Andrew Spalding was a notable man in Elora’s early history

Kinship ties and family connections, and old-country friendships played major roles in emigration to Canada from Scotland in the early and mid 19th century.

Letters from settlers here back to Scotland often encouraged family and friends to follow and settle near their relatives and old friends.

In Elora, for instance, David Foote’s success as a farmer and contractor attracted others whom he knew back home. Among them was John Taylor, an engineer and architect who would later design the building that is now the Wellington County Museum.

Another connection with Foote was Alexander Waddell, the Elora merchant and civic leader.

Related to the above three men was Andrew Spalding, a name that was once well known in the Elora area but is unknown today. He was born in Angus, Forfarshire, Scotland on July 19, 1846. At the age of eight he arrived in Hamilton with his family in the fall of 1854.

At the time there were very strong connections, both business and personal, between Hamilton and Elora. Connections with relatives in Elora induced the family to move to Elora the following year.

Young Andrew attended the local schools in Elora, and also developed a natural talent as a musician, becoming adept, if not completely skilled, at playing a handful of instruments. It was wise for him to develop those talents. He was assured invitations to many dances and social functions while still in his teens.

His training came from his father, Alexander Spalding, who was skilled as a violin player, though he could not read a note of music. For years the elder Spalding played at dances in the Elora area, rendering old Scottish aires by the hour. Andrew sometimes joined him, but his musical tastes ranges much wider and farther than his father’s.

When he finished his schooling, Andrew Spalding applied for a job as an apprentice at the Elora Backwoodsman printing office. While there he was involved, with one or two other young men, in the publication of a humorous and somewhat mysterious publication called the Elora Satirist. It lampooned various local notables, and ran to four issues before disappearing forever.

Later, with the demise of the Backwoodsman, young Andrew worked at the Elora Observer office.

In 1866, with the threat of Fenian Irish raids on Canada, and the possibility of an American invasion, he joined the newly-formed Elora Rifle Company. He was quickly given the task of bugler, since he was easily the most skilled man in the company at playing musical instruments.

Spalding soon discovered that he enjoyed performing in public immensely.

Though he had learned the printing trade, Spalding found that he much preferred working as a painter. He performed frequently at Elora’s Drill Shed, built as a training facility for the volunteer militia, but serving most often as a venue for theatrical and musical performances, many by travelling troupes of players (the building today is Elora’s liquor store).

In the late 1860s Spalding joined a theatrical company called the Mozambiques, a troupe of a dozen players who performed a minstrel show in blackface. He also appeared on occasion with a similar minstrel show, the Buz-Wig Brothers. Both groups appeared in towns around southern Ontario.

Andy Spalding soon acquired a reputation as an entertaining and skillful performer with a variety of talents. In the 1870s Buffalo Bill spotted Spalding and hired him for tours for several years. With Buffalo Bill’s touring company Spalding played trumpet in the concert band, and sat in with the orchestra on second violin.

In one American election the Republican Party hired Buffalo Bill’s orchestra to play at a political rally in the American South. It was a risky assignment in that part of the south, where many residents would gladly shoot a Republican on sight.

All went well until the band returned to their hotel. A mob of angry Democrats threatened them at the front door, and demanded that the band play “Dixie” before entering the hotel. There was a problem. The band did not have the music for the Southern anthem. The scene quickly turned ugly.

Spalding had no interest whatever in American politics, but he did know the melody. He was one of those musicians who could pick up melodies and reproduce them after hearing them only once.

He told the other band members to follow his playing as best they could, and he rendered the special request, to the delight of the mob. To show there were no hard feelings, Spalding and his fellow musicians followed “Dixie” with a few other selections.

Though Spalding could play successfully with top-line groups such as Buffalo Bill’s Orchestra, he retained a special fondness for military music.

Over the years he led brass bands in Gananoque and Collingwood, and for a time he worked in Duluth, Minnesota. Back home he led the band in Fergus, and for years in mid-life he was head charge of the 30th Battalion band in Elora, which often played at holidays and special functions in addition to its regular duties with the volunteer militia.

One of his last activities while a resident of Elora was the writing and arranging of music for the Temple of Fame concerts given at Elora in the late 1890s. All the while he continued to work as a house painter as his main source of income.

About 1900 Spalding moved to Fort William to live with his sister Jean and her husband George Irvine, whose family was prominent in the early decades of Fergus. Though Andy Spalding was still in his 50s, he began to be plagued by ill health, and that seemed to have spelled the end of his career as a musician.

After 1910 he spent several terms in a long-term care facility. Meanwhile, his sister lost her husband, and she eventually moved to Detroit to live with one of her children.

Eventually Andy Spalding had to be admitted to a hospital. He died at the Ontario Hospital in Mimico on Aug. 21, 1928.

By then he was a forgotten figure in Ontario musical circles, and in his old hometown, where he had not lived for almost 30 years. Ill health had prevented him from visiting an ever-dwindling circle of old friends in Elora. He was the second last member of the old Elora Volunteers of the 1860s to die.     

Andrew Spalding was buried at Park Lawn Cemetery in Toronto on Aug. 24, 1928.

He never married, but he was survived by a large group of nieces and nephews. Spalding’s career was a most interesting one. He straddled the line between gifted amateur musicians of the early 19th century and the age of the touring professional, made possible by the railway network of the later 19th century.

He had a foot in both camps, and was one the first people from Wellington County to be able to work as a professional musician for part of his career.

It appears that by 1928 none of his family were in the Elora area. Some lived in Detroit, and another group of relatives was then resident in Preston, Ontario.

His part in the history of Wellington County deserves to be better known.


Stephen Thorning