Last week’s column outlined the rise and decline of Hollen in the middle part of the 19th century.
A key figure in the rapid growth of that hamlet was a young Scottish man named Samuel Robertson. When it appeared that the handwriting was on the wall for Hollen in the 1870s, he moved on to new business opportunities in Harriston, which was then in the midst of a boom following the construction of two railway lines through the town.
Samuel Robertson was a young man when he moved to Hollen, but already had considerable experience under his belt. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1830 or 1831, where his father worked as a weaver. When Sam was 10 years old the family moved to Upper Canada, settling in the Newmarket area.
Young Sam spent a couple of years doing chores on a farm while he attended school. He then signed on as an apprentice at a woolen mill, but found he disliked factory work. He switched career paths to retailing. He took a job as a store clerk, working briefly in Newmarket before moving to a similar position in Toronto at the age of 18.
Three years later, young Sam move to Schomberg, where he soon became a full partner in a general store, but, ever restless, he moved on from there to Hollen in late 1851 or early 1852. Robertson opened a store there, and received the appointment as postmaster when the Hollen office opened in March 1852. A couple of years later he was named a magistrate, the youngest in Wellington County at the time. He was also active in the Hollen Methodist Church.
In 1861, he organized a militia company in the Hollen area, when it appeared there might be serious trouble with the United States over what was known as “The Trent Affair,” and when rumours circu-lated that the Irish Fenians had their eye on Canada. The militiamen, under Lieutenant Robertson, drilled weekly for over two years, but were never called to active duty.
Evidence is sketchy, but it appears that Robertson was involved with Hugh Hollingshead and others in several of the milling and manufacturing ventures that began in Hollen on a small scale during the mid 1850s. Robertson must have accumulated a little money to make those investments, but its source is not known. It is probable that his ventures in Hollen were solidly profitable: he was in at the beginning of the boom there.
In 1853, Sam married Margaret Henderson. The couple had eight children, of whom seven survived to adulthood. At least two of the sons assisted Sam at various times in his business enterprises.
Though not yet 40, Robertson was one of the senior civic leaders of Maryborough in the 1860s. He served on the township council for six years, and was an active worker for the Liberal Party.
Robertson’s health declined in the late 1860s, and he decided to take up residence on a farm near Hollen. His two elder sons, though still in their teens, took on a role in the family businesses, assisted by Sam’s brother. By then, his activities consisted of the store and a grain dealing business.
In 1873, Robertson decided to pull up stakes. The full impact of the new railway, bypassing Hollen in favour of Drayton and Moorefield, had not yet had its full effect on Hollen, but Robertson could see there was little future for either himself or his sons there. He packed up his family and took the train to Harriston. At 43, he was making a fresh start.
His wife, Margaret, had died in 1872, and he remarried in 1873 to Margaret Garbutt, of the prominent Drayton family. The couple had a daughter, born in 1875.
During the 1870s, Harriston grew from a crossroads settlement to a significant regional shipping centre, due to the two newly constructed railways, the Toronto, Grey & Bruce and the Wellington, Grey & Bruce, that provided connection to Toronto and Hamilton, respectively. Robertson concentrated on his grain dealing, at which he proved to be quite adept. He soon formed a partnership with John Robinson, another grain dealer who was most active in the Mount Forest area.
In 1875, Robertson started a small factory to manufacture cheese boxes, supporting the emerging dairy industry in the area. The factory also turned out wooden barrels for local flour mills. In 1877, Robertson and Robinson began informal banking activities in Harriston, supporting local businesses with credit. Harriston then had a branch of the Standard Bank of Canada, but that institution was in the midst of financial difficulty, and had severely curtailed its lending activities. Less than two years later the partners formalized their banking activity, opening a regular private banking office they ambitiously called the Bank of Harriston.
The new office loaned the money that had been accumulated by the partners over the years, and the money that came over the counter in the form of deposits from the public. There was no deposit insurance on money in private banks such as theirs. The partners relied solely on their business reputation in the community.
The Bank of Harriston also received financial support from the Federal Bank of Canada, a bank chartered by the government of Canada on 1874. The Federal was aggressively expansionist, and it established connections with a number of private banks. In essence, it acted as a wholesaler of money to the local offices, thereby avoiding the problems associated with opening its own offices and finding reliable men to staff them.
Despite a lacklustre economy in the late 1870s, the Bank of Harriston did well. In 1881, the partners opened a branch office in Mount Forest. But the good times were not to last. The Federal Bank, as many had feared, overextended itself, and had to reduce its lending activity in 1883. That meant reduced support to the private banks it helped to back.
Robertson and Robinson closed their Mount Forest office early in 1884 as part of their policy of retrenchment. A few months later they dissolved the partnership. The withdrawal of John Robinson’s capital forced a further curtailment of activities. He continued to be active on the local grain market after leaving the bank.
Robertson’s son, Sam Jr., was by then the manager of the bank. The Robertsons reorganized the business as Robertson & Son, but it continued under that name for only a year. The bank had loaned a great deal of money on the security of real estate. That effectively locked up much of its capital. With the probable demise of the Federal Bank on the horizon, and depositors withdrawing their money, the end was in sight.
Seeing that the situation was deteriorating quickly, Sam Robertson Sr assigned the assets of the bank to his creditors. Some observers predicted that borrowers would suffer losses, but when all the loans that could be collected were paid, there was money enough to settle with all depositors and still leave some of Robertson’s capital, though he did lose considerable money on the bank.
Sam Robertson retired from active business activity after the bank closed. He was only in his mid 50s, but everyone regarded him as a grand old man of business in the north of Wellington County. He survived the end of his bank by a decade, though poor health continued to plague him in his final years. He is largely forgotten today, but Samuel Robertson has a place high on the list of pioneering businessmen in the northern portion of Wellington County.