HERRING, JOHN, builder, businessman, and politician; b. 17 Feb. 1818 in Denmark Township, Lewis County, N.Y., son of William Herring, brewer, and Cynthia Buck; m. 18 Oct. 1842 Pamelia Fowler in Brownville, N.Y., and they had 11 children, 5 of whom reached maturity; d. 21 Oct. 1896 in Napanee, Ont.
After receiving a common-school education, John Herring spent his youth teaching school in the winter and apprenticing in the building trade in the summer. In 1841 he moved to Kingston, Upper Canada, where he worked at construction for a year before taking up residence in Napanee. During his lengthy business career he was involved in a myriad of enterprises. In addition to his early activity in producing potash, lumber, and bricks, he set up a foundry in 1842 for the manufacture of stoves and steel ploughs. As a contractor he built the West Ward Academy in 1863–64. In other business ventures he was majority shareholder of the Napanee Mills Paper Manufacturing Company in 1872, first president of the Napanee Gas Company (formed 1876), and vice-president of the Napanee, Tamworth and Quebec Railway until 1883.
It was in the manufacturing of farm implements, however, that Herring amassed his wealth, beginning in 1852 with his first reaping machine, the Jersey Campaigner. He was among the first Canadian manufacturers to secure licensing rights, in 1861 from Aultman, Miller and Company of Ohio, to make the Buckeye, a combined reaper and mower which had become an instant success in the United States and would dominate the North American market throughout the era of the reaper in the late 19th century. Like other Canadian manufacturers, among them Hart Almerrin Massey, Herring was helped by the boosting of the tariff on implements from 17½ to 35 per cent between 1874 and 1883, which gave home manufacturers a monopoly in the market. By 1881 Herring’s works had grown into a huge foundry and three-storey workshop, producing annually 200 reapers and mowers and a variety of other implements. He had agents throughout eastern Ontario and in Scotland, and storage facilities in Winnipeg. In 1882 a local business colleague, Alexander Hall Roe, estimated his wealth from this and other less important sources to be at least $200,000.
Herring is best known for establishing the first window-glass factory in Ontario. Spurred by increased tariffs on glass in 1879 and aware that window-glass was not at that time being manufactured in Canada, he attempted to raise $200,000 in stock that year to build a factory in Napanee. When his attempt failed, and he was unable to secure a bonus from the town council, he decided to go it alone. After visiting several American glass factories, Herring set out to erect, according to the Napanee Standard, a factory which “combined the latest . . . structures devoted to the manufacture of glass.” The claim was well founded, for the plant featured a modern ten-pot furnace, imported in sections from Pittsburgh, and an immense six-stone oven for flattening cut glass cylinders, a technical advance on the four-stone ovens generally found in American works. An outstanding feature was the annealing furnace, the first in Canada and probably in North America to employ, instead of a kiln, a revolutionary system of lehrs, tunnel-like structures through which the glass sheets were drawn to cool. The master glassblower, Julius Seigsworth, was brought from Pittsburgh and the potmaster from Switzerland; other craftsmen, from the United States, Belgium, France, and Britain, rounded out a staff of 75 when the works was in full production. Sandstone, a main ingredient of glass, was shipped to Napanee by rail from quarries near Lansdowne, Ont. The ovens consumed 12 tons of coal a day, and at peak production the factory was expected to average 800–900 boxes of glass per week. The office, the Standard noted on 12 Nov. 1881, was “presided over” by Herring’s son James Emerson.
Production began on 14 November and continued for two seasons, during which period the Napanee Glass Works turned out a superior grade of windowglass; prescription bottles may also have been made for a time. Well advertised, the window-glass was displayed at major exhibitions and found a ready market. Nevertheless, the plant closed in May 1883. Production problems had plagued the first season, resulting in the firing of Seigsworth for incompetence, and the replacement of the teaser (stoker), who was from Pittsburgh where hard coal was used, by one familiar with the soft New York coal used at Napanee. Labour problems were endless and Herring confronted a new breed of employee: the unionized, highly paid, itinerant glass-worker. The union in Napanee was undoubtedly the Window Glass Workers of America. There is oral evidence that Herring, although a “professed agnostic,” was an avid promoter of temperance and clashed with his workers over drinking at the plant.
The major reason for the suspension of operations, however, was lack of capital. Herring had failed to secure it from private investors or in the form of municipal bonuses. In 1885 a delegation to England to seek capital failed and three years later Herring disposed of the property. His losses on the venture were estimated by the Standard at $65,000.
Herring’s political career provides an interesting footnote to his business ventures. He served Napanee as a councillor, reeve, or deputy-reeve for 24 years, never, he claimed, allowing “politics to influence him in municipal matters.” Yet business considerations were to influence his course in party politics. An active reformer from at least 1860, Herring was president in 1877–78 of the county Reform Association. In March 1881 Roe, a Tory, wrote to Sir John A. Macdonald, “If we can get a factory started here the Grits can bid goodbye to this county.” By December, the month after his glassworks opened, Herring had become a Conservative “convert.” Prior to the pre-election federal budget of 24 Feb. 1882, he worked strenuously along with other local Conservatives to have the duty on window-glass raised, heading up delegations to Ottawa and hosting a visit of Finance Minister Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley to the new Napanee works. A day after the budget, in which the duty was raised to 30 per cent, Roe wrote to Macdonald: “Many thanks from myself and Mr Herring for the duty on glass – you may rest assured Lennox is safe.”
Following the closure of the glassworks in 1883, Herring continued to manufacture implements. The lowering of the tariff on farm machinery in 1894, however, was a severe blow to many Canadian manufacturers, including Herring. He died in 1896 and his factory closed eight years later. Apparently at the request of his family, who attended the local Anglican church, Herring was buried there “without the use of the Authorized form for the burial of the dead nor was the service held in the church.”
ACC, Diocese of Ontario Arch. (Kingston), Mary Magdalene Church (Napanee), reg. of burials, 4 (1895–1928), 24 Oct. 1896. Lennox and Addington County Museum (Napanee), Lennox and Addington Hist. Soc. Coll., Napanee municipal council, minutes, 1863–96. NA, MG 26, A. Beaver (Napanee), 1895–96, esp. 28 Oct. 1896. Monetary Times, 1879–84. Standard (Napanee), 1860–85, esp. 29 Oct., 12 Nov. 1881. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), 1: 602–3. Janet Holmes, “Glass and the glass industry,” The book of Canadian antiques, ed. D. B. Webster (Toronto, 1974), 268–81. G. F. Stevens, Early Canadian glass (Toronto, ), 70–79. Antony Pacey, “A history of window glass manufacture in Canada,” Assoc. for Preservation Technology, Bull. (Ottawa), 13 (1981), no.3: 33–47.