This 101-year old company began with one great idea

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This view to the north along Berkeley Avenue shows the Ketchum Manufacturing plant in the latter 1970s. In the background you can see the original farmhouse purchased by Zebulon Ketchum in 1913. It survived until the early 1990s. Also visible in the background is the Barclay building. Photo courtesy of Peter Gilman.

It is hard to remember what used to exist on the northwest corner of Richmond Road and Berkeley Avenue before the construction of the Westboro Exchange condominium, but only about a decade ago it was the site of a two-story factory, the home of Ketchum Manufacturing, one of Canada’s most unusual manufacturing enterprises.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Zebulon (Zeb) Ketchum, a native of Toronto, arrived in Ottawa and started up a bicycle shop on the north-west corner of Bank and Sparks Streets in downtown Ottawa. [story continues below photo]

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As a professional lacrosse player, he was interested in sports in general, and had travelled widely in North America. The bicycle shop expanded into sports of all kinds. Around 1910, ads in the local papers featured sporting goods of all kinds, including canoes and motorboats, golf clubs, and baseball and cricket supplies. In fact, Ketchum Sporting Goods was the first commercial importer of the automobile or “horseless carriage.”

In the years immediately before the start of the First World War, Zebulon sold his interest in the sporting goods store and moved into a spacious farmhouse on the corner of Richmond Road and Berkeley Avenue. This move allowed him to focus on his real interest in life – tinkering and inventing in his machine shop.

It was at this time that the Department of Agriculture was in the market for a secure identification tag for pedigreed livestock. Zeb went to work in his machine shop, and, after experimenting with different designs, came up with a tamper-proof ear tag that could not be removed without destroying it. This ear tag lead to the creation of the Ketchum Manufacturing Company in 1913. During the war, the company developed and produced items for the military, and then, with the end of hostilities in 1918, the company was incorporated to produce and sell the ear tags as well as a large assortment of farm products. Their catalogue would eventually include two thousand items.

As a schoolgirl, Zebulon’s daughter Isabel worked in the machine shop and learned the inner workings of the business. As she was about to leave for university in the fall of 1921, her father suffered a heart attack and she was forced to cancel her plans and pitch in. Just a few years later, in the middle 1920s, faced with the possibility that the company would be sold to outsiders, Isabel bought the business herself. She continued to head the business for more than 60 years.

Ketchum Manufacturing survived the Great Depression of the 1930s, and grew dramatically during the Second World War based on its ability to produce special products for the Department of Munitions and Supply. The company more than doubled its workforce from 14 employees in 1940 to 36 in 1944, and then grew to 53 employees in the late 70s and then further to 96 employees in 1987. Factory space increased accordingly over this time period.

Needing more space for its operations in the 21st century, the management of Ketchum Manufacturing moved the business to Brockville in 2005, where they are operating to this day.

Special thanks for information and photographs to Peter Gilman, a nephew of Isabel (Ketchum) Percival and a partner in the company for many years. Do you have memories to share about Ketchum? If so we’d love to hear them! Send your email to stories@kitchissippi.com.

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