Travelling from Fergus to CNE by bicycle in 1896

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.

For several generations, residents of southern Ontario marked the waning of summer with a trip to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

The railways offered special excursion fares for a day trip, and later the bus lines ran special coaches directly to the grounds. Others made the trip by motorcar.

It is safe to say that few thought of making the trip by bicycle.

But that is precisely what Jack McFadgen, a teacher in Fergus, and G.D. Short of Elora did in 1896. The details of the trip are in a letter that McFadgen wrote to Richard Mills.

A career newspaperman, Mills in 1896 worked for the Athens Reporter, but he would soon return to Wellington County as proprietor of the short lived Fergus Canadian before purchasing the Elora Express in 1903.

The letter is now in the possession of Jim Halls of Fergus. I am indebted to him for its use here, and to Jim Gow who provided help with the reassembling of the tattered pieces of the 8-page letter, and with a transcription, which I will use for excerpts.

McFadgen, it seems, was in the habit of writing to Mills each Saturday. He begins by apologizing for missing a letter on Sept. 5, 1896:

“Last Saturday, the day I should have written, I started bright and early for the Queen City accompanied by Mr. G.D. Short of Elora. George Templin was to have gone with us but flunked at the very last minute. We proceeded from Elora to Brantford passing through Waterloo, Galt [Cambridge], Berlin [Kitchener], Paris and several other places along the way and arriving at Brantford about 4:30, where we put up with some of [Short’s] relatives for the night.”

This was a fair day’s cycling for the roads of 1896. The entire day’s route followed unpaved roads, except for short stretches they might have encountered in downtown Berlin and Galt. The trek from Elora to Waterloo followed the worst roads, mostly rutted packed earth with little or no gravel.

At this point in reading the letter I dug out my copy of the 1919 Automobile Guide, the oldest I have. Though published more than 20 years after McFadgen’s bicycle trip, it is possible to trace his route with some confidence. The condition of some of the roads was surprising. The route between Paris and Brantford, for example (now Highway 2) was described as surfaced with sand that made for difficult driving.

McFadgen mentions that they stopped briefly in Paris to visit George Featherstone, proprietor of the local paper. Weekly newspapermen and their friends of that era possessed a strong fraternal spirit, which is evident in the pleasure McFadgen expresses over Featherstone’s success: “He has the slickest little plant I ever saw, and is doing immensely well. He is going to move into a larger building soon. He is giving us a local this week.” A “local” was the term used for a brief paragraph of community news.

The following day, Sunday Sept. 6, McFadgen and Short set off for Hamilton. A heavy overnight rain delayed their departure until afternoon:

“Sunday after dinner….we ran down to Hamilton. I said down and I mean it. We ran seven miles without touching the pedals. It is really the hilliest piece of country I ever saw around there. From one place on the road at Ancaster you can see a stretch of … over 60 miles of country laid out in a great semicircle of terraces before you … We stood fully a half an hour looking and then sat and slid nearly all the rest of the way to Hamilton.”

The men stopped for supper at the home of friends in Hamilton, then set off again for Burlington, Bronte and Oakville. Here they put up at a hotel, and resumed their journey the next morning.

“Monday morning we were up bright and early and on the road for Toronto, only 22 miles distant, at 7 o’clock. Passing through Port Credit, Mimico and Parkdale we arrived at the city and made straight for the exhibition grounds, where we checked our wheels [bicycles] and remained the rest of the day, even sleeping on the grounds that night with Mr. McQueen of Pilkington one of the exhibitors.”

Wellington County’s reputation for high quality cattle had already been established by the 1890s, with a number of breeders regularly showing cattle at fairs across the province and beyond. The McQueen brothers of Pilkington were among the better-known cattlemen.

“As you have seen all the sights of the Great Industrial Fair there is no need for me to describe them. I might mention however one occurrence, the visit of Li Hing Chang, the great Chinese ambassador whom I was privileged by dint of a most tremendous amount of crowding to set my eyes upon for an instant.

“You can not possibly imagine the size of the crowd that crushed around … the wire fence and gate exhibit which was fully 100 yards from where he passed was completely wrecked and trampled into the grounds.

“Tuesday morning we went down street to see the city and to have an outside tube on my wheel replaced … This was not finished until 3:30pm when we started on the home trip, up through Cooksville, Brampton, Georgetown and Balinafad where we arrived about 8 o’clock. Here we turned aside 3 or 4 miles to call on my old Erin friends intending to stop only a few minutes and come back on. But they would not hear to that so we put up and stopped all night.”

McFadgen may not be entirely honest here. It was dark by this time of the evening and cycling would have been difficult if not impossible. However, they were behind schedule. McFadgen had to begin teaching the next morning.

“We got up early the next morning and started for home about 6 o’clock arriving at Fergus at 8:40. I changed my shirt and collar and went out to school and got there about 5 minutes late. I was a little sleepy but not the least bit tired after a ride of 220 miles.”

McFadgen goes on to describe his pride in the accomplishment of so long a trip in only four days:

“Well, Dick you will think I am taking up all this letter with a description of our trip which may not interest you at all. But when a fellow starts to tell anything like that he can’t quit till he is through. Besides we had such a dandy time that I am full of it yet. Actual expenses of the whole trip only $4.60.”

The balance of the letter, a little over a page, is a summary of local news and gossip from the Fergus area. McFadgen concludes by mentioning the trip again: “If I were to start to give you some of the incidents of our trip I could fill a volume. Of course it would not be fit for every body to see but that would not matter. Your old friend, John A. McFadgen.”

The modern-style bicycle experienced an immense fad in the 1890s, the result of a rapid succession of technical improvements, such as pneumatic tires and coaster brakes. All the towns and villages in Wellington County had bicycle dealers – usually hardware stores, but occasionally other merchants as well. There were also bicycle clubs, whose members staged rallies and day trips.

In Fergus there were at least four businesses dealing in bicycles. The major one was the Templin Carriage Works. Members of the Templin family were active in local bicycle associations, including George Templin, who had originally planned to take the trip to Toronto with McFadgen and Short.

It is likely that the two had to ask frequently for directions. There were few signs on the road at that time, and when road signs did begin to appear a decade later, most were put up by the Ontario Motor League, not the government.

The route they took would be largely unknown to those who were not local residents. With virtually all long distance travel by train in the 1890s, the image people had of various localities was that seen through the passenger coach window. The scenery viewed from the roadside had an element of novelty and wonder that is hard to imagine today, when we can go everywhere by motor car.

It is fortunate that McFadgen’s letter has survived more than a century.

The contents cannot be described as vital historical information, but the letter still has importance. It illuminates the lives of some fairly ordinary people, and gives us a fuller understanding of what it was like to live in Wellington County in the 1890s.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 27, 1999.

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The Model Village: A History of Elora, written by late historian Stephen Thorning,  would make a great Christmas gift, book officials say.

Copies of the book are available at the Wellington County Museum and Archives or at Magic Pebble Books  ( or 226-383-3855).

Thorning Revisited