John Harrison - A Tough Owen Sound Pioneer whose grit and determination created a prosperous life for himself and his family in a new community.
Front (L-R) Mrs. John Harrison (nee Emma Rachel Hart), James Edward Harrison, Frederick William Harrison, John Harrison, Back (L-R) Rachel Harrison, Ephrehan John Harrison, Arthur Nathan Harrison, May Emma Harrison
Are you bored? How about going for a walk? There are many pleasant places that you can walk in Grey and Bruce counties. However, I wonder if you might want to walk further afield. How about a leisurely stroll to Guelph? Yes, I said Guelph!
In the 1850s, there was a stagecoach connection between Owen Sound and Guelph. However, this method of transportation was not always the most efficient. The lack of good bridges over some of the streams and rivers and the many marshes which often bogged down the stagecoaches made it difficult to adhere to schedules.
When John Harrison was building his first sawmill, he needed leather for the heavy belts used to run the mill. The closest location where such leather could be found was in Guelph. Therefore, John walked to Guelph, loaded the leather on a hand sleigh and walked back to Owen Sound!
On another occasion, John Harrison walked to Guelph to seek the advice of a doctor with regard to a tumor in his back. Upon his arrival at the doctor’s office, he sat straddling a chair while the doctor cut the tumor out of his back. Later, he walked back to Owen Sound.
It is obvious that John Harrison was a man of deep character with great powers of physical strength and endurance. Consequently, when the original Harrison industrial holdings were sold due to the death of his brother, Robert, John found himself wondering where his future endeavors would lead him.
One day, he decided to go on a hunting and fishing outing in the swamp lands at the mouth of the Sydenham River. While he was partaking in these outdoor activities, he started to think about his future. As he was walking about the swampy area, an idea came to him. He would start a steam sawmill in that location where he was hunting and fishing.
He aborted his expedition, and returned home to begin his project. In 1869, the new mill was in operation. Soon the sawmill was a major supplier of lumber products for use by commercial and private consumers throughout the region.
Four years later, Owen Sound was finally linked to the rest of the province by railroad. By 1875, Owen Sound was growing. The combination of a railroad link and the harbour was creating an advantageous situation for the commercial and industrial sector of the community. But in 1875, disaster struck John Harrison's sawmill. Fire destroyed the complex.
A circumstance such as this might deter a lesser man, but Harrison simply squared his shoulders and rebuilt his enterprise. Twelve years later, citizens witnessed black smoke and flames shooting into the air from the location of Harrison's mill. Once again, Harrison started his enterprise all over again.
John Harrison was a man of immense inner strength. Once he started a project, it seemed like nothing could deter his quest for success. Combined with his physical strengths, he was a man with a deeply spiritual side to his character. To fulfill himself in this direction, he attempted an arduous task.
He set about to memorize the entire New Testament of his Bible. Although he did not completely realize this goal, he became known as an authority on the Bible. It was said that he could detect the alteration of a Biblical verse, or even the substitution of a word. The minister who performed the eulogy at John Harrison's funeral admitted that he had never known a man who possessed such a deep knowledge of the Bible.
The life of John Harrison is once again another illustration of the strength of character that many of the early pioneers in this region possessed. The vision and hard work of these early entrepreneurs led not only to personal wealth and satisfaction, but created an environment which benefited the entire community. Like so many other families in the region, my family benefited from the existence of John Harrison and Sons. My grandfather, John White, worked for company for more than four decades.
Now, about that leisurely stroll to Guelph, call me when you get back.
A version of "John Harrison - A Tough Owen Sound Pioneer," originally appeared in my Local History column in the March 1, 1997 edition of the Owen Sound Sun Times.
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