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Valuing Our History

by Stephen Thorning




Innes, McIntosh guided Guelph Mercury for seven decades

Those of us with a fondness for newspapers sometimes lam­ent the passing of the old-time editors who were, in the 19th and the first half 20th centuries, vital and influential members of their communities.

Wellington County had a full share of them. Among the weeklies, Hugh Templin, of the Fergus News Record, was the most accomplished. Kay Mars­ton, of the Elora Express, belongs on the list, as does A.W. Wright, of the Mount Forest Confederate, and Rixon Rafter of the Arthur Enterprise News, who was blind. There are several others. Art Carr, of the Palmerston Observer, was the last of that breed.

Guelph’s dailies also had nota­ble editors at their helms. The rotund Harold Gummer guided the morning Guelph Herald for years. He delighted in gossip and salacious stories, as did his loyal readership. Heading the opposition paper, the Guelph Evening Mercury, were two men who possessed a more earnest streak: James Innes, and his nephew, who succeeded him, J.I. McIntosh.

James Innes, who was born in Scotland in 1833, began his career as a school teacher, but itchy feet soon got the better of him. In his late teens he ramb­led around the United States, working for a short time in Missouri. At the age of 20, he came to Canada and laboured as a reporter for papers in Tor­onto and Hamilton.

In 1861, he accepted an offer to serve as the editor of the Guelph Advertiser, one of three weeklies then published in the Royal City. The next year he switched teams, moving to the struggling Mercury as co-owner and editor.

In 1867, J.C. McLagan, who was involved with several Guelph businesses, bought into the Mercury. The fresh infusion of capital permitted the paper to begin a daily edition, while maintaining the weekly, which circulated widely in rural areas. McLagan left the business after two years. In 1874, John A. Davidson, Innes’s brother-in-law, bought into the business and ran the business office while Innes supervised editor­ial matters.

By then, Innes had bought out the failing Advertiser and merged it with the Mercury. While in Toronto, Innes had worked for the Brown brothers, Gordon and George, on The Globe. Their ideas on pub­lish­ing and Liberal politics in­fluenced him greatly. The Mer­cury became one of the important voices of the Liberal Party in the 1870s and 1880s. Closer to home, Innes culti­vated a close relationship with Charles Clarke, of Elora, a notable back-room operator in the party, and an occasional contributor to the Mercury’s columns. Clarke and Innes stoked the flames of frequent skir­mishes with the Conser­va­tive Guelph Herald over the political issues of that period.

In 1882, James Innes back­ed up his opinions with action. He ran for parliament as a Liberal in 1882, and held the Wellington South riding conti­nu­ously until 1896. During those years, the Mercury con­ti­n­ued its partisan political stance, acting as a convenient and continual platform for James Innes.

Though he could be single-minded and humourless, Innes retained a strong personal fol­lowing. Though somewhat in­con­sistent in his performances, he could be an eloquent speak­er on the political platform. Personally he was a kind and generous man, always dis­play­ing the Scottish sense of fair play. And always he was strongly supportive of any measure to advance his city.

One of his early editorial features had been an attempt to collect local history. In 1865, he sent out circulars, encourag­ing oldtimers to put their mem­ories of the county on paper. Many people responded. The result was a series of columns running from January to Aug­ust of 1866. That material re­mains a vital source for county historians.

When not wielding his blue editor’s pencil, Innes found time to serve a number of com­munity groups. He served for years on the Guelph School Board, and as a leader of the city’s Board of Trade, the St. Andrew’s Society, and the Mechanics Institute. With the latter, he was instrumental in establishing Ontario’s first free library, in 1883.

Innes encouraged new companies to set up shop in Guelph, and supported the use of tax dollars to provide inc­entives to bring them to Guelph and retain them in the city. He was one of the founders of the Guelph and Ontario Investment and Savings Society, and an investor in the Guelph Light and Power Company. Later in life, beginning in 1898, he served as president of the  Domi­nion Life Assurance Com­pany.

That same year, he decided to cut back on his activities. He sold the Mercury and Adver­tiser, as it was then known, to his nephew, James Innes McIntosh, and his nephew’s partner, Frank Galbraith.

By then, Innes was experi­encing health problems, which worsened year by year. In the summer of 1903, he took a trip to Newfoundland to visit a friend, but came down with severe pneumonia. He died en route, in Sydney, Nova Scotia, at the age of 70. Innes had married in 1873, but left no children.

His estate was valued at about $125,000, equivalent to perhaps $5-million in today’s dollars. Innes’s nephew, James I. McIntosh, was the principal bene­ficiary. He was born in Wis­consin, but spent his youth in the Guelph area, graduating from the famous Rockwood Academy, and later from the Ontario Agricultural College.

Though trained for farming, McIntosh followed his uncle’s footsteps, working on papers in Woodstock and Toronto, where he served a time on the Toronto Globe, working, as his uncle had, for Gordon and George Brown. He entered the Ontario civil service in 1885, as the sec­retary to the Commissioner of Crown Lands, which was then a cabinet post.

McIntosh and Galbraith brought renewed life to the Mercury office.

They increased the weekly edition to 12 pages from eight, and purchased a new press to print it on. New cor­respondents fleshed out the editorial content. At the peak, the weekly paper had more than 50 regular contributors. Galbraith initially served as editor, but sold out to McIntosh in 1905, and later moved to Red Deer, Alberta. McIntosh com­bined the positions of pub­lisher and editor of the paper for the next 24 years. He in­vested heavily in new equip­ment, including Linotype type­setting machines. A couple of the original machines remained in use until the paper switched to offset printing in 1977.

As a newspaper man, he followed the path of his uncle, both in editorial policies and activities in the community. He took a leading role with the St. Andrew’s Society, Chalmers Church, and the Guelph Gen­eral Hospital. McIntosh shared his uncle’s interest in local his­tory, and was a founding dir­ector of the original Wellington County Historical Society in 1924. He also served and headed organizations of news­papermen, establishing a name as a leader of the fourth estate in Canada.

There was an element of personal satisfaction when, in 1924, he purchased and absorb­ed the Guelph Herald into the Mercury’s operations. The Her­ald had steadily fallen behind as the Mercury secured an ever larger share of advertising and subscriptions.

The takeover also marked the end of the Mercury’s role as Wellington County’s voice for the Liberal Party. After the takeover McIntosh proclaimed a policy of political neutrality. Never­theless, McIn­tosh remained a strong advo­cate for progressive measures in Guelph, and was always de­lighted when he could use his newspaper to root out any hint of corruption or irregularity in civic affairs, even when the exposure would embarrass old acquaintances.

Ill health hampered McIn­tosh’s activities in the late 1920s, and in 1929 he reluc­tantly sold the newspaper. He died the following year at the age of 72. He was married to Helen MacDonald, of the fam­ily that owned MacDonald’s Department Store in Guelph. The couple had a son and two daughters. For such a public man, the fun­eral was a simple one, con­sisting of a private service at his home at 14 Delhi Street in Guelph on March 31, 1930.

He was buried in Woodlawn Cem­e­tery.

 
 

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