Sir William C MacDonald


Sir William C. Macdonald


        Donald MacDonald (1795-1854), eldest son of Captain John MacDonald, had three sons and four daughters. The eldest son, John Archibald (1825-1903), inherited the MacDonald estate, while the younger boys (Augustine, b. 1827, and William Christopher, 1831-1917) left Prince Edward Island. Three of the daughters (Matilda, Anna, and Margaret) became Ursuline nuns, while Helen (the other daughter) kept house for her businessman brother William in Montreal from 1869 until her death in 1889.

        William and Augustine were in Boston in 1849 before going into business together in Montreal in 1852. They established MacDonald Bros. & Co., a tobacco-manufacturing firm in 1859, on the eve of the American civil war. By the end of that war, which complicated the importation of tobacco to Canada, the partnership with his brother had ended and Augustine had become entangled in litigation into the 1880s with the U.S. government after federal troops incinerated stores of cotton in which he had invested his fortune. On the basis of meeting the huge demand for the Macdonald brand of plugs of chewing and smoking tobacco, William proceeded to become one of the wealthiest men in Canada.

        On the night of 27 May 1865, at the time of the Tenant League agitation on Prince Edward Island, arsonists destroyed the barn and stable of John Archibald MacDonald; a few weeks earlier, on 14 April, the house had burned in the middle of the afternoon. In his book on the Tenant League, Ian Ross Robertson reminds us that "there had been a history of fire-setting on the estate":

In 1851 persons hostile to John Archibald's father, Donald, had set a series of fires which destroyed several buildings. The son was similar to the father in his tendency to make enemies. Both were known as unyielding, hot-tempered men who did not hesitate to use harsh means against tenants.[1]

No evidence survives to prove that the house fire was deliberate. It is not known what kinds of structures were built to replace the house and uninsured out-buildings. Whatever was built was viewed by William on a visit home in the summer of 1868; whether the adequacy or inadequacy of the new buildings bothered him we cannot say, but it was not until 1883 that he financed the much larger structures that replaced those built after the 1865 fires

        In 1866, John Archie (now in his early forties) married eighteen-year-old Mary Ellen Weeks and began to raise a family. This event, even more than the desire to see the post-fire physical changes at the farm, may have prompted William's 1868 visit home. On his return to Montreal he decided to move out of his boarding house and purchase the "relatively modest" townhouse at number three Prince of Wales Terrace on Sherbrooke Street, at which point his mother and sister Helen went to live with him.[2]

Meanwhile, the house at Glenaladale soon became crowded with the twelve children of John Archie and Mary Ellen. William financed their education generously: six of them were sent rather expensively to schools in Britain. The generosity to the family at home continued with the construction of the large brick residence, which is still standing. The present Glenaladale House was built in 1883 and 1884 and remained the family home until it was sold two years after John Archie's 1903 death.

        William Macdonald also erected a 277 foot-long barn for his brother when the house was built; it was to burn down in December 1907, not long after the house was sold. William also provided assistance in the running of the 530-acre farm, which after the abolition of the proprietary system in 1875 was all that remained of Captain John MacDonald's 40,000-acre estate. The generosity to the family at home continued until 1894 when Anna, his niece and John Archie's eldest daughter, got married in spite of William's opposition. Five years earlier, as a twenty year old, Anna had come to Montreal to succeed her late aunt Helen as housekeeper. When she married he cut most of his ties with the family except the legal ones, for it was he who sold the farm after his brother's death to the MacKinnon family, the present owners.

        The only other large benefaction that William Macdonald made to Prince Edward Island was the consolidated school at Mount Herbert, built in 1904 and operated from 1905 until it was closed prematurely in 1912. The school—costly to build because it was state of the art in design and equipment—was never sufficiently supported by either the provincial government or local ratepayers. This was no surprise, given the state of Island finances at the time.[3]

        Macdonald was knighted in 1898, mainly in recognition of his role as an educational philanthropist. While McGill University was the chief beneficiary of Sir William's largesse, he also targeted experiments in education that he approved of. He supported school garden programs, the teaching of household science, manual training, and other rural-education related projects and institutions: the Macdonald Institute at Guelph, Ontario, and the consolidated schools in Middleton, Nova Scotia, Rexton, New Brunswick, Guelph, and P.E.I. were examples. He supported the "McGill on the Pacific" project, which led to the University of British Columbia, and he helped as well to finance the beginnings of the University of Alberta. He also gave locally in Montreal to hospitals and, with John H.R. Molson, even gave the city the crematorium at Mount Royal Cemetery.

        At McGill he funded scholarships, bought and donated 25 acres of expensive downtown land, gave buildings—most notably the Engineering and the Physics buildings, funded chairs, served as university chancellor, and left bequests to the Medical, Music, and Law faculties. His crowning achievement in philanthropy was of course the establishment of Macdonald College and its large model farm at Ste. Anne de Bellevue. The college opened in 1907 to house both McGill's new agricultural science faculty and its normal school. It is now, like McGill itself, a world-class institution.[4]

        In his book The Canadian Establishment Peter C. Newman caricatured William Macdonald as "a loonie skinflint from P.E.I.," but Donald MacKay is more charitable in the following description of the multi-millionaire's frugal character: He either walked to work or rode in a carriage that had seen better days. His habitual garb was a broadcloth coat, and he spent little money on himself. His favourite occupation was reading in his simply-furnished ground-floor library—particularly journals and newspapers. He did not like clubs and, as a friend said, lived almost as simply as a streetcar conductor. . . . In contrast to his frugality in business and his personal life, he loved giving presents to his friends, and his particular charity was education . . . He was, in the end, one of the most generous men who ever lived in the Square Mile, and before he died he willed his prosperous company to his assistant, David Stewart. In the event, Stewart predeceased him by a few months and company ownership passed to Stewart's sons, Walter and Thomas.[5]

         Sir William C. Macdonald died in Montreal in June 1917 at the age of 86. It is said that he became reconciled to his niece on his deathbed. Ownership of the Macdonald Tobacco Company continued into the next generations of the Stewart family; eventually (1973) the family sold the company to R.J. Reynolds Industries of North Carolina. It is now known as RJR Macdonald Inc., but it is still based in Montreal. The profits from the sale of the company have helped the Macdonald-Stewart Foundation continue its charitable and philanthropic work. In continuing in this role, the Foundation keeps alive the memory of Sir William's benefactions and keeps the Macdonald name associated with the upbuilding of Canada.

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The present sketch of Sir William Macdonald and the house and farm at Glenaladale was prepared by Ken MacKinnon, now of Dartmouth, N.S. He is the son of Aretas MacKinnon—Aretas (1903-2003) was the oldest of the 11 children of Arthur W. ("Art") MacKinnon (1880-1927). Art MacKinnon with his wife and son, his brother Major, and their sisters moved to the property permanently in 1905. The MacKinnons ran the Glenaladale Silver Black Fox Company there during the first two decades of occupancy and a mixed farming operation thereafter. The writer's aunt Ruth MacKinnon Barlow (1913-1998) practised as a furrier and his sister and brother in law, Clare and Alfred Mullen of Dunstaffnage, kept up the family's fox-ranching tradition through the remainder of the twentieth century.

        In addition to his use of sources cited in the footnotes of this account, the writer is also indebted to his father Aretas ("Retie") MacKinnon, Ruth Barlow, Arthur W. MacKinnon, Jr., and others for their information. He is particularly thankful for The MacDonald Heritage, a 10 page narrative poem composed in 1972 by Ruth Barlow to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the MacDonald settlers. No better capsule history of what was being celebrated on that anniversary can be found than this poem. It is a coincidence that Ruth's late husband, Philip Whidden Barlow, was the son of Percy Barlow—"Professor Barlow" as his many Island students knew him. To quote the preface of The MacDonald Heritage, "Mr. Percy Barlow came to Charlottetown in 1900 to teach manual training at Prince of Wales College for the program instituted by Sir William Macdonald."



[1] Ian Ross Robertson, The Tenant League of Prince Edward Island: Leasehold Tenure in the New World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 133. As Robertson notes, the 27 May fire followed soon after "the action of the sheriff's bailiff, accompanied by the proprietor, in serving writs on known Tenant Leaguers for arrears of rent."

[2] Donald MacKay, The Square Mile: Merchant Princes of Montreal (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1987), 52 and 63.

[3] See Darin MacKinnon's article, "Mastery For Service: The MacDonald Consolidated School, 1905-1912," The Island Magazine 32 (Fall/Winter 1992): 3-11.

[4] A valuable source of biographical information on Sir William MacDonald is John Ferguson Snell, Macdonald College of McGill University: A History From 1904-1955 (McGill Univ. Press, 1963).

[5] MacKay, The Square Mile 63. The "friend" was Augustus Bridle whose lively character sketch of Macdonald was published in his Sons of Canada: Short Studies of Characteristic Canadians (Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1916), 3-10.




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