Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The detailed history of the Merkley-Zagermans property

One of the west end's most well-known and respected businesses is also a bit of a step back in time. We all know Merkley Supply on Bayview Station Road, just past the LRT overpass on the Mechanicsville side of Scott Street. Probably most of us have stopped in there at one point in our lives to pick up stones or brick, or some other kind of building material. We probably even take it for granted that we have a business like this in our community, as likely in most urban centres, to visit a business like this would likely require a trip out to the suburbs. But we take it for granted because it's always been there... as Merkley's since 1979, but also as Zagerman's for nearly 50 years before that. Yes, it is closing in on 100 years that a builder's supply yard first opened in this spot, and I think it is well worth profiling how the business first arrived, how it grew, and how it has survived. The Zagerman story is an especially interesting one, so I hope you enjoy this bit of early local history.

How this parcel of land came to be  

It's a prime piece of land, squeezed in between the working class neighbourhood of Mechanicsville and the Ottawa River. It's development as an industrial spot dates back 120 years, and ties in to an early west end lumber mill, and includes an interesting land trade with the City in the 1930s that affected the shape of Laroche Park and Merkley today. Here is the back story.

What is today the area comprising of Laroche Park Merkley Supply, and the Canadian Heritage building at 64 Bayview (perhaps better known as the original Keyes Supply building), was originally laid out as Blocks Q, R and S of the original "Bayswater" subdivision plan by the estate of Nicholas Sparks, laid out on December 21st, 1875. The Blocks were bisected by two streets that only ever existed on paper, Cunningham Street and Nicholas Street, which ran to Bayview Road, or as it was originally known "the Road from Little Chaudiere". 

A portion of County of Carleton Plan 60

Block S was the first part of this property to be sold, but not for over 30 years, until June 11th, 1906, when it was acquired by the Shepard & Morse Lumber Company for $1,500. Shepard & Morse, a Vermont-based company, had offices and lumber piles in Ottawa dating back to the mid-1880s when they had begun lumbering operations up the lucrative Ottawa River. They had acquired the old Mason mill on the opposite side of Bayview in late 1902, and soon built a new, modern saw mill to boost their operations. Some records show that both the Mason mill and the Shepard & Morse mill had used the Block S property (on the west side of Bayview) for stacks and piles of logs and lumber for years, but that was done unofficially. 

For the most part, the land on the west side of Bayview Road sat vacant and unused until 1911, when the City expropriated Blocks Q and R for the purposes of constructing the West End Drainage System, which included a large concrete septic tank and bacteria beds. (You can read more details on this expensive, but never-used purification system built between 1911 and 1913 at https://kitchissippi.com/2015/11/13/laroche-park-westfest/). The City paid the Sparks estate $21,000 (not until November of 1918, after a lengthy battle over the expropriation fees) for the two blocks of land.

The failed septic tank was buried, and the land closer to Stonehurst was used as a dump throughout the next decade. Laroche Park opened in June of 1926 overtop of that old dump, and for a while, it was uncertain whether any of the rest of the land had any true potential. The land more to the east (Block S, the future site of the majority of the Zagerman property) was seen as having questionable value for any development or use. 

Morris Zagerman's first arrives on Bayview Road  

However on March 10th, 1927, Morris Zagerman entered the picture. Shepard & Morse had ceased operations at the mill site in late 1926, and Zagerman purchased the closed mill and its equipment from the Chaudiere Water Power, who had taken over Shepard & Morses's affairs. Zagerman was responsible for the clearing of the site. A group of 25 men were hired that same month (March of 1927) to demolish the mill and all the buildings, and salvage any usable pieces of machinery or materials, which were re-sold. Zagerman immediately began to advertise this second hand timber for sale.

Ottawa Citizen, March 19, 1927

(On a side note, it is intriguing to wonder where some of this wood ended up from the dismantling of the vast buildings on the Shepard and Morse property. My house on Gilchrist Avenue was built in 1927, and some of the joists and beams used in its construction are definitely repurposed pieces of large wood that well pre-date 1927. Could my house have some of the old timber from the original Mechanicsville mill of the late 1800s? Could many of our houses of the same vintage? It's very possible!)

Anyways, the M. Zagerman Company was still relatively new at that time, in 1927. The Company had been established by Morris Zagerman around 1925 (ads by the company in the 1950s and 1960s would use the date of 1923 as the company's starting point, but that doesn't appear to agree with records from that era). 

Morris Zagerman was born in 1897 in Krasnostav, Russia. He arrived in Ottawa in June 1920, shortly after the passing of his mother in the Ukraine, with a fairly substantial amount of money ($1,000 cash). His immigration papers noted that he was destined to work for the William Freedman Company.

Freedman was a bag manufacturer, with operations out of 534-538 Wellington Street, and it appears Zagerman must have been a relative or old friend. Zagerman soon became his second-in-command, as he was named Secretary-Treasurer of the firm seemingly upon his arrival in Ottawa. However, Zagerman never got to work in bag manufacturing. Freedman was in the midst of converting his business, errecting a large warehouse on Hickory Street near Carling Avenue, where he would become a dealer in building materials and supplies.

In 1923, Morris married Mildred ("Millie") Sadinsky, and the couple were living in the Byward Market. 

A young Morris Zagerman, with wife
Millie (source: Ancestry).

In July of 1924, the William Freedman Company suffered a major loss when a major fire destroyed their massive new $60,000 four-and-a-half storey warehouse on Hickory Street. Called by the Citizen "one of the most spectacular blazes the city has witnessed in a long time", it could have been exponentially worse had the fast-acting fire crew not noticed a large number of tanks each containing 5,000 gallons of gasoline next to the factory, owned by Campbell Steel & Iron Works. 

But around that time, Zagerman's relationship with Freedman appears to have gone sour. By the fall of 1924, Zagerman took the Freedman Company to County Court over a disputed promissory note of $666 in connection with a shipment of wood from Whitney, Ontario. After two long days in court, Zagerman won a judgment for $152, but it appears cost him his relationship with Freedman. The 1924 city directory for Ottawa listed Zagerman as a "furrier" (someone who sold or even created fur garments), which must have been a short-lived career move.

In late October 1924, just after the court proceedings wrapped up, the first ever ads run by Zagerman appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, promoting "Belting, new and second hand, and other mill supplies. Leather aprons a specialty. M. Zagerman and Co." 

Ottawa Citizen, October 24, 1924

Zagerman had gone back to the office space that Freedman had occupied back in 1920 on Wellington Street, an old warehouse building that had been known as the City Iron & Bottle Company, near the corner of Commissioner (the exact spot is today is the most north-easterly corner of the new LAC-OPL library building being built on Albert Street). Here he leased one small portion of the building, at 538 Wellington.  

The M. Zagerman Company initially focused on "leather belting", and the supply of materials and machinery for the sawmill trade, both new and used, which he sold out of this small space at 538 Wellington. Zagerman though, held long-range plans to develop a lumber and building materials department. By the summer of 1925 he did advertise the sale of "slabs and blocks of wood, hard and soft", and wood sold "wholesale, in car lots". 

Zagerman was a dedicated advertiser, with ads running in the depths of the classified ads section of the Citizen. The progression of the ads over time show a definite growth in the business over the following couple of years, with a more varied stock being advertised.

Ottawa Citizen, April 23, 1926

That fall, Zagerman was even offering the sale of "700 new woollen blankets, $2.25 and $4.50 a pair", and 15 sets of double harnesses.

Back to the Shepard & Morse Mill... Seemingly, the acquisition of a bankrupt saw mill plant was up Zagerman's alley, and he took the opportunity to clear out the Shepard & Morse site. Throughout 1927 he advertised wagons, carts, sleighs, boilers, fire hoses, windows, doors, lumber, brick and stone, all available on site at the former mill.

June 24 1927 - the future Zagerman site is vacant land,
while the former mill has been demolished and the
remaining wood and materials are piled for sale.
Also visible is the abandoned septic tank to the west.

In late 1927, Zagerman acquired the Russell Shale Brick Plant in Russell for $31,500 for all of their land, machinery and equipment. The firm had been in business from 1912-1925. Zagerman dismantled the plant and began selling off 6 million bricks, iron, lumber and all sorts of materials.

Business grew quickly. By 1928, Zagerman's had grown into one of the city's top firms for demolition and disposal. The firm purchased the building they were located in, and expanded into the neighbouring units on Wellington (534-536-538). The company acquired the contracts to demolish and dispose of the assets at the Ottawa Transportation Building on Canal Street, the old St. Luke's Hospital, and the famed Russell Hotel and Russell Theatre (which he did in partnership with his Wellington Street landlord, the City Iron and Bottle Company). Zagerman set up an office at Sparks and the Canal to handle his increased business in the city. 

Ottawa Citizen, July 14, 1928

The job on the Russell Block was not smooth, as the two firms involved spent much of the summer embroiled in a battle with the City over the speed at which the dismantling was occurring. Of particular concern was a large stone wall at the rear, which was apparently was left in a dangerous way, and the local Magistrate threatened to send Zagerman and his partner Brahinsky to jail if they didn't hustle the job faster. The job was also mired in delays owing to at least two injuries to workers, multiple court charges of obstructing the street, and a battle between Zagerman and the City over implementation over the new "fair wage clause", which ultimately resulted in Zagerman turning down the St. Luke's Hospital job. The Zagerman Company was also taking jobs outside of Ottawa (including the dismantling of the former McFadden Mill at Nestorville, near Sault Ste. Marie). 

Meanwhile Zagerman was becoming further engaged in the Jewish community of Ottawa, taking on a role on the board of Ottawa Lodge No. 885 of B'Nail B'rith in early 1928, a first step in the Zagerman family's long history in the Ottawa Jewish community.

In August of 1928, Zagerman acquired a 198x99 foot of property north of the CNR line on the west side of Queen Street in LeBreton Flats for $12,000, with the intention of clearing the buildings to build a three-storey $50,000 warehouse. This set of buildings was old 40 to 54 Queen Street West, reputed to be among the oldest buildings at the time in the Flats, which included a small stone residence where J.R. Booth first lived when he came to Ottawa in 1850. Zagerman went ahead with those plans in May of 1930, sadly long before heritage building preservation was a thing, though many, including the Ottawa Citizen, lamented the loss of this historic, important home.

Zagerman spent over a year on the Shepard & More job, and must have liked the Bayview area, as in the spring of 1930, he made an agreement for the purchase of the "Block S" piece of land from the trustees of Shepard & Morse. He immediately hired a team of fifty men to prepare the property for use.

However, when word of the purchase spread, Mechanicsville and Hintonburg residents took up a petition against it, which was presented by Alderman Ernest Laroche, Alderman N.J. Lacasse, and local resident James Finn to the Board of Control. The residents did not like the idea of the Zagerman Company opening a "junk yard" on the property. Finn said neighbours did not want this kind of business in the district, as it would be a menace to health, a fire risk, and would lead to higher insurance rates for homeowners.

However, Zagerman argued against the petition, claiming "he was not in the junk business, that he has not a junk yard and does not intend to open one." 

"We didn't buy the land for a park or playground, but for industrial use", said Zagerman to the Citizen. The neighbourhood opposition concerned him, and so he laid off his fifty workers just as they had started to work. Zagerman told the Citizen he would be willing to sell the land at cost, but added that "if the city did not allow industries on that site it might as well stop trying to get industries for the city." 

His firm, he said, "was negotiating with other industrial concerns to use part of the property and his firm intended to erect buildings as well as to store machinery and building material in the yard."

The Board of Control decided to leave it with their lawyers to decide whether Zagerman's proposed business could be classified as a "junk shop", and also to decide what powers the city had to prevent certain uses of the property. "The board is entirely in sympathy with you", said Con. Tulley to the local residents, "but we want to know our powers to restrict." 

The trail of information on the neighbourhood opposition goes cold in the newspapers of the era, so it would seem the City could do little to stop Zagerman from opening his yards at Bayview. 

M. Zagerman & Co. Open on Bayview Road

The sale officially was made on June 11th, 1930, with a sale price of $5,000 for the Block S property. Zagerman paid $1,000 down, and mortgaged the remaining $4,000.

He immediately began to make use of the site, as by late July 1930, his began to advertise his yard "at Bayview Road, opposite Ottawa West station" (which of course was the old CPR passenger line station which was located just about where the Bayview LRT station stands today). 

Ottawa Citizen, July 26, 1930

Below is one of the earliest ads specific to the Zagerman Company's offerings at the Bayview Road location:

Ottawa Citizen, September 20, 1930

The photo below shows the Zagerman & Co. yard in October 1931, one of the earliest available photos of the business. The triangle of space is well in use, with a handful of large sheds built along Scott Street next to the CPR line, and there appears to be a fence around the perimeter of the property. Note the former Shepard & Morse mill site on the opposite side of Bayview is almost completely empty by this point.

October 1931 view of the Zagerman yard and Laroche Park

Another early Zagerman ad:

Ottawa Journal - June 11, 1932

1932 was also the year the City began to seriously explore options for their property on Bayview. In February 1932 the City began construction on a new stable building for housing the city's horses on the east side of Bayview, that had a lot of opposition to its grand size and cost ($50,000). It opened in September. 

Meanwhile the city was also planning for an even more contentious project, the construction of a new garbage incinerator on top of the Bayview garbage dump (which was along the bay). With the future of the site uncertain, the local aldermen voted in March 1932 to close the dump, which had informally been in use for several years. They also proposed the construction of a building for the Ottawa Humane Society on the property, which was also not favoured by local residents, nor even some members of the Humane Society, who were concerned about the effects on the animals of the smoke and soot from the nearby roundhouse and railway yards. The plan was tentatively accepted, though later cancelled (the Humane Society would eventually build here, but not until 1951). On top of all this, the new filtration plant on Lemieux Island opened on April 30th, and Bayview Avenue carried the traffic to and from the Island.

Towards the end of 1932, City Council established a Town Planning Commission, and installed Noulan Cauchon as the Commissioner. Among other tasks, Cauchon was responsible for completing a zoning plan for the city, selecting a site for the National War Memorial, widening Sussex Street, adding traffic circles and rounding corners throughout the city to help with traffic problems, and closer to home, laying out the ever-expanding Bayview Road civic yards property, and improving access to the new Lemieux Island plant.

After nearly a year of negotiation on and off with Zagerman, the Town Planning Commission and the Commissioner of Works for Ottawa (F.C. Askwith) announced they had struck a deal to exchange land with Zagerman on Bayview. This would allow for the city to properly centralize their civic workshops, build storage sheds next to the stables, and provide a better layout for the civic yards. 

More importantly, the City was seriously looking at building a bridge to Quebec in this vicinity. They were considering two options: an extension of the roadway to Lemieux Island over to Quebec, or a completely new bridge that would be a continuation of Hinchey Avenue. Either route had a requirement to bring significant additional traffic on Bayview, and thus the city wanted to acquire part of Zagerman's property to enable the widening and reshaping of Bayview Road to do so. Ultimately, the bridge idea went nowhere, and Bayview's route was never altered. Even Bayview Road itself was not widened until the early 2000s (when the roundabout was eventually added).

As part of the deal, the city officially closed off Randolph Street (originally Nicholas Street), which ran through (on paper only) the middle of Blocks Q, R and S, in behind Laroche Park. This piece of land, 45,738 square feet in size, was then given over to Zagerman. This was very contentious, and 200 property owners (assumedly in Mechanicsville) opposed the closing of the street, as it was worried that new buildings would encroach on the Laroche Park playgrounds. Alderman Lacasse led the congregation fighting the closure, and had been tipped off my a city staff member who had shared with him the city plans to construct the buildings alongside the park. The staff member who was caught sharing those plans was apparently fired. 

Cauchon called it a "misunderstanding and misrepresentation", and that no buildings, not even sheds would be placed near the park, and that closing the non-existing Randolph Street just made sense. He argued it could never exist in reality, and if it were to open, "would lead from nowhere to nowhere as the Board of Railway Commissioners would not allow a railway crossing at that point." 

"It is probable that none of the signers, including the aldermen, could point to the four corners of the street they didn't want closed", half-joked Cauchon.

By eliminating Randolph, it allowed for proper footage to be available to do an exact exchange of land with Zagerman "foot for foot". "Mr. Zagerman does not get one five cent piece in cash" said Cauchon. "The deal is all to the advantage of the city. Mr. Zagerman acted as a gentleman throughout, he was fair, square and accommodating." 

Cauchon also said that the man fired by the city was not let go because of sharing information with the alderman, but because "there was no work for him to do that he could do satisfactorily. This man had drawn a plan showing a building encroaching on the playgrounds but he had no authority to do so." 

Though Cauchon also added that though the current plans did not affect Laroche Park or its playgrounds, if it was shown down the road that it might, he would not hesitate to recommend that part of the playgrounds be taken if needed for the development. "A $500,000 centralization plan should not be thrown over because of a section of the playground." 

The sale documents were dated officially January 16th, 1933, which saw the City sell a portion of Block R to Zagerman for $1, while Zagerman sold an equal-sized piece of Block S to the City for $1. 

GeoOttawa map showing the current boundaries of the four
parcels in this area, with the red lines to mark the original lines
between Q, R, S, which were divided by two streets. The green
polygon roughly marks the land Zagerman received, while the
blue polygon shows the land Zagerman transferred to the City

With his largely expanded area, Zagerman was able to build out his yards.

It appears in the fall of 1932, Zagerman closed down his offices and warehouse on Wellington Street, and had all operations out of the Bayview location. In an era when most businesses were suffering due to the depression, Zagerman had hit on an industry that was perfect for the era. He could buy up firms that went out of business (of which there was no end), and acquire buildings to be dismantled (which were also plentiful) and sell off discounted stock and second-hand materials (which were in high demand in an era when few could afford new, full-priced equipment or materials). 

The 1930s would be a period of great growth for the Zagerman Company. Following the land transfer, he would re-jig the property from the layout as seen below, to the layout that exists today, more to the south. Note the 2-storey office at the entrance to the yard along Bayview, which still stands today.

May 1933 aerial view of the Zagerman property. North at top.
CPR line at bottom and Bayview Road from top to bottom.

The photo below from 1937-1938 shows the new layout, and a significant new number of buildings, including the long addition along Bayview of the main office-machine shop building.

1937-1938 view looking east of the Zagerman yard

Modern Containers Ltd. & Keyes Supply Company Ltd.

On June 17, 1940, The City sold the adjoining piece of land along Bayview to the north of Zagerman's to Modern Containers Ltd. for $1,854. 

Modern Containers was a company with headquarters in Toronto which traded on the TSE. At the time it was operating at 344-348 Queen Street in Ottawa. Leslie Irving Finnie was President of the Company (from 1930 until he retired in 1945).

A $10,000 building permit was taken out for the new factory in April 1940, which was to house the plastics division. The factory was opened by the following February, and was operating 24 hours a day. One of the first jobs for the factory was a war contract for $12,266 to help the Department of Munitions and Supply. 

84 Bayview Station Road today. Now Canadian Heritage
originally Modern Containers Ltd. factory, built 1940-41

This business would grow quickly. A large addition was added over the winter of 1942-43, and another large two-storey factory addition in June 1951, along with several other smaller additions during this period. 

In June of 1954, Keyes Supply Company Ltd. purchased this property from Modern Containers (who left Ottawa and maintained their operations largely in Scarborough) for $160,000. A total of 32,000 square feet of heated space and 7,000 square feet of warehouse, with room for expansion and ample parking. Keyes had been in the business of "wholesaling automotive parts, garage equipment, radio, television, household appliances and refrigeration equipment and supplies" since 1915, with branches in Northern and Eastern Ontario, including North Bay, Kingston, Belleville, Cornwall, Sudbury, Pembroke, Kirkland Lake, Hawkesbury and Sault Ste. Marie. 

Keyes opened for business just before Christmas 1954. They advertised their new address for the first time in an ad on December 22nd.

Ottawa Journal - December 22, 1954

This building today is government space occupied by Canadian Heritage. 

Zagerman's in the 1940s and 1950s

Throughout WWII, Zagerman's helped fill the gap for businesses requiring precious materials. In an auto-biographical history written in 1963, Zagerman's had this to say about their role: "During the Second World War years, when supplies of new machinery and material were impossible to obtain, Zagerman's invariably came to the rescue with used equipment for important lumber and paper mills, feed and flour firms and other vital industries." 

On June 26th, 1941, Ottawa held its first test blackout, darkening the entire city at the sound of air raid sirens. This was for war preparedness, in case the bombings which were so prevalent in England might come overseas. Whistles were required to help sound the alert and all clear signals. Morris Zagerman loaned all the whistles required, keen to help in any way he could. At 10:30 p.m. the blackout went in effect, and the first call in to headquarters at 10:35 to report visible light ironically was reported at the Zagerman factory on Bayview. 

In 1942, Zagerman's received permission to install railway siding off the CPR main line which ran alongside the factory. The railroad siding came in from the rear of the property, up to the long iron warehouse in to the centre of the yard, about 500 feet, and would have aided in the shipping and distribution of materials.

Starting around 1942, Zagerman's got into the home building business, acquiring los and building new houses. They built three brick veneer duplexes on Marlborough Avenue in late 1942. Closer to home, the company took out permits in May of 1943 for a brick veneer double at 43-45 Caroline Avenue and one at 110 Grange Avenue in May of 1943 (they also built 57-59 Caroline a little while later). 

Another key purchase occurred in October 1942 when Zagerman's acquired a large property owned by the St. Lawrence Wrecking and Building Company Ltd. at the corner of Lisgar, Bank and Nepean, at a cost of $58,000.

Morris and his wife Mildred became increasingly involved in Jewish community affairs. By 1943 Morris was Vice-chairman of the Talmud Torah board. Notably, he was campaign chairman in the successful bid for construction of a new synagogue in Ottawa. Construction on the synagogue began at the corner of Rideau and Chapel in November 1949. 

Ottawa Journal - November 21, 1949

The couple was also involved in charitable work, of which many examples can be found over the years throughout the pages of the Citizen and Journal. One such example is shown below:

Ottawa Citizen - November 20, 1956

I guess Morris Zagerman wasn't perfect...  In May of 1946, Zagerman pleaded guilty in police court to building a building on the property without obtaining a permit first. He was fined a wrist-slap penalty of $25 for the offense!
Ottawa Journal - May 17, 1946

This is a cool illustration of the Zagerman Company property as it was in 1948. This is from the Goad's Fire Insurance Plan for the City of Ottawa. Blue indicates stone or cinder block, pink is brick and yellow is wood. 

1948 fire insurance plan view of Zagerman's

Steel became an important part of the Zagerman business in the 1950s. Here is an early ad promoting their available materials: 

Ottawa Citizen - December 8, 1953

Over time, Morris and Mildred slowly handed off the company to their sons Herbert and Norman, who would become President and Vice-President respectively. Herbert joined the firm and became manager of the credit and accounting department in the mid-1950s, while Norman joined a few years later, after his graduation from Carleton College.

Norman was also a significant figure in the Jewish community in Ottawa. He was president of the Jewish Community Council of Ottawa/Vaad Ha'ir, and helped establish the Ottawa Jewish Community Foundation. He also served on the boards of the Ottawa General Hospital, Carleton University, Algonquin College, Canadian Jewish Congress, the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, among others.

Ottawa Citizen - May 30, 1958

In 1958 Zagerman's celebrated their 35th Anniversary by taking out a triple full-page ad in both the Journal and Citizen. The firm boasted of their history and services, highlighting their Steel Department, Conveyor and Transmission Drives team, Material Handling Equipment and the General Machine Shop. At the time Zagerman's employed 35, noting that at peak periods that number increased to 40 and more. 

Ottawa Citizen - May 30, 1958

The ad also showed photos of some of their key staff:

Ottawa Citizen - May 30, 1958

As well as a great exterior photo of the building!

Ottawa Citizen - May 30, 1958

Photos from the 1960s

Here are a few views of Zagerman's from the 1960s:

Looking northeast - May 1960
(taken from City of Ottawa Archives, CA-08256)

Ottawa Citizen - October 18, 1963

Ottawa Citizen - October 18, 1963

CP7089 leaving roundhouse pit, circa 1965
(courtesy of Bruce Chapman)

Looking southeast - December 1965
(taken from City of Ottawa Archives, CA-09085)

Looking west - April 1966
(taken from City of Ottawa Archives, CA-9136)

Zagerman's was also famous for its long billboard (longest in the city), stretching three blocks along Scott Street. In the fall of 1963 it read: "Behind this wall lies a builder's paradise - everything to build a house - everything to make a house a home."

The Zagerman billboard in behind the CPR main line, circa 1964.
This is engine 1227 heading west to Brockville.
(Courtesy of Bruce Chapman, originally John Frayne)

The billboard just before Zagerman's closed - June 1976

Morris Zagerman, founder of the business, passed away at home on Thursday December 21st, 1967. He was 70 years old. News articles from the following spring noted he left an estate of over $2M. He left bequests to many organizations in Ottawa, including Carleton University, the University of Ottawa, St. Patrick's College, the Ottawa Jewish Community Centre, Ottawa Tamud Torah, Perley Hospital, St. Vincent's Hospital, the YMCA, YWCA, and others. 

Morris Zagerman (source: CJHN)

The Great Zagerman's Fire of 1969

Many long-time neighbourhood residents have never forgotten the night of the huge million-dollar fire that took out a large part of the Zagerman's and Keyes properties. I'm sure some of you who began reading this at the start scrolled down here hoping I'd cover the fire. So here we go...

One of Ottawa's largest fires of all time, and the biggest seen in 12 years according to fire officials, the blaze could be seen for miles around, lighting up the sky for hours. 

The fire began around 11:15 p.m., and swept through the entire stock of Zagerman's lumber, and other building materials. It also destroyed the wrought-ironwork shop and all of its expensive equipment. A building housing facilities for making concrete rods was heavily damaged. Three Zagerman trucks were also destroyed.  The structural steel section and the office and main warehouse along Bayview were untouched by the fire.

By 2:30 a.m., the fire was brought under control, though there were still some hot spots which flared up until after daybreak.

Ottawa Citizen - October 14, 1969

There was concern during the fire for the houses nearby on Stonehurst Avenue, about 500 feet away, especially as there was some heavy winds that evening. However, firefighters were aided by the fact that there was heavy rain throughout the fire, helping keep roofs wet, preventing the drifting burning embers from igniting roofs. Impressively, all the damage was contained to the Zagerman's-Keyes properties, and there were no injuries or deaths. 

The fire began in a small supply shed to the west side of the company's main concrete-block office and administration building. It then swiftly spread through a 300-foot long timber storage shed. It was first noticed by employees of the city's traffic engineering maintenance depot on Bavyiew. Workers saw the flames while they were loading their trucks.

"It looked like it started in the Zagerman property in the lumber sheds", city employee Roger Page told the Ottawa Journal. He and another employee ran across to try to move some of the Keyes trucks out of the yard, but changed their minds when they noticed a sign on one of the buildings warning of explosive materials. 

Ottawa Citizen - October 14, 1969

Firemen began to arrive on site as the 50-foot-high flames lit up the air. Six pumpers and four aerial ladder trucks were pressed into service as the blaze jumped from one storage building to the next. Ottawa Fire Chief Phil Larkin said "every available piece of equipment" was used in the battle. Three explosions worsened the fire, as it moved through paint and oil supplies. 

After an hour, the fire spread to the Keyes Supply Company next door. Four delivery trucks in the yard were hit first, and then the fire moved to three storage sheds containing tires, oil and electrical appliances, which were destroyed. The rear of the main company building was also damaged, which saw a number of television sets and other appliances lost before fire fighters could prevent further spread. Keyes employees had been called down to the fire and ran in and out of the office carrying files and records. A building at the rear of the main building, containing starting fluid, gas-line antifreeze, oil cans and paint thinner was protected against fire with a constant dousing of water.

Ottawa Journal - October 14, 1969

As the fire occurred late in the evening, most residents in Mechanicsville and along Scott Street were likely unaware of the fire until they heard sirens and looked out their windows. Eventually hundreds of residents (held at a safe distance by police) gathered to watch the blaze. The heavy rains however led some to leave. 

Ottawa Citizen - October 14, 1969

Norm Zagerman was in Regina travelling with the Ottawa Rough Riders football team on a road trip. He received the news on Tuesday morning that the plant had burned down. He immediately rushed back to Ottawa.

Both Zagerman's and Keyes were fully insured, and by the end of the week, Zagerman was alerting the public that business remained open as usual. Hans Kutner, manager of the lumber and building supplies department told the Citizen "we have a lot of lumber to sell", and noted that his staff was at full strength, selling lumber undamaged by the blaze. Work was to begin soon to clear the rubble and debris from the yards. 

Ottawa Citizen - October 18, 1969

Hans Kutner is a notable figure with an impressive story of his own. He was born in Germany in 1910, and amazingly was a survivor of the M.S. St. Louis, a ship which in 1939 infamously carried 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to North and Central America to escape persecution. The ship attempted to disembark in Cuba, the US and Canada, before having no choice but to head back to Europe, where an estimated one-quarter of the ship's occupants were killed in Nazi death camps. Known as the "Voyage of the Damned", the story is a black mark on Canada's WWII era history. It is incredible that Mr. Kutner survived this ordeal, and ended up in Canada managing the lumber and building materials section of Zagerman's. He passed away in Ottawa in 2001 at the age of 91.  

Zagerman's leave Bayview

By the early 1970s, Zagerman's was a $10 million a year supply business for construction, lumber, woodworking and textile industries. They had bought out Keyes Supply in October of 1972 for $475,000 and took over its buildings. 

Zagerman's lot from the west looking east, July 1974.
(part of City of Ottawa Archives, CA-10408)

Over time, steel fabrication became one of the chief outputs of the Zagerman Company (they would later supply the steel for Place Bell Canada, the first phase of Place du Portage and the Carleton University Arts Tower). In 1974, general manager Ron Watts stated: "We take the steel from the companies, design the raw product to meet a customer's specifications, make that product and then erect it." 

Ottawa Citizen - October 18, 1963

However, in late 1973, Zagerman's acquired property out at 1630 Star Top Road at Innes, and let it be known that they would soon begin to move operations away from Bayview and out to the new location. It would be a gradual move that would take almost three years until full operations were moved to Star Top. Part of the reasoning behind the move may have been simply the high property value of the Bayview land. The land was also of great interest to the NCC as they considered options for developing both LeBreton Flats and Mechanicsville.

The firm was also changing how it was doing business. At one time, Zagerman's offered mill services across Canada, but transportation costs made it impractical for them to compete in other areas outside of Eastern Ontario and the Ottawa Valley, so their client-base was largely narrowed to this area. Material shortages for steel and polyethylene also hampered business, as did strikes in the rubber and wall board industries in 1973.

Despite all this, by 1974, Zagerman's employed 80 people, which increased to 130 during peak construction periods, with a focus on hiring students in the summer. 

The first plant opened by Zagerman's on Star Top was for steel fabrication, which opened in 1974.

In April of 1975, the NCC took out an option to purchase the 7.75 acre Zagerman site, at what was estimated to be a $4M price tag. The option had a deadline of June 28th, and would give Zagerman's one year to vacate if they exercised it (originally the NCC negotiated to have them out by March 1976).

Media reports from May of 1975 indicated that no one knew exactly why the NCC wanted the land. A rumour circulating indicated that it may be for a new solid waste recycling plant. NCC Chairman Edgar Gallant said that if the land would be acquired, it would form part of the LeBreton Flats development. 

Sure enough, on June 16th 1975, the NCC officially submitted expropriation papers, giving them ownership of the Zagerman's property. The sale price was $3.4M. 

The site at that point was reportedly being considered by the NCC for a garbage-burning steam heating plant. 

By May of 1976, the City was in active negotiations with the NCC to make a deal to build the long-awaited arena (Tom Brown Arena) for the area on the Zagerman site. The NCC no longer felt a garbage plant was suitable for the site, and had no real plans for the land. The NCC was willing to consider a deal which would see a land swap with the City. However, the City considered the Zagerman's site too costly to lease or buy due to environmental concerns with the soil. Alderman Pat Nicol agreed that the Zagerman site would be "the ideal location" for the arena, but staff estimated the clean-up of the site would come with an additional $300,000 price tag. 

The City was also concerned the NCC was going to charge as much as $263,000 per year for rent for the property if it adhered to its policy of renting federal lands at market rates. "Let's put it this way. Are we going to rent a $3.4 million property to the city for a $1 a year?", asked a senior NCC spokesman. Previously the NCC would rent land to municipalities for recreation purposes for $1 per year, but that policy had just recently changed.

The City and NCC spent the summer negotiating over a variety of offers, the City fully committed to finding space to build something for the long-overlooked Mechanicsville community. 

Finally, it was agreed that the City would transfer five small parcels of land to the NCC in exchange for the Zagerman property. It looked to be a done deal as it was approved by Board of Control and went to Council. However one of those parcels was controversial - a triangle of parkland just west of the intersection of Carling and Richmond Road, which included the Old Forge building. This inclusion "infuriated" Controller Marion Dewar and members of the Pinecrest-Queensway citizen's committee. Under terms of the swap, zoning on the property would be commercial, leading Dewar and others to believe it would be sold to a developer who would build a commercial development. What incensed them the most seems to have been the fact that the citizen's committee wasn't consulted about the deal. Dewar and Nicol had "wild arguments" at Council where Dewar later admitted "I went berserk".  

In the end, this obstacle led to the failure of the deal, and the City instead acquired the land on the south side of Scott Street where Tom Brown was soon after constructed. The Zagerman property was left in limbo.

Meanwhile, Zagerman's had completed departed Bayview Avenue by mid-1976, and were almost fully operational and open with all services at Star Top the week of June 21st, 1976. They later had their formal opening on October 20th, including showing off their new two-level warehouse with a capacity of 100,000 square feet. 

Just a few months later, in October of 1976, M. Zagerman & Co. was sold in a deal that was estimated to be as high as $10M, to a syndicate of developers, including Norm Zagerman, the former owner-manager of M. Zagerman, who retained 18% of the business in the deal.

On August 30th, 1994, after struggling financially for several years, M. Zagerman & Co. declared bankruptcy, bringing an end to the Zagerman firm. At this point, the company owned Zagerman Steel in Embrun and Zagerman Homecare Building Centre on Cyrville Road in Gloucester. A total of 35 employees lost their jobs in the closure.

The firm owed 240 creditors more than $4.7M, plus $2M to the Bank of Montreal and the CIBC. The company's total assets were just $1.25M. 

A photo from Zagerman's final days at Bayview
Ottawa Citizen - June 18, 1976

Back on Bayview, in September of 1976, the NCC issued tenders for the job of demolition of three buildings that must have been in dilapitated condition, and general clean-up at the Zagerman site. 

By June of 1977, the site remained vacant, and was used for staging for Canada Day festivities, including tryouts for the Great Canadian Birthday Party Parade. 

The Merkley Supply Company Era

The Merkley Supply Company has a history dating back over 120 years! In 1901, the Ottawa Brick and Terra Cotta Company Ltd. located on Riverside Drive near Billings Bridge, sold its operations to A.H. Merkley. The Merkley family ran the brick plant (under the Ottawa Brick and Terra Cotta name) for another 60 years, until it was expropriated by the federal government to make way for taxation and recreation centres. The government ordered the demolition of the 81-year old plant in 1961. 

By that time, it was D. Cameron Merkley and Hugh Merkley, sons of A.H. Merkley who were running the company. In 1961, after the sale of the plant, the Merkleys decided to get out of the brick manufacturing business, and instead operate a builder's supply business, which they named Merkley Supply Ltd. They set up operations in the Spring of 1961 in a small yard at 31 Rochester Street.

In 1979, they decided to expand operations and took up a lease from the NCC of the property at 100 Bayview Road. The earliest listings for the business operating out of Bayview are from February of 1979. 

The first Merkley Supply ad at 100 Bayview
Ottawa Citizen, February 13, 1979

Cam Merkley was a past president of the Ottawa Construction Association (1966) and was also involved in Merkburn Holdings Ltd., a developer, owner and property manager of office and light industrial properties, which he co-founded in 1970, and operated until his retirement in 1998. He later passed away in 2012 at the age of 86. 

Cam Merkley in 1998 (Ottawa Citizen)

One important side note, in 1986, the NCC and City sold a large two-acre piece of property, what to that point had been the rear portion of the Zagerman/Merkley yard, to the Protection of the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church. A $4.8M development built between late 1986 and opened in early 1988, saw a church, and the five-storey 60-unit St. Vladimir's Residence (a non-profit seniors apartment building) and Cultural Centre constructed.

In 1996, Cam's son Robert Merkley became President of Merkley Supply. He also soon after became president of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association and chair of the Ottawa Construction Association. 

In 2004 Merkley's was described as being "the largest masonry yard in Eastern Ontario, with a market share of approximately 80%", and employed 43 staff.

In 2018, the Ottawa Construction News wrote that "most of (Merkley Supply's) clients are contractors and property owners, but about 10% of the company's volume is with individual consumers, often referred by architects and designers for custom, residential and renovation projects."

Merkley continues successfully today, with hopefully a long and prosperous future on Bayview Station Road. 

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