Despite the town's best efforts to make Wilfrid Laurier's visit a memorable occasion, it would be clouds of dust that would remind the Prime Minister of the Lake Huron community.
Visits by dignitaries to the Grey and Bruce region have sometimes been events that created embarrassment rather than pride in the hearts and minds of local citizens. In this column I have detailed the plight of the ship, the Ploughboy, off of the coast of the Bruce Peninsula in 1859 which left John A. Macdonald and his entire cabinet praying for rescue, before they were claimed by the waters of Georgian Bay. As well, the town of Port Elgin can lay claim to an embarrassing moment during a visit by a national politician.
Prior to the turn of the century the Liberal party announced that Wilfred Laurier would be travelling to Port Elgin. The members of the local Liberal party were ecstatic about the possibility of showing off their leader to the electorate of the area, and perhaps swaying voters to support the Liberals instead of their dreaded foes the Conservatives. As well, the local leaders of the community saw this visit as an opportunity to show off their region. After all, a favourable impression might go a long way, if in the future Laurier did achieve power and Port Elgin was in need of a favour from the federal government!
Shortly after the news was received of the impending visit, both Liberals and local leaders began to plan a visit that would long be remembered by Laurier. It was decided that the Liberal leader would address the expected throngs at the local cricket grounds. A platform was built in front of the pavilion. Laurier would speak to the local dignitaries, and party faithful, who would be seated in the covered seats of the pavilion. Pine planks would be set on blocks for other onlookers. Perhaps it was the hope of the Liberals that sitting on hard boards in the blazing summer sun would be enough to convert some of those in attendance, in order that they could enjoy a seat in the cool shade of the pavilion!
Of course, there would be the usual entertainment fare for such a visit. Choirs, singers, and other local amateur talent would amuse the great Liberal chieftain. But this would not be enough to distinguish Laurier's visit to Port Elgin from any other stop along his campaign tour. The organizers needed something special!
At last it was decided that Laurier, and his entourage, would be escorted to the cricket grounds by an honour guard on horseback. Now this honour guard was going to be something out of the ordinary. Instead of a small group of ten or twenty riders on horseback, the Port Elgin honour guard would number 600 men and their horses!
The committee set about to find six hundred horses and riders. For weeks young men could be seen at their farms in Bruce, Arran and Saugeen townships training their Clydesdales, Percherons, and any other breed of horse, to become a fine cavalry steed. The call went out to the entire county for anything that resembled a saddle. As the day of the great visit approached organizers and riders worked feverishly to polish their “mounted troops".
The day of Laurier's visit arrived, and perhaps because of other concerns, primarily the assembling of the mounted honour guard, the organizers had neglected to take care of one item, the dust. There had not been a substantial rainfall for several weeks, and no one had thought about the consequences of six hundred horses churning up the dry dirt of the cricket field! The spectators were all in their designated seats when Laurier and his magnificent honour guard entered the field. Immediately the dust began to swirl under the hooves of the horses. Soon none of the spectators could see anything, let alone the leader of the Liberal Party. The entire cricket field was engulfed in dust!
After the dust settled the festivities continued. Many years later, after Wilfrid Laurier had distinguished himself as a great statesman and politician, not only in opposition, but also as the Prime Minister of Canada, someone mentioned the town of Port Elgin to him. His response was:
“Port Elgin, yes, that was where we had such beautiful horses and such smothering dust."
Research for this article came from many sources. The Port Elgin Times, and Reminiscences, Port Elgin Centennial 1874-1974, by Carmen J. Levie.
A version of my article, "Sir Wilfrid Laurier's Port Elgin Dust-Up," originally appeared on January 30, 1998 in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.