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Podcast Episode 58- Local Businesses

Early life in rural areas like Dunwich presented many risks, especially related to fire. Any uncontrolled flame could quickly become disastrous with only a dug well at hand if there were no natural ponds or streams nearby. However, in those early settlement days, fire insurance protection was almost cost prohibitive for the average farmer in Canada. There were no insurance companies yet based in Ontario, the only options were those based in England with offices in Quebec. This was because the hazards of agriculture in that region were well-known, so the companies were uninterested in providing coverage except at a high rate. In order to obtain insurance or try to collect claims, the policyholder had to either travel to Quebec or have an agent act on their behalf at great cost. Additionally, clauses in the policies often made collection for loss almost impossible, so claims would have to be aired in the courts. Prior to the Policy Act of 1877, companies could include any conditions they wished, which would often be favourable to the company but unjust and expensive for the policyholder. 

As a result of these challenging conditions, farmers began banding together to support those among them who experienced loss by fire, and these early efforts became the first Mutual Insurance Companies in the country. As the Ontario Mutual Insurance Association reflected in 1982: 

Insurance is a system of protection against loss in which a number of individuals agree to pay specified sums for a guarantee that they will be compensated for certain losses. The principle of Mutual Companies is that of truth, honesty and respect for the other. It is the inspiration of thrift, the distribution of the misfortune of the few over the good fortune of the many, the foundation of credit, with the guarantee of human happiness and mutual dependency. 

This simple and cooperative approach to protection against fire was well-suited to young rural communities, and establishing a local Mutual Company often encouraged the formation of a volunteer fire department and the establishment of adequate water supplies with which to fight fires. The Mutuals were able to provide better insurance for themselves than the commercial companies could, and they were much more informed by the unique needs of the communities. They were much more affordable for members as they also required reasonable care against fire. The Ontario Mutual Insurance Association further describes the benefits: “They were able to underwrite wisely because they knew each other personally. They operated economically, receiving little for their services. It was truly a co-operative program- they did it themselves, for themselves, by themselves.”  

In this regard, the Dunwich Mutual Fire Insurance Company was not unique from its counterparts in early rural Ontario. The company was established in Wallacetown in 1880 for the purpose of providing Dunwich residents with insurance at cost. The group that pioneered it embarked on a system of self-insurance whereby members would sign a note in the amount of 5% of the amount of their insurance, and at year-end would be assessed an amount to pay the losses incurred throughout that year. No extra funds were kept for reserves. 

John Pearce, one of the first leaders in the movement, was elected as the first president with Samuel McColl as first vice-president and A. R. Patterson of Iona Station as secretary. The original valuator or agent was John Lyons of Wallacetown. At the end of the company’s first year, in 1881, there were 125 policyholders with $112,870 in insurance coverage. The cash assets were only $7.23. Dunwich Mutual had only been in operation for two years when a delegation from Aldborough requested that farmers from that township also be given insurance coverage. This was approved and the management of the company was carried on by members from both Dunwich and Aldborough. 

It was during Clarence Blue’s term as secretary that Dunwich Mutual purchased part of the Leitch block in downtown Dutton from Mr. Bert Downey, which had previously been used as a barber shop by Ross McCabe. The company outgrew the original office space after 15 years and a new office building was constructed on Currie Road north of Dutton, where it remained until its current 16,0000 square-foot facility was opened on the northwest corner of Pioneer Line and Currie Road in 2019. In 1979, the Dunwich Mutual Fire Insurance Company amalgamated with the Southwold Farmers Mutual Fire Insurance Company to become the West Elgin Mutual Insurance Company and new directors from Southwold were added to the board. Additional land was purchased at the office site and an addition added in an amount equal to the original building. At the end of 1979 the company had over 3,000 policyholders with $207,930,000 of direct insurance in force and a surplus of $1,463,652. West Elgin Mutual amalgamated with Howard Mutual of Blenheim and Ridgetown in January 2023 and the company is now called the Salus Mutual Insurance Company.  

The Company’s first secretary, Mr. A. R. Patterson, served from 1880 to 1887 when he was succeeded by John L. Pearce, who served from 1887 to 1890. He was followed by W. A. Galbraith, who carried on as secretary for 48 years before being succeeded by his son, William Galbraith, in 1938. In 1943 Clarence Blue was appointed and carried on for 25 years until 1968, when Don Mylrea was appointed. Clarence Blue was also president of the Ontario Mutual Insurance Association in 1959. Don Mylrea was elected director of the Farm Mutual Reinsurance Plan Incorporated in 1978 and trustee of the Fire Mutuals Guarantee Fund in 1976. 

The Mutual Insurance Company has been around for many years, seen many changes, and is still in operation today. Not only does it represent the start of Agricultural Insurance in the settlement, but also the collaboration and compassion area residents have for each other.  

The next business we will be talking about was around for the turn of the century, aiding in bringing mechanized farm machinery to the area! 

Daniel McPherson was born in Sutherlandshire, Scotland in 1816. When he was three years old his parents decided to emigrate to the New World and the family was among the first group of Scottish settlers to land in what eventually became western Elgin County. They arrived by boat at Port Talbot in 1819 and located in the settlement being developed by Colonel Talbot, originally establishing their home in Dunwich Township. Daniel married Mary Ferguson of Yarmouth Township, daughter of Duncan Ferguson and member of another Elgin County pioneer family. The couple moved to Southwold Township and eventually had eight children: sons Alex D., John K., Edward D., Charles, James D., Duncan T., and D. L.; and one daughter, who married a W. J. Coates of Clinton. 

As a boy, Daniel displayed strong mechanical ability and later worked as part of a crew operating threshing machinery. Both contributed to his decision to manufacture farming implements that would meet the needs of the pioneer settlers. He made a trip to Lockport, New York in 1847 in order to secure experienced workmen who could support the venture. It was there that he enlisted the services of William Glasgow, a woodworker, and Metthias Hovey, an ironworker.  

The following year, the three men built a small shop and foundry in the village of Fingal, where Daniel lived, and began the manufacture of tools and implements needed by those who were clearing land and establishing their homes in the Talbot settlement. The firm was called McPherson, Glasgow and Company. The foundry also produced engines and grist mill machinery which contributed to the growth of the small Elgin and area villages. The company saw quick success amidst a period of such significant growth and development and before many years the small shop grew into an extensive establishment. 

As more roads were being built inland and settlers were arriving in large numbers, McPherson, Glasgow and Company saw an opportunity to further supply their needs. Daniel chose the village of Clinton, 60 miles north of the centre of the fast-developing Huron Tract, as the location for a branch factory in 1861. The next year, he sent Mr. Glasgow, his own son D. F. ‘Ferg’ McPherson, and Mr. Hovey’s son Charles to manage the second location. The branch plant assumed the name Glasgow, McPherson and Company, the reverse of the original.  

Both factories built ploughs, cultivators, straw cutters, grain crushers, etc. The Fingal plant experimented with threshing machinery until they perfected the ‘Climax’ apron-type thresher in 1869. This innovation met with early success as settlement and clearing of what later became western Canada progressed, and the demand caused both plants to focus on producing horse powers and threshing machines. The first shipment of 12 ‘Climax’ threshing machines was made to Manitoba in 1876. The next year, the company further improved the design by adopting an end shake shoe, and the ‘End Shake Climax’ was popular for many years. The company acquired the right to manufacture the Minesota-based Sevmour, Sabin and Co. ‘Minnesota Chief’ separator in Canada with the advent of the vibrator type machines. This machine combined the best aspects of the vibrator and apron threshers. McPherson produced 27 of these machines in 1879 and their production continued and increased along with their own ‘Climax’ machines. 

The 1877 Historical Atlas of Elgin County described some of the company’s highlights: 

Their Monitor steam engine has been awarded first prize at the N.Y. State Fair, Rochester, 1874; Eastern N.Y. Fair, Albany, 1875; N.Y. State Fair, Elmira, 1875; and Provincial Exhibition, Hamilton, Ont., 1876. For durability, convenience, and economy it has no equal, and it is lightest for its capacity of any engine made. 

Following the death of William Glasgow in 1862, the company’s two branches became more or less independent. In Fingal Daniel McPherson and Metthias Hovey continued on as McPherson and Company and continued to build the ‘End Shake Climax’ as long as there was demand for apron type machines. They also developed a new separator they named the ‘Challenge’ which was perfected for the eastern trade as well as the ‘Advance’ for the western market. Daniel McPherson died on May 25, 1895. His obituary in the May 30, 1895, Dutton Advance reflected:  

One of the most widely known residents of West Elgin passed away suddenly on Saturday afternoon in the person of Mr. Daniel McPherson, the head of the agricultural firm of McPherson & Co., of Fingal. He was for a few days complaining of feeling unwell, and that day he was driven to the works, and returning to his home to lay down, and shortly afterwards he was found lying cold in death… He was a man of the highest character and integrity, or generous disposition, and warmly attached to his friends, of whom he had many throughout the district. 

After his death, Daniel’s sons John and Edward continued the business for two years and then sold all their patterns to the firm of George White and Sons of London (Ontario), who continued to build the well-known ‘Challenge’ separators for many years. Metthias Hovey, the third of the original partners, died at Fingal on August 9, 1903, at the age of 87. 

Both of the businesses we talked about today were very important for the agricultural growth in our community. From farmers banding together and starting the first insurance of the area, to the mechanization of farm machinery allowing for quicker and easier tasks, West Elgin truly has come a long way and we’re happy to be a part of such a caring community.