Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on June 28, 2008. Note that the first paragraph from the original story might make some readers feel a little melancholy in the midst of the COVID pandemic restrictions on public gatherings.
Canada Day weekend is upon us, with the nation’s birthday serving as the perfect excuse to celebrate the start of summer. Fireworks, public meals, outdoor concerts—Torontonians will be out in force for these events over the next few days, much as they were on the day our nation gained status as a dominion.
From 6 a.m. onwards, the smell of roast ox filled the area at the foot of Church Street (now the St. Lawrence Market Green P lot). The roast went on all day, with the meat distributed to the city’s poor. A few blocks north on Church at Adelaide Street, those wishing to deliver a religious blessing on the new nation attended a service sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance at the Mechanics’ Institute (an ancestor of the Toronto Public Library).
Over at The Globe, editor George Brown spent all night working on a lengthy essay on the history of the new country. Copies of the paper were quickly snapped up once it rolled off the press at 7 a.m. Brown’s editorial raised an issue that still affects Canada, western grievances (even if the “west” in this case is Ontario).
So far as the people of Upper Canada are concerned, the inauguration of the new constitution may well be heartily rejoiced over as the brightest day in their calendar. The Constitution of 1867 will be famous in the historic annals of Upper Canada, not only because it brought two flourishing Maritime States into alliance with the Canadas, and opened up new markets for our products, but because it relieved the inhabitants of Western Canada from a system of injustice and demoralization under which they had suffered for a long number of years.
As for what ills might plague the new nation, one reading between the lines might detect a swipe at Brown’s political rivals/former coalition partners in the run-up to Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald and the Conservative party:
The only danger that threatens us is, lest the same men who have so long misgoverned us, should continue to govern us still, and the same reckless prodigality exhibited in past years should be continued in the future; but this we do not fear. We firmly believe that from this day, Canada embarks on a new and happier career, and a time of great prosperity is before us.
Mechanics’ Institute, William Notman, 1868. Wikimedia Commons.
As the day went on, the city filled with revelers. Steamships from Hamilton and St. Catharines were packed with tourists coming for the celebrations, while trains brought in those from surrounding towns and villages. Many assembled at parade grounds west of Spadina Avenue around 10:30 a.m. to catch three hours of military reviews which, according to the next day’s edition of The Leader, were a popular spectator activity.
It would seem as if the citizens of Toronto and the residents of the surrounding country would never become tired of witnessing reviews of the troops. It is only necessary to announce that a review is to be held to secure the attendance of thousands of spectators, from the babe in swaddling clothes to the hoary-headed and infirm old man.
The paper went on to provide detailed of each regiment’s drill, complimenting each on their regalia and discipline. Sunny skies and a cool breeze off the lake made for a comfortable afternoon for the spectators. The soldiers were rewarded for their three-hour show with free ale paid for by contracting magnate Casimir Gzowski.
If military activities weren’t one’s taste, there was a fundraising picnic to aid the construction of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, completed three years later (and now known as Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on St. Patrick Street). A crowd of around 3,000 attended.
As night fell, light displays decorated city buildings. The central post office on Toronto Street (later the headquarters of Argus Corporation, where Conrad Black was videotaped removing documents in 2005) featured gaslights arranged to spell “VR” (in honour of Queen Victoria) and “Dominion of Canada.” Most of the night’s activities took place in Queen’s Park, whose decorations The Leader described as “a most enchanting appearance in consequence of the large number of Chinese lanterns that were suspended from the trees and in front of the private residences on the east side of the park.” Fireworks were provided by a Rochester, New York firm and divided into 14 themed segments, including the city motto of “Industry, Integrity, Intelligence”, exotic locales like Tripoli and a rousing finale of “God Save the Queen”, all accompanied by two military bands.
Surrounding villages saw their share of celebrations, the most prominent being Yorkville’s. A flag-draped arch was erected at Yonge and Bloor, bearing the words “Dominion of Canada Our Home.” A fireworks display was held on a common west of Scollard Street, where the likely fireworks in 2008 would be a bite into a hot pepper at Whole Foods.
Sources: the July 1, 1867 edition of the Globe and the July 2, 1867 edition of the Leader.
I would include the entirety of George Brown’s editorial, except that surviving scans are missing chunks of its final paragraph.
Since my access to other Toronto newspapers of this era is limited, let’s take a look at some of the happenings (and poetry) marking the birth of the dominion in the new province of Ontario…
Newmarket Era, June 28, 1867.
Coverage of Windsor celebrations, Detroit Free Press, July 2, 1867.
Coverage of Goderich celebrations, Huron Signal, July 4, 1867.
Ottawa Citizen, July 5, 1867.
Other highlights from Ottawa: the ceremony to install governor-general Lord Monck; a military display at noon; a fireman’s picnic; and an assortment of athletic competitions. Many buildings were illuminated that night, and the day ended with a giant bonfire and fireworks.
“The orderly state of the city during the whole day, despite the great influx of strangers and the general excitement going on, must be a subject of congratulation to all parties, and we hope that all things connected with the Dominion will be conducted by the people with the same good feeling and promote as much happiness as did its inaugural celebration on Monday last.”
A few editorial observations on the new dominion from south of the border…
Saturday being Christmas Day business was suspended in the city; that is to say, all places of business, except such as oyster depots, candy shops and saloons were closed. The streetcars ran as usual, and certainly did a paying business, as they were crowded with passengers nearly every trip. The weather was delightful, reminding one more of a day in spring than in winter; and, as a natural consequence, the streets were crowded with pedestrians, chiefly of the male sex, however. Divine service was held in several of the numerous places of religious worship in the city, and sermons appropriate to the occasion preached. – The Leader, December 27, 1869.
Torontonians gathering ingredients for their Christmas dinner 150 years ago had plenty of options from local butchers. “The St. Lawrence Market,” the Globe reported, “is peculiarly well adorned with meat of the most tempting character, while all over the city the butchers show that though they are not in the market they are quite prepared to meet the wants of the citizens, as respects Christmas cheer.”
The Leader was particularly taken with James Britton’s stall. “Mr. Jas. Britton, everybody in Toronto knows, and every Toronto epicure and gourmand blesses, or ought to, for he has certainly on this occasion pandered to their luxurious tastes most extensively and deserves for his splendid display of meats, to stand foremost on the list.”
The Globe, December 23, 1869.
Among the advertisers that season was the Wesleyan Methodist Church, who invited the public to view the Christmas tree in the basement of their Richmond Street home. Visitors stopping in on December 23 could browse a “sale of useful and fancy articles” which raised funds for the congregation’s future home in McGill Square (the lot on the northwest side of Queen and Church). “Attendance was very fair during the afternoon,” the Telegraph reported, “swelling to a positive crowd in the evening.” The proceeds helped build the new church, which evolved into today’s Metropolitan United Church.
The Leader, December 24, 1869.
Browsing the ads for the city’s dry goods merchants, one new name had entered the holiday shopping sweepstakes. Earlier that month, Timothy Eaton opened his first Toronto store at 178 Yonge Street, which offered the radical merchandising method of selling goods for cash only (the store’s “goods satisfactory or money refunded” motto debuted the following year). The store was snug: measuring 24 feet across and 60 feet deep, it only employed four people. Popular items early on included buttons, gloves, and underwear.
Toronto Mechanics’ Institute, circa 1867-1868. Photo by Octavius Thompson. Toronto Public Library, Z 3-7.
Among the Christmas Day festivities across the city was a dinner held at the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute at the northeast corner of Church and Adelaide for over 220 children living in charitable institutions such as the Protestant Orphans’ Home, the Boys’ Home, and the Girls’ Home (along with, as the Globe dubbed them, “20 inmates of the News Boys’ Home). Organized annually by businessman John Hallam, it featured a hymn sing where the kids’ performances were praised community dignitaries. “The Christmas tree was then disburdened and each child having received from its branches a toy or picture book,” the Globe reported, “and also been handed a paper bag containing cakes, raisins, apples, and sweetmeats, the children started for their respective homes, four happy little bands, rendered so by the liberality of those who will be amply paid for their kindness to these poor little orphans when they shall have addressed to them the words ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.’”
(Journalists in 1869 were a wordy bunch)
Years later, as a city councillor, Hallam’s support of free public libraries played a role in the transformation of the Mechanics’ Institute’s collection into the Toronto Public Library. Hallam Street is named in his honour.
Christmas menu for guests of the Queen’s Hotel. The Telegraph, December 27, 1869.
Some of the city’s wealthier, politically-connected citizens gathered for a Christmas dinner at the Queen’s Hotel (the present site of the Royal York). Toasts were made to Queen Victoria, various branches of the military, and Americans. The Telegraph printed the extensive menu.
The Globe reported on Christmas Day at the Don Jail:
Even without the heavy walls of the prison the genial spirit of Christmas penetrated, and brought a thrill of pleasure and a softening influence to many a hardened heard among the 154 incarcerated there. No relaxation of the prison discipline was admitted, except to allow friends to visit the inmates and bring with them some of the Christmas cheer which prevailed without. In more than one cell, tears came to eyes unused to weep, at the thought of former Christmas Days—when innocence made it a happy anniversary. Many a heart that knew not the crucified Saviour had reason to feel thankful for the natal day of Him who pardoned the thief on the cross.
Francis Henry Medcalf. Wikimedia Commons.
Politically, the holidays saw the start of nominations for city council candidates in the upcoming municipal election. Putting his name back into the fray was former mayor Francis Henry Medcalf, who had resigned from council on November 1 to protest a proposal to extend the term of office from one to three years. He decided to switch wards, moving from St. Lawrence’s (which covered the area south of Queen Street east of Yonge) to St. John’s (later known simply as “The Ward”). At a Christmas Eve nomination meeting, Medcalf claimed that when he was asked to run, he did so because, the Leader reported, “he owed the people of that ward a deep debt of gratitude for the hearty way in which they had always supported them, and he hoped he would be able to pay that debt before he paid the debt of nature.” Medcalf would represent the ward for two years, then returned to the mayor’s chair for a final two-year run in 1874.
Canadian Illustrated News, December 25, 1869.
We’ll end with the parting thoughts from the Globe’s Christmas day editorial:
Let us hope, in any case, that the event may be happy, and that we, like the rest of the world, may find that, after of dread of turbulence and conflict, we are, as we should be, in peace and good will with all men.
Sources: the December 23, 1869, December 25, 1869, and December 27, 1869 editions of the Globe; the December 25, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Leader; and the December 24, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Telegraph.
This series will look at how Toronto’s press has covered major world events. First up: the opening of the Suez Canal 150 years ago.
Given the time period, with its slower pace of news delivery, limited space available in a standard four-page edition, and emphasis of local politics over most foreign events outside of the United Kingdom or United States (an average session of the Ontario legislature or Toronto city council would have received miles more print than the opening of the canal did), there wasn’t much to browse.
The Globe, November 19, 1869.
The “Darien Canal” discussed here relates to proposals for a canal through present-day Panama connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Scotland made an unsuccessful attempt at the end of the 17th century that cost over 2,000 lives and was a motivating factor behind the Acts of Union in 1707. Suez Canal developer Ferdinand de Lesseps started work on a canal in 1881 but the project was bankrupt by the end of the decade. The United States acquired the Canal Zone in 1903 and finished the Panama Canal in 1914.
The Globe‘s conservative rival, the Leader, ran a lengthy reprint of the Cincinnati Gazette‘s coverage on its front page (the Globe ran a shorter reprint the next day). Toronto’s other daily, the Telegraph, offered no coverage.
Unfortunately, based on the press of the day, we cannot tell you what Torontonians who paid their seven-and-a-half pence to see the novelty of conjoined twins in October 1853 thought of the spectacle. Apart from ads such as this one, there was no coverage.
Not that Chang and Eng Bunker would have wrested much space in the city’s main four-page newspapers, the Globe and the Leader. Beyond ads, the papers devoted most of their space to hyper-partisan political coverage, foreign dispatches, and agricultural items. For example, the day after the twins’ visit ended, feature-length space was dedicated in both papers to a speech given by a British professor in Montreal on a topic the Globe described as “exceedingly interesting and instructive.” The stirring speech’s subject probably appealed to farmers who subscribed to the papers: the history and industrial uses of flax.
What we did determine was that after their engagement at St. Lawrence Hall, the twins moved on to a three-day appearance in Hamilton.
The first conjoined pair to be dubbed “Siamese twins,” Chang and Eng (1811-1874) were first displayed for the public to gape at in 1829. When they reached their age of authority in 1832, they cancelled their performing contract, having tired of being treated as second-class citizens compared to their managers. They moved to rural North Carolina in 1839, giving themselves the last name “Bunker” after their banker in New York. The brothers became perfect southern country gentlemen, owning 28 slaves and supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Their visit to Toronto in 1853 was among their periodic returns to touring, necessitated by supporting their 21 children. Note that today’s ad presents the brothers with a degree of dignity; rather than scream “look at the freaks!” the Bunkers appeared at a “levee” within the civilized confines of St. Lawrence Hall. It’s a better approach than shown in a dispatch the Globe published in 1869 while the brothers toured England. British writer Frank Buckland seemed relieved that London’s drought of freak exploitation had ended. “For the last two or three years,” Buckland observed, “there has been a lamentable dearth of exhibition of extraordinary people and things.”
While sailing back from Europe in 1870, Chang suffered a stroke while playing chess with the ship’s captain. Eng helped his brother move around for the next four years, until both died on January 17, 1874. The autopsy revealed that the brothers never could have been separated, due to a shared liver.
Additional material from American Sideshow by Marc Hartzman (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2005); the October 5, 1853, March 13, 1869, and December 1, 1870 editions of the Globe; and the January 20, 2001 edition of the Globe and Mail.
While plastering an ad with the word “circus” might not draw too many stares, naming a travelling animal menagerie a “hippozoonomadon” was a guaranteed eye-grabber. Toronto was among the stops veteran showman Lewis Lent brought his exotic mix of elephants, equestrians, and hippos to during a grand tour of Canada West (present-day Ontario) during the summer of 1862.
The Globe, July 15, 1862.
We dare you to say “athleolympimantheum” five times fast. We also noticed that the elephants received more dignified names (historical figures ranging from Cleopatra to American politician Daniel Webster) than the mules mentioned below, who were stuck with monikers typically found in a minstrel show.
The Globe, July 15, 1862.
The Globe seemed impressed, if generically so, by the circus, which drew a crowd of around 2,000 during its opening night:
The great attraction is the Hippopotamus or River Horse of the White Nile. This strange looking animal is accompanied by an Egyptian who assisted at its capture. Taken together, they are great curiosities and well worth a visit. Next come the wonderful performing Elephants who perform several extraordinary feats, winding up by one of them turning a barrel organ, while a second dances to the music on the bottom of an inverted tub. The equestrians, male and female, performed some very daring feats, and the acrobats displayed much agility.
Additional material from the July 22, 1862 edition of the Globe.
How we imagine a tourist magazine cover might have looked in 1867.
In June 1867, Toronto was weeks away from becoming the capital city of the province of Ontario in the newly formed Dominion of Canada. Then, as now, the summer tourist season was underway, though the preferred methods of arrival were train or steamship. We recently thumbed through a travel guide published that year, The Canadian Handbook and Tourist’s Guide, which provides both brief highlights for visitors to our fair city and criticizes the lack of natural wonders. Which got us thinking…what would tourist literature akin to modern publications like Where Toronto have looked like during the Confederation year?
Here’s our attempt.
Normal School building, Gould Street, north-side east of Yonge, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 8.
Summer is upon us and there are few better times to take a day’s visit or a week’s excursion to Toronto. Pay no heed to the authors of a recent travel guide who contend that our city has too many brick buildings (due to the absence of local stone quarries) and utterly lacks beautiful scenery and scenic drives. A city like ours has many aspects to appeal to any traveller, with which we hope to enlighten you.
St. James Cathedral, between 1885 and 1895. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1478, Item 23.
Toronto treats piety with the utmost seriousness. If your visit coincides with the Lord’s Day, there are many handsome churches that will satisfy your spiritual needs. If you are of the Anglican persuasion, attend a service at St. James Cathedral at the corner of King and Church streets. If you are a devotee of the papacy (which we generally do not advise visitors to openly display on Toronto’s streets, especially those of Irish extraction, unless brawling is on your itinerary), then slip into a mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Michael. Though both of these buildings of high worship have yet to be completed, we are assured that once their spires are finished they will provide much to the city’s appearance from a distance.
University of Toronto, 1859. Painted by Sir Edmund Walker. Wikimedia Commons.
The city’s institutes of higher learning provide more than space to train the nation’s future leaders—these are sites for tourists who wish a sense of Toronto’s philosophy, the city’s aesthetics. Deep thought has gone into their architecture and aesthetic surroundings which make them ideal locations to spend an afternoon. The University of Toronto offers a beautiful botanical garden on its grounds, along with a main Norman-styled building made of the finest white stone from Ohio. On Queen Street, Trinity College offers 20 acres of lush parkland that we are certain future generations will enjoy on days resplendent with sun. The Normal School at St. James Square is said to the largest building in America designed to train future educators.
Right wing of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, 1868. Photo by William Notman. McCord Museum, Item I-34480.1.
A recently published guidebook, The Canadian Handbook and Tourist’s Guide, highlights one of the most enlightening experiences in which any visitor to Toronto can partake, one that reinforces the frailty of human existence:
The Provincial Lunatic Asylum, at the western extremity of the city, is well worthy of a visit by the curious in such matters. It is kept in admirable order; and though it is a painful sight at all times to be brought in contact with “humanity so fallen,” it is pleasing to see the degree of comfort many of the patients seem to enjoy. There is no difficulty in obtaining permission to view it.
The Globe, June 12, 1867.
Were a carnival of “fallen humanity” not diversion enough, visitors in July will have the opportunity to enjoy one of America’s finest travelling circuses, operated by veteran showman L.B. Lent.
Union Station (1858-1871), waterfront, west of York St., Toronto, Ont. Water colour, pen & brown ink over pencil. William Armstrong, 1859. Toronto Public Library, JRR 291 Cab III.Union Station, circa 1860.
Travellers arriving from the north have a new train station to disembark from in the vicinity of City Hall and St. Lawrence Market. Operated by the Northern Railway, this wonderful new facility on the Esplanade west of Jarvis Street was recently described in one of the city’s finest newspapers, the Globe, as being “a much more ornamental and commodious structure than is generally imagined…It is in the Italian style, with heavy bracketed cornice, circular-headed windows and doors, glazed with ornamental ground glass.” No less a figure than John A. Macdonald (who we suspect will become leader of the new Dominion next month) was on hand for the opening ceremony to praise the future possibilities of extending the line beyond Barrie into Grey County and other points north.
The Globe, September 7, 1858.
During the late 19th century, several downtown Toronto dry-goods merchants developed the potential to grow into major department stores. While Eaton’s and Simpsons evolved into national retailers, their competitors either couldn’t tackle the two giants or fell by the wayside for other reasons. One could-have-been-a-contender was Robert Walker and Sons, a.k.a. the Golden Lion, which was considered the largest retail business in Ontario in the late 1860s.
A native of Brampton, England, Robert Walker moved to Toronto in 1829, where he quickly entered the local clothing business. Around 1836, he formed a partnership with Thomas Hutchinson and operated a store on King Street east of Yonge. Around 1847, Walker opened up his wallet and spent a spectacular amount for the time period ($30,000) to build a stone structure at 33-37 King Street East to house his business. Two years later, the store adopted a golden lion as its symbol.
The intense competition between dry-goods sellers led to bloodthirsty ad copy. Take the following spot Walker prepared in January 1858:
of the late stocks of CLOTHING & DRY GOODS
to be SLAUGHTERED!
at FEARFUL REDUCTIONS
The Globe, March 19, 1881.
The Golden Lion became a key component of one of the city’s most fashionable shopping blocks. Its success prompted a major expansion built in 1866-67 which utilized cast iron columns to free up floor space previously occupied by thick masonry. The new four-storey front on King Street included a 30-foot-high glass window, while a two-storey back section stretching to Colborne Street utilized a 12-foot-wide glass dome for improved natural lighting. Topping the store was a 12-foot-high stone lion. The result, the Globe declared, excelled “anything before seen in this city, or perhaps any other part of Canada.”
Walker was active in the community, serving as a firefighter and on the board of the Necropolis cemetery. He was a devout Methodist who acted as a Sunday school superintendent and donated the land to build the Parliament Street Methodist Church (later demolished to build the Regent Park housing project). Walker retired from the business in 1870; when he died in 1885, the Globe called him “an energetic and upright merchant, a Christian who lived up to his creed and was not afraid to be known as a Christian—Mr. Walker was one of whom Toronto was, and had a right to be, proud.”
Toronto Star, September 25, 1895.
Though the store doubled in size again in 1892, by 1898 no one was left in the Walker family to run it. Unlike its competitor Simpsons, where founder Robert Simpson’s sudden death in December 1897 prompted his survivors to sell out, the Golden Lion closed its doors. Subsequent occupants included another short-lived department store and a Liberal campaign office during the 1900 federal election.
After the stone lion was removed on April 6, 1901, the store was demolished to make way for a prominent new development. “In Toronto,” the Hamilton Herald observed, “they are pulling down the old Golden Lion to make room for a new White Elephant in the form of a palace.” The store’s replacement has stood the test of time as a downtown landmark—the King Edward Hotel.
Additional material from Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1978); the January 19, 1858, February 23, 1867, and October 6, 1885 editions of the Globe; and the April 12, 1901 edition of the Toronto Star.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Over the years of writing Historicist, I developed a bad habit of finishing columns while I was supposed to be on vacation. Entries were finished everywhere from cozy hotels in Montreal to large chain suites near LAX. This entry was written during the first part of a roadtrip to Boston – part of it was written in Syracuse, while the finished product emerged in Beantown.
I was running so far behind on this one that I brought along a Toronto Public Library bag filled with research items. This sparked the curiosity of the border guard who checked my trunk when I crossed at the Rainbow Bridge. I think she was convinced I was trying to sneak into an academic conference or was seeking work stateside. She pondered the contents for several moments, and repeatedly asked why I was bringing so many books with me.
Finally convinced of my true intentions, she let me go…but not before locking my keys in the trunk.
While she laughed, I gritted my teeth. At least I learned where the panic button was in that car. I may have yelled an obscenity once I was safely past security. After that, I made sure to always have the column wrapped up before crossing the border.
If you click on the original Torontoist link, you’ll notice the images are broken. During one of the site’s revamps, images published on posts I wrote during mid-2011 vaporized. Several were fixed, usually when I needed to link to them, while others remain broken. It didn’t help that my computer died during this period, before I was able to backup some files.
Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on April 2, 2011. Cheese poets don’t get enough credit in this world…but, seriously, this was a fun column to work on. If you catch me in a good mood, I’ll happily recite “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.”
Portrait of James McIntyre, Poems of James McIntyre (Ingersoll: Ingersoll Chronicle, 1889).
It’s a safe bet to declare that James McIntyre was the cheesiest poet of all time. And not just because his verse is, shall we say, not among the most spectacular examples of the poetic form written during the 19th century. No, McIntyre’s poetry was cheesy due to one of its frequent subjects: cheese. As the Ingersoll-based bard noted in the preface to the “Dairy and Cheese Odes” section of Poems of James McIntyre, “as cheese making first began in this county and it has already become the chief industry of many counties, it is no insignificant theme.” Of the verses he dedicated to cheese, perhaps the best known, or most mocked, is an ode to a seven thousand pound wheel of pressed curd that Torontonians observed with amused awe during the Provincial Exhibition of 1866.
We encourage you to indulge in your favourite fromage while reading “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.” For added enjoyment, read the following lines aloud in your finest Scottish accent:
We have seen thee, queen of cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze,
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
All gaily dressed soon you’ll go
To the great Provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.
Cows numerous as a swarm of bees,
Or as the leaves upon the trees,
It did require to make thee please.
And stand unrivalled, queen of cheese.
May you not receive a scar as
We have heard that Mr. Harris
Intends to to send you off as far as
The great world’s show at Paris.
Of the youth beware of these,
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek, then songs or glees
We could not sing, oh! queen of cheese.
We’rt thou suspended from balloon,
You’d cast a shade even at noon,
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.
We’re unaware of any reports of anyone physically crushed by the mammoth cheese while it was showcased on both sides of the Atlantic during 1866 and 1867, though there were rumours that several ports in England refused to accept it due to the crushing smell caused by lack of refrigeration.
Mammoth Cheese made at Ingersoll, Canada West, 1866. Library and Archives Canada, R7244-0-0-E.
The genesis of the mammoth cheese was in Oxford County, where the dairy industry experienced rapid growth during the mid-19th century. By 1866, the county’s major cheese producers looked for new markets to sell their products and saw an opportunity when the aftermath of the Civil War in the United States hampered American exports of cheese to England. An attention-grabber to impress the English was required, so work began on a massive wheel of cheese at James Harris’s factory south of Ingersoll in June 1866. At least three factories provided the raw ingredients to produce a wheel that was approximately three feet thick, seven feet in diameter, and boasted a circumference of 21 feet. When the finished product arrived at the Great Western Railway station in Ingersoll to be shipped to its first destination on August 23, the town celebrated a public holiday. It was amid the speeches by local dignitaries that McIntyre publicly debuted “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.”
The cheese’s first major showing was at the New York State Fair in Saratoga. Harris was offered $6,000 to part with the cheese, but refused. He also refused to accept $500 to show it as a separate attraction at the upcoming Provincial Exhibition (the forerunner of the Canadian National Exhibition) in Toronto. Rather than charge visitors an extra fee to see the monstrosity, Harris preferred to display it alongside other major attractions in the Crystal Palace or with entrants in the dairy competition. A team of four horses was required to haul the cheese into the Crystal Palace for setup on September 22. When the fair officially opened a few days later, the Globe observed that “no object in the Exhibition arrested more general attention than this. It is visited throughout the day by a crowd of interested spectators, by many of whom the most amusing opinions are expressed.” Harris and fellow mammoth cheese contributor Hiram Ranney left the fair with third place prizes in the “best factory cheese, not less than 50 lbs each” category. After Toronto, the cheese made its way across the Atlantic, where its use as a promotional stunt proved effective. The cheese met its final fate when the remnants were divided among Oxford County farmers who had contributed to its production.
Though not a farmer, James McIntyre deserved some of the leftovers due to his deep admiration for the work of dairy producers. He was born in Forres, Morayshire, Scotland in 1827, where his neighbours included future Canadian Pacific Railway last spike driver Donald Smith. McIntyre immigrated to Canada in his early teens and, after a long series of odd jobs, settled in Ingersoll and established a furniture/undertaking business. McIntyre’s other interests included serving as an official in the Liberal party and his duties as a Mason and Oddfellow. During his lifetime, McIntyre’s poetry was published in the Globe and, according to notes at the front of Poems of James McIntyre, received praise from the likes of Globe editor Sir John Willison (“the gem of the table”), Toronto Police Magistrate George Taylor Denison III (who “found many most interesting pieces on Canadian subjects”), historian Henry Scadding (who felt a poem about one pioneering cheese maker “had the ring of a fine old ballad about it”), and Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat (who was impressed with McIntyre’s patriotic spirit). One wonders if, in the case of fellow Liberals like Mowat, political allegiances shaped the praise.
Man and woman fishing in the Credit River, July 1, 1902. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1430.
Occasionally McIntyre mentioned Toronto in his poems. “Credit Valley Trip” arose when McIntyre was among a delegation visiting Toronto on a train provided by the Credit Valley Railway Company. While McIntyre seems to have enjoyed the sights he saw out the train window, and makes reference to Toronto sporting legend Ned Hanlan (despite misspelling his name), in the end he and his companions agreed that while Toronto was a nice place to visit, they wouldn’t want to live here.
Whenever we take a tour abroad
We love to travel o’er new road,
When scenery to us is new
And landscape pleasing to the view,
When invited for to rally
And take a trip on the Credit Valley,
We resolved for to afford
A day with Council and School Board,
For to view the rural charms
Of hills and dales and fertile farms,
With joy we saw the sunbeams gleam
On Grand River beauteous stream,
And those perpendicular walls
Of rock, like old baronial halls,
We saw the great lake ebb and flow
And queen city of Ontario.
While some enjoyed the genial smile
Of Hanlon on his lake girt isle,
Returning home each one exclaims
“Happiest spot is banks of Thames.”
When McIntyre died in 1906, an editorial in the Star set the tone for future critical evaluation of his poetic skills:
Mr. James McIntyre, whose death is announced, had a harmless hobby, the turning of familiar topics into verse. His muse was not too proud to notice a big cheese, or to describe those methods of intensive farming by which Ontario has grown rich. It cannot be said that it was good poetry, and many of us must plead guilty to making it the theme of comment of a more or less humorous character. When the body of a young man was found in Toronto Bay, and was identified by the buttons on his clothing, Mr. McIntyre celebrated the event in verse, of which we recall the lines, “Buttons gave no clue he did desire, Showed suit was made by McIntyre.” There have been better poets whose hearts were not as sound or whose natures as kindly and gentle as McIntyre’s.
Cover to the 1974 edition of The 4 Jameses. McIntyre is second from the right.
Much of McIntyre’s posthumous notoriety is due to William Arthur Deacon’s 1927 book The 4 Jameses, which playfully lumps in McIntyre’s verse with three other well-intentioned poets who happened to be named James (Gay, Gills, and MacRae). The book spun out of a series of articles Deacon (often regarded as Canada’s first full-time professional book reviewer) wrote about lousy Canadian poets for Saturday Night in the mid-1920s. Throughout The 4 Jameses, Deacon offers ironic commentary on the featured authors and works and blows their historical importance out of proportion—in the case of McIntyre, tying his Scottish hometown to Macbeth’s slaying of King Duncan and noting that both McIntyre and Donald Smith would “play significant parts in the upbuilding of the Dominion of Canada.” Deacon also noted that “McIntyre must have immersed himself in cream, and made cheese his chief mental diet, for years. To the new gospel of dairying, he was a convert so ardent that he barely missed becoming fanatical.” Though it was a poor seller upon its initial release, The 4 Jameses became, as George Fetherling noted in the forward of a 1974 reprint, “that rare thing in Canadian literature: an underground classic,” as it grew fans through word of mouth.
Despite the humour made at the expense of McIntyre’s work, Deacon ultimately found that the cheese poet and his brethren deserved respect for trying:
When the limitations of an old warrior like McIntyre are apparent, it is sanity and not sacrilege to smile at them; but it should be done kindly, remembering always their inescapable disadvantages, their valour and their chivalry…Their aspirations, their will to universal betterment, and their intuitive reach beyond the measure of their grasp is easily traceable through their writings, like the proverbial thread of gold. By these shall they be judged and not by flaws in the pattern. The more their work is pondered, the greater one’s affection for them, the greater his admiration for their honest efforts to noble expression and the greater his tolerance for mistakes growing out of inevitable limitations of opportunity, and creating the human, personal touches that first attract readers to them. Who sees not this, has lost the better, sweeter half of their message, and is himself to blame.
Additional material from The 4 Jameses by William Arthur Deacon, third edition (Toronto: Macmillan, 1974), Poems of James McIntyre by James McIntyre (Ingersoll: Ingersoll Chronicle, 1889), William Arthur Deacon: A Canadian Literary Life by Clara Thomas and John Lennox (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), and the following newspapers: The September 26, 1866 edition of the Globe; the September 24, 1866 edition of the Leader; and the April 3, 1906 edition of the Toronto Star.
More context for poets like McIntyre, from Heather Menzies’s book By the Labour of Their Hands: The Story of Ontario Cheddar Cheese (Kingston: Quarry Press, 1994):
He wasn’t trying to write Great Poetry. He wanted to honour the achievements of people like himself, who had come to this country with little or nothing, hoping to make new lives for themselves in British North America. Parochial poetry, published in the local paper, was one of the most accessible local media for doing this.
This “folk poetry,” as it’s called, helped interpret the rural community to itself and bind it together in a shared world view and ethos. As such, McIntyre and others like him made important contributions to Canadian folk culture through their verses. For folklore historian Pauline Greenhill, folk poetry is not meant to be separated from the context of a particular local community. Also, it must be understood as process as well as product: a sort of ongoing dialogue between the poet and the community, in which the poet brings order out of the minutiae of everyday life through verses. By the title and content of the poems, the folk poet implicitly names what is “appropriate” and symbolically important to readers.
Menzies concludes that McIntyre viewed the mammoth cheese as “the ultimate symbol of progress, combining local hand labour and scientific technology in the modern pursuit of ‘industry.'”