An important part of 19th century political life was the big rally. Those events were something of a pubic holiday, filled with parades, speeches, and a big banquet.
Regardless of the party, hosting such a rally was a mark that a town had achieved stability and importance.
The first large-scale rally in the northern part of Wellington took place in Harriston on Oct. 8, 1874. Not surprisingly, it was for the provincial Reform Party, as the Liberal Party was then known. Reformers were dominant in the newly settled portions of Ontario in that era, and Minto Township was no exception.
The 1874 rally showed that Minto and Harriston were mature communities, of political importance. Though settled for less than two decades, the pioneer phase there was clearly over.
Alex Meiklejohn, Harriston’s most successful merchant, conceived the idea of the rally and headed the organizing committee. He operated a very successful hardware store, had a finger in several other enterprises, and sat on the Harriston council. He also served as president of the North Wellington Reform Association. With a booming population, the village of Harriston would gain town status in 1879.
The Reform Party had been in power in Ontario since Confederation, first under John Sandfield Macdonald and then Edward Blake. When Blake moved to the federal scene in 1872, Oliver Mowat succeeded him. Mowat would hold the office for 24 years.
A provincial election was on the horizon for 1875, and Mowat was delighted with Meiklejohn’s plans for a fall 1874 rally in Harriston. A superb and astute strategist, Mowat realized that his strength was in the small towns and countryside of southern Ontario, and a rally at Harriston, which was convenient to several ridings as well as North Wellington, would help solidify support and motivate the party faithful.
Meiklejohn and his committee spent several weeks planning and publicizing the rally. It was important not only for the Reform Party but for Harriston as well. Dozens of reporters from across the province would attend, and would generate much publicity for the community. He was determined that all the press reports would be highly favourable to the village.
The key to Harriston’s growth and importance were the two railways that passed through it. Though only open a couple of years, the Wellington, Grey & Bruce and the Toronto, Grey & Bruce had already made Harriston the important market town in the area, and a promising one for milling and manufacturing.
The railways were also vital to the success of the big rally. On the big day, the morning train from the south had extra cars, as did the westbound train on the TG&B from Orangeville and Mount Forest. A special train on that line, originating at Wroxeter, brought in another 300 enthusiasts for the Reform cause.
Added to all those people were those who lived nearby, who came into town by buggy and on foot. Residents of Harriston, whatever their political affiliation, also turned out. Most of the factories and stores in Harriston closed for at least part of the day.
Premier Mowat and the other distinguished guests arrived on a special train from Toronto and Guelph, arriving about 2pm. A huge, cheering crowd, led by Meiklejohn and other local dignitaries, greeted them at the station. Committee members had carriages lined up for a parade, and soon they were off, heading downtown via Margaret and Young Streets to the Royal Hotel.
The committee had spent hours decorating Elora Street with evergreen boughs and two massive arches. The one at the bridge included goods made in Harriston: furniture, flour barrels, window sashes, and various metal products. Banners proclaimed slogans such as “Manufacturing Interests, Our Country’s Prosperity,” “Prosper Commerce,” “Success to our Manufacturers,” and “Free Trade, The World Our Market.” A second arch at Meiklejohn’s store was similar.
The guests and local party functionaries enjoyed some refreshments at the Royal Hotel. Then it was off to Patmore Brothers carriage factory for an afternoon dinner. The ground floor there offered a large open space after equipment and inventory were cleared out to make way for tables. The meal was rushed because three sittings were required. More than 600 tickets had been sold by the committee. Ben Gray, the Harriston baker, catered the meal.
At 6pm, the main rally commenced, at the WG&B Railway’s freight warehouse. Railway employees had cleared the building and had set up borrowed chairs, which provided seating for only half of the 1,000 people who crowded in. Dozens of kerosene lamps provided illumination.
As he had at the dinner, Alex Meiklejohn presided. He introduced the premier, the MPs, and MPPs of the adjoining ridings, and a number of prominent reformers from Wellington, including Robert McKim of Alma, James McMullen of Mount Forest, and James Massie of Guelph.
Meiklejohn apologized that several of the speakers expected could not attend. Heading that list was Edward Blake, the former premier, who was busy arguing a case in court. Like many lawyers in politics at that time, Blake continued his private law practice after being elected.
Loud cheers greeted the first speaker of the night, Col. Nathan Higinbotham, MP for North Wellington. He briefly noted some of the sins of John A. Macdonald, whose federal government had recently been defeated in a general election. He then moved on to praise for Mowat and the provincial Reform government. He would keep his remarks brief, he said, so that the crowd might hear Premier Mowat.
Oliver Mowat began by expressing his surprise and delight at the size of the rally and its superb organization, which far exceeded his expectations. His speech was a long one, beginning with a history lesson from the 1830s onward that showed the Reform Party in the best possible light. He touched on issues such as settlement policy, transportation, the Clergy Reserves, and compulsory schooling, which his party had recently implemented in Ontario. Then it was on to current issues.
Mowat stressed the economy and common sense that he said were the bywords of his administration.
Mowat could be a plodding speaker, but he managed to sustain enthusiasm while he stood at the podium. The audience interrupted him with frequent applause, and with a deafening ovation when he concluded.
R.H. Taylor, secretary of the Agricultural Labourers Union in England, followed. He described the miserable conditions of farm workers in England, and advocated increased migration of farm workers to Canada.
Later speakers that evening included Dr. Landerkin, MP for South Grey, who had high praise for the Mowat administration. Those sentiments were echoed by Peter Fisher, of Wingham. Several had high praise for the local committee and the residents of Harriston. Robert McKim, of the Alma area, who served several terms as a Reform MPP, concluded the list of speakers.
Jim Connell, of Minto Township, rose to extend the thanks of the meeting to Mowat and the other guests. That began a round of motions of thanks to Meiklejohn and the Harriston committee. The evening broke up a few minutes after 11pm. By then, the air in the freight shed was stifling.
Harriston’s hotels were booked fully that night with Reformers. Others boarded the special trains waiting at the stations for their trips home, filled with goodwill and ready to do their part in the coming election.
Alex Meiklejohn and his committee, exhausted after the pressures of the day, were nonetheless delighted with the flawlessly successful day. Adding to that joy were the press reports they read in the days following that praised both their rally and the village of Harriston for hosting it so competently.