John Connon remembered for photography, history book

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


(Note: This is the fifth and final part of a series on Thomas and John Connon, Elora’s celebrated photographers. Our impressions of 19th century Elora have been shaped to a considerable degree by the work of the Connons, father and son. Their experiences mirror many of the struggles and successes of other early settlers and entrepreneurs across Wellington County.)

Shortly after his father’s death in 1899, John Connon closed the Connons’ photography studio.

This was by no means the end of his photography career, but he no longer kept up the pretense that the family could support itself taking photos.

There was also competition again. John Webster had opened a photography studio in about 1895, with more modern equipment than the Connons had. After their failure to capitalize on their inventions and innovations in the 1880s, Thomas and John Connon had not kept up with technology.

With his widowed mother to support, John Connon continued his electrical business, but rapidly-changing technology soon outstripped him in this field as well as in photography.

In 1903, Connon embarked on a new venture – a hardware store, which he and his brother Thomas Jr. (usually called Tom), in partnership with the Carswell brothers, purchased from E.R. Patmore.

The Carswells operated a dry-goods store on Geddes Street, and were involved in several other business ventures. They were related to the Connons; Tom Connon was married to Matilda Carswell.

The store was not a success as a partnership. In 1904, the Carswells took it over completely, and Tom Connon moved to Winnipeg, where he joined the CPR as a telegrapher. Years later, Tom became the CPR station agent at Goderich, and an important figure in historical circles in Huron county.

His brother, John, meanwhile, continued to search for a full-time occupation. Beginning in 1905, he began producing photographic postcards, selling them through local drug stores at five cents each.

By the standards of the time, these were expensive cards – most commercial postcards were one or two cents – but they were popular with the public because of the local subject matter and their quality.

Many of these have survived, and they are treasured by Elora history buffs.

More important than the postcards was the historical work that was increasingly occupying John Connon’s time. He had become interested in Elora history in the 1880s, when Elora old-timers began hanging out in the Connon grocery store. He began collecting documents at that time, and he had the collection of photos and negatives that his father had assembled in his 40 years as a photographer in Elora.

The push that turned John Connon from a collector to a serious historian came from David Boyle, Connon’s public school teacher. Boyle had become interested in writing local history himself, and he encouraged John to organize his material, seek out more information and begin writing.

Richard Mills, who bought the Elora Express newspaper in 1903, offered further encouragement. Connon’s research and writing had progressed sufficiently by 1906 that Mills began publishing Connon’s work in a series of weekly columns. The work was set in a double column, so that the same type could be used to print the pages of a projected book.

Mills even purchased new type for the job. Although he was virtually penniless, Connon worked full time gathering his material, which was not easy in the years before archives existed. Elora lawyer Henry Wissler offered to pay the bill for binding the book when it was completed.

Connon’s history continued until 1909, when his mother died. John was devastated by her death, and stopped work on his history, and most other activity. Jean Connon had inspired his historical work, and he revered her family, the Keiths, and the other pioneers of the Bon Accord settlement.

In 1911, he went to Chesley for a brief time, to help his recently-widowed sister, Elizabeth Grant, run the Grant’s woolen factory. The business was in poor shape, and closed after a few months.

Back in Elora, John Connon became involved with James Russell, of Fergus in another business venture. The two men purchased the Elora quarry, at the time a very small operation, for $1,500. They sold the property in 1914, doubling their money, to the Elora White Lime Co. This turned out to be the most successful business transaction of Connon’s life.

For a short time he was the Elora manager of the Bell Telephone Co., but for an unknown reason, he did not stay long in this position.

In the 1920s, Connon continued to struggle to earn a living. Though not a great literary stylist, he had shown himself to be a competent writer with his historical work. Assisted by Richard Mills, he became a freelance writer, selling stories to newspapers in Detroit, London, Hamilton, Toronto and Guelph. The earnings from this work, plus the rental income from the Connon Block, provided him with a meagre living.

Under constant pressure from Richard Mills and Henry Wissler, Connon eventually resumed his historical work, though not with the intensity of earlier years. After the First World War, he became convinced that no one was interested in local, or even Canadian history. He turned down a job to be a travelling agent for the Public Archives of Canada, believing that his work would not be taken seriously.

The offer, though, does indicate that Connon had acquired a reputation as a historian. Historical writing in Wellington County was very active in the 1920s, and the new generation of writers all looked up to Connon as a mentor. They included A.W. Wright of Mount Forest, Dr. Byerly of Guelph and Hugh Templin of Fergus.

Meanwhile, Connon sat in the old family residence amid piles of documents and pictures, and the half-printed book that Richard Mills had produced between 1906 and 1909. He often wondered what would become of it all when he died.

He spent much time writing letters. To those interested in his work he stapled together and gave away the first part of his book, in all about 70 copies. His most intimate correspondent at this time was Augusta Gilkison, granddaughter of the founder of the village, who suggest that the two collaborate on a book – she also had a considerable hoard of Elora documents.

When Hugh Templin began publishing historical items in the Fergus News Record in the mid 1920s, Connon finally stirred himself to resume his long-abandoned book. Templin published the conclusion to Connon’s book in the newspaper, and also the pages to go with the part already completed.

In 1930, Templin was determined to see Connon’s book completed. Dr. Frederick Banting, the insulin inventor, became aware of the project. He brought Stewart Wallace, the University of Toronto librarian, to Elora. Wallace purchased some of Connon’s photographs and old documents and the proceeds were used for production costs for the copper plate illustrations.

Templin’s father, J.C. Templin, also provided some money, and Henry Wissler was anxious to make good his offer of 20 years before.

It was something of a miracle that the book was finished and bound. Altogether, there were about 330 copies produced of The Early History of Elora and Vicinity.

The first 100 copies arrived from the binder a few days before Christmas in 1930. Despite the depression conditions, the first copies sold quickly. Connon autographed a few for friends and admirers, but he did not live to see the entire production arrive. He died on Jan. 18, 1931, at the age of 69.

Connon’s obituary appeared in many newspapers, reflecting his stature in historical circles. Interest in history, though, was limited.

It took several years before Hugh Templin was able to sell all the copies of the book. They are now very valuable treasures.

There are still many people alive who remember Connon. Some recall him as a shy and slightly stiff man, while others remember his humour and devastating wit. He was a retiring man, and preferred long solitary walks to socializing. He was somewhat reclusive in his older years, but he always welcomed callers who asked about local history. He spoke to school classes on several occasions, imitating the teaching methods of his old friend David Boyle.

His work is remarkable for a man with no formal training in history. He agonized over details and facts, spending years sorting out conflicting and ambiguous information. Overall, his emphasis was on the early pioneers and their family connections. He virtually ignored the economic development of Elora.

There is also a petty and mean streak to his personality that came out in his work. He ignored many of the successful people in Elora’s history – at least those more successful financially than the Connons: J.M. Fraser, the Dalbys, the Bains, the Mundells, the Potters and others.

The use of photographs in Connon’s book was unusual for a local history at the time. Most are portraits, reflecting his obsession with pioneers. He was opposed in principle to interpretation or any commentary in his writing. He told one correspondent in 1900, “It is not gossip, nor any private matters I am hunting up, but the history, pure and simple.”

The real merit of Connon’s book is the information he gathered from descendants of the pioneers. This information is available nowhere else.

Local historians will forever be indebted to John Connon, not only for his book, but for the documents he saved and the photographs, taken by himself and his father, that he preserved.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on April 5, 1994.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015