. first 23 March 1835 Mary Sheldon (d. 1855), and they had two sons and two daughters; m. secondly 25 Aug. 1856 Frances Augusta Wells, and they had one son and three daughters; d. 3 Oct. 1897 in Brantford, Ont.
On reaching maturity Jesse Oldfield Wisner took up farming near Huron in Wayne County, N.Y., where his family had located in 1817. About 1849 he assumed charge of the Wayne County Poor House, a position he left six years later to enter the livery business. In January 1857 he arrived in Brantford, Upper Canada. There he became the senior partner in Wisner, Wilcox and Company, a small craft-shop operation which manufactured fanning-mills and ploughs. In 1861 it employed seven men. Wisner viewed the business partly as a way of establishing his sons, Wareham Sheldon and Charles Harrison, in a trade. Both were employed in the firm until its demise in the mid 1860s, at which time each embarked upon a manufacturing career. Their father probably provided some financial assistance, but he did not participate directly in their firms. Indeed, he may not have been in business at all in 1867 or 1868.
In 1869 Wareham and his father formed J. O. Wisner and Son. Jesse managed its sales, while Wareham supervised production. Initially they employed five men in the manufacture of fanning-mills and such other wooden products as step-ladders and “Wisner’s Standard Washing Machine and Champion Clothes Wringer.” Seed-drills were soon added, as were sulky-rakes, harrows, and cultivators. By 1874 the partners had approximately $8,000 invested in the business, $6,500 of it from the elder Wisner.
The company had reached its limit for growth as a craft shop and family firm: further expansion required new capital. In 1878 the Canadian Bank of Commerce’s credit reporter in Brantford, Thomas Strahan Shenston, advised against providing an $8,000 line of credit: “I know nothing much good or bad about them. I do not think they have ever been looked on as doing a very flourishing business. . . . Having been in business as long as they have with very little of their means invested in freehold property does not appear to me like prosperity.” Nevertheless, despite the depression of the mid 1870s the Wisners were able to secure mortgages from local capitalists to finance a major expansion of their factory between 1874 and 1881. Incorporation in 1881 effected a reorganization which made Edward L. Goold, a local hardware merchant and manufacturer, a partner in the firm. By 1883 J. O. Wisner, Son and Company employed more than 100 workers.
A marketing arrangement with Brantford’s major agricultural implement manufacturer, A. Harris, Son and Company Limited [see John Harris*] had also contributed to the growth of the Wisner firm. From the mid 1870s the agents who handled the Harris line in eastern Canada carried the implements of the Wisner company as well. For the western market the Harrises bought wholesale from Wisner. This arrangement permitted each firm to increase its output and, at the same time, offer the farmer a full line of implements.
When the Harris firm and the Massey Manufacturing Company of Toronto [see Hart Almerrin Massey] merged in 1891, their rationalized production and marketing network rendered unnecessary Harris’s arrangement with Wisner. As a result the smaller Brantford firm confronted the loss of its distribution outlets. During the summer the Wisners found an ally in Patterson and Brothers of Woodstock. In merging with a larger, full-line implement manufacturer with retailing facilities, however, the Wisners were clearly at a disadvantage: rumours of the closure of their Brantford factory suggest that the Woodstock firm had been interested in reducing productive capacity in a glutted industry. The merger quickly aroused the attention of the Massey-Harris Company, which in mid November negotiated a take-over of Patterson-Wisner on the basis of a share exchange. The Wisner interests received 718 shares, of which 453 went to Jesse. At his death in 1897, these shares, which had a market value of about $38,500, constituted more than half of his estate. In 1892 Massey-Harris closed out the old line of production at the former Wisner plant but, rather than closing the factory, they transferred to it the operation of another acquisition, the Verity Plow Company of Exeter.
Over 80 years of age at the time of the take-over, Wisner spent the last six years of his life in quiet retirement. He did continue, however, to take an interest in both the Congregational Church in Brantford, of which he had been a deacon, and the Liberal party, to which he had remained faithful for more than 25 years.
Jesse Wisner’s involvement in business exemplifies the careers of some craft producers during the transition to industrial capitalism in Canada. By complementing the production of a larger manufacturer and as a result of a profitable take-over, he did achieve modest success despite an undistinguished beginning. His good fortune, however, was not typical of the experiences of the majority of craft producers, who from the 1870s met only failure in Canada’s new industrial order.
Baker Library, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada, 13: 52L, 125, 134. Brant County Surrogate Court (Brantford, Ont.), Reg., liber J (1897–99), no.2080 (mfm. at AO). City of Brantford Arch. (Brantford), Assessment rolls, 1857–80. MTRL, T. S. Shenston papers, letter-book, 494. NA, RG 31, C1, 1861, 1871, 1881, Brantford. Courier (Brantford), 25 July 1892. Expositor (Brantford), 14 Dec. 1888, 19 Nov. 1891, 29 July 1892, 7 Oct. 1897. D. G. Burley, “The businessmen of Brantford, Ontario: self-employment in a mid-nineteenth century town” (phd thesis, McMaster Univ., Hamilton, Ont., 1983). Merrill Denison, Harvest triumphant: the story of Massey-Harris, a footnote to Canadian history (Toronto, 1948). The history of the county of Brant, Ontario . . . (Toronto, 1883), 549.