Story of the life of the late John Thomson, who formed the Longford Lumber Company and built mill at Longford Mills —Father of Orillia’s Postmaster

By J.R. Hale

Packet and Times May 9, 1929

Many residents of Orillia district recall the days when lumbering was the big industry.  The trade so dominated the business and commercial life, that anything which disturbed the lumber market affected everyone in the neighbourhood. Business men had their main source of custom from the lumber camps, mills or employees and farmers who were clearing their land and depended upon the lumbermen for the sale of their logs.  A successful and enterprising lumberman was therefore a man of influence and one who held the destiny and welfare of the people in his hand.  Great fortunes were made but large sums of money were lost.  Sometimes a man who was successful on one limit or deal would lose all in the next.  Occasionally a greenhorn would in one season be fleeced of his wealth.  Big dealers and manufacturers and smaller jobbers and contractors had their successes and their losses.  But there were always those who were willing to step in when one dropped by the wayside.

One of the merchant princes of a half century ago, who commenced at the bottom of the ladder and built up a nationally known business and one of vital importance to Orillia for many years was Mr. John Thompson, founder of the Longford Lumber Company.  Mr. Thompson was a Scotsman, having been born at Whittingame, which is in Haddingtonshire, Scotland and he was married at Greenock and came to Canada with his bride in 1855.  Peterborough was where he settled and entered a general store owned by a man named Scott.  He found time to dabble in the lumber business of that period and soon he was able to give it more attention and developed a brisk trade in square timber which was rafted down the Trent River and on by the St. Lawrence to Quebec.

In 1866-67, he got interested in the pine in the Township of Longford.  The pine in this Township and several other townships running over as far as Haliburton were owned by the British-Canadian Land and Emigration Company who had acquired it from the Crown.  Mr. Thompson went to the timber sale in the Queen’s Hotel in Toronto, the well known hostelry which was pulled down last year to allow the erection of the Royal York. Mr. Peter Ryan who sold most of the timber berths in those days was the auctioneer.  Mr. Thompson had spent a month, some time before going over the township.  He took as his companion old John Young, a well known native of the Rama Indian Reserve, and he made a calculation of the amount of pine on the berth.  When the sale came he was perhaps the only bidder who had first hand information and he felt confident when bidding.  The bidding started very low and when it reached $10,000, Mr. Thompson added a thousand every time anyone else raised the offer.  It went up by a single thousand until it reached about $20,000.  Then Mr. Thompson was tired of this process and offered $30,000.  This nearly took the breath away from the other bidders and they told him he was crazy.  However he had made up his mind and had worked out the plans to handle the lumber more economically then was being done on limits nearby.

The Thompson – Smith Company of Michigan had some time before built the canal which runs out of Lake St. John and in this way they got better access to their limits.  Mr. Thompson also had use of this canal.  By placing the mills on the lake where the village of Longford grew around them, the company saved portaging the logs to Couchiching and rafting them to Belle Ewart or some other point for cutting.  The Thompson – Smith Company took their logs from Lake St. John over the portage into Lake Couchiching.  Two tugs which did the towing in those days, were the Victoria and the Advance.

Mr. Thompson had his mills cutting in 1869 but not before he had worked hard to get the mill built and the machinery in place.  The boilers were not tubular boilers but flue boilers and were built by John Gartshore of Dundas.  They were freighted to Barrie and brought up on the ice to Atherley.  By the time Mr. Thompson got them that far he was afraid to take them on the ice so he hauled them on land.  It was quite a job and took a week to transport them.  A big gang of men with horses and oxen worked hard making a road and hauling.

When the mill was finished, a tramway was built from the mill to the wharf near the White House on Lake Couchiching and from there the lumber was taken in scows to Belle Ewart.  When the Midland railway got as far as Beaverton much lumber was taken there, as the Midland Company gave a lower rate to Port Hope.  On arrival of the Midland railway to Orillia, the lumber was brought to Orillia and transhipped on the old esplade.

I believe it was the intention of the Northern railway to run its line to Washago by the west side of the lake which was shorter and would have saved a long bridge at the Narrows.  Where the Northern crossed, the Narrows was much wider than where the Midland crossed, which is the place the present C.N.R. railway bridge is located.    But the Northern Company saw the opportunity of securing immediate business from the biggest industry in the district, so went around on the East side.

Mr. Thompson did not rush after the Northern railway for rates or agreements.  For two years he kept shipping by the Midland line at Orillia just as if the Northern had not gone through Longford Mills.  Finally the Northern management could not stand the suspense any longer and one day Mr. F.W. Cumberland arrived at the village in a special train.  He was accompanied by a number of friends from various points in Ontario and he was taking them to the end of the line in Washago to show them the country and probably to have a fish.  The train pulled up at Longford Mills about where the station now stands, though no station had been erected at this time. He called the conductor, Fred Biscaby and sent him to tell Mr. Thompson he would like him to come over to the car to see him.  Mr. Thompson told Biscaby to tell Mr. Cumberland that he was in his office and that is where he transacted business.  Mr. Cumberland did not relish having to tell his friends that he was going up to the village to see Mr. Thompson as they all knew that Cumberland had come up to see Mr. Thompson and had expected him to come to the train.  Soon after the Northern Company made rates which were attractive and the lumber started to go out by that line.  Mr. Thompson was a keen businessman and by industry and thrift carried the company through many trying times and he had a sturdy independence which is not always found.  He never accepted favours which might prove embarrassing in business so when the Northern Railway sent him a pass each year for himself and his family he returned it with thanks and felt under no obligation to the officials.

Amongst those living at Longford Mills was James McPherson, father of Messrs. Allan and James and the Mrs. Cecil Wright and Misses McPherson of Orillia.  He was known as Squire McPherson and was the Clerk of the township of Rama in which township Longford Mills is located  Henry McAuley, Patrick Mahoney and one of the Baileys also were well known in those days.

After cutting about 2,500,000 feet of pine in Longford Township, the Company got other limits in the district and left Longford standing for years.  Shortly before his death however, Mr. Thompson turned his attention again to Longford and all together 200,000,000 feet must have been taken off this, his first limit.  It was a wonderful stand of pine and one of the best in the pine area.  The first year the mill ran, about four or five million feet were cut but after the Company got well under way, the cut was from 15 to 20 million feet a year.

Mr. Thompson won the confidence of his fellow men and he found no difficulty in getting men to assist to form the Longford Lumber Company and in obtaining limits sufficient to keep the mills fully employed.  He always was personally responsible for the obligations of the Company and planned and financed with the best object of making a success of the big venture he entered into.  The Dominion Bank opened its Orillia branch to carry the Company’s account and when lean years came and the lumber business was depressed and money was coming in slowly for lumber sold or the lumber had to be carried over a season in the yards, The bank at all times advanced what he required and their trust was never betrayed.  Mr. Thompson always had the ambition to someday own the Company’s business himself and he gradually bought out the others in the partnership, though he retained their friendship.  About 1874, Mr. Melville Millar retired from the business.  He had had the task of keeping the company’s books. And with the mills, the camps, the store and buying of supplies, he had not only responsibility but had active use for his business ability.  Later Mr. Thompson expressed a desire to buy a share in the business held by Mr A.G.P. Dodge of New York, founder of the Georgian Bay Lumber Company with a mill at Waubaushene.  At first Mr. Dodge expressed a wish to remain in the company.  However after the exchange of a number of friendly letters he said that it was apparent that Mr. Thompson had set his heart on having the business under his own direction and the desire was legitimate and a worthy ambition, he would sell his share.  He said however he had hoped to keep an interest in the Company as no other investment had given him such pleasure, and even outside the profits it had brought, he had looked upon the investment as one of the best.  He found in Mr. Thompson an ideal partner and he would always cherish the friendship formed.  There was a big slump in the lumber trade in 1877 and the bank had to come to the relief of the company for a considerable amount but all this was met and at the time of his death in 1881, Mr. Thompson did not owe the bank one cent.

The Longford Lumber Company meant a great deal to the business life in Orillia as most of the supplies were purchased here and the employees bought all they required except some of the smaller articles and food which could be got at the Longford store.  Numbers of Longford residents came by boat or train to do their shopping.  The lumber camps were outfitted from Orillia and amongst the papers left are to be found cheques for good sums made out to well known firms as John Perry, George Vick, and J.J. Hatley.  Mr. Thompson was instrumental in inducing the Montreal telegraph Company to open an office in Orillia. During the summer months each season the harness for the shanty horses was overhauled and made ready for the winter and Robert Hoy of Orillia had this work to do.  In order to save time and trouble, Moses Boyd, his foreman, went to Longford Mills with what help was needed and set up shop there.

The Company owned a tugboat called the Simcoe and Captain Stanton was in command and the late Captain Lachlan Johnston, later so well known to everybody when he was captain on the Longford, Geneva and other pleasure boats, was one of the crew.  Captain Stanton was the father of the Stantons who are such a large part of life of Port Stanton on Sparrow Lake.  He was a bluff old sailor but a good type of citizen and one who did his part in pioneering around Orillia.  Other boat were the Dean and Carriella owned by D.L. Sanson and the Ida Burton which ran from Barrie to Washago, calling at Orillia.  Boats of all types were numerous on the lakes and there was always some craft plying its trade.  The Enterprise, which was a popular passenger boat when Captain James McPherson was in command, was originally a sailing stone hooker with a very shallow draft.  It took the limestone from the quarry at Quarry Point down to Jackson’s point, Belled Ewart and other points but when the railway came in, the quarries were operated on the line from Longford Mills.

The Longford Lumber Company had a depot on a farm in Uphill where supplies for the lumber camps were gathered together.  Hogs, grain, hay and other supplies were stored there in the summer and fall and hauled into the bush later.  The men in the bush in those days were proud of what they could accomplish.  The hours were not from 7 to 5 as today but the camp would be stirring at 4 or 5 o’clock and breakfast was over at 5:30.  Everyone was out in the bush before daylight and boasted of great feats they accomplished.  The rivalry was keen and things were done which men would not attempt today.

Earlier in this article mention was made of the canal out of Lake St. John.  There is also a creek called St. John Creek which is reversible.  When the water is high and the Black River is full, the current runs to Lake St. John, but when the water lowers, the current is out of Lake St. John.  A few years ago Messrs. George Thompson, Thomas Haywood and J.B. Tudhope went from Longford Mills on a fishing trip intending to go up St. John Creek. They crossed Lake St. John on the tug and got into a small boat to go into the creek.  Mr. Haywood said he would row down the creek.  The others winked at one another and agreed.  Mr. Haywood expected to be going with the stream but when he got in a piece he found the pulling hard and he was not making much headway.  He looked over the side of the boat and found the current was against him.  This was a surprise as he had not ever heard of the reverse.  After watching a few minutes, he looked up and remarked to his companions, “Holy Nellie, what’s wrong with the creek?”

In 1881 Mr. Thompson went home to Scotland and spent January, February and March with friends.  On May 26th, Mr. Thompson went to Toronto and registered as usual at the Queen’s Hotel then operated by Messrs. McGraw and Winnet who were great friends of his.  Noticing that Mr. Thompson was not round as early as usual, someone went to his room and found him in a faint.  He had mentioned on the train going dawn that he did not feel well but he had not complained.  Medical aid was called and an operation found necessary.  He never really rallied though slight improvement was noted and his friends hoped he would recover.  A special train was sent to Longford for his family and Melville Millar joined them as the train passed through Orillia.  After his death, the body was brought to Longford Mills by a special train.  During his short illness, telegrams giving Mr. Thompson’s condition came hourly or oftener and crowds awaited their arrival.  The whole countryside was stirred as never before.

The funeral took place on Tuesday, June 7th and several hundred went over on the Lady of the Lakes and Carriella to the service at the house. The whole of Longford Mills was there and men wore badges of mourning.  The Indians and the Indians from Rama Reserve also attended in a body.  Mr. Thompson had always been kind to the Indians and they in true Indian fashion returned the friend ship and loved and respected him.  The Rev. Kennedy Creighton read two lessons from the Old and New Testament, the Rev. John Gray spoke a few words of comfort, announced Mr. Thompson’s favourite hymn and took the service at graveside.  The Rev. Mr. Beatty of Port Hope who had been a student in charge of the church at Longford Mills offered a prayer and expressed appreciation of Mr. Thompson’s worth.  The Rev. Mr. Currie also said a few words.  The body was then carried from his residence, the White House, to the wharf by the pallbearers, Messrs. R.D. Ewing, J.B. Smith and Captain Hull of Toronto, Robert Thompson of Hamilton, William Hamilton of Peterborough, James McPherson of Rama, Melville Millar and Dr. G.H. Corbett of Orillia.

The boats were crowded on the trip to Orillia and at the Orillia Wharf an immense throng was gathered.  The stores were all closed and a number of them hung with crepe. Mr. Thompson’s favourite black horse, which he drove to and from his house to his work, followed the hearse.  He was drawing Mr. Thompson’s empty carriage and Hugh McNenly, his faithful servant, led the horse.  About fifty vehicles followed and walked to the cemetery.  Amongst those from a distance were leading lumbermen, Members of Parliament, business men, railwaymen and friends in all walks of life from far and near.  The funeral was the largest ever seen in Orillia up to that time and perhaps few since have had so many mourners and friends in attendance.

Canadian Post  Lindsay  January 30, 1885  Longford Mills


Soon after the death of the late John Thompson of Longford Mills on the 4th of June 1881, his family resolved to erect a church to his memory on a site near the mills, selected by him before he died.  It was only a few weeks ago that his family found themselves in the position to carry out their fondly cherished purpose.  Last Lord’s Day the building was opened for divine worship at eleven o’clock am.  The dedicatory services were by special request, conducted by the Rev. John Gray.  Notwithstanding the excessively cold and stormy weather, the church was well filled by and attentive and deeply interested audience.  Mr. Gray preached from Matthew17, 20 and introduced his subject by asking and answering the question: “Why are we here? ” To dedicate this church to God.  He preached an eloquent and appropriate discourse.  At 3:00 pm, the service was conducted by the Rev. N. Grant and he preached one of the most wonderful discourses from Deuteronomy 32, 11 – 12.  The attendance was very large notwithstanding the severe weather.  The new church is a neat, tasteful building with a seating capacity of from 180 to 200.  It is comfortably fitted up, with an open roof and the whole inside is lined with stained pine of the best quality.  The acoustic properties are so perfect that no greater effort is needed in speaking than when a conversation is carried on in a large room. The pulpit and the pews are do arranged that ot is easy to establish complete sympathy between the speaker and the hearers.  Above the vestry door is a neat marble tablet, in memory of the late Mr.  Thompson.

The company was carried on by Mr. Thomson’s sons, the late William Thompson of Longford Villa and George Thompson, Postmaster of Orillia.  The land which Mr. Thompson originally acquired ran from Lake St. John to Lake Couchiching where the White House still stands.  Mr. Thompson showed interest in agriculture by keeping a farm on which he kept thoroughbred shorthorn cattle.  Mr. William Thompson later acquired Geneva Park which was owned by an old countryman who lived in a small house on the property.

When Mr. Thompson showed first moved from Peterborough, he brought his family to Orillia until a place was provided for them at Longford Mills.  They resided in what is often called the King cottage on the Muskoka Hill.  The late Mrs. Edwards, mother in law of Mr. D.A. McNabb owned the property once and Canon Greene lived there for awhile also.  At that time the North Ward was pretty much bush with hundreds of butternut trees and from Dr. Ardaugh’s old house which was on the corner of Tecumseh and Peter streets there was only a trail though the woos to the Muskoka Hill. James Walker was in the house now occupied by Teefy Mulcahy.  Robert Dunn lived in his house where John Whitten lives and John Franklin, father of the wife of Captain Stanton was also in that neighbourhood.  There were__ houses north of Dr. Ardaugh’s till Mr. Arthur Robinson’s house was reached on the High School Hill.

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