Bringing back memory of conservationist Robert Kerr

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Last Sunday, Charlotte Broome very generously passed on to me a bag of old newspapers, clippings and other fascinating historical items that had been accumulated by her mother, the late Edith Broome, who served as Elora’s librarian in the 1960s to the early 1980s.

One of the items that immediately caught my attention was a photograph of Robert Kerr and Hugh Templin on the construction site of the Shand Dam in 1941.

These men rank as the pioneers of conservation efforts on the Upper Grand River. Templin is still remembered as the much respected editor of the Fergus News Record. 

It is unfortunate that Robert Kerr’s name is remembered now by only a handful of people. There are two reasons for this: he never sought publicity for himself, and he died a bachelor, leaving no direct descendants to keep his reputation alive.

Though not a native, Robert Kerr lived in Fergus for some 70 years, and spent his working life and retirement there. He was born in Scotland in 1861, and came to Canada as a young boy with his parents. The family lived for short periods in Harriston and then Elora, where Robert’s great-uncle operated a shoe store.

The family moved to Fergus when Robert was a young man. By then he had received a good education, at the famous grammar school in Galt operated by Dr. Tassie, where a diploma was easily the equivalent of a college degree at a modern university. Inspired by his studies, he remained an avid reader for the rest of his life.

Kerr might easily have gone on to further educational achievements, but instead he returned to Fergus, where he opened a tinsmithing business on St. Andrew Street, next door to and in the same building as his father’s shoe store.

Robert Kerr operated this business all his working life, eventually adding a dealership in stoves and heating equipment. He lived modestly in a couple of rooms above the store, leaving only when he was taken to Groves Memorial Hospital on his deathbed in May 1948.

In the 70 years prior to his death, Kerr set a fine example of public service. It began with his interest in books. He joined the Fergus Mechanics Institute Library when he set up shop in Fergus, and by the mid 1880s was involved in the management of the library. He led the effort to turn the collection into a public subscription library in 1895, and spent the next 15 years persuading the council to turn the library into a free public lending institution.

Beginning in 1904, he cajoled his fellow library board members and Fergus council into accepting a Carnegie grant for a public library building. When they agreed, he insisted that the building be built of stone, rather than brick, to blend in with the rest of St. Andrew Street.

After much bickering, construction started in 1910, and the new Fergus Public Library opened in February 1911. Kerr remained on the library board until 1937, a term of 50 years, and served as chairman for the last 18 of those years.

The library remained one of Kerr’s proud achievements, and he ranked as the most frequent user. As a library board member, he issued himself a key so he could read there at any time. After retirement, he frequently spent his mornings alone in the library, reading papers and magazines. No one doubted that he was the best-read man in Fergus.

Though he spent many hours each week reading, Robert Kerr was no bookworm. He curled avidly for many years, and was a member of the Fergus rink that brought home the Ontario Tankard in 1896. In summers he liked to fish, and over the years became acquainted with all the good trout fishing spots on the Grand between Conestogo and the Luther Marsh.

It was his firsthand knowledge of the river, coupled with the impacts of major floods in 1898, 1899 and 1902, that aroused his interest in conservation and flood control on the Grand. At this point he was one of the few people to be aware of the links among deforestation, intensive agriculture, urban settlement and pollution. He was determined to understand the problem fully, and to champion solutions to preserve and restore his beloved Grand River.

The floods of a century ago caused major problems to urban centres on the middle and lower Grand, and it was there that the first proposals for flood control originated.

Robert Kerr was the only person from the upper Grand to take an interest at this early date. In 1908 Kerr was one of a group to visit Ontario premier James Whitney to plead for funds for flood control dams.

The delegation got nowhere, and Kerr was astonished at the lack of knowledge of the river displayed by the others. He quickly formed a strong friendship with W.H. Breithaupt, the Kitchener leather manufacturer, and the pair spent many years educating officials and lobbying anyone who would listen to them to take measures to preserve the river.

Although the 1908 committee failed in its mission, it focused Kerr’s attention on the Grand, and river conservation became his mission. Kerr was part of another delegation to Queen’s Park in 1912, and the result was a survey of the watershed in 1914. 

By this time the power generating capacity of the river had become a factor, with hydro-electric power and flood control going hand in hand. The First World War intervened late in 1914, and the 1914 plans were never carried out.

After the war, Kerr, Breithaupt and others tried to revive the 1914 plan, but got nowhere. Undeterred, Robert Kerr continued his lobbying efforts with local politicians and newspaper editors.

He enjoyed nothing more than walking, and during these years he explored every foot of the river from Conestogo to its source near Dundalk. An avid fisherman, he studied other forms of wildlife on his trips, and developed an intensive knowledge of the plants growing in the watershed.

During the 1920s, Kerr intensified his friendship with John Connon, the Elora historian, who he had known since they were schoolboys together in Elora in the era of principal David Boyle. They would visit one another on foot, walking along the Canadian Pacific railway line. Both men would be delighted that the line is now a walking trail.

For years, few people took Kerr’s ideas seriously, and many regarded him as something of an eccentric. On one occasion, on a sudden whim, he talked Fergus contractor John Moffatt into walking the Jones Baseline from Fergus to Burlington. They made the hike, some of it over rough terrain, in a day.

The ideas that Kerr had advocated for more than 20 years partially inspired the Grand Valley Board of Trade, formed in 1929, to pursue a broad range of objectives in tourism promotion, economic development, reforestation and flood control.

Meanwhile, Kerr and Breithaupt had managed to maintain Ontario Hydro’s interest in the Grand. During the summer of 1931, Kerr accompanied Ontario Hydro engineer James Mackintosh and his most enthusiastic disciple, editor Hugh Templin, on a survey of the upper Grand. 

The trio spent every weekend tramping over the river banks and all the major and minor tributaries. Though 70 years old, Kerr had more stamina on these outings than the two younger men. Their work resulted in a report calling for flood control dams below Elora and near Belwood.

Though he rarely spoke in public, on a couple of occasions Kerr delivered rousing speeches to meetings of municipalities when they were on the point of breaking down with bickering and animosity.

Robert Kerr sat as a founding member of the Grand River Conservation Commission in 1936, but turned down a position when the body was restructured two years later. He thought he was too old, and that younger men should now take the lead. Nevertheless, he continued to attend the meetings as a spectator.

After many delays, and a crisis of flood and drought in 1936 and 1937, the Shand Dam project became a priority for local municipalities. Construction started in 1939, and was completed in 1942. Kerr was delighted that he had lived long enough to see the project he had championed for 35 years completed and successful. Though he was now past 80, he visited the construction site frequently.

In his last years Robert Kerr continued to walk, read books and journals at his pride, the Fergus library, and to sit for hours on a bench at the side of Imlah’s Hardware Store, on St. David Street just below St. Andrew. His interest in the Grand River continued until the end.

Robert Kerr suffered a stroke on May 26, 1948, and died five days later in the Fergus hospital.

His friend and devotee, Hugh Templin, wrote that “he was a modest man, who did not push himself forward, but we, who knew him as well as anyone, considered him one of the great men of Fergus, if greatness is measured in terms of public service. 

“And that is how it should be measured, rather than in terms of money in the bank or in public offices held.”

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 5, 2001.

Thorning Revisited