Father and grandfather of Colonel John McCrae were prominent

Last week’s column outlined the life of one of Guelph’s most famous natives, Col. John McCrae, who earned a name as an outstanding surgeon and pathologist during his lifetime, and since 1915, as the author of perhaps the most famous Canadian poem, In Flanders Fields.

Col. McCrae’s father and grandfather are both deserving of recognition as well. The first of the family in Guelph, Thomas McCrae (1820-1892), was a Scottish immigrant. Though his formal education was minimal, he achieved recognition during his life as a farmer and cattle breeder, and especially as a proponent of the Galloway breed. He also had some involvement in some of the industrial enterprises that dot the early decades of Guelph history.

Thomas McCrae came to Canada with his father, and the family settled in Eramosa Township in 1849. In 1850 Thomas moved to Guelph, and engaged in a series of menial jobs during his first year in the Royal City. In 1851 the Wellington Foundry hired him as its bookkeeper. That position, which put him in contact with various Guelph businessmen, was the real start of his career. Soon he was involved as a partner in several ventures, including a sawmill.

In 1863 he acquired a large farm south of the city. The farmland is now part of the city, but at that time it was far in the country. The McCrae farmhouse, which he called Janefield after his daughter Jane, is on College Avenue near the Hanlon Expressway.

Tom McCrae became a serious farmer. He bred cattle, and soon was the top breeder of Galloway cattle in North America. He also set himself up as a drover and cattle exporter, building a sizeable trade with Great Britain.

David McCrae (1845-1930) was a son of Thomas, and in the early years a partner with him in several business ventures. In 1860 Thomas formed a partnership with members of the Armstrong family (prominent in 19th century Guelph business ventures), establishing Armstrong, McCrae and Company, a knitting and weaving business.

Their timing was perfect. The new firm conducted a lucrative trade with the United States during the Civil War. In 1867 the firm opened a new plant at the corner of Wyndham and Surrey Streets. The main building, constructed of stone, measured 83 feet by 34 feet, and was three storeys high. Employment, initially at 30 hands, was modest by later standards, but in the 1860s it was a major Guelph employer.

David McCrae replaced his father as the manager of the firm, and the Armstrongs eventually exited the business and started what became the Guelph Carpet Company. Under David’s direction, the knitting mill grew in size and employment, with 250 names on the payroll by 1885.

David McCrae, in addition to his business ventures, had two pet interests: education and the volunteer militia. In the late 1850s he joined the Mechanics Institute, a volunteer group whose main activity was their lending library. He remained with the group for decades, and in 1883, when the Guelph Public Library took over the Mechanics Institute library, he was a member of the first public library board.

David McCrae attended Guelph’s public and grammar schools. In 1862 he attended the Ontario Veterinary College, then still located in Toronto, and graduated from what was then a one-year course, earning the prize for general proficiency.

McCrae became involved with the volunteer militia from his adolescence. He joined the militia about 1865, during the period when there were threatened invasions of Canada by Fenians and the American Army.

On graduation he worked in the offices of his father’s lumber and woolen mills. By 1870 he was largely in charge of the businesses, while the father devoted his energies to his cattle business.

After his father’s death in 1892, David took over as a major breeder of Galloway cattle. He retired from farming in 1910, but kept himself busy with a number of public and business activities.

David McCrae was a regular contributor to various agricultural journals and papers. He was also one of the Guelph men who strove to have the Provincial Winter Fair moved permanently to Guelph.

A lifelong supporter of the Liberal Party, he frequently spoke on behalf of the party at rallies. He never sought higher office himself, but did serve for years as a member of Guelph Township council. David McCrae also sat as a director of the North American Life Assurance Company and the Mutual Fire Insurance Company.

McCrae’s military career spanned 65 years. From the start of his military activity in 1865 and 1866, when he helped organize Guelph volunteers to repel the Fenians, he remained a leader and advocate of the militia. During that time he rose from Second Lieutenant to Lieutenant Colonel.

The Fenian threat soon ended, but the volunteer militia remained active. It soon evolved into a largely social organization. The men enjoyed the annual training sessions each summer, which took them from their families for a welcome respite. The annual militia balls became the social events of the season.

Though he enjoyed the decades of social activity surrounding the military, David McCrae was quick to step forward with the declaration of war in 1914. Though he was 69 years old, he volunteered for active service. He supervised the recruitment of the 43rd Battery, and after training, he took that unit to England in 1915. He was very disappointed that senior officers would not permit him to go to France with the unit on account of his age.

Senior officers sent McCrae back to Guelph, and retired him from the active militia. But he remained involved in military affairs when he was named to the board that operated under the Military Services Act, supervising the recruitment of younger men into the military.

It does not appear that David McCrae was on close terms with his son John, the author of In Flanders Fields. Still, the death of John in 1918 certainly affected him. David McCrae suffered from deteriorating health through the 1920s, especially in the later years of that decade. He died at his home in October of 1930 at the age of 85. Though he was in poor health, there was no indication that death was imminent.

In addition to Dr. John McCrae, David had two other children. Another son, Thomas, pursued medicine, and was president of the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia at the time of his father’s death.

A daughter, Giells, was the wife of J.F. Kilgour of Winnipeg, the Chief Justice of Manitoba. Their granddaughter, also named Giells, married John Turner, the federal Liberal leader and briefly, Prime Minister of Canada.

The McCrae name is significant in the history of Guelph and Wellington County.

Everyone knows about Col. John McCrae and his poem, but far fewer know that he was also a highly trained doctor and pathologist who did much to advance his specialty.

His brother Thomas achieved fame as a doctor in the United States. And his father and grandfather did much for Guelph and its industries and public institutions.

Few Canadian families, rising from such modest beginnings, have done as much as the McCraes for their community and their country. 



Stephen Thorning