A large number of Wellington County natives have gone on to successful careers in law. A few have been featured here, such as Lyman Duff, who advanced from a law office in Fergus to a seat on the Canadian Supreme Court.
Another was mentioned last week. E.F.B. Johnston grew up in West Garafraxa, and worked in a Guelph law office for five or six years during the 1880s before being tapped by the provincial government to be Deputy Attorney General. He was not yet 30. He quickly gained a reputation for skill in prosecuting criminal cases before quitting the civil service and re-entering private practice and specializing in corporate law. He was an expert art collector.
Two other local men who went on to fame and riches as lawyers: the Fasken brothers of Pilkington – David and Alexander. Both received their education in a rural school and at the Elora High School.
David, older by 11 years, was born the last day of 1860. The family was originally from Banffshire. His grandfather, William Fasken, a mason and contractor, came to Canada in 1837, and to Nichol Township in 1844. He had a family of 11 children, and the next generation was equally prolific. The Fasken family became connected by marriage with many of the old families of Pilkington and Nichol.
After high school, with an eye on a career in law, David went to the University of Toronto. Following graduation in 1882, he articled with the law firm of Beatty and Blackstock. That firm was then a very prominent one. Both the senior partners were connected with the Gooderham family, and the firm handled most of the legal work for the various Gooderham interests: the Gooderham & Worts distillery and flour mills, the Bank of Toronto, the Canada Permanent Building Society, Manufacturers Life, and the Confederation Life Insurance Company, among others.
W.H. Beatty, the senior member and managing partner of the firm, recognized David’s natural abilities at administration and organization. He was a tireless worker around the office, and a very quick study. Soon he became Beatty’s protégée, though Beatty later recalled that David was at first awkward around the office, “a raw lad from the farm.”
Inspired by the example of the Gooderham family, young Fasken began to dabble in outside investments. One that caught his eye was the Excelsior Life Insurance Company, then a small and struggling firm. Fasken convinced the Gooderhams that the company had potential. By the late 1890s, he and the Gooderhams held a majority of its shares, and in 1900 David became the president of Excelsior.
The years after 1900 were turbulent ones for the law firm. Fasken believed that it would be wise to diversify away from the close links to the Gooderham interests. The fortunes of that family were falling victim to the usual problems of succession, especially after the death of the patriarch, George Gooderham, in 1905 at the age of 85.
David Fasken saw vast opportunities in northeastern Ontario, which was at the beginning of its mining boom. Fasken pooled his own resources with those of some New York investors to form the Nipissing Mining Company, which acquired 846 areas of prime mineral land in the Cobalt area in 1903.
Fasken was involved with other mining companies in the Cobalt silver boom, but his steadiest income came from doing the legal work for other mining companies, and for the privately-owned electrical power companies that were exploiting the streams of the north, whose power was vital to mining and refining activities.
The change in the orientation of the law firm resulted in a major turnover of its members. One of the new recruits was David’s youngest brother, Alexander. He had followed his brother’s path from S.S. 4 of Pilkington to the Elora High School and on to the University of Toronto and Osgoode Hall
Alexander practiced law in Fergus from 1894 until 1899, when he joined his brother’s firm. The years from 1902 to 1912 were hectic ones for David. He assumed many of the duties of W.H. Beatty, whose time was occupied largely with managing the Gooderham family interests. In 1906, David Fasken formally became the managing partner of Beatty and Blackstock, and he began grooming his brother in much the same way as W.H. Beatty had done with him.
David’s prominence in Toronto legal circles earned him the honour of a K.C. (King’s Counsellor) designation in 1910. By then, his rural shyness and awkwardness long gone, he mingled in the highest social circles of the city.
During those years, David Fasken frequently returned home. He acquired a farm at Lot 3, Concession 3 of Pilkington. Part of that property is the site of the controversial proposed gravel pit that has been in the news recently. A cousin, Drew Aitchison, managed the farm.
David enjoyed relaxing by fishing in the Grand River. He proposed that the Grand below Elora be developed as a summer resort, and had vague plans, which he never carried out, to undertake the project himself. David’s charitable activities included gifts locally to both Bethany Church and the Elora United Church.
In 1915, W.H. Beatty retired from the law firm, and its name changed to Fasken, Cowan, Chisholm and Rose. The name would change more than a dozen times in later years. The firm continues to the present day as Fasken Martineau, and continues a heavy involvement with mining companies.
By 1915, at the age of 55, David began to withdraw from some of his duties at the law firm. He was by then on the board of governors of the University of Toronto, and was the leading fundraiser for Toronto Western Hospital. Over the course of his life he donated more than $500,000 to the hospital, but that was offset by business connections. His law firm handled all the legal work for the hospital, and Toronto Western performed medical examinations for people purchasing policies from Excelsior Life.
A principal reason for the reduced level of David’s activity with the law firm was his health. He began to spend some of his time in Texas to avoid Toronto winters. In 1913, he purchased 226,000 acres of land – some 353 square miles – in west Texas, for $325,000, with a view to dividing it into smaller farms.
Fasken secured a charter for a railway, the Midland and Northwestern, and build 66 miles of light, ramshackle track to service his holdings. He also founded a town, Fasken, Texas, that was intended to be its commercial centre. By 1918, David Fasken spent virtually all his time in Texas. Alex Fasken took over as managing partner of the law firm in 1919.
The Texas investment initially was not a good one. The area proved quite unsuitable for mixed farming due to frequent droughts. When the rain came there was far too much. Floods destroyed portions of the rail line. His railway faced bankruptcy when the Texas & Pacific took it over in 1920. Sustainable levels of traffic never materialized. The line was abandoned in stages between 1923 and1925. By then Fasken, Texas was a ghost town.
David Fasken died in Toronto on Dec. 2, 1929. His funeral there attracted the cream of Toronto’s business elite. A motorcade brought the body to the Elora Cemetery for an internment service.
David left an estate valued at more than $2-million. The Fasken land in Texas eventually yielded much more than that in oil and gas, and made his son and grandson prosperous Texas oil men.
Alexander Fasken continued as managing partner of the law firm through the depression of the 1930s. He was killed when he drove into a truck on the Queen Elizabeth Way, on his way home to his 300-acre estate at Port Credit. Alex Fasken left an estate valued at $1,200,000.