|Today's date: Wednesday March 29, 2017|
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Valuing Our History
by Stephen Thorning
J.B. Perry of Fergus penned most successful local book of 1920s
The 1920s and early 1930s was a period of great activity among writers in Wellington County.
Those years saw the publication of a small shelf full of local histories and reminiscences, and books with some direct or indirect reference to Wellington County.
Among the straight histories were volumes penned by John Connon on Elora, Hugh Templin on Fergus and A.W. Wright on Mount Forest. Though those volumes are sought after today, they were far from best sellers in their day. Connon’s book, for example, had a press run of only 600 copies, and many were still unsold a decade after publication.
By far the greatest commercial success of the period was Yon Toon o’ Mine, written by Fergus native John Black Perry, and published in 1924. In 1926 there was a second printing, and later a third. Perry was the only Wellington County author to achieve the distinction of multiple printings in the 1920s and 1930s.
Perry’s book was not a history, but an assemblage of stories of years earlier involving various notable characters and incidents from Fergus.
With this format he could be excused from omitting certain facts and embellishing others. There was little connection from one story to another. To serious historians that was infuriating, but to the old timers who constituted the bulk of Perry’s audience, it was no sin. They enjoyed being reminded of long forgotten characters and tales from their youth.
Perry was a grandson of Hugh Black, one of the founding men of Fergus, who operated the first hotel in Fergus. He had a family of 13 children, many of whom remained in Fergus.
The Blacks married and intermarried into many of the pioneering families in the Fergus area, and within three generations they were connected by blood or marriage with a significant portion of the local population.
Author James Black Perry’s mother was a daughter of Hugh Black. His father, James Perry, was born in 1802 and came to Canada in 1834. A graduate in engineering, he worked in the milling business in Fergus.
J.B. Perry was born in Fergus in 1845, and during the 1850s and 1860s the characters and incidents that occurred in the town left a lasting impression on him, and would later be the source for the stories in his book.
During his life James Black Perry was involved in a handful of business ventures, mostly as a storekeeper. For a time he was in business in Orillia. Then, when it seemed that prospects were unlimited in the west, he relocated to Winnipeg, where he did well. Later, he returned to Ontario and a retail business in Toronto.
Perry had a lifelong interest in fast horses. He joined the Toronto Equine Club, and served as president of the group in 1916 and 1917.
During all this time he retained contact with a number of old friends in Fergus. Like many in his family he had a reverence for books, and by 1920, in his 70s, he was spending some of his time writing as well as reading.
In 1923 he returned to Fergus in an official capacity, as part of a committee erecting a memorial tablet to James McQueen, the Fergus postmaster who had been the first teacher in the village. Perry had been his student. Perry served as the chief speaker at the unveiling of the tablet.
That experience, with the reminiscences he shared with other oldtimers that day, focused Perry’s attention regarding his writing. Afterward he quickly completed the manuscript of Yon Toon o’ Mine.
Ryerson Press of Toronto accepted the book for publication by in 1924.
Perry’s name did not appear on the title page. Instead, the author was given as “Logan Weir.” The use of a pseudonym was not unusual at that time for books such as this with themes that would appeal to an older audience. Perhaps was the intent to give the volume a wider and more general appeal, rather than to cater to a local readership.
Indeed, some introductory remarks indicate that the book was aimed at more than the audience for a local history book.
“This bit of semi-fiction is an attempt to recall to mind the character of some Scots who settled in Canada in the early years of the 19th century and who laid the foundation of one of the most substantial small towns in the Dominion,” Perry wrote.
In any case, Perry was credited with the authorship from the beginning in publicity for the book. His real name, though, only appeared in the second and third editions.
J.B. Perry came to Fergus to give a public lecture on Oct. 8, 1925. Hugh Templin of the News Record gave the talk plenty of advance publicity. Perry spoke to a full house of people he grew up with, combined with a generous sprinkling of various relatives. (Templin himself was one of those relatives: his mother was born a Black.)
Perry’s remarks were, no doubt, tailored for his audience. He was overwhelming in his praise of the Scottish race to the point of xenophobia. Perry lived at the end of a period of renaissance for Scottish culture, based on the writings of Robbie Burns and other notable Scots such as novelist Walter Scott.
His talk, entitled “The Predominant Race,” dispelled old stereotypes that characterized Scotsmen as hard-drinking, foul-mouthed illiterates, disposed to brawling and annoying their neighbours.
Perry claimed that a Scotsman was behind every scientific advance and political reform during the previous century. Today such outspoken claims would be considered insensitive and inappropriate, if not total nonsense, but to an audience of Scotsman in the 1920s, his theme played very well indeed.
In describing his book, Perry told his audience that he wished “to bring my native home, Fergus, to the front.” His only words of criticism concerned the Fergus cemetery, which he thought was shamefully neglected, as it was the final home of so many Scottish people.
Perry sprinkled his talk with many anecdotes of Fergus oldtimers, and related tales that were supposedly funny, but would fall flat if delivered to a modern audience. The humour was much more evident when his audience remembered the characters in his tales. As was often the case with Scotsmen, he made himself the butt of many of the jokes and stories.
The stories that most entranced the audience were those of the Fenian Raids of 1866. Some 50 volunteer militiamen from Fergus went to Sarnia to confront the Irish nationalist raiders as they crossed the river from the United States, with the avowed aim of seizing Canada as ransom. They planned to hold Canada until they achieved the independence of Ireland from the British crown. There were a couple in the audience who had been on that venture.
Before he left Fergus, Perry promised the News Record that he would, from time to time, forward more material concerning the early years of the village for publication. Some of that material appeared in the paper over the next couple of months.
The members of the Fergus Curling Club made J.B. Perry an honorary member of the club. In his retirement years Perry continued to cultivate an interest in horse racing. Fast horses had attracted him since middle age, undoubtedly at great cost to his pocketbook. He was also an enthusiastic gardener.
John Black Perry died in Toronto in 1936 at the advanced age of 91.
Vol 48 Issue 03
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