Elora man was ‘Father of the Rose Bowl’ in Pasadena

Though it is not as popular today as it was 40 or 50 years ago, the Tournament of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl football game are still obligatory view­ing for many on New Year’s Day.
In the early years of colour television, most people with a colour receiver could count on a house full of visitors to watch the event. The parade and game were superb salesmen for the new technology.
Few Wellington County peo­ple are aware that an Elora man was largely responsible for the high profile of that event. John J. Mitchell was his name.
Born in Alliston in 1879, Mit­chell became a celebrated local athlete in his late teens, star­ring on both hockey and la­crosse teams. He even played pro­fessionally for a couple of seasons.
It was a common practice in the early 20th century for good athletes to be offered jobs to at­tract them to a town so that they could play for the local teams. That is how Mitchell came to Elora. He had picked up some business education following high school. His abili­ties were sufficient that Elora manufac­turer T.E. Bissell hired him as his firm’s bookkeeper, with the understanding that Mitchell would play for the village’s popular and successful Elora Rocks hockey and lacrosse teams.
John Mitchell settled in to a comfortable routine in Elora. He married, and split his time and athletic abilities between hockey and lacrosse. But the com­fortable life was soon shattered. In 1906, doctors diag­nosed tuberculosis in his wife’s lungs, and they recom­mend­ed that she move to a warm and dry climate.
Mitchell packed up his pos­sessions and his shelf of tro­ph­ies, and took his wife to Pasadena, near Los Angeles. That area of California was as yet sparsely settled, but was at the beginning of a boom. The cli­mate seemed ideal for his wife, but it did not hold her ail­ment at bay. She died in 1907.
Though widowed and with no particular long-standing ties to Pasadena, Mitchell decided to stay in southern California. He had formed many friend­ships there, had grown to like the area, and had a good job at the T.W. Mather department store. He got on well with Mather, and in the 1920s be­came a vice president of the Math­er firm and manager of the Pasadena store.
Mitchell also remarried, to another transplant to Califor­nia: Maude Brazelman, origi­nally of Richmond, Virginia. They had a daughter and a son.
Before Mather died, he arranged for the sale of the firm to Mitchell and another em­ployee. Mitchell left the Mather firm in 1940 and joined a rival retailer, Broadway-Pasadena, as store manager. He remained there until a stroke in 1943 forc­ed his retirement.
Those are the bare bones of John Mitchell’s career. He was one of thousands of Canadians who did well in California in the early 20th century. But it was his continuing interest in athletics that makes him of par­ticular and continuing interest to us today.
Mitchell served on the ex­ecu­tive of the Pasadena Ath­le­tic and Country Club from 1913 to 1940, and was active for decades on the Tournament of Roses Association. He serv­ed the latter twice as president, and was particularly active as head of the publicity commit­tee.
Mitchell also wore another hat, as president of the Pasa­dena Merchants Association. He quickly realized that the Tournament of Roses game was one of many end-of-season college football games, and that raising it to greater prominence would be good for Pasadena and the merchants in the town.
To begin with, the stadium that originally hosted the game was entirely inadequate, and some­thing of an embarrass­ment to a town with the pre­ten­sions that Pasadena had devel­oped. A new stadium was a neces­sity, but building one with public funds would be difficult. Los Angeles County was in the process of building its Colise­um with county and city funds. There was little likelihood that taxpayers would approve a sec­ond such facility in the county.
Instead, Mitchell came up with the idea of "leaseholds." In effect, those were loans from citizens in Pasadena. He and his committee raised sufficient funds for a new Rose Bowl, and afterward managed the fin­ances so carefully that all the original investors were eventu­ally paid off. Many were sur­prised at the repayments: they had suspected that their contri­butions would amount to gifts, rather than loans.
Mitchell was also concern­ed that the quality of the game and other events around it would be the best possible. A principal reason for staging the event was the economic impact it would bring to the town.
The parade and its high stan­dards became a main at­trac­tion, capitalizing on and publicizing the fine climate and ambiance of Pasadena. By the late 1930s the Rose Bowl and its associated parade and other events had elevated the event to the top college football game in the United States.
Following his stroke in 1943, John Mitchell was large­ly housebound, though he main­tained a lively interest in the affairs of his adopted town. When visitors from Canada passed through, he greatly en­joyed talking over the old days in Elora, and the hockey and lacrosse teams that he had played for.
In late 1946, Mitchell’s health began to fail seriously. He died in January 1947 at his home, 1369 North Los Robles Avenue, in Pasadena, at the age of 68. The funeral was a large one, attended by all the leading citizens and public figures of the town.
His son moved to San Francisco, and his daughter married and lived in Studio City, raising two children there.
Local people who watch the Rose Bowl parade and game this year should have a special appreciation for those events. They might not exist at all were it not for a hockey-playing ac­countant at the Bissell firm in Elora, and the tragic illness that claimed his wife a century ago.

Stephen Thorning