Erin played host to a major provincial Liberal rally in 1897

Over the years this column has featured accounts of a number of major political rallies in Wellington County.
Such meetings, often promoted as family picnics, were virtual public holidays, with supporters of all shades of opinion attending. In the age before radio and television, and when photographs were rare in newspapers, these were the only occasions when the public could see and hear their leaders.
Such rallies, as often as not, were not held during election campaigns. Quite a few, though, came near the end of a parliamentary session. One example was a huge Liberal meeting in Erin on Sept. 27, 1897, in the village of Erin. A provincial election was later called for March 1, 1898.
This was the first major political rally ever held in Erin. Given that the village was the centre of a large agricultural area, that was surprising. Villagers were delighted that the Liberal Party had selected Erin, and that Premier Arthur Hardy and Education Minister George Ross would attend.  Merchants decorated the main street with bunting, flags, and evergreen bows.
The dignitaries arrived on the morning Canadian Pacific train from Toronto. The railway added a couple of coaches to accommodate the speakers, party supporters, and reporters for all six Toronto daily newspapers. The Erin Brass Band struck up a lively march as the train pulled into the station.
The welcoming group included local party officials, Reeve Charles Overland, and Erin council. The official party marched down the middle of Main Street to the village bandstand, where several hundred people had assembled. Speeches by Overland, Premier Hardy, and George Ross were mercifully short.
Rather than a formal lunch, Premier Hardy dined as a guest at the home of Reeve Overland, and Minister Ross with Dr. J.H. Hamilton, a lifelong party supporter.
The afternoon rally was originally scheduled for Stanley Park, but cold, rainy weather forced a relocation to the Agricultural Society Hall. People began drifting in more than an hour early.
Liberal supporters had been busy all morning, stringing up banners reading “Hardy and Good Government,” “Ontario Free From Debt,” “Hardy, Ross and Victory,” and across the front of the hall, “Erin Welcomes Ontario’s Ministers.” Most people who could do so had taken the day off, and a holiday atmosphere prevailed despite the gloomy weather.
The hall was packed when Hardy and Ross climbed onto the stage, accompanied by party officials and the Liberal MPs and MPPs for the neighbouring ridings. Warden Lang took the podium to welcome the visitors. Reeve Overland’s young daughter presented the premier with a bouquet of flowers.
John Craig, of Fergus, the MPP for Wellington Centre, led off the long list of speakers. He began with ingratiating compliments to the visitors, but then seemed to find his feet when he launched into a vicious attack on the Toronto Mail, which, he stated, misrepresented the Liberal record, and published incorrect statements regarding provincial grants to local municipalities, going so far as to pull a copy of a recent issue of the Mail and refuting an editorial point by point.
James Innes, publisher of the Guelph Mercury and an MP from 1882 to 1896, followed Craig. He defended the Liberal Party record beginning with Edward Blake, to Oliver Mowat, and on to Hardy and Ross, both of whom, he claimed, had been victimized by their enemies. His address was a stirring one, and he was interrupted several times with thunderous applause.
At this point the organizers realized that the program was falling behind the schedule they had drawn up. John Mutrie, MPP for Wellington South, abbreviated the remarks he intended to make in support of the Ontario Agricultural College.
Andrew Semple, MP for Wellington Centre, was even more concise, restricting himself to two sentences.
He had come to hear the premier, he said, and the huge attendance that afternoon proved that Erin was all right. The applause lasted longer than his speech.
Dr. Hamilton was next. He droned on with a long address to the premier on behalf of the local Liberal Party Association. Much of it was a tribute to Oliver Mowat, the long serving Ontario premier who, in 1896, had moved up to the federal level and a seat at Wilfrid Laurier’s cabinet table.
Premier Hardy, who had become premier on the resignation of Mowat a year earlier, took the podium to a round of cheers. He was not unfamiliar with the area: Hardy was a graduate of the famous Rockwood Academy.
Despite his education and career as a lawyer, Hardy was not a good speaker, appearing tired and older than his 59 years.
He tended to pepper his addresses with masses of facts, rather than stir his audience with oratory. He stressed the Liberal record of balanced budgets, economical administration, development of the north, and a dozen other topics. Hardy sat down after speaking for about 90 minutes.
George Ross, the Minister of Education, followed. Unlike Hardy, who spoke in plodding monotone, Ross was an excellent speaker.
His theme was the progressive policies pursued by the provincial government over the preceding 25 years, and the honesty of the administration. He boasted of the large expenditures made on hospitals and homes for the deaf and blind, and on the rising budget of the Department of Education.
Ross was also a defender of provincial rights, describing the federal government as “plunderers.” He linked the provincial Conservative leader, James Whitney, with the tired and corrupt federal administration of Sir Charles Tupper, which had been defeated more than a year earlier.
Several times he criticized the policies and character of Whitney, who was attempting to deliver the provincial Conservatives from 25 years in the wilderness.
Ross spoke longer than Hardy, though, to those present, his speech seemed shorter. He ended his words with an appeal to stand by the provincial Liberals, who had done their duty to Ontario for the past quarter century.
One of the notable aspects of the afternoon of speeches was that there was virtually no mention of local issues.
That is surprising, because the provincial Liberals in the late 1890s still stressed the importance of local autonomy. 
Ross sat down to the loudest cheers of the day. The meeting ended with cheers for the Queen, and for Hardy and Ross.
The provincial figures stayed the night in Erin, meeting privately with party functionaries, and leaving by train the next morning.
The crowd, meanwhile, slowly drifted home. Some took time to shop in Erin’s stores, and more than a few decided to stay the night in Erin before returning home.
There was something prophetic in the order of the speakers and their reception that afternoon in Erin.
Hardy’s administration survived the 1898 with a meagre six-seat majority, and  stumbled along until his resignation in 1899. By then his health was fragile, and he claimed that his years in politics had left him an impoverished man.
He died two years later of appendicitis.
Several of his descendents achieved fame. Perhaps the best known was musician Hagood Hardy. 
George Ross, the best of the speakers that day, succeeded Hardy, and served as premier until the 1905 election when his bitter enemy, Sir James Whitney, took over the premier’s office.

Stephen Thorning