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.
Our impressions of 19th century Elora have been shaped to a considerable degree by the work of the Connons, Thomas and John.
Their experiences mirror many of the struggles and successes experienced by early settlers and entrepreneurs across Wellington County.
This father and son team of photographers documented the village for more than a half century, and John Connon’s historical research is still one of the most valuable published sources for information on the first settlers in the Elora area.
Thomas Connon came to Elora in the spring of 1853, when he was 20 years old. Like many of Elora’s early residents, he came from Aberdeen in Scotland. At the time Aberdeen was a bustling centre, attracting people from the surrounding countryside. Thomas Connon was one of these. He had been raised on a farm, and went to Aberdeen to apprentice as a clerk in a wholesale grocery business.
We know almost nothing of Thomas Connon’s family. They were farmers, probably tenants or hired hands rather than landowners. Connon received seven or eight years of schooling, and at an early age displayed a fondness for sketching and drawing. He had several sisters and also an aunt, to whom he wrote regularly. His letters to his aunt have survived, and they provide us with a valuable glimpse not only into Connon’s first years in Elora, but also a picture of village life in the 1850s and 1860s.
On coming to Canada, Thomas Connon went to Hamilton. In the early 1850s Hamilton was a boomtown, and it is probable that he tried to find work in one of the many wholesale businesses in the city. When he found regular work, though, it was in Beamsville, where he clerked in a store over the winter of 1852-53.
He accepted an opportunity for a better job early in 1853. James Philip, of Elora, had just dissolved his partnership with his brother Robert, and was looking for someone to manage his store. Philip was the operator of the Elora Distillery, situated in what is now Bissell Park.
Construction work on the distillery and on his new flour mill occupied all his time, and he needed someone to take charge of the store. It is probable that Connon became aware of the position through the contacts he had made through the wholesale firms of Hamilton.
During his first months in Elora, Connon was surprised to find many people he knew from Scotland: the Ironsides, the Argos and the Watts, among others.
He enjoyed the life of a young bachelor. Sometimes he would stay out with his new friends until 4 am, shooting passenger pigeons.
Connon also joined the debating society at the Bon Accord settlement northeast of Elora. Here he enjoyed discussing topics such as, “Who has suffered more at the hands of white men, Negroes or Indians.”
In his spare time, Connon resumed his interest in drawing and sketching, and he eventually took up oil painting. He favoured landscapes, but he eventually attempted a few portraits.
An avid reader, he was fascinated with articles he read on photographic exhibits at the London Exhibition of 1851. He began experiments in photography himself, and followed the rapid changes in photographic technology through magazine articles.
Connon regularly remarked that it was difficult to get to know much about his employer, James Philip. He was very surprised when Philip gave him an expensive set of the works of Shakespeare for Christmas in 1853.
Class distinctions were beginning to appear in Elora, and Philip wished to carve out a place at the top for himself. His businesses were prospering. Connon was so busy at the store that he needed an assistant in 1854.
In November 1854, Connon married Jean Keith. She was the daughter of John Keith, a Bon Accord farmer and carpenter, and had been the first child born in the settlement. Connon advised his aunt in a letter that his wife was not very good looking.
After his marriage, Connon moved out of a boarding house and rented a dwelling, intending to build his own house in 1855 on a lot he had already purchased. He noted that it was cheaper to build than to rent at the time. Rented houses were often available only for a few months, necessitating frequent moves, and older houses frequently were overrun with cockroaches, bedbugs and ants. He thought he could build a house for $350 or $400, and asked his aunt for a loan.
James Philip’s fortunes began to turn in 1855. There were too many stores in Elora for the amount of business available. Connon suspected that Philip would close or sell the store, and concentrate on his other ventures. He noted that Philip became even more secretive, and fiery in his disposition. Uncertain of Philip’s plans, Connon left his job when Sem Wissler offered him a similar position at Wissler’s Salem store.
Although his aunt was willing to lend him the money to build a house, Connon postponed his construction plans because he believed that building materials were too expensive in 1855. Instead, he rented a stone house in Salem, which he eventually purchased.
Connon found Wissler to be pleasant, shrewd and intelligent, with a personality much different from that of his former employer. He was pleased that some of his customers followed him to Wissler’s store, and he believed that Wissler had the largest and most complete stock in the area. Connon even learned some German so that he could better serve the Salem population.
In 1856, Salem seemed like a boomtown. Connon’s father-in-law, John Keith, whose farm bordered Salem, decided to subdivide part of his farm into village lots, and Thomas Connon agreed to sell them. In his spare time, Connon began exploring local scenery along the Irvine and Grand Rivers.
The Salem boom ended at the end of 1856. The Canadian economy as a whole plunged into depression in 1857. Wissler retrenched, and Connon found himself out of work. He soon found a position in Streetsville. He sold his furniture, but continued to make payments on his house, which he regarded as a good long-term investment.
Connon worked in Streetsville until the fall of 1858. He quit his job when his back wages reached $200 (probably five or six months salary), with no prospect of collecting any of it. Jean Connon seems to have remained in Elora during these years. She probably stayed with her parents, the Keiths. She now had a daughter to look after.
In the fall of 1858, Thomas Connon was back in Elora, with no job. The country was now in a full depression. He noted that money was very scarce, and that Wissler was selling groceries on one year’s credit. Connon’s opinion of Wissler soured when Wissler repossessed about half the houses in Salem because the tenants could not keep up payments.
Connon was unable to decide what to do. He asked his aunt for a loan of money to start a store, but at other times he thought it would be better to work for someone.
At the end of 1858, Connon received $250 from his aunt, which he used to buy a small stock of groceries and staples for a store that he opened in Salem. His policy was to sell only for cash, and he did not carry any clothing or cloth. He noted that everyone was wearing old clothes until the economy improved.
Meanwhile, Connon’s old employer, James Philip, had fallen on hard times. Hopelessly in debt by the middle of 1857, Philip assigned his affairs to three trustees: Charles Allan, J.A. Ironside, and J.M. Fraser. He had thousands tied up in his distillery and flour mill, and he had spent a fortune on his Mill Street house and grounds, which in the 1850s was easily the finest residence in the village.
Philip’s brother, Robert, died at 34 from alcoholism, and at the beginning of 1859 his wife was near death from complications of childbirth with their fourth child. Then Charles Allan died, leaving Philip’s affairs in the hands of the remaining two trustees. Connon told his aunt, “J.A. Ironside and a Mr. Fraser [of the Elora Mill] are likely to put him through pretty hard. Obeying the command ‘bear one another’s burden’ I have had one of the children with me, and my wife goes there tonight, Mrs. Watt last night, and so on. Some who were friendly when he was well off, do not go near them now, very contemptible surely.”
Philip eventually got back on his feet, but Connon had his own problems to deal with. Sales at his small store in Salem were about $8 per day, and with the economy in a poor state and competition from other stores, he could mark up his goods by only 12%. This left only $1 per day, and a third of that went to taxes and rent. He bought some goods together with J.A. Ironside, of Fergus, to get better prices, and he used his contacts with Hamilton wholesalers to buy carefully to keep his stock as small as possible.
The economy continued in a poor state until the fall of 1859. Thomas Connon’s careful business methods allowed him to survive when others failed. During the summer of 1859, he noted that crowds gathered outside Erb’s Mill in Salem, begging for handouts of flour. He believed that Erb had $20,000 in outstanding credit, and Wissler a larger amount. Much would never be collected. Due to his limited income, Connon had to cut back on his experiments with photography, though he continued to follow changes and improvements in the technology. Prospects for the local economy improved in the fall of 1859, and Thomas Connon made plans to take advantage of them with a new business venture.
(Continued next week).
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on March 8, 1994.