James Goldie: pioneer Guelph businessman died in 1912

The Goldie family, though not well known today, was a major player in the middle part of the Grand River valley in the 19th century.

The founder of the family in Canada, John Goldie, was a wealthy man, and spent much of his time collecting plants and studying botany. John Goldie toured eastern North America several times beginning in 1817, collecting plant specimens.

In 1844, after a couple of years in the United States, John Goldie moved permanently to Canada with his wife and eight children, buying a property near Ayr. He established a sawmill, and by 1850 he was also operating a flour and oatmeal mill.

In Galt, John’s second son, John Goldie Jr., took over a machine shop that grew and evolved in the Goldie & McCulloch Company, a major manufacturer of stationary steam engines, boilers, and other industrial equipment. By 1900 the firm had a payroll of more than 500 employees, and the plant’s products were shipped all over Canada. That branch of the family sold out to Babcock, Wilcox and Company in 1923.

John’s younger brother James established his own empire in Guelph. Born in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1824, James Goldie emigrated to the United States as a young man with his family in 1842. He left the rest of his family and settled in Patterson, New Jersey, which was one of the early manufacturing centres in North America. He began work as a gardener. His employers recognized his sharp mind and ambition. Soon he was the manager of a small paper mill there, owned by Roswell Colt, of the family famous for making firearms.

A few years, later James Goldie moved to Utica, New York, where he went into the flour and lumber business as part of a partnership, processing grain and logs brought to the city by way of the Erie Canal.

Seeking new opportunities, and fearing the uncertain American business climate in the months leading up to the Civil War, James Goldie decided to move to Canada in 1860. He settled in Guelph, probably on the advice of his father and brother, and built the Speed Valley Mill.

In 1866, after fire destroyed the People’s Mills, the largest in the Royal City, he bought the ruins, and rebuilt the facility into a modern and efficient operation.

The 1870s and 1880s were trying ones for flour milling in Ontario, but Goldie was astute and prospered while rivals failed.

He re-equipped his mill several times, making the People’s Mills one of the most efficient in the province. He financed a railway siding direct to the mill to reduce handling expenses, and installed the expensive roller process in place of the older grinding stones.

By 1880, James Goldie was one of the leaders of the milling industry in Ontario. His firm shipped flour to the Maritimes and overseas. Goldie served a term as president of the Canadian Millers Association, a group that lobbied for favourable tariff considerations from the federal government and pressured the railways for better rates and service.

James Goldie was one of the organizers of the Millers and Manufacturers Insurance Company. Millers had long had difficulty in getting insurance on fire-prone flour mills. He was also involved in the Wellington Mutual Fire Insurance Company, and a director of the Gore Mutual of Galt.

Those firms helped establish the insurance industry as a major employer in Guelph and Waterloo County, a legacy that continues to this day, while much of the original industrial legacy of the 19th century has faded or been eclipsed.

James Goldie was also a strong supporter of community improvement. He was an early booster of the Guelph General Hospital, serving as a director for several years. His major hobby was nature and natural history.

At his residence he maintained an aviary of exotic birds, particularly pheasants and swans.

Goldie was an early member of the Guelph Horticultural Society, and held a membership in the Royal Horticultural Society of England. He enjoyed testing new varieties and strains of flowers in the climate of southern Ontario.

Like many of Guelph’s businessmen of his day, he was a member of the Masonic Order. A Congregationalist in religion, he contributed to building funds and other church activities.

In politics, James Goldie was a committed Liberal in his youth. In 1876, he changed sides, joining the Conservatives of John A. Macdonald to show his support of the National Policy, which was designed to foster Canadian industry by levying high import duties on American and British goods.

Goldie was so enthusiastic about Macdonald’s policies that he stood as the Conservative candidate three times for South Wellington. He was unsuccessful each time, losing twice to Donald Guthrie and once to James Innes, publisher of the Guelph Mercury.

In 1848, newly arrived in the United States, James Goldie married Frances Owen, a Welsh woman. The marriage lasted 60 years, ending with her death in 1908. The couple had a daughter, Margaret, who married Principal Craven of Knox College in Toronto. There were five sons: James Jr., Roswell, Lincoln, Thomas, and John. Most were involved to some extent in the family business.

James Goldie retired from the milling business in 1898. He lived for another 14 years, the grand old man of the Guelph business community. He died quietly on the morning of Nov. 3, 1912, in his 88th year.

Of his sons, Thomas Goldie served a term as mayor of Guelph, but he was best known as one of the organizers and promoters of the Guelph Maple Leafs baseball team, working with businessman George Sleeman. Tom Goldie was also a noted cricket player. He caught pneumonia in 1892, and died a the young age of 41.

Lincoln Goldie, perhaps the best known of James’s sons, was born in Guelph in 1864, and succeeded his father as president of the milling company from 1898 until he resigned in 1918. A year later he was appointed a member of the Canada Wheat Board, and two years later served as a member of the Grain Inquiry Commission.

He accepted the Conservative nomination for the provincial seat of Wellington South in 1923, and was elected in the Howard Ferguson’s sweep in the election of that year. He served as in the Ferguson cabinet as provincial secretary.

During his term in cabinet he introduced unpopular legislation to reduce hospital expenditures. In 1930, Ferguson removed him from cabinet for his outspoken and unpopular policies. Lincoln Goldie died in 1931.

James Goldie and his sons were key figures in Guelph’s history, and his father and brother had similar roles in he history of Waterloo County.

The Goldie family was one of about 25 families in the middle Grand Valley to make the area one of the industrial beehives in the second half of the 19th century. Many of those businesses were funded with funds supplied by the insurance companies which those same men controlled.

It was an industrial and financial elite that was in large part self-contained among a group of families.

The business activities of James Goldie and his family, and their interactions and relations with other families in Guelph, Galt, Kitchener and Waterloo, deserve a book-length study.


Stephen Thorning