Neilson, the son of Scottish immigrants, was born on a farm near Almonte
in Southern Ontario. Trained as a machinist, he moved to Toronto in 1890
to open a grocery store. Three years later, the business was bankrupt.
William rented a house on four acres of land for $4 a month for his
family, then went to work on his brother's farm in North Dakota for $4 a
William sent as much money
back to his family as he could; meanwhile, his wife, Mary, sold her
home-made mincemeat pies door to door, while their oldest son, Morden,
milked the family cow and sold the milk door to door on his way to school.
When William Neilson
returned from North Dakota after the harvest, he took a chance, investing
every penny the family had saved in seven cows and some used, hand-cranked
ice cream makers.
From the very beginning,
Neilson stood by his credo: "Nothing but the best." Some ice-cream
manufacturers may have used milk, but Neilson used only the purest cream.
and he had a secret other manufacturers didn't know: to get the smoothest
ice cream, you have to churn the cream faster as it gets firmer (some say
that William's insistence on this technique gave son Morden Neilson - the
family's official "churner" in the first summer - the physique that made
him Canada's amateur wrestling champion from 1900 to 1903).
Neilson's Ice Cream was an
instant success. In their first summer as ice cream makers, the Neilson
family sold an amazing 3,750 gallons, earning a profit of $3000 - a
princely profit in 1893.
The business quickly
prospered and grew, and in 1904, William Neilson built a three-storey home
with an attached factory on Gladstone Avenue in Toronto. The only trouble
was, ice cream sales tend to fall off in the winter. Neilson knew he had
to keep his 25 skilled employees working year round, so he launched a line
of chocolates. Again, he used only the best ingredients, and Neilson
chocolates were an instant success as Neilson's ice cream had been.
As the business grew,
William ensured the critical supply of milk when he purchased a former
cheese factory in Beachville, Ontario, buying dairy products from
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.
William's second son,
Morden, took over the company at his father's death in 1915. But he had
worked his way up through the company - starting as a milker and ice cream
churner at the company's founding. Under his leadership, William Neilson
Ltd. became the largest producer of ice cream in the British Commonwealth
and the largest manufacturer of chocolates around the world, earning
Morden continued the
traditions established by his father. He was a "hands-on" manager,
intimately involved in the daily operations of the company. He was an
innovative promoter: in summer 1921, he dressed a man in a heavy parker
like an "Eskimo" to walk up and down Yonge Street to introduce Eskimo
Pies. and in 1924, he used a contest to launch what became the company's
all-time best-seller: the Jersey Milk chocolate bar. The first prize: a
William Neilson always
treated employees like family - it was his concern for his employees and
his desire to keep them that inspired the creation of Neilson chocolates.
The company's several employee picnics every year became a local event.
Morden Neilson continued this tradition with ball games, lunch hour
concerts and winter sleigh rides for the employees. He knew all of his
1000 employees by name, and the names of their wives. The strong
relationship between Morden and the Neilson employees was shown when
Morden was diagnosed with leukemia in 1947: hundreds of employees donated
blood for his treatments. All were saddened when, on August 26, 1947,
Morden Neilson succumbed to his illness; he was buried beside his parents
in the Forest Lawn Mausoleum in the north end of Toronto.
Morden's death, William Neilson Ltd. was bought by the George Weston firm.
Weston continued the traditions established by William and Morden Neilson:
a commitment to the best ingredients, people, processes and products, and
a strong and positive relationship with employees.