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.

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