SKODA – WOLFVILLE’S PATENT MEDICINE FACTORY (September 10/19)

“Wolfville is likely to have a new industry,” a Maritime trade magazine (The Critic) announced in its November issue in1891. Quoting a piece in Wolfville’s newspaper, The Acadian, the magazine reported that a “laboratory is to be built at once for the preparation of a class of German-American remedies, approved by the best science of the day.

“The Skoda Discovery Company is the name of the corporation. It is composed of a number of American gentlemen, who are putting the same line of remedies on the market in the United States, and under a Dominion patent are about to start a Canadian branch of their business in this village.”

The success of the enterprise may reasonably be expected, the notice in the newspaper concluded. George W. Borden, a prominent Wolfville resident and businessman, whom the Wolfville history, Mud Creek, identifies as a Skoda stockholder, was named as the superintendent of the factory’s construction. Borden was a town councilor for at least seven terms, a position he may have used to ease Skoda’s move to Wolfville.

Looking back, it’s surprising a company from Belfast, Maine, would build a large plant in Wolfville. However, Skoda products were big sellers in Canada and the States in a period when patent medicines were widely used; setting up in Nova Scotia to serve the Canadian market, and in Wolfville, which was accessible by water and close to Halifax ports by rail, appears to make business sense. Still, Yarmouth is closer to Belfast by water, had rail connections, and appears to have been a better site for Skoda; it’s only a guess but we can speculate that concessions were offered to Skoda that in the long run made Wolfville the best choice.

Skoda built what at the time was a magnificent building on the waterfront. Skoda news releases describe the building as three stories high, “with a hip roof making it four floors,” and it was “75 feet long and 45 wide.” Offices and bottling, packing rooms took up the first floor; the second floor held the “compounding room” and two mail rooms, while the two upper floors were used “for storing raw and finished products.”

The Skoda line of patent medicines were marketed in a period when over-the-counter remedies and folk cures were used for nearly every ailment suffered by women and men. Most of the patent medicines advertised in Valley newspapers in the late 19th century promised to cure whatever ailed you. Pills and liquids were offered for a variety of conditions – for nervous prostration, general debility, exhausted vitality, colic and griping, and falling sickness, for example, the last likely referring to epilepsy.

One of Skoda’s preparations – their “chief product” they called it – was concentrated extract of sarsaparilla which claimed to be “rich in brain and nerve food, but also potent in its blood purifying properties.” In other words, Skoda was no different than other patent medicine companies of the time with their golden promises of over-the-counter cures. There are suggestions in various sources that some Skoda products were laced with alcohol, which may explain its popularity.

Built in 1892, the Skoda Discovery Company only stayed in business in Wolfville for six years. Skoda either was a victim of a trade disagreement between Canada and the United States or the sales volume for its products was far lower than hoped for. Most likely Skoda was too optimist about its Canadian sales potential; when they were preparing to open, for example, Skoda announced they were sending out 100,000 flyers to potential Canadian customers, a figure you have to question given the period in which they were in operation.

According to the Wolfville Historical Society website, after Skoda ceased operation the building was turned into a corn mill and later was later used as a warehouse and community hall before being destroyed by a fire in 1931. An excerpt from the Wolfville history, Mud Creek, tells the Skoda story in a nutshell:

“In their first year they put up and shipped 6,000 bottles (of sarsaparilla) and during 1892 they made and sold patent medicines… All very exciting, but the business soon disappeared and the empty building was moved across the tracks in 1898 to be used as a cornmill.”

Sources: The Critic Magazine, November 1891 issue; The Wolfville Acadian, March 1892 issue; Wolfville Historical Society; Mud Creek, history of Wolfville; personal interview with the late Leon Barron in June, 1997.

The Skoda building in 1900 when it was being used as a grain mill

The Skoda building in 1900 when it was being used as a grain mill.

Skoda in all its glory

Skoda in all its glory – this photograph appeared on the front page of The Acadian in May 1893.

3. Exterior and interior pictures of the Skoda factory were published on the front page of The Acadian in May 1893

Exterior and interior pictures of the Skoda factory were published on the front page of The Acadian in May 1893.

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