Fergusson sons played roles in county history

A few weeks ago I re­ceived a call from a reader with a question regarding A. J. Fergusson, son of Adam Fer­gusson, the co-founder of Fergus. She wondered why Fergusson changed his name to A.J. Fergusson Blair at some point in his later life. 

Adam Fergusson (1783-1862), who with James Webster, laid out the oldest portion of Fergus in 1834, was a wealthy Scotsman who came to Canada in 1833 with his family in search of opportunities for his sons. He in­tended the settlement of Fergus to be a model village, and the centre of the agricultural community in Nichol Township. Old Adam himself never lived in Fergus or Nichol, instead establishing his own estate near Water­down. Fergusson had seven sons, and two of them did build places for themselves in the history of Wellington County.

The second son, Adam Johnson Fergusson (he invariably identified himself as A.J. to distinguish himself from his father) came to Canada with his father in 1833. He was then 18 and had studied for a time at the University of Edinburgh. After a time in Canada he returned to Scot­land to finish his education in law, returning to Canada after graduation.

He was called to the Canadian bar in 1839.

A.J. established a legal practice on Guelph’s Douglas Street in partnership with J.J. Kingsmill and Edward Hurd. Two years later, in 1842, the provincial government created the District of Wellington, and A.J., undoubtedly helped by the influence of his father in the circles of power, re­ceived the appointment as the district judge. It was an un­usual achievement for a man of 27.

After five years on the bench, A.J.’s father talked him into running as the Reform candidate in the 1847 election for the Waterloo seat in the assembly of the Province of Canada. It was an interesting contest: the Conservative contender was James Webster, Adam Fergusson’s partner in the founding of Fergus.

Webster won by a very slim margin, but an inquiry uncovered so many irregularities by Webster and his supporters that they awarded the seat to A.J.

The younger Fergusson retained the seat from 1848 to 1854, and then sat for the new riding of Wellington South until 1857. As a sideline he was also the solicitor for the County of Wellington after its creation in 1854.

While conducting his legal practice and parliamentary career, A.J. pursued an active career as a land speculator and investor. He was heavily involved in the Toronto & Guelph Railway, which be­came part of the Grand Trunk system. Unlike many dabblers in real estate, he enjoyed success, some of it undoubtedly a result of his insider’s knowledge as a railway director and county solicitor. As well, he had money he inherited from his mother. By the late 1850s A.J. was considered wealthy, and perhaps the richest man in Guelph.

Personally though, A.J. Fer­gusson was something of an enigma. Though he invariably supported all efforts to boost Guelph, and was a member of the Guelph Curl­ing Club and the Turf Club, he seems to have had no close friends outside political and business circles. Though Guelph’s most eligible bachelor, A.J. socialized only rarely, and he never did marry.

In 1860, A.J. was elected to the Legislative Council for the District of Brock. That body was a rough equivalent of the present Senate. Fer­gusson would play an important role in the complicated political developments leading to Confederation in 1867.

In 1862, A.J. inherited the Scottish estate of his mother, Jemima Johnson Blair, following the death of his oldest brother, Neil J. Fergusson. A provision of her will was that he add her maiden name, Blair, to his own. For the rest of his life he signed his name A.J. Fergusson Blair. He considered the estate itself, consisting of some 1,300 acres plus various residential and farm buildings, as something of a millstone because he had no intention of abandoning his life in Canada. Before the year was out A.J. sold the place to a wealthy merchant, and shared the proceeds with his brothers Robert and George, and George’s two sons. By then the other four brothers had died. Interestingly, George was the only one of the seven Fergusson boys to produce children.

Adam Fergusson Sr. died that same year, after two years as an invalid following a debilitating stroke in 1860. A.J. inherited further wealth from his father, but he maintained his political activities rather than lead an idle life of luxury.

He joined the Executive Council, as the cabinet was then known, serving as receiver general and then as provincial secretary in 1863, and later succeeded George Brown as president of the Executive Council. A year later he came close to being the premier of Canada when attempted to put together a coalition cabinet. His efforts failed. Afterward, Fergusson broke with many Reform members over the question of participation in coalition governments. Other leaders, such as George Brown, were in­creasingly reluctant to participate in them, fearing that the Reform Party would be undermined.

Meanwhile, A.J. moved from Guelph to Woodhill, his father’s estate near Water­down, and continued his father’s experiments in agricultural practices. After confederation, A.J. received an appointment to the new Cana­dian Senate. He would have no chance to make an impression in the upper chamber. A.J. Fergusson Blair died nine weeks after his appointment, on Dec. 30, 1867.

The other Fergusson brother with strong local ties was George D. He came to Fergus in 1852 at the request of his father to look after the family interests in the town and to sell their many vacant lots.

Ambitious and snobbish to a far greater degree than his brother A.J. or even his father, George did not become a popular resident of Fergus, but nevertheless was an influential citizen. He rigorously pursued overdue payments on property sold by the family, and chose not to sell lots to people he considered common or unambitious. By the late 1850s, he had another role, as agent of the Bank of Mon­treal, granting and supervising loans. In addition, he loaned money from his own funds to farmers and merchants.

George did well in Fergus, and his fortunes were further enhanced by inheritances from his father, his mother, his brothers, and from the sale of the Blair estate in Scotland. Initially he lived in a small cot­tage at the corner of Breadalbane and St. Andrews.  Over the years he replaced and then expanded the original building, using stone construction, with expensive, imported details and amenities. He named the house “Mapleshade,” and planted impressive gardens around it. Today that building is the Breadalbane Inn.

George D. Fergusson was involved with the Wellington, Grey & Bruce Railway, and sold the land that was used for its Fergus station facilities. He also established the Lockman Sewing Machine Company, associated with a Hamilton firm, across the street from his house. During the 1870s he financed a tool company in Hamilton and served as president of a company in Toronto that made wheels for railway cars and other railway components.

George Fergusson re­main­ed in Fergus the rest of his life, and continued as the Bank of Montreal manager there until his death in 1895 at the age of 73.

He had a family of 10 children, seven of whom survived into adulthood. One of them, George T. Fergusson (1856-1932) became a well known stockbroker, serving two terms as president of the Toronto Stock Exchange, and is an important figure in Canadian business history.


Stephen Thorning