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Sir William MacDonald


THE greatest educational philanthropist in the British Empire—so far as the expenditure of millions for education is concerned - is a paragon of paradoxes. Money-making is as natuial to Sir William Macdonald as measles to childhood: but he lives almost as simply as a street-car conductor.

Individually the richest man in Montreal, he has given away more than he has kept. Too conservative to use a telephone until a few years ago, he has spent millions on modern scientific education for other people. A man of public interest to the core, right in the forefront of modern movements that benefit society through practical education he has never held any kind of office where any man could call him anything but plain Macdonald. So plain and simple in his tastes that for most of his life he drove to business in a series of old-fashioned gigs and phaetons, in a moment of unguarded weakness he accepted a title from Queen Victoria and scarcely knew what to do with it. A firm believer in domestic happiness he has always steadfastly refused to marry. And though he has made millions out of manufacturing tobacco, he has never smoked a whiff or taken a chew in his life, and once threatened a nephew of his with retirement back to Prince Edward Island if he did not give up cigarettes.

If there is joy in practicing what you do not preach, Sir William Macdonald should be the happiest man alive. There never was a Canadian Dickens to transcribe this man to a charactership in a novel, or he would have become one of the monuments of literature.

Since the memory of most men living Sir William has lived in a plain old terrace on Sherbrooke Street not far from McGill University. When he first went there the place was probably somewhat stylish. While other money barons of Montreal built modern castles at Westmount. MacDonald kept his terrace, whose only mark of pious care was the polish on the brass knockers and the knobs. The door opens into a dark hall and the hall leads off abruptly into a library of many books. Here at a lectern stands or used to stand Sir William, black coat, squidgy black bow loose under a negligent collar, glasses over his sharp nose - reading, reading, his only pastime. The books are many and various: the house is almost gloomy; the wallpaper reminiscent; on the walls not even a good oil painting. Some years ago Van Horne and Strathcona tried to interest Sir William in pictures. It was no use. There was no reality in pctures; much more in books. And the old man often went down to business, even since his knighthood, in an overcoat that used to be grey till time made it somewhat green - always with that muffler at his chin, clattering away in his rickety gig to the dingy old offices on Notre Dame a few steps from his beloved Bank of Montreal, up the creaking rickity staircase that never knew an elevator, into rooms that would have been given the blues to any but a man who cared nothing for mere comfort or decoration, but all for business.

Sir William was born in Prince Edward Island. His father was President of the Legislative Council, P.E.I. His grandfather was John MacDonald, eighth chief of the Clan of Glenaladale, founder of the Scotch settlements of Tracadie and three other places on the Island, and captain in the Royal Highland Emigrant Regiment in the Revolutionary War.

Further back than this the genealogist does not go to the Highlands where the ancestors of this little man of compressed dynamics must have been giants of the mosshags. The line direct ends with William MacDonald, who may have concluded that it was no use to have children that would inherit his money and perhaps go to the dogs in spending it.

William Macdonald was a little wire-edged bundle of energy when he turned his heels upon Prince Edward Island in 1854, and took an amazing journey up the St. Lawrence. The Montreal that first knew Macdonald was a jumble of historical monuments, untidy docks, dirty dark streets, thriftless French and diligent Anglo-Saxons and one little university with less than a hundred students. What led him to manufacture tobacco nobody has ever explained. He would have made as much money had he decided to make sugar, cotton, or lumber. But tobacco was a Canadian institution. Lumber camps were as much in need of tobacco as a modern army. Hard tack, fat pork, and molasses needed plug tobacco to complete the luxury of living. The tobacco made by Macdonald was one of the first Canadian-made to go to the outpost places: smoked and chewed in lumber camps, mining camps, Eskimo igloos, prospectors' tents, and Indian tepees: in half-breed shacks and factory yards: ontrains and stramships and trails: in the outermost marches of the Artic where the hip-pocket and its plug are a constant joy: on the soft blowing Pacific where the weed from Montreal is as common as canned salmon; on the cod-banks of the Atlantic where the fisherman's pipe is the joy of living; and even in downtown clubs of Canadian cities you will find men who, scorning the fine-cut and the patent package, discreetly haul out from the hip-pcoket a plug of Macdonald tobacco and proceed to demonstrate the joy that comes from the art of getting ready to smoke.

Never to be forgotten is the first chew of tobacco I ever saw a man take. He was a timberjack in the hardwood bush of western Ontario, about to notch a five-foot swamp elm which he and his mate would afterwards bring down with a crosscut saw. He took the black treacly plug from the hip-pocket, looked at it with almost maternal tenderness for a moment, bit off a corner, and prepared himself to enjoy the taste of that chew until the swamp elm should go down.

"What kind is she, Bill>" asked his mate.

"Oh - Macdonald's - down in Montreal."

I remember seeing that brand advertised on the board fences; but I am not sure whether it was one of Macdonald's plugs or another sort almost equally famous which furnished bushwacker wags with the bogus five-cent pieces that they sometimes dropped into the church collection plate. There was great stimulus to the imagination in one of these plugs of tobacco. Molasses laden,, gummy and black, it told the story of the tobacco plant growing like weeds, packed and baled and ported to the wharves of Montreal, whopped with fragrant emphasis into the warehouses of Macdonald, ripped and torn loose, sorted and stripped, flavoured and pressed, stamped and ready for the case, the counter and the camp.

Every plug of that tobacco has in it the almost cosmic frugality of William Macdonald. In that sharp-lined, eagle-eyes face could be seen the lines of the proverb, "Waste not, want not". A plug of tobacco in the making was to him a personal product, or why should the bushman wink and say piously, "Oh, Micdonald's"?

High wages and dear tobacco-leaf reduced the size of the ten-cent plug as Macdonald himself began to shrivel a bit into the pucker of age. Plantation owners is the south knew what a hard buyer was Macdonald, who figured in fractions of a cent on cost of production. A factory hand who wanted a raise of pay without a corresponding increase either in work or the cost of living must be inquired into by Macdonald. He knew his worken. Whatever methods were in vogue in his factories or in his buying and selling, machinery must be explained to any commission by himself, never by a subordinate. If a Macdonald employee met with an accident or fell sick he became the personal care of the firm, who professed to look after him better than any paternal lodge or insurance society.

Without chick or child or hobby but his business, Macdonald was the phantom at everyr man's elbow. Why should any man waste time or material?  Why should customers get less for their money because employees were allowed to squander in the factory, or because the head of the firm wanted a winter trip to the Bermudas? Why should customers pay a higher cost of production because some foreman wanted a more elaborate building; or because other men with far less business on their books had luxurious offices? There was no objection to electric light when it came, because it was a better and more economical light. Modern machinery was always welcome, so long as it turned out better goods at no higher cost, but the interest on investment must be carefully watched along with the depreciation.

As for the telephone—did it not make men lazy? Did most men transact any real business by long-distance conversations? Why should a talk be interrupted by an impertinent bell? No, the telephone must be postponed. Macdonald tobacco could be produced without it—for a while yet.

If Macdonald was always a personaliser of his business, it was because he was a man with one idea at a time and but one lifetime in which to work it out. He was a concentrator. Plenty of his friends had so many ambitions that they spent half their time presiding at directors’ meetings. Most of the successful men he knew were directors or presidents of half a dozen companies each. Macdonald could always find plenty of room for his personal energy in the one-man business of which he was the creator and the head. If he had time and energy to spare he found some way to invest it in that business - no other. Optimistic promoters of mining companies, land companies, gas and power companies never got much encouragement from Macdonald. Why should he lend his name to a dozen other concerns of which he knew nothing and had not time to learn? Every man to his trade; the cobbler to his last; Macdonald to his tobacco, his one directorship in the Royal Trust—and his stock in the Bank of Montreal. Ay, the bank! that was a great thing, a natural, necessary handmaid to business and a source of wealth. And William Macdonald remains to-day the heaviest shareholder in the Bank of Montreal.

Clubs again: why did so many men he knew belong each to half a dozen clubs? Relaxation, sociability. business acquaintance, social standing—psh! Macdonald needed none of these things. He had a comfortable home, many books, plenty of things to think about— and ideas taking shape for the future.

he had become a very rich old man. He had no family on which to spend money, no sons to whome he could leave it.

But there was a way for the lone man Macdonald to prove he was not living for wealth and bank shares and business and self. He had never been uncharitable; but he had never believed in indisriminate charity - especially in a new country like Canada where self-help was the law. But he knew how to give where his judgement found it was needed. And whenever he came to the full measure of his giving there should be no man in Canada, past or present, who could be set down by the newspapers as giving more or as much. But it would never do to dissipate millions in riotous giving. What Macdonald chose to part with for the sake of the community and the country in which he had accumulated wealth must be as shrewdly administered as the business by which he began to make his money and the bank in which so much of it was wisely invested.

The world has known for a good many years what Sir William Macdonald has done to recreate McGill University; how his money and practical wisdom have changed McGill from a college with a classical turn to a great modern University with its fingers on every phase of twentieth-century life. But the sunny optimists who imagined that because he was giving millions to education he was ergo an easy mark for sociological benevolences were sometimes grievously jolted.

It was not very long after he began to give large sums to the cause of education that he received a call at his factory office from a man who had a benevolent hobby, a large but very needy down-town Methodist church in Montreal. Time after time the affiars of that big church now worth at least a million dollars in foot frontages, had come before the General Conference. It became the perennial problem how to save it to Methodism in Canada. Macdonald was not a Methodist. Born a Roman catholic, he had pretty well given up interest in all church matters.

The visitor found the millionaire, as usual, hard to get at. He was received by a dour and burly Scot, who as major-domo in a bareleg regiment would have been immense.

Y’re wantin’ to see Mr. Macdonald?" he repeated.

"Ay, he’s in. But what is it y’d like to spier him aboot ?

The visitor evaded the point.

"Weel, I’ll tell him y’re wantin’ to see him."

In a few moments the caller was let into the office, where he stated his benevolent business to the keen-eyed and wary philanthropist. He knew the caustic tongue of Macdonald, its withering irony, and its tactics of the claymore. Persuasively and discreetly he told the story, adding that a Methodist customer of Macdonald’s, who was a delegate to the Conference and purchased Macdonald tobaccos by the carlot, had asked him to elicit from the head of the firm what he would do to save this grand cathedral of Methodism.

The sharp eyes of the tobacco magnate gleamed with sudden interest. This was a plausible human suggestion. He called his clerk. The moment seemed auspicious.

"Find out," he said rapidly, "what the account of Mr. — is with this firm."

The caller waited with nervous expectancy. He knew the yearly aggregate was very large, and surmised that with Scotch justice the magnate would "make the punishment fit the crime.’’

The clerk returned with the figures. Macdonald did not reach for his pen and his cheque book.

"Write Mr. —," he snapped, " "that his account with us is closed forthwith."

The clerk gasped with amazement.

"Say that the account is closed," repeated Macdonald. It makes no difference how large it may be. Mr. - can’t use his connection with this business to hold it up for a donation to any cause, no matter if it is a church.’’

Philanthropies are never pried out of Macdonald. When he established the Macdonald Agricultural College and Normal School with a large model farm attached at St. Anne de Bellevue up the Ottawa, he spent millions on a project that he considered would be of some use to modern education in Canada. He did the same thing in a smaller way by funding the Macdonald Institute, a school for domestic science at the Agricultural College in Guelph, Ontario. He pursued the same modern set of ideas in his establishment of consolidated rural schools, believing that the old red schoolhouse with its isolated regime was too much a part of the backwoods ere in Canada to be keeping up with the times.

If the affairs of these philanthropies, totalling more than $15,000,000, have got into print, it was through no publicity enterprise of Macdonald. In 1808, after he had begun to spend millions on education, he was knighted by Queen Victoria. How he came to accept a title is still a mystery. The only sign he gave of having done so was to discard his old horse and phaeton and buy a smart coupe with a quick-stepping, well-groomed horse driven by a coachman.

So this strange old man of stubborn ways goes about Montreal with the mystery of the paradox always about him. His body is drying up, but his soul goes marching on. He is the dour old Scot with the twinkle in his eye and the spring of incurable energy in his limbs. He had the frit of a lion the tenacity of his race at its most incrrigible height. No one ever heard of his giving any opinions about how to run a nation. He never instructs senators or parliamentarians. He speaks from no platform. His private politics are like his religion, and his business and his philanthropy largely a personal matter. He takes no stock in grand opera or in music of any sort. Mere amusement is no part of his programme. If the world must be amused - so let it be. Macdonald amuses himself. All there is of Macdonald outside the great business which his personality made possible he embodies in the things that swallow his surplus millions. And if at any time the shade of the old founder McGill could be consulted he would probably be courteous enough to agree that the name of the big Anglo-Canadian University in bi-lingual Montreal should be changed to Macdonald University.


The Macdonald Consolidated School

There is a publication about Macdonald College of McGill University "A History from 1904 - 1955" by John Ferguson Snell, B.A., Ph.D. Emeritus Profesor of Chemistry and Honorary Historian of the College published for Macdonald College by McGill University Press, Montreal, 1963.


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