Foundations of construction: Elgin Armstrong bet on business but never on horse races

By Susanna Macleod

Special to Ontario Construction Report

There was no sitting still for Elgin Armstrong. While tending to chores and farm animals after the death of his father, the 14-year-old watched for opportunities. By the time he was in his 30s, Armstrong and his brother Ted were industry leaders in road construction with Armstrong Brothers Construction (called ABC and later, Armbro). Then the businessman turned his razor-sharp skills to harness racing.

The Armbro reign didn’t begin on wheels, it began on hooves. Selling the family’s herd of sheep for good money, Elgin Armstrong came up with a plan. Buy herds of sheep from farmers in the Brampton area and hire an auctioneer to sell them off. Although sales were good, the young man decided farming was too risky.

Perhaps the rare hesitation was due to settling down with his bride, Victoria Lawrence, a neighbouring farm girl. On the passing of his mother soon after, Armstrong used his inheritance of $1,000 to buy six Chevrolet dump trucks… with no cabs. Winning a provincial contract to build the new highway from Brampton to Toronto in 1930, Armstrong’s firm was the first to run dump trucks in Ontario. Each truck could haul only one cubic yard of dirt and stone at a time, but no matter. The competition was still using slow-moving horses and wagons to move the dirt.

Struggling near bankruptcy through the Depression years, ABC was burdened with $65,000 debt. With a small dedicated crew, they took on any contracts that came along, small jobs and large projects alike. During World War Two, runways were required to train Commonwealth pilots for overseas duty. Beginning with Alliston, Armstrong’s company constructed 18 airfields over five years, and opened Peel Construction as subsidiary to pave the way.

In 1947, Armstrong purchased 95 acres of farm property near Brampton. They happily found the parcel included a section of gravel, “and naturally very soon after they had a crusher going in the pit and were in the aggregates business,” said Robert Bradford in Keeping Ontario Moving: The History of Roads and Roadbuilding in Ontario. The gravel pit was the first of many acquired by the company.

Flourishing in the ‘50s and ‘60s, ABC was “busy on several St. Lawrence Seaway projects and building bridges, dams, and other civil structures,” Bradford stated. They tackled out-of-province jobs from Nova Scotia to Alberta, and opened another subsidiary to produce concrete, ABC Ready-Mix. Armstrong’s son, Charles, introduced the company to technology. Contracts were completed before deadline by using new technology.

Armstrong’s business demanded fleets of reliable equipment and International Harvester trucks were favoured. ABC purchased so many vehicles that any issues in new truck design were quickly reported to the manufacturer and corrected before other customers were aware.

Living on the farm, the family always kept and exhibited animals; Victoria Armstrong had a roomful of show ribbons for her efforts. ABC Farms “developed one of the great Holstein-Friesian herds of cattle in North America,” described Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, “and dominated the Hackney pony classes at shows throughout the continent.”

Standardbreds were Elgin Armstrong’s favourite breed. While Thoroughbred breeding and racing brought success as one of Canada’s leading breeders, Armstrong preferred the sturdiness and agreeable spirit of Standardbreds.

Knowing a winner when he saw it, in 1952 the shrewd businessman purchased two-year-old filly Helicopter in Florida for just under $8,000. In the harness racing classic, Helicopter was the first Canadian-owned horse to win, and received the $63,126 cheque, according to Trent Frayne’s Maclean’s Magazine article in July 1957, “How Elgin Armstrong beats the (harness) races.”

The next year, Armstrong added a second filly, Dottie’s Pick. Her American harness racing winnings outpaced even Helicopter’s impressive take. The two Standardbreds initiated an Armstrong harness racing empire filled with ribbons, big-money purses, and international recognition for the family. American races offered substantial prizes, whereas Canadian winnings were but a fraction. Armstrong may have bet on business, but never on the races.

Influential and respected, Armstrong was the public face of ABC, puffing on a cigar, wearing a loose suit, and travelling in a sleek Cadillac. His brother Ted was the technical whiz shining in the workshop. Developing a 12m wide grader blade and high-quality mobile cookhouses, the talented Armstrong came up with an inventive concrete paver in 1971. The slip-form paver could lay concrete 7.62m wide and 38cm deep without using forms.

In 1972, ABC and several subsidiaries merged into Armbro Materials and Construction Ltd. For a time, Armbro was recognized as Canada’s largest publicly traded company. Elgin Armstrong died in 1977 and Ted passed away in 1978, leaving Charles at the helm. Retiring after a long career in construction and harness racing, he died in 1917 at age 96.

Folded into the Aecon Group, Ltd. in 1987, the admired Armbro name slipped into construction history in 2001.

© 2019 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian history.


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