Some lively contests in 1954 municipal elections

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.

A recent column noted that fire service was a major issue in the December 1954 municipal election in Nichol Township. 

Back then all councils faced re-election every year, and candidates were nominated from the floor at nomination meetings. Nichol’s election was a lively one that year, a rarity for that municipality, but there were heated contests elsewhere in the county. 

Officially, the campaigns were short in 1954. Most of the townships had their nomination meetings on Friday, Nov. 26, and most in the afternoon, a situation which tended to favour full-time farmers over those with day jobs. Villages and towns scheduled their nominations for the evening of Nov. 29. 

Voting day everywhere was Dec. 6, allowing little time for organized campaigns. Often, though, the coming vote was the subject of street corner discussion and informal lobbying for weeks prior to the vote. 

That Nichol contest, which ended the political career of veteran reeve Bob Foote, had a history that went back four years. Challenger Jim Burnett had lost to Foote in the Dec. 1950 election. He considered standing for reeve again in 1953, but stood back because Foote was in his third year as head of the roads committee, which then ranked second only to the warden in power. 

Robert Foote, who farmed on the edge of Elora (his farm is now a sprawling subdivision) entered politics in 1943 as a councillor, and took the reeve’s chair in 1951. Gregarious and charming, he particularly enjoyed the social side of county council. In 1952 he took a seat on the powerful roads committee. 

The Nichol nomination meeting on Nov. 26 was a noisy and contentious one, quite in contrast to the normal dull affair that it had been for years.

In a speech, Foote dealt mainly with county matters, which only infuriated his opponents who perceived that he had been neglecting his township responsibilities in favour of the county and his own career there. In remarks that were somewhat arrogant, he suggested that he would likely be warden in 1955. 

About half those present wanted better fire protection, but Foote seemed to have only a superficial understanding of the mutual aid system worked out during the year by the chiefs. To jeers, he assured the crowd that the township’s fire protection agreement with Elora was totally adequate, and there was no need to enter one with Fergus as well. Questions about the ill-fated discussions with Fergus council caused him some embarrassment. 

As well, Foote’s comments about the new Fergus hospital won him no support. He had declined to send a representative to the hospital board, though there was a chair there for one. He termed the hospital board “useless,” and argued that Nichol’s contribution of $15,500 was far too high. 

Other ratepayers raised complaints as well. A couple of veterans, led by Bill Claxton, were incensed at the condition of the Nichol war memorial in Salem. 

James Burnett argued that the existing council did not make the best use of its revenue. He supported those who wanted better fire protection, and criticized the existing council for dragging its feet on the matter of the overcrowding at the Salem school. Indeed, the council chamber had been pressed into service as a classroom, and that class had to be dismissed to permit the holding of the nomination meeting. 

All the 1954 councillors – Merv Van Norman, Percy MacDonald, Jim Leybourne and Norm Halls – were nominated again. A newcomer, Andy Marshall, also qualified for the ballot, arguing that non-farmers such as himself, living in Salem and the fringes of Fergus, should have representation on council. 

Veteran observers of Nichol politics expected a close race, not the landslide achieved by Jim Burnett: 352-192. On council, all the incumbents returned, though Andy Marshall led the poll in Salem by a wide margin, and missed gaining a council seat by only 29 votes. 

At the Salem poll, about 85% of the ballots were marked for Marshall, indicating that a farm/non-farm split existed in the township. Many Salem electors voted only for Marshall, thought they could place their “X” beside up to four names. 

Burnett would retain the reeve’s chair for seven years. Foote made a brief comeback as a councillor in 1958, but never achieved his ambition to be warden. 

Much is made today about low and declining interest in politics, and disappointing turnouts at the polls. That phenomenon is not new. The 1954 turnout of Nichol voters barely passed the 45% mark, though the contest was the most contentious in years. 

Still, that was better than Guelph, where the 1954 election interested only 20% of the voters, or Fergus, at 34%. On the other hand, Harriston drew 80%, and Arthur village was not far behind. Harriston had lively races for reeve, council, and school board. 

In Elora the nomination meeting on Nov. 29 drew a full house at the old town hall, with clerk W.C. Murray presiding. Ratepayers put forward only the name of Norm Drimmie for the reeve’s position. Nine men were nominated for council, but five of them declined. All other positions, on the hydro commission and school board, were filled by acclamation. 

Though a fire at the Mundell plant and the closing of the Fleury-Bissell factory had devastated Elora’s economy, with a consequent major impact on the assessment, no one at the nomination meeting expressed alarm or fear for the future of the village. 

Several ratepayers mentioned that they would like to proceed with a sewage system, and other projects were suggested by both councillors and the public. Councillor Israel made the installation of traffic lights at the corner of Mill and Metcalfe Streets his priority. That project would remain undone for another 40 years. 

The West Garafraxa and Pilkington nomination meetings also resulted in the naming of 1955 councils by acclamation. Tom Hutchinson, the popular reeve, reported to ratepayers on county matters, especially his work on the roads committee. The county had accepted his suggestion to set up a 10-year program for road paving, while not neglecting maintenance, and the use of calcium chloride on all roads not paved. To help with snow accumulation, the county purchased 400 rolls of snow fence, each 100 feet long. 

Ratepayers seemed satisfied with the council decision to support the Fergus hospital through taxes, rather than donations, even though the result was a 1.5 mil tax increase for three years. Councillor George Whitelaw acknowledged that the recent burning of Shand’s Bridge was causing some agonizing by council. Its replacement would be costly, and there were other pressing road and bridge projects to attend to in 1955. 

In contrast to previous years when crowds passed the 200 mark, the 1954 Fergus nomination meeting was a tame affair, and consisted chiefly of the reading of various reports.

Fergus editor Hugh Templin counted 51 heads, excluding those standing for office. Perhaps a little cynical after reporting on local politics for more than 35 years, he concluded that it was useless to urge people to come out as a civic duty – ratepayers attend when they expect a confrontation or political fireworks, or when they have a particular axe to grind. Long dry statements, and particularly those with plenty of figures, tend to put people to sleep, Templin observed. 

The senior offices for 1955 in Fergus were filled by acclamation: mayor J.M. Milligan, reeve Ken Denny, and deputy reeve Eric White, but an election was still necessary. Three incumbents and two newcomers vied for the four council seats, and five people campaigned for the three seats on the public school board. 

Eric White’s report on the finances of the new hospital raised a few eyebrows, but no negative comment. His statement showed that under even the best of circumstances there would be only $24,000 to furnish the building. The probable cost would exceed $50,000. 

When the Fergus votes were counted, only 14 votes separated the top three councillors: J.H. Black, W.I. Dickie and Beecher Parkhouse. Wilson Ransom took the fourth and remaining council seat, while Jim Fletcher trailed at the bottom. 

Both Reeve Drimmie of Elora and Reeve Denny of Fergus expressed an interest in the warden’s position in 1955; indeed, Denny declared that was his chief reason for standing again. Others mentioned Tom Hutchinson of West Garafraxa as a possible warden, though he never publicly expressed an interest. Had Bob Foote been elected in Nichol, he certainly would have faced strong competition for the warden’s gavel. 

Municipal elections aroused little interest in the south and east of the county. Councils in Erin township and village, Guelph township, and Puslinch returned by acclamation. In Eramosa, Fred Cox squeaked past D.H. Storey for the deputy reeve’s position 440-425. There were elections there for council and school board as well. 

Interest in municipal elections was far stronger in the north of the county in 1954. Only Minto and Maryborough selected new councils by acclamation. Turnouts in north Wellington were gratifyingly large, drawn to the polls by both issues and personalities. 

Next week: Municipal elections in the north of the county. 

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Nov. 26, 2004.

Thorning Revisited