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
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
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
"Oh - Macdonald's - down in
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~ez_mdash~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~ez_mdash~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~ez_rsquo~ 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~ez_mdash~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~ez_mdash~psh! Macdonald needed none of these things.
He had a comfortable home, many books, plenty of things to think about~ez_mdash~
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
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
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
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~ez_rsquo~re wantin~ez_rsquo~ to see Mr. Macdonald?"
"Ay, he~ez_rsquo~s in. But what is it y~ez_rsquo~d
like to spier him aboot ?
The visitor evaded the point.
"Weel, I~ez_rsquo~ll tell him y~ez_rsquo~re wantin~ez_rsquo~ to
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~ez_rsquo~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. ~ez_mdash~ 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.~ez_rsquo~~ez_rsquo~
The clerk returned with the figures. Macdonald did not
reach for his pen and his cheque book.
"Write Mr. ~ez_mdash~," 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~ez_rsquo~t use his connection
with this business to hold it up for a donation to any cause, no matter if
it is a church.~ez_rsquo~~ez_rsquo~
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