People: Scots of Windsor's Past
"Henry Ford solved the problem [of road transportation] for the world; Gordon McGregor solved it for Canada."
~ Border Cities Star [20 May 1922]
You will be hard-pressed to find another father-and-son team that did more to shape the Windsor/Essex region than William and Gordon McGregor. An opportunistic businessman and politician, William was not afraid to extend himself or take risks. He passed his daredevil nature onto his son, Gordon, who, at the turn of the twentieth century, took the ultimate gamble and reaped its rewards.
William McGregor (1836-1903)
The patriarch for whom the town of McGregor is named was born in Sarnia in 1836 to John McGregor and Margaret Leishman, Presbyterians who had immigrated from Paisley, Scotland, in 1830, immediately after they married. Two years after William, the third son, was born they relocated to Amherstburg where John worked as a brush maker and farmer.
William attended grammar school in Amherstburg and worked in real estate as a young man. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, he made money by supplying the Union Army with horses. Five years later he married Jessie Lathrup Penden, daughter of Robert Penden, Amherstburgh's Scottish-born Presbyterian minister. The couple relocated to Windsor in 1870 and raised their family in modest gentility. They built a tall yellow-brick house on the south bank of the Detroit River, which became home to seven children: Margaret Anne (1867), Malcolm Peden (1869), Gordon Morton (1873), Walter Leishman (1875), Edith Ellen (1877), Jean Mabel (1882), and William Donald (1884). Religious activity also pervaded the house: William served on St. Andrew's Board of Management while Margaret dedicated herself to the church's foreign missionary society.
Family life in the McGregor household was infused with a strong sense of Scottish identity. A photograph of Malcolm as a young boy shows him wearing a tartan sash; as an adult he collected McGregor family memorabilia, and even obtained a copy of the 1681 act of British Parliament that suppressed the clan Gregor. Malcolm married a Scottish girl, Eva Bartlet, daughter of the illustrious Alexander Bartlet, and the couple named their summer residence in Amherstburg Bognie Brae after the ancestral home of the McGregor family. Walter, too, took a keen interest in his family's genealogy when he went overseas during the First World War, and spent what free time he had tracing his ancestral roots in Scotland. He revealed such nostalgic, homesick sentiments in a letter to his mother, penned on Christmas Eve, 1917: "You brought us all up as Scotch sons and daughters and we don't say these things much do we." 1
Margaret, the eldest McGregor girl also married into the Bartlet family, marrying Edgar Noble in 1893. Her brother Malcolm had already successfully established himself as a barrister when he wed Eva Bartlet the following year; he later became secretary of the Detroit College of Law.
Walter chose a military career, joining the 21st Battalion Essex Fusiliers in 1898. In 1912 he married Esther Margaret Wigle, daughter of future mayor Ernest Wigle. Walter went on to distinguish himself as a soldier during the First World War, and became commanding officer of the 241st Battalion, Canadian Scottish Borderers, which began recruiting in Essex County in the spring of 1916. The battalion sailed to England in May 1917 - less than a year after Esther gave birth to their second child, Walter, Jr. - where the battalion was absorbed into the 5th and 12th Reserve Battalions.
Walter returned from the war in Europe to a hero's welcome - a "fine tribute to the courage and morale of Canadian forces"- to Windsor as a Lieutenant-Colonel in late October of 1918 2. Walter resumed his civilian life as the secretary-treasurer of the McGregor, Banwell & Company Fence Works, a company his father had co-founded in 1896.
William Donald, the youngest of the McGregor children, became partners with John Duck in the Universal Motors dealership and chaired the Windsor Planning Board of the Windsor Chamber of Commerce and War Finance Committee. He served in the First World War with his brother and was appointed an Officer in the Order of the British Empire for his efforts. The colonial revival house he built in 1919 at 916-18 Victoria Avenue is designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.
These children grew up watching their father's spirited commitment to public service and entrepreneurial enterprise. Always ready to take advantage of every opportunity that came his way (and equally ready to seek out opportunities on his own), William McGregor entered the public service in 1869 as Warden of Essex County. After moving to Windsor the following year, he operated a gristmill and livery stable, dealt in wheat and grain, ran a shipping business, and collaborated in brokerage and banking with his brothers Donald and Robert. Robert was the founder of the bank McGregor & Brothers, and became such a respected businessman that the community elected him Mayor of Windsor in 1876 (voters, however, liked his style of business better than his style of administration: he was only in office for one year).
A zealous Liberal, William McGregor entered federal politics in 1874 as the Member of Parliament for Essex North. But despite these diverse interests, McGregor's finances could not withstand the economic crisis of 1877, although he did continue milling. Following his defeat in the 1882 federal election (he had lost his seat in 1878), he moved his family out to Winnipeg, where his brother David had started a livestock business. William worked out west as a cattle dealer and became the manager and treasurer of the North West Trading Company Limited, which was run by another Amherstburg man, John Christian Schultz. Once the family's finances recovered, they returned to Windsor, where William resumed his work in the livery business and in real estate, which included town lots, railway land, and natural-gas rights.
William reentered public life in 1891 as the Member of Parliament for Essex North, an office he held until 1900. In 1892 he went into business with his son, Gordon, and founded the real estate and insurance agency of McGregor & Son. Four years later he teamed with Henry Banwell to form the McGregor, Banwell & Company Fence Works, which his son Walter would manage after the war. Then, in 1897, he embarked on a venture that brought him and his son Gordon to the brink of collapse - and then secured Windsor's place in Canada's history books.
William Milner, a veteran wagon builder from England, teamed with the famous distiller Hiram Walker in 1897 to form the Milner-Walker Wagon Works Company, which began production just east of the community that December. After Walker died in 1899 and Milner departed for a new venture, both production and profit declined. William McGregor and John Curry, another Windsor banker, acquired the plant and its property, which included a large farm for subdivision. McGregor and Curry injected new capital into the plant and reorganized it as the Walkerville Wagon Works Company Limited, with the intention of manufacturing and selling "wagons, sleighs and wheeled vehicles of every description." 3 William installed his son Gordon as manager of the works after he won the appointment of customs collector in January 1902.
Americans were heavily involved in Windsor and Walkerville industries at the time. Cross-border trade was fluid and aggressive, and many American firms had already built branch plants in Windsor by the turn of the century. The Wagon Works, however, could not match the stiff competition it faced, and was a serious liability when Gordon inherited it upon his father's death in 1903.
Gordon Morton McGregor (1873-1922)
The middle McGregor son was born in Windsor and was still in school when the family moved to Winnipeg, where he continued his education and worked part-time as a telegraph messenger boy. When the family returned to Windsor, he worked as a salesman for Mabley and Company, a men's clothing store in Detroit, an experience that gave him both an inclination for business and a flair for fashion. After 1892 he went into real estate with his father and "pursued the social interests of a young bachelor, with few financial worries." 4 He appeared at every event in the community, accompanied by his girlfriend, Harriet Dodds, daughter of wholesale druggist John J. Dodds of Detroit. Reputed for the range of his bass-baritone voice, Gordon sang at birthday parties, church socials, and other events to much acclaim. He continued to make guest appearances in Windsor after settling in Detroit with Harriet, whom he married on 2 November 1898 in a ceremony that Windsor's Evening Record billed as "an international union of hearts and hands." 5 The couple relocated across the river in 1902, however, when Gordon's father appointed him manager of the Walkerville Wagon Works.
William McGregor passed away in May 1903 after a short illness, leaving an estate of considerable real estate and stock, most notably his holdings as the principal shareholder in the Wagon Works. Despite the plant's capability to produce 2,800 wagons and 1,000 sleights each year and a favourable backlog of orders, Gordon and his fellow executors were either unwilling or unable to produce the capital necessary to meet the production demand. Carrying a debt of $75,000, the works was a serious liability to Gordon, its new president, and he and its administrators began negotiating the company's disposal.
Production ceased in July 1904 and negotiations for the factory building fell through. Assuming a great personal risk, Gordon had the idea that he could save the wagon works by reusing it as an automobile factory. The McGregor brothers had been talking about automobiles since January. William Donald (Don) had been exposed to too much speculation with his recent engagement to Lillian Evan, daughter of local bicycle tycoon Frederick Samuel Evans. In the mid 1890s, Evans had teamed with machinist brothers John and Horace Dodge to develop the famous Evans and Dodge (E&D) bicycles made by the Canadian Typograph Company Limited of Windsor, of which he was manager and secretary-treasurer. Just before Don and his daughter became engaged, Evans, in toying with the idea of automobile manufacturing, formed the Commercial Motor Vehicle Company in Detroit. Gordon too was enamored. Don recalled meeting with his two brothers at the wagon works one day in January 1904: "There are men in Detroit, like Henry Ford, who say every farmer will soon be using an automobile," he remembered Gordon say. "I don't see why we can't build autos right here [in the wagon factory]." 6 Gordon's dreamy initiative was driven by an opportunism he had inherited from his father, born of a willingness to risk heavy failure and the natural instincts of a top salesman. He correctly saw the era of the automobile on the horizon, and was determined to catch hold of it before it could pass him by.
The risks involved in the burgeoning automotive industry were compounded by the huge scale of competition: electrically-propelled, steam-drive, and gasoline-engine vehicles vied for market domination, as did various stylistic preferences. There was the carriage-like high-wheeler, the lightweight cycle car (a cross between a car and a motorcycle), the European-style two-cylinder coupe, and more. By 1904, Michigan was home to more automobile producers than any other place in North America. These myriad producers also carried extremely high attrition rates and correspondingly high rates of operational risk. The automobile industry was a serious gamble.
But Gordon McGregor was a gambling man, and John Curry, secretary-treasurer of the Walkerville Wagon Works, had authorized him to reduce the company's debt by any means.
Gordon went across the river and persuaded maverick auto producer Henry Ford to partner with him. For Ford, the partnership gave him an opportunity to expand his company without assuming a large financial risk; it also provided a way to circumvent the still Canadian tariffs (which, in 1905, were 35% on imported manufactured goods). In addition to the Walkerville Wagon Works, Gordon took Ford on tours through local plants of the Canadian Bridge Company (which he believed could make frames for the automobiles), Walkerville Malleable Iron (malleable metal), Keer Engine (brass parts such as lamps and radiator shells), Canadian Typograph (engines), and other plants in Chatham that could make wheels and bodies. McGregor also emphasized to Ford the importance of seizing the golden opportunity that was the price difference created by federal Liberal government's penchant for high tariffs if he wanted to expand into Canada.
Securing the $125,000 start-up costs, however, was one of the biggest challenges McGregor would ever face. Detroit investors were generally unwilling to invest in such risky speculation, while the automobile industry had no real foothold on the Canadian side of the river. Through dogged efforts, he managed to rouse some interest and squeeze the necessary capital from investors ("Gordon went a-beggin," his secretary chuckled). 7 McGregor, Ford, and the new shareholders signed an agreement for a branch production plant relationship. The American parent company would provide the Canadian firm with parent rights, plans, and supervision to construct Ford automobile. The Walkerville firm would also receive the sole right, under McGregor's charge, to manufacture and distribute its automobiles and Canada and the British Empire. John Gray, the president of Ford Detroit, was to be the president of Ford Canada; Henry Ford would act as vice-president; John Curry would be the treasurer; and McGregor would assume the position of general manager, secretary, and functioning head of the company. (Gordon, in fact, would prove himself so capable a leader that for fifteen years Henry Ford felt no need to attend Ford Canada's directors' meetings).
Automobile production began in the Walkerville Wagon Works in October 1904, and Gordon drove the first car down Sandwich Street with all his seventeen employees in attendance. Business was slow at first as the skeptical public clung to its misgivings about the "devil wagons" and "auto terrors" (as the Evening Record called them). Indignant newspapers called for regulations as they reported on inexperienced, reckless drivers, terrified horses, run-over dogs, pedestrian dangers, and noise pollution. Business grew slowly - McGregor even had to keep a second job until 1907 - and the operation was comparatively small and quiet. As of late summer 1905, the small workforce had only assembled 114 automobiles (107 Model Cs and 7 Model Bs), barely over a quarter of McGregor's original projection of 400.
But Ford liked McGregor's marketing strategies, and the Evening Record, optimistic about industrial growth in the Windsor area, had also begun to throw its full, uncritical support behind him. In 1906 the plant turned out 101 vehicles, including Model Cs, Ns, and Ks; that number tripled the next year. The company's balance sheets to the end of September 1907 revealed that investments were being made in specialized machinery and equipment while advertising expenditures tripled from the previous year. Profits had also quintupled, soaring from approximately $4,100 in September 1906 to a healthy $19,170 within twelve months.
Armed with new machinery and accelerating profits, McGregor turned his attention overseas, eager to cut into the foreign market before another competitor could secure a stronghold in the British Empire. In the autumn of 1907, he sent shipments of Walkerville-made Model Ns - reputed for their adaptability to widely varying rural road (and off-road) conditions not unlike those found in Canada - to Natal (South Africa), India, Egypt, New Zealand, and Australia, which would become Ford Canada's largest foreign market. In Canada, meanwhile, motoring was on the rise, and McGregor hopped from coast to coast to push his product.
No car had a greater impact upon Canada's early automotive culture than the Model T, the only vehicle McGregor produced after 1909, and the one that made his fortune. Although early response to the T was subdued, the "everyman" car's inexpensive price tag and reputation for durability captured the Canadian public's attention. During the summer of 1909, McGregor traveled around the world to promote and consolidate Ford Canada's foreign business and promote the Model T. The consummate salesman, McGregor pitched his automobile to local Fijian chiefs before hitting his main destination, Australia. From there he went to New Zealand, Calcutta, Bombay, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), also stopping in Italy, Paris, and London to conduct business and take in the sights. It was this initiative - and incredible foresight - that later lead to the establishment of Ford Canada's wholly-owned subsidiaries in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
McGregor returned to Walkerville in late January 1910 to find that much had changed in his absence: the Windsor area was taking shape as a centre of automotive manufacture, a bustling sea of competing branch plants and parts makers. McGregor's new challenge was now to match production with demand: in June 1910, he declared a 100% dividend and reported to the board of directors that his company was making one-fifth of the cars produced in Canada. That total would rise to thirty-eight percent by 1914.
Ford Canada had outgrown its provincial charter by the end of 1911; that December it was reincorporated under a federal charter, with its capital stock raised from $125,000 to one million dollars. Although McGregor's Walkerville workforce remained small compared to that in Detroit, 195 employees in four automobile plants generated $1,827,385 in value, according to the Essex North census, making automotive manufacturing the most productive industrial sector in the district. By May 1913, Ford Canada was the first automobile company in Canada to manufacture every component of its product, from raw materials to end assembly, domestically. (A year later, the "Made in Canada" advertising theme made the company's involvement in wartime production publicly acceptable.) McGregor, meanwhile, enjoyed celebrity status in Windsor's social circles, and Hattie's fashionable outfits filled the social columns.
An examination of the impact of the growth of the auto industry on Windsor would fill volumes. In 1922, the Border Cities Star claimed that Ford Canada employed up to 40% of Essex County's population on its nine million dollar payroll. By the time of Gordon McGregor's untimely death, the roads of Essex County boasted more Fords per capita than any other vehicle: 6,789 of them, to be exact. An additional 1,000 delivery trucks, 481 trucks, and 256 tractors were also registered in the county. That year, seven out of every ten cars made in Canada were Fords, and 51,341 new ones rolled off of the assembly lines onto the roads. The 117 cars Ford Canada had produced in its first fiscal year had become pieces of history. And when Gordon McGregor passed away at the young age of forty-nine from injuries sustained during a railway accident, he passed into history as well.
To learn more about Gordon McGregor and the rise of the Windsor automotive industry, read David Roberts' In the Shadow of Detroit: Gordon McGregor, Ford of Canada, and Motoropolis, Wayne State University Press: Detroit, 2006. Available at the Central branch of the Windsor Public Library. Call # 629.222092 MCG
The Border Cities Star published a series of nine articles featuring Ford Canada's impact on Essex County in the Automotive Section of its Saturday Edition following McGregor's death in 1922. These are available on microfilm at the Central branch of the Windsor Public Library if you would like to read them.
Lieutenant-Colonel Walter L. McGregor, Jr. (1916-2007)
Walter L. McGregor, Jr., was already beginning to show an interest in military affairs when his father, Lieutenant-Colonel Walter McGregor, passed away in 1933. Walter Jr. attended secondary school at the Walkerville Collegiate Institute, where he joined its esteemed kilted Cadet Corps, and he joined the Essex Scottish as a private in 1934 as soon as he turned eighteen. Just two years later he obtained his commission as a lieutenant.
Walter escorted his older sister, Mary, to the altar when she married Lieutenant John "Don" Mingay in September 1939, soon after war was declared. Although Walter was an active member of the Essex Scottish when the war broke out, it took several months to find him a position within the new Canadian Armed Services Force; in the meantime, he enrolled in law school at the University of Toronto. The semester was almost over when Colonel Arthur Pearson contacted him to let him know that he had been commissioned to a lieutenancy with the 1st Battalion, Essex Scottish Regiment, effective the first of December.
Walter McGregor was just twenty-five years old when he landed on the shores of Dieppe, France. Having recently been promoted to captain, he served as the unit's assistant beach master during the raid and sailed across the English Channel on a Tank Landing Craft with an Essex Scottish company headquarters, one platoon of infantry, and three 40-ton Churchill tanks. He was "startled by the early chatter of automatic weapons" when one of the ships encountered a German convoy, certain that the hail of artillery fire that ensued had eliminated their chance for launching a surprise attack. 8
The Rank Landing Craft carrying Captain McGregor had to correct its approach to the beach, having veered off course, and so it arrived late. As the ramp dropped into the water to unload the first tank, a high-velocity round of bullets from an anti-tank gun mounted in a nearby cave scored a direct hit. A spray of hot metal killed or wounded several of the platoon men who were waiting to disembark the craft. The second tank pushed the immobilized one off the ramp and was trudging through the water to the beach when it threw a track. Its crew abandoned it. Walter, who was leading the surviving infantry to the beach, did not see what happened to the third tank. "When the infantry took off they rain into a hail of fire," he told a Windsor Star reporter in 1997. "It was pretty chaotic.
After a few desperate hours, McGregor and the beach master, Major Brian McCool of The Royal Regiment of Canada, called the command ship, the H.M.S. Calpe, to send in landing craft to rescue the survivors from the beach. Sixty years later, the scene was still vivid in his memory. "I'd call [the landing craft] in to take off the troops," he said. "They'd break away [from the troopships] and a Stuka bomber would dive on them and a great spray of water would go up. When it went down there would be no landing craft. Any that did make it through had the 88s on shore to contend with." 9 He was on the radio with Deputy Army Commander Brigadier Churchill Mann asking for more landing craft when he saw men from brigadier headquarters crossing the beach with a white flag raised in surrender. When he reported this to Brigadier Mann, he heard just two words in response: "Okay. Off."
McGregor was taken as a prisoner of war following the surrender. As a high-ranking officer, he was allowed a few special privileges that enabled him to continue his study of law in the prison camp at Eichstaett in southern Germany. When he wrote to his mother telling her about the camp's education programs, she contacted the Law Society of Upper Canada, which arranged to send McGregor casebooks and study materials through the Red Cross. During the two and a half years he spent in captivity, McGregor was able to finish his second and third semesters of law school before he was liberated after the war.
McGregor returned to Windsor on 23 June 1945. That fall, he resumed his studies at Osgoode Hall. After being called to the Ontario Bar, he split his energies between his military career and his burgeoning law career. In 1948, he was promoted to the rank of major, and on 10 June he succeeded Lieutenant-Colonel MacIntyre as commander of the regiment that bore his family's personal tartan. During his tenure as commander, he had to rebuild the unit in a peacetime environment, the same task with which his father was charged following the First World War. But McGregor had spent most of his life until that point in the military, and by 1951 he felt that he needed a change. That November, he relinquished command of The Essex Scottish Regiment and entered into a law practice with Stewart and McWilliams.
For the next forty years McGregor practiced general commercial law in Kingsville and Windsor. In 1965 he earned an LLD from the University of Windsor, and later acted as Chairman of the school's Board of Governors.
McGregor was always reluctant to talk about his wartime experiences, but as the years wore on, his actions did the talking for him. In 1992, he led the effort to erect a memorial to the Essex Scottish on the beach of Dieppe, France for the fiftieth anniversary of the raid.