R.W. Phelps was born on January 14, 1888 in Iowa. He ultimately graduated as an Industrial Engineer. Early in his career he caught the attention of A.G. Bush who had a small company that manufactured one-cylinder engines that were used for farm and industrial purposes. He asked R.W. if he could help get his company up and running. It was during this time that R.W. met Gus Montmier, a production foreman, who had an idea to build generators, as there was no electrification of farms in the West U.S. To meet this need, R.W. along with Montmier and A.G. Bush joined forces to start the Phelps Power and Light Company, which was eventually sold to General Motors, that later became part of A.C. Delco.
It was at this time that A.G. Bush had contact with Sid Dobson, president of the Royal Bank of Canada, who had sought him out to address an issue with a Hamilton company that also built generators and needed help getting the business turned around. A.G. told him about R.W. Phelps and his success in building generators. R.W. was able to get the company back on its feet and the company began to thrive.
Over the years, R.W. Phelps was in demand to help problem-solve other companies’ business challenges in both the U.S. and Canada, and before returning to the U.S., Sid Dobson asked for one more favour. Could Phelps go to the small community of Orillia and give his professional opinion on a factory there that was failing and advise what the Royal Bank could do about it?
So in 1927, R.W. Phelps packed up his family and headed to Orillia. The company in question was Tudhope Anderson Company (TACO) owned by J.B. Tudhope and Harry Anderson. The plant had been built in 1905-1906. There were many foundries in Orillia at the time, but this one had a fabricating shop, a woodworking shop and was producing a multitude of products. TACO Limited was established on West Street South in 1910 and started manufacturing equipment for the farming industry, including a major product line focused on wagon wheels. It became the largest commercial wheel manufacturer in the country.
In 1936, Tudhope Anderson Company was renamed as Orillia Tudhope Anderson Company (OTACO) and switched to producing consumer goods. Before the Second World War, OTACO Limited was known far and wide as a manufacturer of farm implements, mining and haulage equipment.
OTACO had 11 eleven employees in 1938. However, the Second World War turned Orillia’s industry around. The West Street South plant, which had extensive experience in metal casting, was enlisted into the wartime effort and landed contracts to make parts for the Mosquito Bomber and Fighters used by the Canadian and Allied Air Forces.
By 1941, at the height of the war effort, there were 1,600 workers at the plant – more than half of them women – working around the clock over three shifts with the facility consisting of 250,000 square feet of manufacturing space.
De Havilland would send up a completed Mosquito once in a while to fly over the West Street plant to drum up excitement for war bonds. Up to 1945, more than 1,000 Mosquitos were built by de Havilland Canada at the Downsview Airfield, thanks in part to the contribution made by the men and women of Orillia.
After the decline of war production in 1946, OTACO switched focus and produced thousands of quality toys, including bulldozers, transport trucks and gas tankers with popular company logos such as BA and Shell. The Steam Shovel was the first toy made at OTACO in 1946 and after a few design changes became one of the best sellers for the Minnitoy line. With the availability of low-priced plastic toys by the mid-1960s, production of the Minnitoy came to its end.
In 1955, OTACO was approached by the US Navy to produce thirty-eight 11-ton cargo sleds suitable for hauling in the cold Antarctica. The US Navy contacted OTACO as few companies in North America had their experience as producers of quality heavy-duty haulage sleds for pulp & paper before the Second World War. OTACO success resulted in two additional contracts in 1956 and 1957. In 1958, R.W. Phelps, on behalf of OTACO, received the Award of Merit for their contributions.
In 1961, OTACO Limited, which until then had been a family-owned business, was purchased by R.M. Barr and became a division, and the largest of the 12 companies of Bartaco Industries Limited. By 1969, OTACO occupied 400,000 square feet and employed 450 people.
In the 1970s, OTACO received a transportation seating operation when Bartaco acquired the division from Heywood-Wakefield Company in Michigan. Initial production was expected to commence in August 1972, providing 35 new jobs. But in 1984, it sold its transit seating division to an American firm, the American Seating Limited, impacting 65 jobs at OTACO.
During the 1970s, the city decided that many of the older buildings should be replaced with commercial buildings. Large portions of West Street South that had been locations of Orillia’s large industries in the past, have been leveled over the years. The former OTACO site at 175 West Street South is now the home of the new Orillia Recreation Centre.
When the 1970s began, Orillia was still considered to be an industrial city, with the Big Three: Dorr-Oliver Long, Fahralloy Canada and OTACO. The decline of the Big Three reflected the city’s struggles for the next two decades.
“R.W. Phelps and the History of OTACO in Orillia (1927-64)” by R.J. Brown © 2009
“The Orillia Spirit: An Illustrated History of Orillia” Second Edition by Randy Richmond © 2017
Articles pulled from OPL Orilliana Vertical files including:
“Arctic Transportation: The story of heavy duty haulage sleds by OTACO LTD. Reprinted from Canadian Petroleum © June 1971
Packet & Times articles:
“Here 57 Years, Otaco Still Grows” © March, 1967
“Bartaco Buys H-W Division: 35 More Jobs” – no date given
“Otaco expending” © 1969
“Otaco plans to sell line employing 65” by Matt Murphy © 1984