Mount Forest’s James McMullen a notable political figure

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: Last week the Advertiser inadvertently ran the second part of a two-part series on Senator James McMullen of Mount Forest. The column below is the first part of the series, which should have ran prior to last week’s column. The Advertiser regrets the error.) 

It is hard to argue that Guelph and Wellington County have received a proportional share of Senate appointments in the 133 years since Confederation.

For a considerable portion of this time, Guelph and Wellington claimed between 1% and 2% of the Canadian population, but there have been, to my knowledge, only three local appointments: A.J. Ferguson Blair, James McMullen, and R.W. Gladstone.

Of these men, all Liberals in politics, James McMullen had the longest and closest association with Wellington County. Born in Monaghan County in Northern Ireland in November 1833, young James came to Canada with his parents and elder brother William, settling on a farm near Fergus in 1843.

The McMullen boys received their early education in James McQueen’s school in Fergus, with additional lessons from A.D. Ferrier and Dr. Mair at St. Andrew’s Church. William went on to Knox College in Toronto to study for the Presbyterian ministry.

His later life, as a minister at Woodstock, saw him rise to prominence in the Presbyterian Church. He served a term as moderator, and became an early proponent of church union that led to the formation of the United Church in 1925. He preached occasional sermons until at least the age of 97, and died one of Canada’s most respected churchmen in 1932 and the age of 101.

James, though, was too restless and ambitious to follow either his father on the farm or his brother to college.

In the early 1850s he went to Dundas to learn the retail business, and quickly rose to a position as senior clerk in a store there.

Anxious to strike out on his own, James McMullen returned to Wellington County in 1856. Using his savings and as much credit as he could acquire, he opened a store in the then minuscule village of Mount Forest. Two years later he married Ann Dunbar, daughter of Robert Dunbar, a prominent citizen of Guelph. The couple produced a family of three sons and a daughter.

He spent the next two decades building up his business. By 1870 it was unquestionably the leading store in Mount Forest, a position that was assured when he constructed a large new building in 1876. James, a tall, gangling man with strong opinions, a shock of dark hair, and darting eyes, became one of the leaders of the community by the time he was 40.

It was perhaps inevitable that he should be tapped by his fellow citizens for political office. The voters sent him to a seat on council, and then elected him reeve of the Village of Mount Forest in 1876, and he held that position until 1880.

This was an acrimonious time in Mount Forest’s history, with factions on the north and south ends of the town at one another’s throats over the development of the municipality, which was enjoying a sudden boom as a result of the opening of the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway.

McMullen, though associated with the southern faction, attempted to as best he could to end this animosity, which he saw as destructive to the future of Mount Forest.

Unlike most municipal candidates for office, who invariably made vague promises to keep taxes under control and carry out the wishes of the people, McMullen published a detailed platform for the 1877 election, and urged the voters to clip it out so they could evaluate his term in office should he be elected.

He promised no tax increase, no increase in the cost of government, and plebiscites for major decisions. He strongly opposed the decision of the old council to purchase expensive land for a new cattle market, which he believed would only benefit a few. He supported, reluctantly, the efforts of a few Mount Forest residents to incorporate as a town, provided it meant no increase in costs, and that the town would be divided fairly into wards.

James McMullen won re-election by a vote of 178 to 128. He managed to end the worst of the factionalism, and incorporation as a town eventually did come, in 1880.

Still he could have done better: he refused to advertise in the Mount Forest Confederate, which was hostile to him politically, and would continue to do so until a new publisher took over in the 1890s.

As both a reeve and a businessman, McMullen was one of those who became increasingly frustrated with the quality of service on the TG&B. In 1877 he joined with leaders from neighbouring municipalities and from the City of Guelph to promote a second railway through Mount Forest.

After much discussion, they secured a charter for the Georgian Bay and Wellington in 1879, with McMullen as vice-president.

The GB&W planned to build parallel to the Owen Sound Road (today’s Highway 6), initially all the way from Hamilton, and, after scaling their plans down, from Guelph. Both Mount Forest and Arthur wanted a direct connection with the county town, and an alternative to TG&B, which made them captive to the Toronto market. The City of Hamilton promised to subsidize the line with $30,000 in 1879.

Organizational work with the railway occupied an increasing share of McMullen’s time. He stepped down from Mount Forest council at the end of 1880 to devote more energy to the railway and to the finding of capital for it. The company abandoned its plans to build from Guelph through Fergus and Arthur, deciding instead to commence from Palmerston to Mount Forest and then on to Durham and Owen Sound.

The new plan would make the GB&W, in essence, a branch of the Hamilton-based Great Western Railway, whose tracks already passed through Palmerston on their way to Southampton. McMullen and the other directors, though, were unable to reach financial agreements with the Great Western.

In 1880, the GB&W directors began discussions with the Great Western’s rival, the Grand Trunk, which was backing yet another line from Stratford to Palmerston and on to Wiarton. The Grand Trunk agreed to acquire the capital stock of the GB&W, complete the building of the line, and operate it. A revision to the charter in 1881 formalized the arrangement, and another amalgamated the GB&W with two other Grand Trunk subsidiaries as the Grand Trunk, Georgian Bay and Lake Erie Railway.

James McMullen became a director of the new company, which retained a separate corporate existence until full absorption by the Grand Trunk in 1893.

His activities in promoting the line had brought him into direct and frequent contact with most of the major political figures of his day, as well as important businessmen and the senior managers of the two largest railways in Canada.

As well, McMullen had been active as a Liberal at the local level for years. He impressed the leaders of the party as an intelligent man and well-spoken, whose reputation in his community and whose contacts could be useful at a higher level. With a little urging, he agreed to stand as the Liberal candidate for North Wellington in the 1882 federal election.

Though almost 50, McMullen still possessed a fiery and youthful spirit. His political views had been shaped by a quarter century of dealing with backwoods farmers, and he came to share their political ideals: universal democracy, a contempt for privilege and class distinctions, and a belief in simple, economical government.

Most farmers of the time believed in free trade: international markets determined the prices for their commodities, and they believed they should be able to buy on the same international market.

At the same time, McMullen retained a strong loyalty to the British Empire and a distrust of the excesses of American democracy. The result was a conflict in his mind on a number of political issues of the day.

It would be a conflict he would never be able to resolve completely, and strong personal views that, on occasion, would put him in conflict with his party.

In 1882, though, McMullen fully supported the Liberal platform. John A. Macdonald’s National Policy of protective tariffs dominated the campaign. McMullen, who had polished his speaking style in his years at the local level, denounced the policy for enslaving farmers to domestic manufacturers and high prices.

There were other issues as well: many believed that the recent redistribution had gerrymandered North Wellington to ensure the re-election of a Conservative.

Nationally, the voters re-elected the Macdonald government, but North Wellington bucked the trend. James McMullen, by a majority of 76 votes, had become a freshman MP.

To devote his full energies to his new career, McMullen stepped aside from active involvement in the store, turning it over to his eldest son, William. His other sons, James A. and Richard, both started their careers there as well.

James trained as a lawyer, but returned to Mount Forest to combine a law office with management duties at the store. William became an accountant, and eventually operated a real estate and mortgage business in Mount Forest while supervising the store’s accounts.

Thus, the family business remained in good hands as James McMullen boarded a train to commence his duties as Ottawa. His party was in opposition, but he would show that he was not prepared to be an inconspicuous backbencher.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on May 19, 2000.

Thorning Revisited