Friday, 24 March 2017

Princess Coretta and the Royal City

The Royal City has played host to a number of royal visitors over the years. For example, the Prince of Wales paid a visit in 1919. However, Princess Coretta was a different kind of royalty. Her status arose not from being born with blue blood but being born of small stature.

Here is a real-photo postcard (that is, a photograph printed onto postcard stock) of "Princess Coretta" taken by the popular Guelph photographer, Lionel O'Keeffe:


Princess Coretta was born Ruby Belle Rickoff in Chancy, Clinton Township, Iowa, on 11 January 1899. She was the only daughter of Arthur and Birdel Rickoff. It must have been clear early in her life that she was different. In 1905, she was exhibited with the T.I. Cash Carnival Co. as a sideshow curiosity. At that point, she was entitled "Coretta, the doll lady" and described as "the cutest, sweetest bit of humanity ever born to live. ... Weighs 16 pounds and only 26 inches in height" (Aberdeen Democrat, 30 June 1905).

Evidently, the exhibition was a success. Her father placed an ad in The Billboard, an entertainment trade magazine, offering her services for the following year (2 December 1905):


It seems that the Cash Carnival Co. made the highest offer, as Ruby, now entitled "Little Coretta", toured with the show again in 1906. For example, she appeared in the Woodmen Carnival in Oakes, North Dakota that year (Oakes Times, 28 June 1906).

The Bismarck Daily Tribune (7 July 1906) described her as nine years old, 16 pounds in weight, and 26 inches high. It also explained that, "She reads, writes, and talks well and will sing like a fairy when asked to," from which it appears that singing was an important part of her act. It also mentions that she had received a letter from President Teddy Roosevelt, who had seen her the previous year out east. Undoubtedly, the association with the President increased her celebrity.

The Woodmen Carnival provides a fairly typical portrait of sideshow "freak" exhibitions of the era. The Carnival took over the main street of Oakes for several days. Shows included dare-devils such as the "Death Cage" in which the Gregg brothers road on "wheels" around the inside of a large tub, presumably narrowly missing crashing into each other.

Performers would imaginatively re-enact tumultuous historical events such as "Ben Hur", the "Destruction of San Fransisco", and, closer to home, the "Northfield Bank Robbery."

A Ferris wheel slung occupants into the air above the rooftops of their small town.

In addition, there was often a menagerie of exotic animals, such as lions and elephants (although the Cash Carnival seems not to have had them). Similarly, there were human oddities, such as the bearded lady, conjoined twins, giants, and dwarfs or midgets. That is where Coretta fit in. For a few cents, townsfolk could meet and examine these unusual people up close and perhaps see them perform.

Another real-photo card of Coretta, also printed in Canada, shows her with "Dave Savage", styled as "the largest in the world." Pictures of very tall and very small people together were a common motif with sideshows. Perhaps "Dave" was in the same sideshow with Coretta.


Snippets of Coretta's career can be found in some American newspapers. For example, the Chicago Daily Tribune (6 April 1908) notes that she celebrated her nineteenth birthday in the Coliseum there. It sounds as though the Ringling Bros.—then her employers—decided to add ten years to her age, perhaps to make her seem less childlike.

The party was celebrated in true, circus sideshow style:

The table was spread in the Coliseum annex on the top floor. Coretta, who wore a green silk frock, sat on the right of Lew Graham, who manages the museum. On his right sat little Lord Robert, another midget, 21 years old. When the guests insisted upon it the two little people walked down the center of the table as graceful as you please and performed a few stunts. Each is twenty-two inches in height.
Just across from George Ade sat Ella Ewing, the Missouri giantess.
There was an original poem by Grace Gilbert, the bearded lady; a speech by J.G. Turner, the Texas giant; and some imitations by Charles Andress.
Hm. It sounds like Coretta also lost four inches in height since 1906!

The next year, the New York Times (28 March 1909) carried the news that Little Coretta and Little Lord Robert were to be married! The story describes how Coretta was affected when she heard news of Lord Robert's diagnosis of appendicitis by the circus doctor:

When Coretta heard that she burst into tears and climbed down from the platform. ”Take me to him,” she cried. “Take me to him at once.”
A.T. Ringling, one of the five circus brothers, was standing near. He would not hear of Coretta leaving just as the matinee was about to begin, and the crowds were entering the Garden. Coretta pleaded.
Upon hearing of the engagement, Mr. Ringling relented and the circus began to plan their wedding.

If this story sounds a little contrived, it is. Staging weddings between members of the freak shows was a common maneuver to gain press coverage and drum up business. Probably, a wedding was staged later that year but only as a stunt.

As it happens, the Times story also describes Coretta as 19 years old and 19 inches tall. So, she had not aged since the year before but had decreased three more inches in height!

It is hard to know just what to make of the life of an Edwardian circus midget. As Rachel Adams points out, exhibiting people with disabilities or other unusual conditions seems exploitive. Today, emphasis is placed on integration of such people into society through accessibility legislation, for example. Putting them on display for a fee, like the animals in the circus menagerie, seems degrading and dehumanizing.

At the same time, Adams argues, it could be viewed as empowering for "freaks" to demand money in exchange for being stared at. Otherwise the subject of public gawking, sideshow performers can, to some extent, turn the tables by assuming the roles of actors and singers, a position that gives them some control over their audience and enhances their agency in their dealings with others.

And then there is the practical matter of earning a living. In a world where many occupations were closed to them, sideshow performers could earn good money. Issac Marcosson ("The Bookman", June 1910) itemizes the earnings of midgets including Coretta:

When you come to midgets you touch some of the sideshow stars. Tom Thumb got $1,000 a week for a long time, and so did his wife. Admiral Dot, who was a famous midget, got $700. Chemalh, the Chinese dwarf, received $250 a week. The interest in these little people is as keen today as ever before. Little Coretta, the midget of the Ringling Show this year, gets $350, and her diminutive contemporary, Weeny, who is with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, gets about the same. The ordinary museum or small show midget gets only from $50 to $75 a week. Such side-show staples as the Ossified man, the Living Skeleton, the Armless Man, the Tattooed Man, the Man With the Rubber Skin, and the Snake Charmer, have declined in price during the past ten years, and their wages range from $30 to $50 a week.
By shopping her out to sideshows, was Coretta's father, Arthur, exploiting her or helping to ensure her welfare? From what little information is currently available, it is difficult to say.

It would be interesting to know what Coretta herself thought of this matter. Unfortunately, she was killed on 23 May 1912 after being thrown from a buggy in Kankakee, Illinois. Evidently, she had left Ringling Bros. for the Mazeppa and Greater United Shows circus and was riding, perhaps in a parade, with manager J.B. Warren when the horse took fright at a hat blown through the air and bolted (New York Clipper, June 1912).

Her remains were returned to Clinton Township, Iowa, where she was buried in the Springdale Cemetery using her proper name, Ruby Belle Rickoff.



The alert reader will have noticed that I have not said when Princess Coretta visited the Royal City. That is because I am not sure. She was with the T.I. Cash Carnival Company in 1905 and 1906. To the best of my knowledge, this company never left the United States. From 1908 through 1911, Coretta was employed by the famous Ringling Bros. However, they did not visit Guelph during this time. (Circus tour routes can be checked at the very helpful CircusHistory.org website.) She was killed in 1912 before the Canadian circus season started, usually in June.

These observations suggest that 1907 might be the time. Guelph was visited by the Hargreaves Railroad Show on 17 July of that year. And, the Show did include "freaks".

A significant problem with this theory is that Lionel O'Keeffe, who took Coretta's portrait, did not set up business in Guelph until 1912. He purchased J.H. Booth's studio that year on Macdonnell Street above the Dominion Bank. I surmise, then, that he took the picture earlier in his career and, perhaps, printed off copies upon hearing of her death after setting out his shingle.

It may be, then, that Princess Coretta never set foot in the Royal City. Yet, why would Guelphites be interested in photo postcards of her if she was not known to them? For the present, like much else about Ruby Belle Rickoff, it remains a mystery.



It is interesting to consider why the citizens of Guelph and other cities were so drawn to sideshows featuring Princess Coretta and others like her. Of course, midgets, giants, conjoined twins, bearded ladies, etc. were unusual, like tigers and elephants. In the context of a sideshow, having paid for the privilege, people could marvel at them without feeling self-conscious.

But, besides being exotic, perhaps these shows confirmed the appropriateness of the normal order. Midgets, giants, etc. walking about the streets, as if to pass as typical people, might seem threatening to others. Encountering them instead in special venue, on the edge of town during a special event, while weird or even shocking, could be filed away as a momentary oddity that threw the normal and proper world order briefly into sharp relief.

I have yet to find any mention of Ruby Belle Rickoff, aka Princess Coretta, in any Canadian newspaper or other record. So, if you can shed any light on her connection with Canada, as suggested by these two postcards, I am sure that readers would appreciate you leaving it in the comments below. Thanks!

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Happy Valentines Day 1906, Maude Powers!

Although Valentine's Day cards date back to the Georgian period, the business of sending love tokens to that special someone really got going in the Victorian era. The establishment of the penny post plus the industrialization of card-making meant nearly anyone could let fly one of cupid's arrows through the mail.

Naturally, some of the earliest picture postcards made in the Edwardian era were also Valentine's Day cards. As such, many lucky young ladies of Guelph and area received these cards from their secret admirers. One such woman was Miss Maude Powers of Speedside. Evidently, she was quite a peach, if the following, anonymous postcard sent 12 February 1906 is any indication:


This card was one of many cards for special occasions printed by the United States Souvenir Post Card Co., New York. On the front is a message attesting to the ardor felt for Miss Powers by the sender:

Just home from Speedside ball. Mind be home next Sunday night. Dear Maudie. These lips are nearly as red as yours the night I kissed them Eh? with love.
In an era long before text messages and emojis, young men could select among such novelty postcards to convey their feelings. Clearly, "Maudie" had made an impression.

Valentines Day, 1906 was not even the first time Maudie's suitor had reached out to her in this way. An earlier postcard addressed to her and written in the same hand was posted on 28 December 1905:


The two pomade-pated, boater-doffing dandies make a likely pair, don't they?

The writer has taken the trouble to add the labels "Billie" and "Bobbie" to the gentlemen on the right-hand side. This postcard was a generic card published by J. Raymond Howe of Chicago. Both cards are unsigned, so it remains unclear who "Billie" and "Bobbie" might be. However, both cards were sent from Guelph, so perhaps they were citizens of the Royal City.

The year 1906 presented Miss Powers with quite a dilemma, for she was the recipient of further amorous postcards from at least two more suitors. Here is one sent to her in Toronto from Eramosa on 10 May 1906:


Written in a different hand from the first two, this racy, unsigned card bears a nearly illegible scrawl in the margin about talking to Maud's Easter hat. What tales those park benches might tell if they could speak!

To complete the triad, here is another card, written in yet another hand, also addressed to Maude Powers in Speedside:


Published by the Illustrated Post Card & Novelty Co., N.Y., this card depicts a young woman reading a brochure on "How to make love" (an expression that then meant something like "to woo" does today) and "How to write a love letter." On the back, her suitor has penned the message:

Now is your chance. Leap Year next week. A.B.G.
A.B.G. has taken the interesting tack of putting himself on a pedestal and inviting Miss Powers to reach for the top. Subtle!

The postcard was cancelled on the "Harrisburg-Southampton RPO", meaning that it was processed in the mail car of a train that went between Harrisburg (near Paris) and Southampton, a route that went through Guelph. The postcard was cancelled on "Jan 2, 0_", with the last digit being illegible. Given that no Leap Year ever occurred in January, A.B.G.—whoever he was—had evidently read a book on writing love letters that specified speaking in riddles. I will assume the year was 1906, since that seems to have been Miss Powers' lucky year.

I do not know much about Miss Maude Powers. She was born the on 6 January 1885 as the eldest daughter of Walker Powers Jr. and Elizabeth Powers, somewhere in the vicinity of Speedside. So, all this attention was paid her around her 21st birthday.

The Historical Atlas of Wellington County (1906) mentions that Walker Powers Sr. was an immigrant from Vermont who settled in Clarke Township, Durham County. Maude's father, Walker Jr., was raised there but moved to Eramosa Township in 1873. There, he courted and married Elizabeth Johnson, from a family of Eramosa pioneers, and raised Percy, Carrett, Maude, and Hetty.

Maude was deliberate in her choice of husband. Two years after this flurry of attention, she set her cap at Alexander Rae and married him on 17 June 1908. He was born on 18 December 1878 in Eramosa Township to Alexander Sr. and Sarah (née McLean)

Alexander may have been bachelor number two, that is, the sender of the postcard "On the benches in the park after dark", since that was posted in Eramosa where he lived. That seems like the best guess at present. Perhaps it could be checked if I ever find an example of his handwriting.

Alexander Jr. was a blacksmith. Around 1912, he and Maude moved to Guelph and set up Rae’s Wagon & Body Works at 39–41 Cork Street, about mid-block on the south side.

With the advent of the automobile, it might seem unfortunate that someone should put out his shingle as a blacksmith. However, Rae's business was a success. Perhaps this was because he took on a variety of work, as suggested by this ad in the 1915 City Directory:


The couple first lived on Surrey Street (West) but soon relocated to 65 Cambridge Street, which I believe is now number 11 (shown below in Google Street View).



By 1930, the business had moved to 43 Yarmouth Street while the family, which included children Margaret, Henry Alex (Jr.), Isabel, Caroline, and Eleanor, had moved to 11 Charles Street (shown below in Google Street View).



Margaret and Isabel worked as bookkeepers in the family business. Eleanor became a corporal in the Canadian Women's Army Corps during World War 2. Alex Jr. upheld family tradition and became a blacksmith.

Alexander Rae was elected a city Alderman in the years 1929 through 1932, inclusive, which were difficult years due to the Depression. He was also a member of the Scottish Rite, the Orange Order, and the Independent Order of Odd-fellows. He died in his home on 30 November 1942 after a prolonged illness (Mercury, 30 November 1942).

Alex Jr. took over the family blacksmith business for a number of years. Maude remained in the residence on Charles Street until she died on 22 July 1956. She and Alexander are buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.



A jolly time could be had in the Royal City on Valentine's Day in 1906. For example, one might attend a "house social" like this one (Mercury, 14 February 1906):
The young ladies of the Disciples of Christ entertained last evening in the home of Mrs. Harris, Yarmouth St. The rooms were beautifully decorated in honor of St. Valentine. Various amusements, interspersed with vocal and and instrumental music lifted up the hours. Not the least interesting feature was the art gallery, containing some thirty old masterpieces. Ice cream and cake were served. Each feature of the programme was made the occasion for levying a tax of two cents per head. Much credit is due to the young ladies for the pleasure afforded by the evening's entertainment.
For those more determined to flirt, there were always the city's skating rinks. Guelphites could skate on cleared areas of the Speed River, in special outdoor facilities such as the streetcar rink (now Howitt Park) or indoor rinks such as the Victoria (now a parking lot behind Knox Church).

Howard Shubert ("Architecture on ice: A history of the hockey arena", 2016, pp. 21–24) explains that skating rinks became prime places for flirtatious encounters. Skating was regarded as a suitable activity for both men and women. Men could display their vigor and bearing whereas women could cut pretty figures in the ice and show a little ankle—dresses had to be shorter to allow for skate boots and striding.

Even in the mid-Victorian era, skating in Canada allowed for more than the usual touching between the sexes. A man could hold his lady's hand, to help prevents falls, of course. Also, helping a girl on with her skates was not merely gallant, as suggested by this passage from "The admiral's niece, a tale of Nova Scotia" (1858):

In two hours more numerous skaters were gliding over the Arm, and soon after luncheon the Governor and Lady D— did make their appearance, accompanied by the General, St. John, and Edward.
They were soon all prepared for the ice.
Kate and Ada, enveloped in their furs, their dresses gracefully looped up (showing a bright scarlet petticoat trimmed with black velvet, made rather short so as not to impede their movements in skating) looked bewitching. St. John gazed at Ada's tiny feet in admiration, and on reaching the ice begged to be allowed to fasten on her skates, an honor she smilingly accorded him.
"Dangerous work that, St. John," said Lord D— coming up to them; "those are the prettiest little trotters in the world, more than enough to steal any man's heart from him. They stole mine the first time I ever saw them; did they not, Ada."
“Come, my Lord, don't be saucy; you are at my mercy on the ice, you know, so I advise you to take care," and with a merry laugh she glided gracefully and swiftly away.
The rosy cheeks a girl acquired during a skate were often thought comely as well.

We may assume, then, that many men and women, perhaps including Maude Powers and Alexander Rae, went for a skate on Valentine's Day, 1906, and enjoyed the experience on several levels.

"Official rules for ice hockey, speed skating, figure skating and curling (1901)". By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 15 January 2017

James Lee Stratton, somewhere in France, 1917

The postcard below depicts two soldiers leaning on a wall, in perhaps a rare moment off duty, "somewhere in France", January 1917. They seem relaxed though serious, perhaps looking to assure family and friends back home that they are doing well—and remain in one piece.


The maple leaf insignia on their collars assure us that they are Canadians. Their cap badges are Canadian Royal Artillery General Service badges, confirming that they are gunners.

This card is a real-photo postcard, that is, a postcard printed from a photograph, usually in small numbers for sending to relatives back home. (Recall the card that Everett Raymond Dudgeon had made up in Guelph to share with his family back in Iowa five years earlier.) This card is addressed to Miss V.W. Stratton, 22 Baker St., Guelph, Canada. This suggests that the sender, presumably at least one of the soldiers, is a relative of hers.

No message is written on the back, perhaps to appease military censors. However, this surmise is confirmed by the note written lightly on the back in pencil, "43668 corporal". In fact, "43668" is the regimental number of James Lee Stratton, brother of Victoria M. Stratton of Guelph.

Stratton's attestation papers, which record his induction into the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), say that he was born on 29 January 1891 in Straffordville, Ontario. His profession is listed as butter maker, he was unmarried, and had a military background, having served in the 39th Infantry in Simcoe and the 24th Grey's Horse in Ingersoll. He was 5 feet 7.5 inches tall, with fair hair and complexion, and light blue eyes. Looking at the photo above, I would say that this description matches the figure on the right. This attribution also gibes with the note that he is a corporal, since the figure on the right is the only one with a chevron on his sleeve.

Given his military background at a young age, it is not surprising to learn that Stratton was eager to join the CEF. His record shows that he joined the 11th Field Battery, 1st Howitzer Brigade in Guelph on 7 August 1914, only three days after the official entry of Canada, with Britain, into the conflict. He was transferred to the 1st Division Ammunition Column on 29 August and was inducted into the CEF at its camp in Valcartier, Quebec, on 25 September.

Here is a postcard of the encampment, showing the city of tents hastily erected at Valcartier for the initial marshaling of recruits.

Valcartier - Section of the Camp.JPG
By Unknown - This image is available from Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec under the reference number P547S1SS1SSS1D513P019R

At the camp, likely in view of his previous experience, he was promoted from gunner to bombardier. In October, he went with the first contingent of the CEF to England, to the Bramshott Military Camp. After training there, he was sent to France.

His records provide only a sketch of his long career on the Western front. However, it was eventful. For example, in 1917 he survived a mustard gas attack. Since this gas was first used by the German army in July of that year in the Battle of Passchendaele, this suggests that Stratton saw action there. The army doctor recounts Stratton's statement about his symptoms as follows:

In 1917 had mustard gas which burned chest following which was exposed to gas from shell holes for several days. Had loss of voice, sore eyes and cough. Recovered voice in a week. Since that time, has had attacks as described [above] whenever he takes ‘cold’.
He was allowed a week's leave in November, perhaps to aid in his recovery. How long, I wonder, did this breathing problem remain with him?

His medical records describe another minor injury in 1918:

In Feb. 1918, accidental blow from recoil of bolt in Lewis machine gun. Thumb was painful for about two months and stiffened so that flexion at distal joint limited.
It would be interesting to know why he was firing a Lewis machine gun instead of an artillery piece.

"Lewis light machine gun in use in the trenches on the Photo from Western Front during the First World War. An entire section of men was required to keep the Lewis in action, with ammunition carried in bulky panniers." Courtesy of the Canada At War blog.

His service record also reveals that he preferred being a gunner rather than advancing to higher ranks. In 1915, he was returned to the rank of gunner from bombardier at his own request. He was promoted back to bombardier in 1916 and to corporal in February of 1917. This detail helps to explain the single chevron on his sleeve in the postcard, which was (I believe) the uniform insignia appropriate to the rank of bombardier that he held in January. In October, he once more reverted to the rank of gunner, at his own request, where he remained until the end of the war.

The record does not state why he made these requests, so we can only guess that he preferred the job of gunner and was willing to take a pay cut to remain in that role.

Happily, Stratton survived the war and shipped out from England for Canada on the RMS Baltic on 29 April 1919.

RMS Baltic postcard
A postcard of the RMS Baltic/See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

During the conflict, Stratton sent more back to Guelph than a postcard. He also signed over a significant portion of his pay —$25 per month—to his brother, Robert Stratton, who was co-owner of the Guelph Creamery Company, at 22 Baker Street. Robert Stratton was born in 1870 in Straffordville and is recorded in the 1904 Guelph City Directory at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) Dairy school. By 1910, he and George Taylor, a lecturer at the OAC, had formed the Guelph Creamery Company, applying knowledge they had acquired at the College to this commercial enterprise. At the same time, Miss Victoria Stratton, born in Straffordville in 1881, is listed as the new company's bookkeeper. The Strattons had arrived in Guelph!

The Guelph Mercury (8 April 1947) gives the following, brief history of the company:

The Guelph Creamery was built in 1910 by R.W. Stratton and G.R. Taylor and the first cream was delivered on New Year's day in 1911. The original staff was composed of the two owners and Miss V.M. Stratton, bookkeeper. ... In January 1921 Messrs. Stratton and Taylor purchased the Galt Creamery with Mr. Taylor going to Galt to be manager. On the 1st of June 1927 the partners Stratton and Taylor sold both their interest to the United Farmers Cooperative Co., Toronto.
Robert Stratton remained as manager of the Guelph creamery until 1942.

I believe that a piece of the back of Guelph Creamery's premises survives today as 30 Baker Street, which can be seen in the Street View image below.



So, James Stratton addressed this postcard to his sister Victoria at the Guelph Creamery location on Baker Street. You might wonder why he did not address it to his brother Robert. Perhaps he was following the custom of addressing correspondence to the senior woman of the destination (as Charles Mogk may have done with his postcard from the front), as letters were sometimes thought of as belonging to the domestic, and thus feminine, sphere.

It is interesting to imagine the joy and foreboding that would have greeted the photo as it was passed around in the building. Thank goodness James and his friend were still alive and intact! Would they remain so? Perhaps it was Victoria who penciled in her brother's regimental number and his new rank of corporal shortly after the postcard arrived in the Royal City.

After the war, Stratton had evidently had his fill of soldiering. Upon his return to Canada, he resumed the trade of butter maker. On 24 July 1922, he married Norma Jean Soper of Staffordville in Toronto. The marriage record lists his occupation simply as "manager". The couple had two children, a son and a daughter. The son, John Thomas, died at the age of three.

James Lee Stratton died on 14 July 1969 and was buried in Straffordville/Sandy Town cemetery.



It would be interesting to know who the second figure in the postcard is. No information about him is recorded on the postcard itself.

Perhaps it is Charles or Robert Hack. The Hack boys were Guelph residents who joined the CEF at the same time as James Stratton and shipped out to England in the same unit, that is, the CEF Divisional Ammunition Column, No. 2 Section. Both are described as having fair complexion and brown eyes and hair. Charles was 5 feet 6 inches tall. Robert was 5 feet 9 inches.

My only evidence for this guess is that the Hack family was well known to Victoria Stratton. Victoria roomed at the Hack family residence at 22 Green Street, and Florence and Lila Hack, sisters of Charles and Robert, both worked as bookkeepers and stenographers at the Guelph Creamery Company. In other words, the Hacks and the Strattons were well known to each other.

So, it could be that Charles Hack and James Stratton found themselves at the same stationary store somewhere in France, saw a sign in the window offering photographic postcards, and realized they had found a classy way to assure the family back in Guelph that they were OK. A two-for-one deal!

It makes for a nice story but it remains just a guess.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Merry Xmas Tokyo, 1908!

The picture side of this postcard is common enough, providing a view of the Priory, the "First House in Guelph, now CPR Station" printed by Warwick Bro’s & Rutter, Limited of Toronto.


However, the reverse side is more interesting, for two reasons.

First, it conveys Xmas greetings from Guelph to an unusual destination, that is, Tokyo Japan:

Xmas 1908 // Dear Miss Blackmore, As you are so ancient I suppose you will remember dates prior to the building of this house. I thought that you would be interested in old things. Merry Xmas. Hope you got my other message. Sincerely Yours, Margaret E. A.
The postcard was postmarked in Guelph on 30 November 1908 and in Tokyo on 26 December 1908.

The reverse side also has an interesting Japanese postmark and some Japanese writing on it.


Perhaps the Japanese writing provides a more specific address. If anyone can read it, please let us know what it says in the comments below!

I am not sure who the sender is. There was a Margaret E A Griffin, matron of the House of Industry and Refuge near Fergus. That would fit the signature "Margaret E. A." but that's about it.

Oddly, I have a better idea about the addressee, Miss Blackmore. I believe that she is Miss Isabell Slade Blackmore of North River district, Colchester County, Nova Scotia. Born in 1863, the third daughter of Richard and Margaret Blackmore, a Truro area farm family, Isabell had become a local school teacher. At age 19, she had joined the Methodist Church and began thinking about missionary work.

By her own account, the calling to spread the gospel overseas became urgent and she applied to join the Canadian Methodist Women's Missionary Society (WMS), noting in her application ("A sensitive independence", Gagan 1992, p. 26):

[T]he conviction that help such as I could give was needed in the Lord's Vineyards abroad, became so strong that I could no longer put it aside ... All I have and am I wish to belong to Christ. Gladly will I work in His service in any way or anywhere, if I may but know I am doing His will. As to how soon I can go, I feel I am given but one answer. When the Master has need of me.
Evidently, the WMS was impressed and sent Miss Blackmore to Tokyo in 1889, where she remained (with occasional furloughs back to Canada) until 1924.

Japan was an exciting place to be a missionary in that time. With the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the establishment of the Meiji constitution in 1889, Japan became open to western influence. The WMS seized the opportunity to set the Japanese people on the right path amidst the resulting cultural tumult ("Missionary leaflet," February 1892, v. 8, no. 2, p. 7):

Great changes, due to contact with the West, are in progress, some of an alarming nature. We refer to Rationalism, Unitarianism, and the New Theology, which has filled the minds of some of young Japan’s travellers to the West. It is encouraging, however, for us to know that those missionaries, whose sole aim is to lead men to Christ and to build them up in holiness, have very little trouble with the new “isms” among their converts. The missionary, political and commercial atmosphere of Japan is now electrified as never before. The land lies before us, and shall we not “go up and possess it?” Pray that the God of all wisdom may guide this intelligent and energetic people in this transition period of their country’s history.
The missionaries set up schools, concentrating on the Christian education of Japanese children. Apparently, these institutions were popular and successful.

Of course, along with Japanese receptivity to western ideas came military friction with western powers, as everyone jostled for influence in East Asia. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, for example, the Japanese navy decisively defeated the Russian navy, thus giving Japan hegemony over Korea and Manchuria.

Japanese expansion put it on a collision course with the United States, which was moving into the Philippines and Guam. Realizing the the US Navy was not up to a fight with Japan, President Theodore Roosevelt had ordered the construction of 11 new battleships. In 1908, in a sort of pivot to Asia, Roosevelt sent the newly beefed-up Atlantic fleet on a world tour, which included a call on Yokohama in October. Known as the "Great White Fleet" for its white paint job, the visit sent a not-very-subtle message that American power in the Pacific was not to be taken lightly.

The event was recorded in many postcards, which may be viewed online at the Old Tokyo Vintage Japanese Postcard Museum and at The Peaceful Sea. Perhaps the oddest souvenir of the visit is this ashtray with a commemorative postcard embedded in the bottom!

By Naval History & Heritage Command from Washington, DC, USA (76-172-I Ashtray, Souvenir, Great White Fleet) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The postcard shows a picture of the USS Kansas and what I assume is her commander, Captain Charles E. Vreeland.

Although the missionaries of the WMS seemingly paid little attention to world events, they must have wondered what this visit portended.

Shortly thereafter, Miss Blackmore received a postcard from Margaret E A from Guelph. Isabell and Margaret may have met in Guelph before. Miss Blackmore had visited the Royal City during the week of 22 October 1901 on furlough, during the annual meeting of the Board of Managers of the WMS, that year in Dublin Street Methodist (now United) Church (Globe, 23 Oct. 1901).


(Dublin Street United Church, Guelph. Courtesy of Google Street View.)

Isabell expressed optimism about the work of the WMS in Japan:

Miss Blackmore, home on furlough from Japan, spoke on the revival there. She was sure the work would be permanent. The Japanese had shown a great deal of activity during the revival, in their giving and in their work. Results could be traced directly to past work, and the Japanese Christians had learned to delight in the work.
It may be that Isabell and Margaret met and struck up a correspondence then.

The United Church of Canada Archives have some pictures of Isabell (called "Isabella Blackmore"). Here is a small detail of one taken in 1910 ("A sensitive independence", Gagan 1992, p. 23):


In her other message to Isabell, Margaret may have spoken about recent events in Guelph. It had been a significant year in the Royal City. Guelph's first Old Home Week, a prolonged bash for Guelphites past and present, was held in early August. Harry Peer had skated 186 miles in ten hours at the Victoria roller rink. A new bridge across the Speed at been built on Eramosa Road.

On the police blotter, six prisoners attempted to escape from the County Jail by scratching a hole through the wall of their cell with iron parts harvested from their beds (Globe, 10 March 1908). However, the ring leader, John Cox, was caught scaling the wall and, after being "hauled over the coals", ratted out the whole scheme.

In addition, Inspector Oakes expressed concern over some "blind pigs" operating in St. Patrick's Ward (Mercury, 11 December 1908):

That the liquor traffic carried on in St. Patrick’s Ward amongst the Italians has reached very serious proportions, is the conviction of Inspector Oakes, who is still working on the case.
A "blind pig" was originally a drinking establishment that charged people to see oddities, like blind pigs, but provided alcoholic beverages "free of charge", thus circumventing laws against sales of liquor. Supposedly, the term "blind pig" was reserved for lower-class establishments, such as those of recent immigrants like Guelph's Italian community. More respectable, British, illegal drinking establishments would have been called "speakeasies."

Perhaps my favorite law-and-order item concerned efforts to keep people off the grass around the Blacksmith Fountain in the middle of St. George's Square (Mercury, 3 Nov. 1908):

At the Council meeting last night, Ald. Carter asked if the Parks and Shades Committee could not do something to keep the general public off the grass plot in the centre of St. George’s Square. Everybody seemed to want to walk on it, he said, or throw peanut shells all over it, and even the street railway employees made it a resting place.
Carter thought that some "Keep off the grass" signs would do the trick. Eventually, a fence was placed around whole installation.

Xmas in Guelph in 1908 was congenial (Mercury, 26 Dec. 1908). The weather was mild but winds were "raw", and the ice in the Victoria Rink (behind Knox Church) was too soft for skating. Even so, people enjoyed skating and tobogganing in the Open Air park (now Howitt Park), where the toboggan run had recently been improved.

Perhaps the weather was too good. Rev. Caleb Buckland of St. James's Church, evidently miffed at how many of his parishioners had voted with their feet, "took occasion to comment on the fact that Christmas day was looked upon by too many as a day of pleasure instead of one of worship."

Services at the Church of Our Lady were well attended. People may have been curious to see the results of the extensive interior renovations recently untaken there. However, many wanted to hear Rev. Dr. Drummond, a visiting priest widely known for his oratorical eloquence. Apparently, they were not disappointed.

Choral performances were put on in the city's hospitals, the Elliot Home, and the Homewood Sanitarium.

On the downside, 20 gallons of milk were spilled on the road at Quebec and Woolwich Streets (now beside the Cooperators Building) from a delivery sleigh after the horse pulling it took fright for some reason (Mercury, 24 Dec. 1908). The report neglects to say whether anyone cried over the spilled milk or not.

Guelphites took little notice of Japan that Xmas. However, the Ontario Agricultural College Review (v. 21, no. 3, p. 166) noted that December that some Japanese students were studying there. It published a picture of the main building surrounded by the coats of arms of some of its international students. The symbol of the rising sun can be seen among them.


Miss Blackmore remained in Japan until 1924. Her return to Nova Scotia was likely prompted by the great Tokyo-Yokohama earthquake of 1923. The powerful earthquake, followed by fire storms and tsunami, nearly obliterated Yokohama and likely swept away the institutions built by the WMS.

The event was also seized upon by Japanese nationalists as an excuse to remove foreign and liberal elements from Japan. It may have helped to set Japan on a militaristic course:

Though they may dispute its effects, historians agree that the destruction of two great population centers gave voice to those in Japan who believed that the embrace of Western decadence had invited divine retribution. Or, as philosopher and social critic Fukasaku Yasubumi declared at the time: “God cracked down a great hammer” on the Japanese nation.
The Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, an act that put Canada and Japan at war with one another. One wonders what Isabell Blackmore thought of that development. She died 26 days later, on 2 January 1942 and was buried in the Crossroads Cemetery, Valley, in her birthplace of Colchester County, Nova Scotia.

Friday, 25 November 2016

The wreck of the Royal City hay train

Although postcards typically recorded prominent places or structures, they also served as a popular way to capture current events. Parades, family reunions, and visiting dignitaries were often shot and duly immortalized on postcard stock. However, one sort of event almost certain to tempt local shutterbugs was a disaster. A good train wreck, for example, often provided compelling photographic imagery.

As the late Stephen Thorning pointed out, newspapers were keen to report train wrecks, knowing how people enjoyed reading about them. Before the automobile era, many readers were regular rail passengers. They could relate to the ups and downs of rail travel and knew that derailments were not uncommon:

There were many incidents on railways that were not major wrecks, but which resulted in injuries and destruction. Historically, railways had a cavalier approach to safety, especially that of employees.
With that in mind, have a look at the real photo postcard below.


The image shows a scene of disarray, with a broken framework on the right, an upset train car on the left and a group of men standing in between, looking a little hesitant. A locomotive stands in the background, obscured by a sizable pile of hay.

Interestingly, the message on the back says nothing about the wreck whatsoever. Postcards of disasters were often sent with banal messages, as if the damage depicted on the front were for visual interest only. However, a caption written on the front says, "wreck near Guelph while ago." At least this information gives us a place to start in tracking down this derailment.

A copy of this card in the Civic Museum archive attributes it to a wreck that took place in 1933. This attribution can be ruled out because the card above is dated "Sept. 13/12". This date is confirmed by the cancellation slogan, "Broadview // Boys Fall Fair // Sept. 19–21 // Toronto Y.M.C.A.”, a slogan used only in the late summer of 1912. So, the photo cannot be from a later time.

But, how long is a "while ago"? There had been a number of train wrecks in the preceding years. However, details in the photo help to pin it down. In the photo, the upset car on the left appears to be a coal tender, that is, a car attached directly behind a locomotive that carried its coal fuel. The framework on the right is likely the tender's undercarriage, suggesting that the car was sheared in two in the incident. Then there is the big pile of hay.

A derailment matching this description, near Guelph and shortly before this postcard was sent, is reported in the Toronto Globe (11 May 1912):

Guelph, May 10.—Grand Trunk way freight from Toronto to Guelph, with Engineer Williamson and Fireman Thomas Peters of Toronto, collided with the yard engine 100 yards east of Trainor’s Cut at 4.30 this afternoon and the line is blocked.
Engineer Williamson was taken to the General Hospital, his face badly cut, back badly sprained and bruised. All the others escaped by jumping. The yard engine was taking a load of hay to the Provincial Prison Farm siding. The operator at Rockwood, acting while the agent was on a holiday, forgot, it is alleged, to give holding orders to the way freight, and the two met head-on. The car of hay was completely telescoped, and the hay scattered down a fifty-foot embankment on both sides, and the tender and cab of the yard engine demolished. Only for the hay car both engines would have gone down the embankment. Trains to and from Toronto transferred passengers on each side of the wreck and then reversed their direction.
The Ontario Reformatory (popularly known as the Prison Farm) was located just south of York Road and west of Watson Road. It had a cattle herd that was maintained by prisoners as part of their reformation. The "yard engine" was traveling east hauling some hay for the cattle to the facility from Guelph when it collided with the way freight train traveling west from Rockwood along the Grand Trunk Railway line.

The line has high embankments between Cityview Drive and Watson Parkway, suggesting that this is where the collision occurred. Have a look at the map below.



The name "Trainor's cut" (sometime's "Traynor's cut") is a bit obscure. It is not written on any map that I have seen. I would guess that it refers to the place where the Grand Trunk (now Canadian National Railway) tracks bisect what is now Cityview Drive. It is given as the location of a number of train wrecks in this time period, suggesting that trains found the bend in the tracks to its east somewhat challenging.

The article says that the tender and cab of the yard train were demolished. The tender is likely the one found broken in two in the photo. The number painted on its side appears to be "2488". Happily, this Grand Trunk Railway locomotive is listed in a roster of CNR engines. It was an E-6-a Mogul type, built in May 1891 and scrapped in December 1925. (Thanks to Ray Verdone for providing this information!) I guess that the cab was repaired after this collision.

Another engine of the same type is shown in the picture below.

(Courtesy of "Old Time Trains"/Trainweb.org.)

Well, that coal tender looks familiar!

It would be interesting to know who the men are in the middle of the photograph. The gentleman in the centre may be a railway executive come to survey the damage and organize the cleanup. Or, could he be the operator in Rockwood? The others may be employees of the railway brought to the site to perform cleanup duties. Were any of them involved in the collision itself? Or, were they all just delivered by the locomotive in the background?

Also, does the shadow in the lower-right corner belong to the photographer and his camera? Could be.

The postcard was addressed to Ann Maria Fowke (née Norrish), who had emigrated from Guelph to Detroit with her husband in 1895. (It's not clear who sent it to her.) Hopefully, she enjoyed news of this minor disaster from the old burg! Today, it serves to remind us of how central train travel was in 1912 and also how perilous it could be.



Thanks to Jim Sorensen of the Ontario Electric Railway Historical Association and Ray Verdone of the Exporail Archive Centre for their help in interpreting this photograph!

Sunday, 30 October 2016

R.C.A.F. Wireless School No. 4

The postcard shown below portrays Upper Wyndham Street as it appeared in the early 1940s, in a somewhat hallucinogenic color scheme. The Dominion Public Building is quite recognizable on the right and the street is full of period cars.


This card was printed by the Photogelatine Engraving Co., Limited, Ottawa.

More important than the picture, though, is the message on the other side, which reads:

Hey. What’s the matter with everyone. I’ve sent a letter home and also to Esther and I haven’t had a [sic] answer yet.
What’s the matter.
K274563.AC2 Guigues W.W.
MPO105 R.C.A.F.
Guelph Ont.
The postcard was addressed to Mr. & Mrs. W.C. Guigues at 206 Devonshire Pl., Ottawa, and is postmarked at MPO 105 ("Military Post Office 105") on 23 October 1943.

The message is fun to read for two reasons. First, it is scolding its recipient for being remiss in sending a letter, a function that postcards were often used to fulfill. Second, it identifies Mr. William Guigues as a trainee at the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Wireless Training School Number 4, Guelph.

The RCAF Wireless School Number 4 at Guelph began in July, 1941 with the task of training wireless operators to be part of airplane crews that might fly bombing raids over Europe or submarine patrols over the oceans. The history of the Wireless School is well documented on its Wikipedia Page, an article, "U of G's military history" (The Portico, 2008), and a story by Ed Butts (Mercury, 17 August 2015). So, I will provide only a short outline here but try to fill in some items that illustrate the life of trainees at the School.

At first, the Government of Ontario's plan was to close the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC), the Macdonald Institute, and the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) and turn the entire campus over to the RCAF for their School. This plan met with strong objections from the local population. The RCAF surveyed the campus and determined that only a part was necessary for the needs of the School. So, only the Macdonald Institute was completely shut down during the Second World War.

A five-foot high fence featuring three strands of barbed wire was erected around the School's campus. Buildings within this campus included Johnston, Blackwood, Drew, Watson, Creelman, Mills, Maids, War Memorial and Macdonald Halls. The Macdonald and Trent Institutes, Mechanics Building, Bursar Hall, and Gymnasium were also enclosed.

A notion of the School campus can be gained from the photograph below, taken at its opening on 9 August 1941.

RCAF Guelph Official Opening Johnston Hall.jpg
By Unknown - University of Guelph, McLaughlin Library, Archives and Special Collections, Public Domain, Link.


Training for wireless operators ran for about 6 or 7 months. Several cohorts, or "entries", underwent training at any given time. Academic training included radio theory, Morse code and mathematics, and was taught by OAC faculty. Additional training included swimming and how to right a capsized dingy after a water landing, in the swimming pool. Flight training was provided at Burtch Airfield south of Brantford. Naturally, marching and fitness were emphasized too.

The daily schedule was intensive:

The day started at 6 a.m. with two hours of physical training and drill. Classes began at 8 a.m. and went until 5 p.m., with a break at noon for lunch. There were more classes after supper.
The trainees lodged in Johnston Hall and ate in Creelman Hall.

The No. 4 Wireless School Association held reunions in 1987 and 1988, and the local papers featured many interesting reminiscences of the School's graduates.

Mr. Eddy "Link" Traynor recalls how noisy life in Johnston Hall could be (Tribune, 22 June):

Everybody had a radio. With all the different tastes in programming, it made quite a cacophony in the halls, especially in the mornings when we were getting dressed and shaved.
Most of the trainees were new to Guelph, Eddy also notes:
Before I came, the only thing I knew about Guelph was that we had a stove at home in Montreal with "Guelph" on it.
Perhaps his stove was made by the Guelph Stove Company.

Frank Russell recalls a brainstorm that one squadron leader had to help the trainees learn Morse code in their sleep (Mercury, 29 June 1987):

He had us string electric light bulbs in the alcove behind Johnston Hall, so the light shone in the guys' barracks windows.
When the guys were trying to sleep, this bright light would be flashing in Morse code. That lasted two weeks before they were told to get it out.
Discipline was fairly strict. Trainees had to maintain a high level of dress and deportment, and some of the instructors could be harsh. As a result, not everyone passed the course. Failure could be a serious issue since trainees who did not pass were often trained to be tail gunners in bomber crews, a highly dangerous position.

Eddy found that the Royal City had some agreeable entertainments to offer.

The Ritz [now Van Gogh's Ear] had a dance hall upstairs with a juke box. It was quite a hangout for Air Force types.
There was another dance hall on Wyndham above Ryan's [now the Wyndham Building]. They had pretty good bands with a big band style. I remember Willis Tipping had about ten guys who were really good musicians with a Glen Miller sound.
Evidently, Eddy and many other trainees managed to get in many visits despite the 10pm curfew imposed by the School, although that was relaxed on Saturday nights.


(Van Gogh's Ear today—formerly The Ritz. The second floor held a dance hall with a juke box.)


(The Wyndham Building today—formerly the Ryan. Its second floor served as a dance hall.)

The extent to which trainees might go to get out on the town is illustrated by graduate Robert Allen, who wrote (OAC RE1 OAC A0670):

Would you believe we fooled the RCAF brass for 6 months—convinced them we were "Bush Baptists" (Religion); they couldn't find a minister to suit—hence we missed out on Sunday Church parades. We all got 10 days C.B. [Confinement to Base] when they found out, but the tunnel system under the sidewalks into Guelph was quite handy. I don't think they ever found out how we disappeared.
I would love to know what tunnel system he is talking about! At any rate, the story illustrates one of the downsides of relying on security fences.

Naturally, a big part of the attraction of the downtown hangouts was that they were also frequented by local girls. Eddy Traynor notes that many of the women in town were involved in war-related industries, such as making uniforms. Frank Russell recalls that the Knights of Columbus used to put on dances for the troops where they could meet some local girls, although they were "well chaperoned" and no drinking was allowed. That would be at former Knights of Columbus Hall on Dublin Street just north of Waterloo Avenue, currently the site of the Boarding House Gallery.


(The Boarding House Art Gallery today—formerly the Knights of Columbus Hall, where well-chaperoned and alcohol free dances were held.)

In any event, boys met girls. For example, Eddy Traynor met, courted and married Guelph native Elma Delaney, all within his six-month stay at the school!

I was not able to find any records in the University of Guelph archives specifically about our postcard writer, Mr. William Guigues. Records on Ancestry.ca show that he was born in 1925, married Helen Victoria Lord in 1945, and later settled in Ottawa, where his parents (Mr. & Mrs. W.C. Guigues) lived.

Fortunately, William's daughter-in-law Deborah has kindly provided a few more details. Perhaps most interesting is the following photo of William and Esther—whom he mentions in his postcard—in his parents' backyard in Ottawa.


They look happy! Given that Esther is still "in the picture", it seems likely that this picture was taken around the time that William was at the Wireless School. Deborah says that William was involved with radar. This tidbit suggests that William may have been in training as a "radio mechanic", as radar technicians were then known. The job of these technicians was to install and maintain radar equipment, and many such technicians were trained at the Wireless School in Guelph.

Another photo shows William at a railway station in Ottawa. This photo must be somewhat later since William has an Aircraftsman wing and Sargent's chevrons on his uniform.


The usual posting for a radar technician in that period would be to an airbase in Britain. However, William instead went to Summerside, Prince Edward Island. Perhaps he underwent navigation and spotting training at No. 1 General Reconnaissance School there. Among the things he spotted in town was his future wife, Helen.

Following the war, William worked in retail for a couple of years before rejoining the Air Force with the occupation of air traffic controller. This job took him to many military airports in Canada and also Germany. Finally, he retired and worked as an air traffic controller for a number of years at the Ottawa International Airport. He died in Ottawa in 2006.

Wireless School No. 4 closed on 12 January 1945 as the war was headed towards its conclusion. By that time, some 5000 to 5800 young men like William Guigues has passed through its gates. The campus, the city, and the nation began to return to their peacetime state.

Perhaps the most distinguished graduate of the School was Lincoln Alexander, later an M.P. and Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. Of his time at the School, he said: "I remember the friendship and the fun. It made me a man. It taught me what authority was all about. It taught me to respect others. I'm proud of my service."



Thank you to Deborah Guigues for information and pictures of her father-in-law!

Thank you also to the staff of the University of Guelph Archives for help in locating the appropriate documents.

Friday, 30 September 2016

James Massie builder of the Alma Block

On the morning of December 15, 1867, we may imagine the scene as James Massie looked over the charred remains of the Alma Block on Upper Wyndham Street. The blaze began as a dropped match ignited the oil-soaked floor of Mulholland's hardware store. Flames spread quickly to Massie's grocery, crockery, and liquor stores in the same building. The fire destroyed a total of $150,000 worth of stock and structure (Promoli 1988, p. 9). Like William Dyson when the Suffolk House Hotel had burned down, Massie faced the question: Should he rebuild?

The answer was "yes." Massie had become a successful and prominent businessman in the Royal City, much interested and involved in its continuing development. Rather than move shop, or even leave town, Massie decided right away to replace the old building with a smart new one in the latest style. Architect James Smith, Toronto, was hired to design the structure, local contractors Kennedy & Pike were hired to do the masonry, Mr. James Barclay the carpentry, and Messrs Hamilton & Sons, Toronto, the iron work (Mercury, 8 Apr 1868).

The result, Gordon Couling notes (Couling 1996, p. 19), is "one of the most attractive examples of commercial architecture in Ontario from the 1860 decade." It is late Italianate in style, with masonry cut from local limestone. It is distinguished by a dentilated cornice featuring an elaborate parapet, carved stone window heads (still remaining on the second and third floors), tooled sill courses, and rusticated pilasters. The front windows on the ground floor were an impressive twelve feet high and glazed with thick pane glass.

That Massie was proud of his new establishment is confirmed by a professional drawing that he had made of it by the Ralph Smith Co. of Toronto. This picture is found at the top of an invoice issued by Massie, Paterson & Co. on 6 Dec. 1875.


The drawing focuses on the fine facade of the building and somewhat exaggerates its size by imaginatively placing a large group of diminutive men, horses, and wagons engaged in a whirlwind of business in front of it. The drawing also very clearly identifies the occupants of the building as James Massie; J.A. Wood; Massie, Paterson & Co.; and Hugh Clearihue & Co.

Perhaps the classy drawing on the invoice helped to soften the blow when the amount cited was a large one.

Compare the drawing with the Google Street view image of roughly the same scene today.



(Before you point it out: I realize that a drawing on a statement is not a postcard but I am bending the rules here to include this mass-produced image that was, after all, sent through the mail.)

Not much has been written about Massie and his place in Guelph history, so this image provides an excuse to shed some light on him and his role in the development of the Royal City.

James Massie was born on 20 October 1833 to Mr. James Massie Sr. and Mrs. Elizabeth Jane Massie (née Masson) in Lumphanan, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Massie Sr. was a prominent local merchant and the apple evidently did not fall far from the tree. However, it did fall across the Atlantic. For reasons unknown, James Massie Jr. emigrated to Canada in 1854 and settled in Guelph ("Commemorative biographical record" 1907, pp. 190–192).

The biography provides the following details of Massie's business ventures:

James Massie came to Canada in 1854, locating at Guelph, where he engaged with the firm of Brown & Robinson for some two years, then with Mr. Rutherford and later on formed a partnership with W.J. Brown & Co., which continued for six years. At the expiry of this time Mr. Massie took over the entire business, which he continued until 1867, being burned out in that year. Shortly after Mr. Massie built the Alma Block and the “Wellington Hotel” at Guelph. In 1871 he retired from business, but resumed in 1873, and continued until 1878.
Further details are provided by Joyce Blyth ("Jugs & crocks of the Guelph merchants" 1982, p. 45):
According to an advertisement dated 1861 for the W. J. Brown & Co. store it is apparent that James Massie was in partnership with Brown at his store in the Alma Block; both names appear at the bottom of the advertisement. In 1863 James Massie opened his own business in the Alma Block at lot 45. Then in July 1864 there was a notice in the newspaper announcing that in order to accommodate those residing in the lower end of town they had opened a store in Day's Block at part lot 114. The store in Alma Block was burned out in 1867 but reopened when the new Alma Block was built the following year, 1868.

James Massie & Co. was an importer, wholesale and retail general grocery store. Massie sold the retail grocery and liquor shop to John A. Wood [a clerk in Massie & Co.] in 1869 and in 1871 he took William J. Paterson into partnership in the wholesale grocery part of the business under the name of Massie, Paterson & Co. James Massie retained a part of the building in which he dealt in wholesale confectionery and crockery until the year 1879.
Interestingly, the special edition of Guelph's Daily Herald (1 Nov. 1877) mentions only yet another of Massie's many businesses, that is, Massie, Weir & Bryce, the confectionary. The reporter evidently had a sweet tooth and speaks in glowing terms of the company's biscuits and bonbons, and its regional success. Everywhere in Wellington County and beyond, the confections of Massie, Weir & Bryce were held in the highest regard!

The reporter's story is backed up by the fact that the company employed 35 to 40 people on a regular basis, and up to 50 near Christmas time. Curiously, Massie was no longer involved when the article was printed. He had purchased the enterprise in 1872 from a Mr. Henry Berry and taken on a Mr. Campbell as partner in 1875. In 1877, he sold the company to Adam Weir and James Bryce, who decided, nevertheless, to retain Massie's name. I suppose that speaks to the lustre attached to Massie's business acumen by that time.

It is worth noting that not everything that Massie touched turned to gold. In 1877, Massie & Co. went bankrupt, apparently having assets of $212,000 but liabilities of $252,000 (Globe, 16 Aug 1877). By October, the company had been purchased by Hill, McIntosh & Innes, presumably at a considerable write-down.

Even so, Massie built himself a substantial house in 1873–75 at 85 Queen Street, some of it with stone salvaged from the second St. George's Church that stood in St. George's Square ("Slopes of the Speed", Partridge & Seto 1992, p. 9). He called it Gilnockie (sometimes "Gilnochie") after an ancestor's pile back in the old country. It has had a storied life!

Built in a picturesque version of Gothic Revival style, Gilnockie has been the setting for at least two movies. In 1979, for An American Christmas Carol, it represented an orphanage, and, more recently, for the thriller The Incubus, it was a haunted house! For this latter movie, some ornamentation was added to the house, including the finials on the gables, which, although they appear to be made of painted wood, are in fact plastic.
Massie later sold Gilnockie to his brother-in-law, J.B. Armstrong (one of the prime movers behind the Blacksmith Fountain).

(Gilnockie, ca. 1910. Item F38-0-14-0-0-188, courtesy of the Guelph Public Library Archive. See also photos A1985.110 at the Wellington County Historical Museum Archives.)

Besides his own companies, Massie sat on the Guelph's Board of Trade, which had been founded in 1862. The purpose of the Board was to enhance the Royal City's business scene and promote its regional dominance. In conjunction with this position, Massie sat on the boards of innumerable Guelph businesses that were started up at the time.

For example, Massie was a director of the Wellington Hotel Co., which built the Wellington Hotel on the corner of Wyndham and Woolwich Streets in 1877. This seems all the more fitting since the property on which the hotel was built belonged to James Massie himself. At that time, it was an undeveloped lot known as the "Salt Works".

In addition to real estate, Massie was keen on the development of railways. For example, he was instrumental in the construction of the Wellington, Grey & Bruce Railway (Mercury, 4 May 1904). This railway had been incorporated in 1864 to join the port of Southampton on Lake Huron to Guelph. Progress was slow due to competition with the Toronto, Grey & Bruce Railway, which was intended to cover a similar territory. Apparently, Massie and other businessmen from Guelph met with delegates from townships along the route in 1870 and overcame this difficulty (Burrows 1877, pp. 145–146). Construction began and the first leg from Guelph to Harriston opened in 1871.

The new railway worked out for Massie. It was at around that time that he sold off his retail grocery interests to concentrate on the wholesale trade in regions covered by the new lines.

Massie also had an active and successful political career. He had been elected an alderman for the North Ward from 1865–1868, and then Deputy Reeve and then Reeve (1872). He must have been well liked as a politician: In October 1876, Massie was acclaimed the M.P.P. for South Wellington, the position just then vacated by Peter Gow. Massie stood as a candidate for the Reform Party under Oliver Mowatt. Evidently, the Conservative Party was in such disrepute at the time that no Conservative candidate was even nominated in the contest! As a result, Massie became the M.P.P. for Wellington South on a platform of devolution of power to the provinces and promotion of the temperance movement (Globe, 14 Oct. 1876).

Although Massie appears to have been active as an M.P.P., his tenure at Queen's Park was not noted for any particular achievement. Indeed, he resigned his seat in June 1879 to take up the position of Registrar for South Wellington. One year later, he left that job in order to become the Warden of the Central Prison in Toronto, the job for which he is most remembered. His removal from Gilnockie to the Queen City must have been quite the send off. It was reported that he was given a purse of gold as a thank-you for his services to the Royal City!

The Central Prison in Toronto had been opened in 1874 ("'A terror to evil-doers'", Oliver 1988). It was built at the behest of J.W. Langmuir (the same J.W. Langmuir who went on to found Homewood in Guelph in 1883), inspector of prisons and advocate of prison reform. Impetus for the project came from the problem posed by prisoners who were given sentences that were more than a few weeks but less than two years. Criminals given short sentences could simply be held in county jails and then released. Prisoners given sentences over two years could be held in federal jails. The Central Prison was built to accommodate those who did not fall into either of the other categories.

The problem was that local jails did not have the means to hold many prisoners for long periods, and they could provide little for their prisoners to do. Ontarians had become very concerned about such prisoners: They were provided with room and board at taxpayers' expense and produced nothing in return. Furthermore, their cushy treatment might make a criminal career seem all the more attractive to them and, by being gathered together in idleness, prisoners might simply school each other in criminal behavior.

So, the purpose of the Central Prison was to extract some labor from prisoners and to terrorize them into shunning a criminal career out of fear of re-incarceration. The prison was located near King and Strachan streets in Toronto, near the railway lines so that products made by the inmates, including rail cars for the Canada Car Company, could be shipped readily. From the start, wardens of the prison established a punitive routine that could include a bread-and-water diet, solitary confinement, hanging in irons, and floggings.

This policy was apparently continued by Massie. Something of his attitude can be gained from his remarks following the flogging of a child molester named Dr. Whiting (Globe, 21 July 1888):

When all was over Warden Massie asked the press reporters present to accompany him into his office. He then made the following sensible remarks:— he had as much sympathy for the criminals under his charge is any man could have; but experience over the civilized world proved that for a certain class of criminals the lash was the only deterrent. Assaults and crimes of an indecent description were on the increase, and the class of men who committed them fear the lash and little else. A maudlin sentimentality had arisen, especially in the United States, and a few weak-minded women made heroes of murderers, sending them flowers in prison. They (the reporters) had just seen Whiting flogged for an offense for which the lash was really the only remedy, and the only punishment men of his class feared. When the last flogging at the Central Prison was administered, The News and Telegram gave sensational accounts of it. It was a mistake to do so. Those accounts were sometimes read by country J.P.’s, magistrates and judges, and when criminals of Whiting’s description were brought before them in the offense proved, they modified the sentence simply because they believed, from reading such reports, that flogging was a cruel and brutal punishment. It was severe, but not more so than the crime called for, and was the only punishment men guilty of such crimes really fear.

The reporters thanked the Warden for his remarks and withdrew. So far as Whiting’s punishment was concerned there was nothing cruel about it. He was lashed to the triangle in a humane and gentle manner. He was taken down with similar kindness, and the flogging might have been far more severe than it was. That the wretch howled as he did only showed his coward heart.
There is no mention that the flogging was part of Whiting's sentence; it seems rather to have been Massie's own idea.

Massie remained warden of the Central Prison until 1896. The prison had been investigated in 1885 for cruelty and ill-treatment, particularly of Irish Catholic prisoners (Oliver 1988, pp. 233–235). However, the investigation, headed by J.W. Langmuir, exonerated Massie and the prison management. If anything, the commission of investigation concluded, the prisoners' treatment should have been even more rigorous.

In any event, the prison came under increasing scrutiny because its manufacturing operations were mostly money-losers. There were various reasons for this issue. A significant one was that prisoners were typically not skilled at their jobs and, because their sentences usually ran to only a few months, they could not be trained to the point of proficiency. Langmuir and others tried to encourage judges and J.P.s to issue longer sentences but they proved to be resistant, as the above news article notes.

In 1895, Massie clashed with prison inspector James Noxon over the appointment of one Walter Scott as foreman of the prison's carpentry shop (Globe, 5 Nov. 1885). Massie had promoted a prison guard named Reid as foreman but Noxon considered him unqualified and incompetent, and appointed Scott in his place. Massie charged Scott with theft and cooking the books to make Reid and Massie look bad. Evidence for these charges was weak and perhaps even fabricated, with the final result that Massie himself was charged with insubordination by an investigative council.

The fracas was settled when Massie resigned from his position and was appointed to the job of Registrar of East and West York (Globe, 23 Jan. 1886). Dr. J.T. Gilmour, the sitting Registrar, took over the job of Warden. Massie retained this position for the rest of his life.

In Toronto, Massie held positions in many benevolent and social organizations. These included the Children's Aid Society, the House of Industry Board, Treasurer of the Caledonian Society, Treasurer of the Associated Charities Board, St. Andrew's Society, and elder of St. Andrew's Church. He also gave many lectures and testimonials in favor of temperance, noting that alcoholism was a significant contributor to criminal behavior.

Massie died suddenly on 1 May 1904 in his house at 68 Bloor Street West (Mercury, 2 May 1904). He had returned to his residence from work seemingly in no difficulties. He was found unconscious in his room at dinner time and died two days later. He was survived by his widow, Mary Ann (née Armstrong); two sons, Dr. James Massie of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Robert Massie of Elora; and two spinster daughters, Jessie and Elizabeth.

The Guelph Mercury published the following sketch of Massie with his obituary.


On 3 May, Massie's body was taken to Guelph by train and buried in the family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery. A memorial remains over the spot, concealed by shrubbery.