Boosterism in 1890s Owen Sound targeted promoting economic development in Owen Sound. The port city showcased what it had to offer investors and visitors alike.
In the 1890s Canada was undergoing economic transformations and it is interesting to note how the leaders of Owen Sound responded more than a century ago to conditions that were somewhat similar to those of today. In 1897 the mayor of Owen Sound, T. I. Thomson, and the Board of Trade, under the leadership of B. Allen, commissioned the publication of a book extolling the virtues of Owen Sound to prospective businesses. Ironically, in the 1890s, Owen Sound was experiencing rapid growth and prosperity, but the civic leaders, rather than wait for an economic down turn, acted aggressively promoting boosterism to ensure a continued growth.
Prior to 1882, Owen Sound had not grown as quickly as some of its leaders had hoped. However, that all changed when the C.P.R. designated Owen Sound as the eastern terminus for its Great Lakes fleet. During the next fifteen years Owen Sound experienced rapid growth and prosperity. Wisely, the civic leaders had encouraged a diversification of the economic base of the city rather than relying solely upon the effects of the C. P. R. fleet being based there.
Wishing to continue this growth a promotional booklet of about thirty pages was produced. The sense of boosterism in the minds of the community leaders can be seen in the title page "SOME VIEWS IN AND AROUND THE TOWN Of OWEN SOUND" which unabashedly explains the rational for the booklet.
IN AND AROUND
THE TOWN OF
THE CAPITAL OF THE
COUNTY OF GREY, IN THE
PROVINCE OF ONTARIO,
WITH A SHORT WRITE-UP
OF THE MANY ADVANTAGES
TO BE DERIVED THROUGH
LIVING, AND DOING
ITS PAST, PRESENT, AND
This unabashed boosterism continues on the first page of the text when it states that only recently much of North America was wilderness but that progressive thinking and enterprise had created a bustling and inventive circumstance where the "whole continent of America is dotted with teeming cities, thriving towns and well settled agricultural communities". The author of the booklet describes in particular how Owen Sound has developed due to this spirit of enterprise and progressive thinking. "As one scans the views shown in this little booklet, giving every evidence as they do of wealth, progress, and a high degree of culture and civilization, one feels it almost impossible to believe that all this is the product of little more than fifty years of labour. Where now the substantial stores, the huge factories, the elegant churches and the beautiful schools of Owen Sound raise aloft their splendid proportions, dismal swamps and dark forest but five decades since stretched in gloomy monotony".
After a brief historical overview of the region the booklet describes economic conditions in the town. According to the 1897 assessment the value of property in Owen Sound was $2,959,693. In 1891 the value of goods manufactured in the town was $1,529,564 compared to $420,249 in 1881. The booklet points out that these figures will be higher in 1901 due to the North American Bent Chair Company settling in the town and the Grand Trunk railway terminus being established in Owen Sound.
Although the Grand Trunk already had a terminus in Wiarton, Owen Sound successfully lobbied the railroad to build an alternate terminus there. The coming of the Grand Trunk effectively ended Wiarton's efforts to be the metropolitan centre for the Bruce Peninsula.
In conjunction with the railroad connections available in Owen Sound there was also several shipping lines servicing the town. Along with the C.P.R. fleet, the Gladstone line joined Owen Sound with Michigan and Chicago, and the White and Black line sailed from Owen Sound to Manitoulin and the North Shore. To service these lines Owen Sound boasted fine elevators, a good harbour and dry dock facilities.
The booklet also lists 32 industries which were already located in Owen Sound. These included Wm. Kennedy and Sons, the North American Bent Chair Co., John Harrison, two brewers, boat builders, other lumber companies and cement companies. Great pains are taken to describe the town and the facilities are available to prospective new comers to the town.
For more information about these industries and other aspects of the development of Owen Sound please see my book Owen Sound: The Port City, published by Dundurn Press.
There is no concrete evidence that the booklet helped to induce new companies to relocate here. However, in a future article I will detail the continued growth that continued in Owen Sound even after the C.P.R. moved to Port McNichol. But I have to believe that it was a successful venture because while other municipalities underwent economic hardship in the first two decades of the twentieth century Owen Sound sustained a moderate growth pattern and in fact survived the crushing blow of the loss of the C.P.R. Today governments promote their regions with advertisements in newspapers inviting inquiries from businesses and tourists. While I am not suggesting that these advertisements are not effective, I do suggest that civic and business leaders would be advised to investigate the methods used by Mayor Thomson and the Board of Trade in the 1890s.
A version of this story first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.
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