Ranking high among the businessmen of the early twentieth century in Wellington County was Joseph Miles Jackson.
During his adult life he was known simply as J.M. Jackson, and was one of the leading figures in Elora.
He was born in Creekbank, at the southern edge of Peel Township in 1855, when that portion of Wellington County could still be considered in its pioneer phase. He died 74 years later when his home was in Elora, where he had lived for the second half of his life.
He was the youngest son of Miles and Mary Jackson, and the only one to survive into adulthood. He farmed with his father until he was 25, then left home to apprentice as a harness maker in Moorefield. Later he opened his own harness shop in that town.
In 1881 he married Sarah Laughran, a girl who had grown up in Moorefield. The couple would raise two sons, Victor and Cecil. When they grew up the boys sought their opportunities in the United States. Both settled in the St. Louis, Missouri area.
By the time of his marriage Jackson’s ambition was getting the better of him. He saw little future for himself and his wife running a small harness shop in Moorefield. Desiring to improve his stature, he took a job with the Doherty Organ Company of Clinton. Parlour organs were then a fashionable furnishing for ambitious, social-climbing people and those wanting to have music in their households. Most parlour organ models were also much cheaper than pianos.
As a salesman Jackson enjoyed success. During the 1880s and early 1890s he lived for short periods of time at Dutton, Mount Forest, Stratford and Walkerton. As with harness making, he soon grew impatient as a salesman. In 1894 he started firms to build organs at Galt and Brantford. He soon became involved with a fellow named George Blatchford, who had great ambitions for an organ building business.
Blatchford, as did many manufacturers of that era, sought aid from municipal governments to begin his business. Initially, Blatchford set up operations in Galt, but in 1896 he decided to move to Elora. Part of the attraction to Elora was the J.C. Mundell Furniture Company. Mundell agreed to form a partnership, supplying the wooden bodies for Blatchford’s organs.
J.M. Jackson was the salesman for the firm, and it appears as well that he held a minority interest in the company.
Though a surprising number of Blatchford Organs survive to this day, the company was not a successful one, and closed within a year. J.M. Jackson stayed in the Elora area, accepting a position with the T.E. Bissell Company, the farm implement maker, when that company moved from Fergus to Elora.
Jackson’s relationship with Bissell turned out to be a stormy one. In 1902, at the age of 47, Jackson left the Bissell firm and returned to his original occupation of harness maker, taking over the shop operated by E.C. Hewett on Geddes Street in Elora.
The business was a successful one, though unlikely very lucrative. Jackson seems to have had another source of income, perhaps a legacy left by his parents. In any case, he was able to purchase a substantial yellow brick business block on upper Geddes Street at the end of the first world war. He rented half the main floor to Costin’s Grocery, and moved his own harness business into the other half. The building was soon known as the Jackson Block.
In addition to his harness business, Jackson also dealt in other leather goods, such as luggage, and he added a couple of sidelines: musical instruments and sewing machines.
As well as the store, Jackson also owned a farm north of Elora, and became involved in several other business ventures, usually as a silent partner.
J.M. Jackson seemed a delicate man, but he had a surprising amount of energy and vigour. Even so, he had to slow down in the late 1920s. He reached the age of 70 in 1925. Two years later the burdens of running the store became too much for him. He sold the business, but retained ownership of the building, with Costin’s Grocery and McFadden’s Harness Shop as tenants.
To recover his health he spent the summer of 1927 on his farm, pitching in with farm chores as much as he was able. Back in Elora that fall, he decided it was time to retire from all his business activities.
Jackson made plans to build a new and substantial house in Lot 18, on the main road and backing onto the Irvine River. In an effort to restore and improve his health he spent much of the summer of 1928 working with the construction crew. The building was closed in at the end of the year, and Jackson expected to be able to move in when all the work was finished, sometime in the summer of 1929.
Though he was experiencing mounting health problems, his wife Sarah had problems of her own. She fractured her hip during the Christmas season of 1928, and spent weeks in hospital in Fergus. Jackson himself suffered an emergency, probably a heart attack, in January of 1929. He died in the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Fergus on January 27, 1929.
The funeral took place two days later at the home of a niece on Victoria Crescent in Elora. Burial followed in the Elora Cemetery. Jackson had been a Methodist, and the local minister, Rev. A.H. Plyley, conducted the service.
Though he never achieved the major business triumphs that he craved, Jackson had, during his life, enjoyed modest success despite a number of failed and stillborn ventures. In addition to part ownership of several ventures, he had title to various lots and properties, though many of them were mortgaged.
When he died he left piles of deeds and legal documents for his executors to sort out. For example, when he closed his harness shop he kept all the old stock and merchandise. Perhaps he had a wistful vision of restoring his health and resuming the business.
Jackson executors decided to convert the assets of the estate to cash as quickly as possible. On Saturday, February 16, less than three weeks after Jackson’s death, they held an auction sale at a small frame store next to the Jackson Block. The list of items included household effects, sleighs, wagons, harnesses, leather working tools, musical instruments, and sewing machines. Jackson’s real estate holdings were also on the block.
A number of smaller items were put on sale at the store for about a month. A source of confusion to the executors was an assortment of musical instruments and sewing machines that had been left at the store for repair. Jackson had left no indication of who the owners were, and the executors had to advertise for the rightful owners to identify and claim their property
J.M. Jackson is an excellent example of the small town businessman and entrepreneur who possessed great ability and initiative, but was able to achieve only modest success. Still, he deserves to be remembered, as do those in similar circumstances who characterized our small towns in the early twentieth century.
The Jackson Block outlived J.M. Jackson by three decades. Fire destroyed the building in a spectacular blaze in the late 1950s. At the time of the fire Noonan’s Grocery was the major commercial tenant. Today the L&M Grocery store occupies the site. But that is a story for another time.