Mount Forest produced several famous and wealthy people

Over the years this column has, on many occasions, related the stories of people who grew up in Wellington County but did well elsewhere, achieving fame and fortune.

This week the column looks at several people who had youthful connections with Mount Forest before going on to success after moving away.

First on the list is Edward R. Armstrong. He was born in Guelph, but the family moved to Mount Forest, where he received his basic schooling before going on to engineering studies and then a career in the United States.

Armstrong was a man of great natural curiosity and inventiveness. In the years immediately after 1900 he was in Texas, working in the then-infant oil drilling industry there as a field engineer. He soon showed his resourcefulness by inventing tools and machines that facilitated work in the oil fields.

In 1909, weary of outdoor work in the blazing sun, he moved to St. Louis, where he worked for several firms in the new and growing automotive industry. He designed parts for cars and improved ways of producing them, and was soon doing similar tasks in the even newer aviation field.

Seven years later, in 1916, he was recruited by Dupont to work on the design and construction of an explosives plant in Hopewell, Virginia. When the plant began operation he headed the research department.

In addition to his duties at Dupont, he worked on other ideas in his spare time. One of those he named the seadrome, and in 1926 he left Dupont to work full time on what he considered his most important idea.

Armstrong’s seadrome was a floating airport, 1,200 feet long and supported on columns that lifted it 70 feet above the surface of the water. A large underwater compartment supported it, and it was virtually immune from movement caused by waves. Armstrong proposed that seadromes be placed every 350 miles or so across the Atlantic. Passengers could rest in a hotel or restaurant while their plane was serviced and refueled.

His idea received a lot of attention, but no one was prepared to finance or operate it. He formed a company to push the idea, but it collapsed during the depression. By then, long-distance aircraft had made the idea obsolete, but Armstrong clung to it tenaciously. In 1943 he tried unsuccessfully to interest the United States Air Force in it.

After the war, others picked up Armstrong’s ideas and used them to develop deep-sea drilling platforms for the oil industry. Ed Armstrong died in 1955. He never became wealthy with his pet invention, but his many other developments provided him with a comfortable life.

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Undoubtedly the most famous person with a Mount Forest connection was Aimee McPherson, almost forgotten today, but during her life she was the best-known religious revivalist in North America.

She was born Aimee Kennedy in 1890, in the Woodstock area, and raised in the Methodist Church and the Salvation Army, though as a teenager she converted to the Pentecostal Church. In her teens she became obsessed with religion and religious services.

In the summer and fall of 1915 she led a revival crusade in Mount Forest lasting some six weeks, in a tent behind stores on Main Street, abandoning briefly her marriage to evangelist Robert Semple. It was her first serious revival, and she practiced her faith healing on several attendees. Her short stay in Mount Forest has been described as the real start of her career. In addition to faith healing, she was vehemently opposed to evolutionary theory.

Her association with Mount Forest, though brief, became something of a local legend after she went to the United States. Her first husband died, and she divorced her second one in 1921. She quickly became a well-known evangelist, particularly through her use of radio broadcasts. In 1923 she constructed her church, the Angelus Temple, in Los Angeles, and embarked on a career that combined religion, scandal, promiscuity and legal problems until her death in 1944.

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Charles Woodward was born in Beverley Township, north of Hamilton, in 1842. As a child he moved to Mount forest with his family, and received his education there. In 1875 he decided to embark on a career as a storekeeper on Manitoulin Island, then very much a backwater.

Woodward achieved modest success, but not nearly enough to satisfy his growing ambition. He relocated to Vancouver in 1891, and the following year he established a store that would make his name familiar to everyone in Western Canada.

Woodward’s store prospered greatly during the Klondike Gold Rush, and by 1905 he was among the major retailers of Vancouver. He established contacts with the elite of Vancouver and British Columbia, and his friends persuaded him to run, successfully, for the provincial parliament in 1924.

In 1926 he opened his first branch store, in Edmonton. The Woodward chain eventually numbered 18 stores. Charles Woodward died in 1937 at the age of 94. One of his sons, Billy, was named Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia in 1941, serving until 1946.

A nephew of Charles Woodward, John Woodward, attended high school in Mount Forest and later trained as a druggist. While still young he moved to Los Angeles, where he set up a drug store that enjoyed immediate success. He subsequently established a chain of drug stores, and a wholesale firm, the Woodward Drug Company, to supply them.

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John P. Bickell was the son of a Mount Forest minister who enjoyed a successful career in Toronto as an investor and capitalist. As he grew prosperous he cultivated an interest in art, and bequeathed a number of paintings to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

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Fred A. Powdrell was another Mount Forest old boy who did well in the United States and merchandising. He was involved in several ventures in New York, in retailing and manufacturing. Around 1907 he bought into a factory turning out lace curtains. That firm was eventually known as Powdrell and Alexander.

In 1928 he was named vice-president of the Montgomery Ward Company, based in Chicago. In later life he was quick to attribute his skill at retailing and merchandising to his first employer, the store of Bill Pickering in Mount Forest. He picked up ideas while at that store, he stated, that served him well in much larger enterprises.

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Only one Mount Forest old boy ever made major contributions to his home town. That was J. Wentworth Marshall, who trained as a pharmacist and enjoyed great success in Cleveland, Ohio. By 1920 he headed a chain of drug stores, and was involved in several other ventures.

Marshall purchased the 10-bed Mount Forest hospital from Dr. A.R. Perry in 1920 and installed his mother as the supervisor of the institution. His mother subsequently contracted cancer and died.

In 1928 he gave the hospital to the town of Mount Forest, who renamed it the Louise Marshall Hospital.

Wentworth Marshall gave additional funds to keep it operating through the 1930s.

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Those are some of the people who had youthful ties to Mount Forest and went on to fame and fortune elsewhere in North America.

Mount Forest seems to have had a larger share of such people than other towns in Wellington, but a similar list to this one could be compiled for most of the centres in the county.


Stephen Thorning