People: Scots of Windsor's Past
Colin MacDonald (1845-1922)
Colin MacDonald was born in 1845 in Relig, Invernesshire. He went to school until the age of thirteen and then entered into an apprenticeship in a local draper's (a merchant operating in cloth or dry-goods) shop. The training drapers apprentices received marked them for careers in merchandising early on, as the guild had earned a reputation for courtesy, reliability, and extensive knowledge of the field. Canadian businesses relied heavily on these people in the early part of the nineteenth century.
MacDonald left Scotland for a brighter future in Canada when his apprenticeship was completed. He settled at first Picton, Prince Edward County, Ontario, but was frustrated the slow progress he was making in his career there. He came to Windsor in 1873 and entered into the employ of the local dry-goods firm Cameron & Thorburn. As a gifted vocalist and instrumentalist, he also became choirmaster of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. The choir enjoyed his leadership for many years, and MacDonald "was never happier than when conducting that organization or when arranging for public concerts in the Windsor area." 1 It was at that church that he met his future wife, Janet Fortune of Duns, Berwickshire, whom he married a year after his arrival in town.
When Donald Cameron was forced to retire because of his health in 1887, the prominent businessman and public servant transferred his interests in Cameron & Bartlet over to MacDonald. MacDonald "realized the potentialities which the small town of Windsor had, and he had faith in its future. As it grew, so did his business," which went by the name of Bartlet & MacDonald for the rest of the century. 2 In 1903, Alexander Gow was taken into partnership, and the business on Sandwich Street in downtown Windsor became known as Bartlet, MacDonald & Gow. Twice a year, MacDonald traveled across the Atlantic to go on buying expeditions in Great Britain for the store, and was always sure to return with the finest wool and tartan cloth. He became president of the firm in 1912 following the death of senior executive George Bartlet, and under his leadership the store underwent numerous changes and enjoyed huge growth. When MacDonald passed away in his Leamington home in December 1922, his holdings in Bartlet, MacDonald & Gow transferred to his son, George.
George Fortune MacDonald (1875-1959)
One of three children born to Colin and Janet MacDonald, George went to work for his father at Bartlet & MacDonald in 1899. Upon his father's death in 1922, George acquired part ownership in the firm, which had then become Bartlet, MacDonald & Gow. He became the company's president in 1928 after Alexander Gow passed away, and remained at the head of the firm until his own death in 1959.
The family business, however, was not George's passion: that spot was held by a deep love of history. His interest in the subject was sparked in 1898 when he, a lad of twenty-four, had the opportunity to travel to Scotland. On his trip, he visited his mother's ancestral home, which was near the famous Flodden Field battleground. The Battle of Flodden Field was fought in the country of Northumberland in 1513 between an invading Scots army under the command of King James IV and an English army commanded by the Earl of Surrey. James had invaded England to honour the Auld Alliance with France, with the intention of diverting King Henry VIII's troops from their campaign against Louis XII of France. With approximately thirty thousand participants on each side, the battle was the largest in the history of the two nations, and ended in a bloody defeat for the Scots.
MacDonald's historical interests began with a boyhood fascination of local Indian artifacts. Over time, this interest developed into a passionate hobby that led to his study, collection, and preservation of a range of materials pertaining to the history of Windsor-Essex. Dedicated to all things of cultural importance, he also became active in the Essex Fusiliers, the St. Andrew's Society of Windsor, and the Border Cities Burns Society. For ten years between 1922 and 1932 he sat on the Windsor Public Library Board, serving as its chairman in 1925. MacDonald also presided over the Ontario Historical Society (of which he was a member for forty years) from 1932 until 1934. Societies such as the Detroit Historical Society, the Michigan Historical Society, and the Essex County Historical Society (of which he was president in 1904) also enjoyed his membership.
The champion of Windsor's history, MacDonald launched a campaign in the 1930s to preserve the historic house built by Francois Baby in 1812. A fire in 1850 had done considerable damage to the house, and Baby, advanced in years, lacked the energy to restore it to its former splendor. Baby bequeathed it to his son, Edmond, upon his death in 1852, who made several structural changes, including the removal of the third storey. Future owners significantly altered the structure's exterior as well, adding bay windows and gingerbread trim to Victorianize it. The house was abandoned in 1930 and quickly fell to ruin.
Dismayed that such a valuable piece of Windsor's history could fall to such a sorry state of disrepair, MacDonald wrote to Baby's great-granddaughter in Detroit in 1933 to ask her if she would sell the house to turn into a museum. Although she refused to sell, the house reverted to the City of Windsor at the end of the decade for non-payment of taxes, and MacDonald continued his quest to preserve the landmark. He began work on a partial renovation in 1948, which included the removal of the "newer" additions and replacing the Pitt Street Wall. Thanks to his efforts, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated the house as a National Historic Site in 1950, deeming it to be nationally significant and worthy of preservation.
Encroaching urban development, however, threatened the Baby house. Hiram Walker's & Sons Ltd. then intervened in 1956 with funds to complete the final renovation. Once that project was completed, MacDonald donated his massive personal collection of thousands of local artifacts, maps, and old documents to form the core of the museum's collection. In May 1958, the Hiram Walker Historical Museum, administered by the City of Windsor Library Board, opened to the public. Over the course of the following decades, the historical gem became an invaluable piece of Windsor's landscape, a living symbolic of the city's earliest roots. It was renamed to Windsor's Community Museum in 1996.
Assumption College conferred an honourary LLD on MacDonald in June 1954 during its first convocation in recognition of his contribution to the preservation of local history. The Windsor Star praised the award as a "deserved recognition of a man who was a true herald of sound education." MacDonald passed away one year after his dream of opening a community museum came to fruition. Angus Munro of the Windsor Daily Star mourned the loss of "one of the city's and the county's tireless advocates and champions," in a moving obituary. "He laboured zealously and effectively to preserve the city's and the county's story .... George MacDonald's history was never fable. He stripped every item of interest until truth was revealed." 3
Windsor's Community Museum honoured its founder and its fiftieth anniversary in 2008 with an exhibit called, "George F. MacDonald: A Champion of History," which ran from May 7 until December 20, and highlighted MacDonald's life and his effort to build a museum for his community.
MacDonald married Lulu Maud Deming in 1904 in a ceremony at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. In 1931 they moved from the MacDonald homestead on the northwest corner of Church and Park to the house at 3624 Victoria Avenue, in which George died in 1959 at the age of eighty-four.Read Geroge MacDonald's essay, "Forgotten Facts about Assumption Parish, Sandwich, Ontario," at the University of Manitoba archives
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