Beaten candidate tried to unseat Arthur’s 1908 reeve

In the early decades of Wellington County, disputes over election results were so com­mon as to seem a regular feature of public life. That was especially so in federal and pro­vincial elections, but also in municipal contests from time to time.
After the 1870s, politics tamed down considerably. The secret ballot certainly helped to eliminate many of the irregu­larities, as did a lessening of mind­less partisanship. But oc­casionally a bitter confronta­tion flared up in later years. One such incident dates to early 1908, and the election of Arthur’s reeve for that year.
Back in those days, nomina­tions were put forward at a public meeting at which rate­payers had a chance to grill the outgoing council and raise new issues for the candidates to con­sider. Those sessions were very much like the town meet­ings of New England. Most often they were bland affairs, with only a handful or rate­payers nominating one another. But, from time to time, there were fireworks.
Arthur’s nomination meet­ing on Dec. 30, 1907, was cer­tainly an atypical one. Rate­payers packed the hall, and it was evident at once that there were two noisy factions, one favouring incumbent reeve H.J. Colwill, and the other the sup­porters of George A. Mitchell, a former reeve. Mitchell had nothing good to say about the 1907 council, and H.J. Colwill in particular.
Ratepayers put four names into nomination for reeve, and 14 for the four council seats. With nominations closed, the speeches began, starting with Reeve Colwill. He started by offering flattering remarks to the ratepayers present, and then reviewed the financial state­ments for 1907 until his allot­ted 15 minutes was up.
Then the fun began. One ratepayer asked what had been spent on improvements to the school. Colwill said about $500. The ratepayer then went on a tirade, stating that the coun­cil took in much more than that on liquor licences.
More controversial was a de­benture issue for a high school addition. Interest rates had taken a big jump in late 1907. Colwill and the council decided to postpone the issue until rates dropped, and mean­while, was carrying the cost as a loan with the Traders Bank at 5%. More speeches followed, accompanied by increasingly hostile questions and interjec­tions.
Then it was the turn of George Mitchell. He launched into a scathing attack of the 1906 and 1907 councils, both of which had been headed by Colwill. Everything that coun­cil had touched, he argued, had been bungled, had cost too much, or was a favour to one of their friends. Colwill had not pressed the county for Arthur’s share of grants, and the high school debentures could have been sold at less than 5% in­terest, he told the meeting.
Colwill rose several times to defend himself and his ac­tions, amid interjections and fresh accusations. At the end of the evening, the nominees for reeve were down to two: Col­will and Mitchell.
Voting took place on Jan. 6, seven days after the nomination meeting. With such a short time frame, campaigning consisted of intense one-to-one discus­sions. Mitchell was bold and con­fident. He had enjoyed a long career in local affairs, in­cluding 12 years as reeve. He had never suffered defeat. For his part, Colwill campaigned ag­gressively and continuously, buttonholing everyone he met.
Main Street wags predicted that the contest would be a close one, but when the ballots were counted Colwill triumph­ed by a margin of 214 to 132.
It was a humiliating refuta­tion of Mitchell and the charges he had made against Colwill and the 1907 council. He seeth­ed for a few days, and then began to put together a case to challenge the election.
When questioned by H.E. Bywater, editor of the Arthur Enterprise News, about the grounds for the protest, he relied, “Everything.” Mitchell also indicated that he would chal­lenge the election of all the councillors due to the “grave irregularities” of the election.
For his part, Reeve Colwill stated that he would do what­ever was necessary legally to hold onto the reeve’s chair.
With rumours circulating around the village and coun­cillors suspicious of one an­other, it is not surprising that the first council meetings of 1908 were acrimonious affairs.
On Jan. 27, things rolled along with only minor friction until councillors Wilkins and Lynett introduced a vaguely worded motion that the village delay making any appoint­ments, and in particular those for clerk, treasurer, and asses­sor, until the charges levelled by Mitchell were resolved. Normally, confirming those officials was a routine matter.
Councillor J.M. Kearns, who was a lawyer, objected to the obscure wording, and sug­gest­ed that the motion express­ed a lack of confidence in the village’s officials. Arguments raged for more than an hour, but the motion finally carried by a three-to-two vote.
The vote brought the clerk, D.T. Small, to his feet. He re­alized, he said, that he was holding the office only pro-tem, until an appointment could be made official for the year. He objected very strongly to the rumours being circulated about his role in the election, and that they were harming his reputation.
“People had been listening to the croaking of bullfrogs and fondly imagined that they were listening to Sousa’s band,” he thundered.
At the end of the session, councillor Lynett stated that he had changed his mind, and now opposed the motion. Council ad­journed without resolving the matter, and no one was quite sure where council stood.
Another act in this drama unfolded at county council’s January session. Reeve Colwill had been mentioned as a pos­sible warden, and the early con­sensus was that he was the leading contender. When the votes were tallied, he lost to Reeve J.M. Young, of Minto, by a vote of 12 to 10. The reeves of Arthur’s neighbours, West Luther and Arthur Town­ship, had both voted against Colwill. Many saw the hand of George Mitchell at work be­hind the curtain.
George Mitchell took his time with his legal manouevres. As time went on, the political atmosphere in Arthur became in­creasingly poisoned. Then, on March 5, a county constable served Colwill with the official papers. The charges claimed that the deputy returning offi­cer had “engaged in ballot swit­ching.” There was a list of 80 men who claimed that they had not voted for Colwill, and a further list of 120 people that Mitchell proposed to call as witnesses.
Mitchell filed the papers at the latest possible date allowed for objections. No charges were filed against any of the coun­cillors. By March 5, the 60-day period for them to be filed had passed.
The charges made by Mit­chell were vague, and certainly much less potent than he had led people to believe. Confi­dent that he would be vindicat­ed, Reeve Colwill pushed on with village business. One of the big plans for Arthur in 1908 was an Old Boys Reunion in the summer. He supported it with enthusiasm.
Judge Chadwick heard the case in Guelph on April 2. Colwill answered them in person, and filed a motion before the judge to toss the case out because the papers had been improperly signed and filled out.
George Mitchell had hired an expensive lawyer, W.H. King­ston, QC, to argue his case, but his arguments did not impress the judge. Kingston asked for time to make the necessary corrections to the papers. The judge refused, and reserved his judgment on the case.
A week later Judge Chad­wick made his ruling. He found the whole argument advanced by Mitchell to be without merit, and dismissed the charges against Colwill and the deputy returning officer. In addition, he awarded costs in the affair to the reeve.
George Mitchell declined to appeal the ruling, so that was the end of the affair. His per­son­al animosity to H.J. Colwill, and his hurt feelings over losing the election, turned out to be a costly and futile attempt at self vindication.
With the end of the case, Arthur’s politics lost much of its animosity and air of distrust. By late spring the Mitchell-Colwill affair, if not forgotten, would be eclipsed by prepara­tions for the big reunion.    

Stephen Thorning