Farmers’ political picnic in 1897 featured notable speakers

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.

Today there are very few people who know of the Patrons of Industry, but in the heyday of the movement, in the early 1890s, that group appeared to be on the verge of taking control of the provincial government.

The Patron movement arose from the depressed conditions of the late 19th century, and especially so in the aftermath of the global depression of 1892-93.

Patron membership drew from previous supporters of both the Conservative and Liberal parties. They proposed co-operative stores and marketing, various inflationary schemes to reduce the debt burden on farmers, and a general reorientation of politics to give farmers a larger voice.

Patrons enjoyed electoral success locally, especially in the north of the county; West Wellington elected a Patron to the provincial legislature twice during the 1890s.

The movement did not enjoy sustained success. Members argued over policies, and many thought it a mistake to run candidates for office. The return of prosperity after 1896 badly undermined the movement. Farmers have always shed their radical ideas when markets improve.

Still, the Patron movement enjoyed considerable support for the rest of the decade, and provided a training ground for young men who would lead the United Farmers of Ontario two decades later.

In 1897 Wellington County’s Patrons of Industry organized a large picnic. The big event, held on June 29, took place in the park in Moorefield that was the home of the massive religious revival meetings for many years. James Park, president of the Patrons for Wellington County and a farmer from West Luther, organized the picnic.

The local Patrons succeeded in attracting two important men in the Patron movement as speakers. 

J. Lockie Wilson, of Glengarry County in the eastern extremity of Ontario, was one of the founders of the movement and a superb organizer who later served as secretary of the Vegetable Growers Association, secretary of the Ontario Plowmans Association, secretary of the Ontario Horticultural Society, and as a civil servant with the Department of Agriculture.

The featured speaker was Goldwin Smith of Toronto. He was a controversial figure who began his career as a professor at Oxford University. He later came to North America, teaching for a time at Cornell University, and then moving to Toronto, where he married  a wealthy widow. Relieved of the burden of earning a living, he spent much of his time editing magazines and writing voluminously.

Goldwin Smith had opinions on everything. In particular, he advocated free trade, and was an outspoken advocate of the annexation of Canada to the United States. Though he had never been involved in agriculture, he styled himself a leader of farmers when he bought the failing Patron newspaper, The Farmers Sun, in 1896.

As far as I am aware, Smith’s appearance at the 1897 Moorefield picnic was the only time he ever spoke in Wellington County. After some introductory remarks from James Park, and as the crowd washed down their sandwiches, fried chicken and cake with lemonade and tea, Smith took the podium.

Though he was 74 years old, Smith seemed energized and was in full voice, brimming with enthusiasm. He began by praising the value of agriculture to the life of the nation, and then chastised those who romanticized farming and the farmer. 

“Man does not live by bread alone, but he does live by bread,” he told the crowd. “And those who remind us that man does not live by bread alone have plenty of bread themselves.”

Smith claimed that the Canadian farmer was being crushed by excessive taxation, and that too much of the farmer’s dollar went to pay for warships and military preparations for potential conflicts in which farmers had no interest whatever.

Free trade, said Smith, had built the navy of Great Britain. Canada’s natural market, though, was not Great Britain, but the United States. His former residency in the United States, and his observations since then, convinced him that Americans held good feelings for Canada, and that he “could not say the same thing in regard to Great Britain.” 

He thought it wise for Canada to sever its connection with British military power and possible European entanglements.

Overall, Goldwin Smith downplayed his ideas that day. He was well aware that he was a controversial figure in the Patron movement, and as a non-farmer, something of an interloper. He also knew that many Ontario farmers had no use for Englishmen, particularly those of the “know-it-all” variety. His remarks that afternoon were well received by the crowd.

Next up was J. Lockie Wilson. He dwelt at length on the need to settle the west with farmers. The best of the immigrants, he argued, passed through Canada on their way to the United States. He believed the Canadian government was discriminating against the west, and against farmers and immigrants. 

He claimed that part of the problem was that the government had given bonuses to railways in the form of loans and grants, and that the government was therefore protecting those big interests against farmers and workers. He would end all aid to railways, he said, as part of a program to reduce government expenditures to their bare minimum. Wilson claimed that the Patrons who had been elected in recent years, while not forming a government, had succeeded in influencing governments to cut back.

It was readily evident that Wilson had droned on far too long about the settlement of the west, and that his arguments did not always stand up under logical examination. Perhaps he was nervous in following the great Goldwin Smith. But his concluding remarks about cutting government expenditures renewed the interest of those present.

When Wilson finished, many in the crowd yelled out requests to hear more from Goldwin Smith. He rose, and in answer to questions shouted by some of the crowd, he spoke on educational issues. He outlined a number of advances in Ontario over the past quarter century, since the introduction of compulsory schooling. He proposed that more practical material be included in the curriculum of public schools, so that farmers’ sons could gain knowledge while living at home, rather than boarding in a town while attending high school.

His reference to “sons” was quite deliberate. He thought such training, and any advanced education, was inappropriate for girls. Smith was also a loud opponent of the vote for women.

When Smith sat down for the second time, chairman Park called on James McEwing, one of the leaders of the Liberal Party in West Wellington, to say a few words. His remarks were short and non-partisan. Like Premier Oliver Mowat and others amongst the Ontario Liberals, McEwing considered the Patrons to be Liberals who had gone briefly adrift. He was anxious for them to return to the fold, because a strong Patron faction could result in more Conservatives being elected in three-way races.

In truth, the Patron movement also drew some Conservatives. For example, Patrons in South Wellington helped elect “Honest” John McGowan of Elora, a Conservative, as MP, rather than run their own man. They believed that McGowan would fight strongly for policies endorsed by the Patrons.

The 1897 Moorefield Patron’s picnic might be considered a last hurrah for the movement in Wellington. The Patrons fielded candidates in the 1898 provincial election, but their campaigns were unenthusiastic, and none were elected. The last strongholds for the movement locally were in West Luther and Arthur Townships.

The Moorefield picnic may have been the last old-fashioned political picnic in Wellington County. The Liberals had pioneered such events in the 1850s, and the campaigning technique was revived and refined by Sir John A. Macdonald in the 1880s.

Moorefield has never enjoyed a major role in politics at any level, but for one afternoon in 1897, the village basked for a brief few hours in the spotlight.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Oct. 22, 2010.

Thorning Revisited