Photo from the North Lanark Regional Museum
Who doesn’t remember Neilson Chocolate bars? Jersey Milk, Mr. Big, Malted Milk, Sweet Marie and Crispy Crunch and PEP were common names from our childhood. So what does this have to do with our local area? If you take a drive out to the Appleton North Lanark Regional Museum, hang a left at the 3 corners. Just a short distance on your right well hidden in the distant bushes lies the farm that the Neilson family once owned.
In 1820 a Scottish weaver named John Nilson left his home in Paisley with his wife Agnes to find a new life in Canada. John Nilson at some point changed his name to Neilson for reasons unknown shortly after he arrived in Canada.
William Neilson, the third child of the Neilson family, was born on that Appleton side road farm in March of 1841. After working in Almonte as a machinist William moved away from the family farm to the United States and in Rochester, N.Y. where met his future wife, Mary Eva
Kaiser. They moved to Brockville and opened a grocery store, but tragedy swept through the family and business after a fire wiped out their home and store also claiming the lives of their small son and daughter.
William’s Grandmother sent them money to make a fresh start, so Neilson decided to open a grocery store in Toronto in 1867. Sadly, he didn’t have much luck with that store and the business went bankrupt three years later. For a mere $4 a month he placed his family in a rented house on 4 acres while he went to work on his brother’s farm in North Dakota. There he sent what he could to financially support his wife and children.
Meanwhile back on that 4 acres his wife Mary sold milk from the family cow door to door and made mincemeat pies. Neilsen finally returned home after the harvest and used every penny the family had saved and invested in 7 cows and some used hand cranked ice cream makers. He decided then and there that his ice cream was going to be the very best. William insisted on using the finest cream and had a personal secret on how to get that churner to turn faster to give it a smooth taste. The result was perfection, and Neilson ice cream was a hit in the summer of 1893. The family sold 3,750 gallons and made a profit of over $3000.
With that money he built a three-storey home with an attached factory on Gladstone Avenue in Toronto but soon learned business for ice cream was slow in the winter. Neilson always insisted on treating employees like family and nothing less, so he needed to come up with some sort of new concept for the slow months. Because of his concern for his employees and his desire to keep them, that inspired the creation of Neilson chocolate and it became an instant hit.
He used local dairy products from local farmers in his new factory which was a former cheese factory in Beachville, Ontario. Sadly in 1915 he stumbled on a plank at his factory, was injured, and died of a stroke shortly after. By 1915, when William Neilson died at the age of 71, the Neilson company was producing a million pounds of ice cream every year and 500,000 pounds of chocolate.
His second son Morden took over the company after his father’s death and under his watch became the largest producer of ice cream in the British Commonwealth and the largest manufacturer of chocolates around the world. Wiliam’s other two sons Charles was vice president and Allan was assistant manager. After Morden’s death in 1947, William Neilson Ltd. was bought by the George Weston firm
Neilson purchased the Canadian operations of the Cadbury Confectionery Company, and started producing Dairy Milk, Caramilk and several other brands. Once again, William Neilson Ltd. was the largest candy bar manufacturer in Canada. In 1981, Neilson also got exclusive distribution rights and a manufacturing license to produce Haagen-Dazs premium ice cream. In 1990, William Neilson Ltd. sold its ice cream production business, including the Haagen-Dazs license, to Ault Foods and restructured into two separate companies.
Now, each time I drive by that stone farm on the Appleton Side Road I smile because William Neilson knew that all you needed to succeed was a lot of family love and to make sure life was full of ice cream and chocolate.
Photo of Neilson Farm (Yaremko)- donation to North Lanark Regional Museum
Many thanks to Melissa Alexander -Project Coordinator
North Lanark Historical Society–North Lanark Regional Museum
647 River Rd, Appleton, Ontario.
With some files from The Almonte Gazette
Perth Courier, Nov. 17, 1899–One of the most esteemed residents of Ramsay, in the person of Matthew Neilson, departed this life on Monday afternoon this week at the age of 63(?)65(?). Deceased was the youngest son of the late John Neilson one of the pioneer settlers of the township who took up land on the 12th line about three miles from Appleton. Here the deceased was born and lived on his portion of the land until 1881 when he moved to the 11th Concession where he resided until his death. Before moving to the 11th Line, about 1872, he purchased a farm from the late John Gemmill and had 230 acres in all. In the year 1858 he married Emily Teskey, daughter of the late John Teskey, who survives him. There were 7 children, three sons and four daughters: John on the homestead; George on the Gemmill farm; Annie (Mrs. Alex Turner); Aggie (Mrs. John Thom); and Emeline, James and Jennie on the homestead. In religion he was a Presbyterian and a life long member of that church. In politics he was a Liberal. At the time of his death he was a trustee of the Appleton school which position he has held for a number of years. He was also a member of the board of education. All his brothers have passed away but two sisters still are living—Mrs. William Smith and Mrs. Gavin Hamilton. Almonte Times, November 11