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Valuing Our History

by Stephen Thorning

Colonel J.J. Craig was public school inspector for 48 years

During his lifetime in Fergus, James J. Craig of Fergus ranked as one of the best known men in Wellington County.

In addition to his career as a public school inspector, which spanned 48 years, he was also prominent as an officer in the volunteer militia, and as a candidate for public office.

Craig was born in 1851 to parents who were emigres from Inverness in Scotland. He was born in Glengarry County in eastern Ontario, where his parents began farming when that area was first settled.

Young Jim was a top student at the local schools. His parents managed to afford to send him to Upper Canada College and then to Queen’s University in 1862. He excelled in his course work, winning several scholarships, graduating in 1866.

Craig decided to embark on a career as a teacher. He taught briefly at Arnprior, and then moved on to positions at Orangeville, Arthur, Goderich and Mount Forest. He then decided that he would rather be a lawyer. Two years of study cooled his enthusiasm, and he returned to teaching.

In 1881 Wellington County council appointed him school inspector for the south of the county, supervising some 86 schools. He moved to Fergus, and lived in that town for the rest of his life.

Along with his teaching career, Craig was also an avid lacrosse enthusiast. When he taught in the various towns early in his career, he introduced the sport to his students and to the local young men.

The most successful of the teams he organized were the Orangeville Dufferins and the Lornes of Mount Forest, both bearing the names of Canadian Governor Generals, and reflecting Craig’s intense patriotism.

When he moved to Fergus he discovered that the local lacrosse team was not doing well. He reorganized the group. For his efforts in promoting lacrosse he was elected president of the Canadian Lacrosse Association in 1898.

In his time, though, Craig was best known for his work with the volunteer militia. He joined the volunteers early in his career, when he was teaching in Arthur. In 1887 he was promoted to the rank of captain with the 30th Wellington Rifles, and two years later to major. In 1906 he was made the officer commanding the regiment, at the rank of Lt. Colonel.

In 1916, with demands for Canadian soldiers ever increasing for active deployment in the First World War, Craig was given command of the 153 Overseas Battalion, with instructions to bring the unit up to fighting strength. His success in that capacity was a matter of controversy at the time. He also generated much friction with his superiors, and insisted on exercising his authority far beyond his instructions (that part of his career was covered in a column several years ago).

The consequence was that, in 1917, Craig was no longer an active Lieutenant Colonel, and no longer with the militia. The army claimed he resigned. Craig’s version of events was much different, and he insisted that he was fired. In any case, Craig’s military career was over at the age of 66.

In addition to his association with the militia, Craig also took an interest in local politics, and eventually an active role. Fergus ratepayers elected him to village council, and after four years he became reeve of the village.

In 1905 Col. Craig accepted the Conservative nomination for the provincial riding of Wellington East. He was elected in James Whitney’s electoral sweep, and was re-elected in the next election. The 1912 campaign was a heated one, and Craig lost by a narrow margin to Udney Richardson of Elora.

Craig’s last attempt at public office came in 1923, when he ran against W.E. Raney, the Attorney General in the United Farmers government of E.C. Drury. Drury’s party lost the election badly, but Raney managed to defeat Col. Craig. By then Craig was perceived as being decidedly old fashioned. As well, he did nothing to disguise his abhorrence of temperance, a policy strongly defended by Raney. At several public functions before and during the campaign Craig appeared to be obviously under the weather due to alcohol. After his term in the legislature, Craig returned to Fergus council for a brief term in 1913, but resigned to become the first chairman of the Fergus Public Utilities Commission, a position he held until the beginning of 1929.

Craig was also an active participant in fraternal organizations. After moving to Fergus he joined the Masonic Order lodge at Elora. He rose to be District Deputy Grand Master. He was also active in the Order of United Workingmen, and served as secretary-treasurer of the Centre Wellington Agricultural Society for years.

In his later years, as his own sentiments became increasingly outspoken, reflecting his pro-British and anti-Catholic opinions, he joined the Orange Lodge. Craig could be an impassioned and skilled speaker. He became a popular attraction to address July 12 events each year (July 12, now forgotten, was once Orange Day, a major holiday in Ontario  - at least for Protestants - with parades, banquets and speeches).

At the time of the proposed merger of the Presbyterian and Methodist churches he was vehemently opposed to the idea. He had been a strong supporter of Melville Church in Fergus for years, but he resigned in a huff and joined the congregation of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Fergus.  In 1891 Craig married Margaret Argo, daughter of one the leading merchants of Fergus. He was 40 years old, and many people believed that he would be a perpetual bachelor.

The couple had three children. The eldest, James, moved to England. Another son, Norman, became a doctor and operated a practice in Fergus for decades. The daughter, Jane, became a nurse, and was a well-known and popular life-long resident of Fergus.

Craig’s health began to decline following the 1923 election. Perhaps he had strained himself during the campaign. He was then in his 70s, and may well have ignored the advice to slow down. As well, his drinking, which at times reached the point of excess, probably harmed his health.

Between 1925 and 1928 he underwent several operations, but each time he was able to return to his regular duties as school inspector soon after, though he was obviously slowing down and was not as alert as he had been in his younger days.

In early May of 1929 his health again collapsed, and his friend Dr. Abraham Groves sent him to the General Hospital in Guelph for diagnosis by specialists there. The doctors sent him home on May 22. Two days later he suffered a relapse. This time he did not rally. He passed away quietly the following Monday morning.       

Col. Craig’s funeral was the largest in the living memory of the town. Mourners packed St. Andrew’s Church for the service. Rev. A.E. Thompson of Knox Church in Elora assisted Rev. A.O. McDonald, and the choirs of the two churches united for the service. Though he had not been active in the military for more than a decade, old colleagues, former reservists and active personnel turned up for the funeral and for the military service that followed.

Stores on St. Andrew Street were closed when the procession passed by on its way from the church to the Fergus Cemetery. Active reservists marched in formation, accompanied by a military band. Fergus residents stood shoulder to shoulder along the route, in some spots two and three deep.

Across the county most newspapers published accounts of Col. Craig’s life and achievements. They all glossed over his confrontation with army authorities in 1917, and the bigotry that began to infiltrate his later life, concentrating instead on his contributions to the army reserve and to the community in his earlier years.

Taken altogether, his life was memorable and greatly benefited his community.


Vol 47 Issue 08


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