The History of the Charcoal House

 The original name for the area of Haliburton Highlands is Ogidaaki, or Gidaaki in the Mississauga pronunciation. The meaning of Gidaaki can be broken into two words Gidaa meaning upwards and Ki meaning earth. When English came to be spoken by the Mississaugas, the area was referred to as ‘The Height of Land”. 

The first inhabitants to Gidaaki were hunter gatherers, the likely ancestors of the present-day Mississauga peoples. There is documented archaeology that puts the Huron in the south-western section of the county in later prehistoric and historic times. The Mississauga dialect is one of the oldest forms of Ojibwe as recognized and noted by speakers of other Ojibwe dialects. Ojibwe being the main language spoken by Algonkian people.

For thousands of years this land served as a hunting ground for the many tribes that surrounded the area. As the Europeans came to settle in Canada, this area, just like many others became a prime target for timber and mining operations.

By the 1840's the need for land had become great. Scottish and Irish immigrants were arriving in Upper Canada in larger numbers. Also interested in settlement were Canadians who were the children of immigrants who had settled around the great lakes. In the 1850's land was being divided and sold for settlement and timber. In 1854, Michael Deane created the guide line that eventually became the Bobcaygeon Road, opened up the townships of Lutterworth, Snowdon, Anson, Hindon, Minden and Stanhope. This line opened the path for settlers to find their fortune in Haliburton. In 1854 the Canadian Land and Emigration Company purchased nine townships in Haliburton. The name Haliburton came from Thomas Chandler Haliburton, the first chairman of the Land and Emigration company from 1861 to 1865.

When the Victoria Railway pushed north to Haliburton Village , a flag station was set up on the flats of the Burnt River between Lochlin & Gould's Station and called Dysart Station. Craig & Aus-tin from Kinmount eventually operated a lumber camp & sawmill at Dysart Station: sawing the hardwood right on the spot & sending the softwood downstream to their mill at Kinmount.

Around the year 1900, there was a demand for wood alcohol or methyl alcohol for such usages as anti-freeze & explosives. Methyl alcohol occurs naturally in living organisms. One of the easiest sources was from trees, particularly hard-woods like maple. The Haliburton area was filled with suitable timber. The process to distil the wood alcohol could use smaller and cull timber that sawmills wouldn't use.

In 1908, the Donald Wood Products Company was formed and a huge plant was built on a site outside of Haliburton village on a convenient spot on the Victoria Railway line. The Standard Chemical Company acquired the plant in 1914. This large supplier of chemical products also had plants all over the area, including Fenelon Fall. The company purchased the timber rights from Craig & Austin over a wide area of hardwood that was handy to the site. A large boarding house, individual cottages and a store were built to house & service the plant workers and Donald became a true "company" town. The new town was named Donald after the company president. A school was erected in 1909 followed by the famous Opera House. This community centre was used as a church as well as for all the events typical to a community centre.

The monster plant was built of cement & steel: an oddity in an area where wood structures were prominent, but because the distilling process required lots of fire & steam, cement was a safer option. The plant had 3 main structures or departments: the distillery, boiler room and the oven house. The distillery was several stories high and housed huge distillation coils. The ethyl alcohol was separated from the steam and could be packaged as 2 forms: liquid alcohol or a powdered acetate. The liquid alcohol could be used as anti-freeze or fuel. The powdered acetate form was shipped to Nobel Ont. and used to make explosives, especially during the two World Wars.

A crew at the plant consisted of approximately 35 men as-signed as thus: 3 boiler firers, 3 distillery men, 4 oven fire-men, 2 acetate men, 5 on the charcoal gang, 6 men on wood gang and the rest as general assistants or helpers. Pay was good for the area, averaging $1.90 per day in the early days! Lumberjacks earned somewhat less and had more erratic job security. Workers could live in the company accommodations right in town: a handy thing when 10 hour days were the norm.

The Chemical required prodigious quantities of wood to operate. Special carts called "boggies" were loaded with wood and fed directly into the ovens. The quota for a day's work was 24 boggies which held 50 (bush) cords of wood! Depending on the quality, a cord of wood processed in the ovens could yield 10 gallons of wood alcohol and 60 bushels of charcoal, a by-product left over after the burning! The wood yard often contained 15,000 cords of wood at peak season. The wood sat in the yard for as long as 2 years: fully dry wood was obviously better for the whole process.

It didn't take long for the Standard Chemical Co wood limits to run out, so the company purchased wood from wherever it could get it. Many local farmers & lumbermen were only too glad to sell fuel to the chemical. In the days when cash was hard to come by, the Chemical was a steady market for what was plentiful in the area. Both local railways were utilized to haul wood to Donald to feed the voracious ovens of the Standard Chemical Plant. At its peak, the Chemical employed an additional 100 men and 30 teams of horses for the winter season. In 1923, the first Lynn Caterpillar Tractor was brought in to haul wood for the Chemical. This modern marvel could haul 50 cords per trip and was estimated to replace 30 teams of horses! It was a harbinger of days to come as machines began to replace the noble horse. World War II was the last hurrah for the Standard Chemical Plant. The war effort required all the product the plant could produce, but at the end of the war, the market for wood alcohol crashed. The war itself inspired scientists to invent new, synthetic products to replace wood alcohol. In 2946 the Standard Chemical Plant at Donald was closed and quickly dismantled. All the saleable machinery was sold for scrap and only the cement shell of the mighty structure was left. The town itself quickly dwindles as its raison d'etre was removed. Today, the shell still stands in its dignity; amazingly surviving all those years.

References:

THE HISTORY OF INDIGENOUS HABITATION IN HALIBURTON COUNTY

23db The Donald Chemical Plant