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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Shoemaker’s career wrecked by arrogance, ambition

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.


The latter half of the 19th century, despite a roller-coaster economy, presented great opportunities to businessmen. Hundreds of skilled craftsmen and astute clerks, in Wellington County and elsewhere in Ontario, built substantial firms in the course of a few years. Success, though was far from universal.

Although many climbed the ladder of success, many more failed even to grab the lowest rung. Most tragic of all were those who started to climb, and then fell off.

Locally, a notable example of the latter was John A. McMillan, a Scottish-born shoemaker. Very little is known about his early life. He apprenticed at his trade in Scotland. At the age of 22 he had married, and soon had two sons to support.

In 1859, McMillan moved to Belwood, then known as the village of Douglas. His first wife had died, and he remarried. The couple produced a second family of four children.

This was a good time to establish a business in that part of the country. The depression of the late 1850s was ending, and McMillan found an increasing demand for his boots and shoes when farmers had more money in their pockets. He impressed everyone with his skill, energy and ambition.

Douglas, though, presented only limited opportunities. After about two years there, McMillan decided to move to the larger centre of Fergus. The town was then a rising market centre, and McMillan had a much larger potential market for his footwear. Soon, he was hiring shoemakers to help him meet the demand at his St. David Street operation.

In November 1863, McMillan expanded his operations by opening a store in Elora. It appears that this was merely a retail outlet, offering products manufactured at Fergus, though it is probable that he could make repairs at Elora. The Mill Street location put him in contact with hundreds more farmers who did their buying and selling in Elora.

In 1867, McMillan moved to a larger Elora store on Metcalfe Street, in the building immediately to the south of what is now the Elora Legion.

In Fergus, John McMillan quickly achieved prominence in the community. He took an interest in local affairs, and was elected to council, eventually serving a term as reeve. He took a leading part in organizing the Fergus militia in 1865 and 1866, during the period when many feared Fenian attacks and an American invasion. Before it was over, he held the rank of major. On Sundays, he regularly attended services at Melville Church.

In the late 1860s, McMillan advertised that everything he sold was of his own manufacture. In this respect, he relied on his own reputation to overcome competition from factory-made boots and shoes, which began to flood the market in this period.

Through their economies of production, the factories could undercut the prices of custom shoemakers such as McMillan. Some of the local men began to handle the factory shoes in addition to their own products. McMillan was one of those who stubbornly resisted.

Another complication in the shoe market of the late 1860s was the Kingston penitentiary. Prison reformers had pushed to have skills training made part of the prison regimen. The result was a boot and shoe manufacturing business, where inmates could receive training in shoemaking. Through a sales network, the products were sold through independent retailers in many centres in the province.

Penitentiary shoes undercut all the competition in price, but the quality was inconsistent. Nevertheless, the Kingston operation captured a sizeable segment of the boot and shoe trade. For the inmates, though, the training was a cruel joke. When they were released, they faced dismal employment prospects in a trade that was in a terminal decline.

Over time, McMillan’s ambition and energy transformed into arrogance. Rather than adapt to the changing nature of the boot and shoe business, he dug in, adhering to the old ways.

He was one of those businessmen who believed that it is best to expand, rather than retrench, when faced with adversity. In 1868 he opened a third outlet, this one in Guelph. This was both a manufacturing and sales outlet.

Outwardly, McMillan seemed to be enjoying continuing success. The truth was that his empire had peaked. Only by juggling his bills and smooth-talking his creditors was he able to continue. Anyone who doubted his financial stability faced a tirade of invective.

With plans for the railway to Palmerston and Harriston taking form, McMillan saw a huge new market for his products. He made more plans to boost his production, and to supply stores in the towns along the new line.

The creditors began closing in during the first weeks of 1870. Then disaster struck.

On the morning of Feb. 27, 1870, fire broke out in a woodshed on St. David Street adjoining the buildings housing McMillan’s shoe business and the offices of the Fergus News Record. Flames totally destroyed the newspaper office, and did much damage to McMillan’s premises and his residence above.

Spectators pitched in, removing most of the stock from the store, and some of the personal possessions. The roof of the building caved in, rendering it a total loss. McMillan estimated his stock was worth $4,000 and his possessions about $1,200.

Suspicions about the fire emerged while the firefighters battled it. No one could account for a fire breaking out where it did. Investigators never found an explanation.

Soon after the fire, McMillan filed insurance claims on his stock, neglecting to tell the adjusters that much of it had been saved, and spirited away to the Elora and Guelph locations.

Legal proceedings held up the claims for months. In the meantime, to help fend off creditors, he sold the Elora outlet to his manager there, Isaiah Kerfoot, in July 1870.

After the fire, McMillan moved his residence to Guelph. Here he continued to operate his shop, which never enjoyed the growth for which he had hoped. He employed three men (one his eldest son, James) and two women in Guelph, none on a full-time basis, and estimated his annual production at about 600 pairs of boots and shoes, worth about $1,250.

Meanwhile, McMillan foolishly continued to pursue the insurance claims resulting from the Fergus fire. Eventually, the insurance adjusters gathered all the facts and evidence. Their efforts earned John McMillan a place on the defendant’s stand in court. His display of swaggering bravado, and the contempt he expressed for his opponents, only added to his problems. He lost the case.

As a business, his shoe factory was doomed. His was the smallest of three such businesses in Guelph at that time. The largest, John McNeil’s, employed 15 and produced 4,500 pairs per year.

Early in 1871, McMillan’s creditors forced him into bankruptcy. He offered to settle for 10 cents on the dollar, then for 30. Doubting the financial statements McMillan presented, the creditors undertook some investigation. They discovered that he had been hiding some assets. They gleefully hauled him into court on a fraud charge.

In court, McMillan’s conduct was as arrogant as ever. He earned himself a year in the hoosegow (jail). Records do not indicate whether he went to Kingston to earn his keep at the penitentiary shoe factory. While he was away, the creditors settled his affairs. They found sufficient assets to pay all claims, all legal costs, and sizeable residue for McMillan.

When the authorities released McMillan, he returned home to find his wife seriously ill. She died soon afterward. His children, the youngest of whom was 9, were disbursed to various relatives. His two eldest sons, in their 20s, had long moved on to careers of their own.

Late in 1877, John McMillan moved to a three-room house, long vanished, near the corner of Gordon and Wellington Streets in Guelph. By this time he had no friends, having insulted or offended them all at some point. Former business associates shunned him on the street. His neighbours found his habits eccentric. He abandoned church altogether.

About the time of his 50th birthday, McMillan’s health began to fail. He suffered from a chronic ear infection, and painful prolonged headaches. For relief, he consulted several Guelph doctors, and Dr. W. T. Aikens in Toronto. For long periods he stayed in bed, cared for by a neighbour, Mary Lennox and by Dr. McGregor.

In November 1879, he began corresponding with Dr. Aikens, asking that his body be left to the Toronto School of Medicine for dissection. The doctor advised him to make a note of the request in his will.

On Feb. 6, 1880, a couple of neighbours met McMillan on his way home from downtown. They were the last to see him alive. The following morning, Martha Haggart, who delivered milk daily to McMillan, called at the house. As usual, she went in after knocking. The house was silent. In the bedroom, she found McMillan hanging from the bedroom door by a piece of old harness.

On a table nearby was a suicide note, addressed to Dr. Aikens, and instructions for two of his remaining friends, Richard Fyfe and David Tripp: “Now remember, I want you to send my body to the Toronto School of Medicine ... Get a box and pack me in, anything will do. Old Jos. Bowers can team me to the railway. No funeral.”

Before his suicide, McMillan had put notes on his furniture indicating their disposition. Several pieces went to Mary Lennox. The only mention of his family was a writing desk he desired to go his only daughter, Emma.

With our modern understanding of medicine, it is reasonably certain that John A. McMillan suffered from either a mental illness or a brain tumour.

To the people of 1880, the story of his life offered a morality tale of a man who rose and then fell due to fatal flaws of character.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on April 4, 2003.



Vol 50 Issue 35


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