“The Factories” circa 1966: the good, the bad and the toxic

The E.S. & A. Robinson Canada Ltd. plant on Laird Drive. The University of Calgary archives.
The E.S. & A. Robinson Canada Ltd. plant on Laird Drive. The University of Calgary archives.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. At best it evokes warm-hearted memories of a bygone era. At worst it clouds our judgment, glossing over harsh histories. The story of the Leaside industrial area is like that: the factories were innovative and productive but also loud and smelly. Long-time Leasider and former factory area lithographer, Ron Barsotti, is happy to remember.

For over 20 years, Ron worked for E.S. & A. Robinson, makers of flexible packaging materials. The large plant on Laird Drive has now disappeared, with the Leaside Village shopping area and the Telus building taking its place. Founded by Elisha Smith Robinson and his brother Alfred in Bristol, UK, in the 1840s, it quickly became a leader in the manufacture of grocery store paper bags. The Leaside location opened in 1936 and for the next 60 years produced catalogues, cookie bags, calendars, beer labels and food packaging in cellophane and foil. The company employed thousands of people, of whom Ron was number 1,165.

Ron Barsotti (right) at work in the 1980s. Courtesy Ron Barsotti.
Ron Barsotti (right) at work in the 1980s. Courtesy Ron Barsotti.

Born and raised in Bedford Park, Ron studied printing and lithography at Northern Secondary School. He got the job in Leaside in 1965, the same year he graduated. Reflecting on his first days at work, Ron says that “as a kid right out of high school I remember thinking that the plant was noisy and smelled strongly of a whole cocktail of inks and solvents.” The presses were loaded with two-tonne rolls of paper, many of which were stored in the old railway locomotive shop (now Longo’s). At first Ron travelled every day from his parents’ home, taking the trolley bus down Yonge Street to Eglinton and then the Leaside bus to the factory’s front door at 85 Laird. He soon married and eventually bought a house on Divadale where he still lives today.

One memory that sticks was the heat. “The plant was always hot, especially in the summer. On some nights to cool down we would soak our feet in the vats of isopropyl alcohol, one of the many chemicals we used in production. It offered instant cooling relief.” Health and safety regulations were in their infancy and so Ron and his colleagues worked with other highly flammable and toxic liquids such as acetone, toluol and acetate with little to no protection. He reflects that “looking back, the prevailing mood was ‘what you don’t know won’t hurt you.’” Ron also remembers fondly friendships that were made. He was an enthusiastic member of the company’s team that competed in the Industrial Bowling League. He also remembers being trained well by his managers, who were like mentors to him: Leaside legend Howard Birnie and Ken Martin, who lived on Rumsey Road.

In its heyday the industrial area included scores of factories producing a wide variety of items. Today perhaps only two of the original factories are in operation. But interest in our industrial past has not diminished. Proof is the fact that in May for the Leaside Jane’s Walk, on a drizzly Friday evening, more than 60 people showed up, wanting to know about those “glory days.” However, memories of the folks who lived those golden years help keep them in perspective. Mike Batsch, 94, owner of the vintage radio shop on Bayview in the ’70s and ’80s lived in one of the Canada Wire and Cable houses on Sutherland and remembers the noise, especially the loud and regular factory whistles, plus the smell, “worst when the wind was from the East.” He moved in the ’70s to Hanna Road, seeking quieter and fresher surroundings.

The hard-working Robinson plant has been usurped by retail, yet traces linger. Esandar Drive is an acronym for the old company name, a street which bisects their old north and south plants. Ron remembers the tunnel that joined the two buildings, running under the road just east of the traffic lights at the Laird intersection, not visible but most likely still intact. One mystery for him is what happened to the two large solid brass company plaques that flanked the entrance to the offices. “They were polished daily by the same fellow who did an assortment of jobs at the company, including chauffeur to the executives. “Do you have your own memory of the factories? Drop us a line at to keep the story alive.

About Mitch Bubulj 14 Articles
Mitch is a born and raised Leasider. He worked for many years in South East Asia but ended up back in South Leaside where he raised his family. A member of the North York Community Preservation Panel and a retired English and Social Science teacher, Mitch has a passion for neighbourhood, history and a good story.