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James Webster - Co-founder of Fergus

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By Pat Mestern
February 21, 2004

Webster Mansion House built c1847 - picture c1905While preparing for Sesquicentennial celebrations in 1983, I had the pleasure of talking to, and spending time with, Mrs. Corcoran, a grand-daughter of James Webster, co-founder of Fergus. It is hard to believe that Webster, who was 25 years of age in 1833, would have a grand-daughter living 150 years later in 1983. The explanation is quite simple. James and Margaret Wilson-Webster had twelve children. Mrs. Corcoran was the youngest child of one of the youngest children.

James Webster was born at Balruddery House in Forfarshire, Scotland in 1808. As he was not the eldest son and therefore didn=t inherit the family holdings in Scotland, he took his considerable wealth and went into partnership with Adam Fergusson to seek adventure, and further fortune, in Upper Canada. As co-founder of Fergus, Webster settled in quickly. He gave top priority to building several stores, a grist mill and distillery. Thomas Young, a school chum of Webster's ran one of the stores which building was located where the post office is today. The mill and distillery was located on the north side of the present day dam site in downtown Fergus. About Webster's involvement Gibbie Todd reminisced: "great deal has been said in former correspondence relating to the purchasing of the land in Nichol, and giving all the credit to Mr. Fergusson. Messrs. Fergusson and Webster bought the land in company, so that one is as much the founder of Fergus as the other - with this difference, that Mr. Fergusson did not live in the village but Mr. Webster did and transacted all the business. He was a kind-hearted man, and was in fact the poor man's friend." The Corcoran files reveal that Webster had considerable wealth but was so generous to those in less fortunate circumstances that he was chronically short of working capital. He was, as James Watt wrote, A a man for the masses, a humane being that could see no man, whatever his inclination, suffer".

Even though Webster was Ato the manor born@ he got very much involved in the physical aspects of pioneer life. He worked alongside settlers, clearing the land, building, planting. He was also much involved in politics and held the position of representative for the County in parliament in 1842. In 1853, Webster moved to Guelph where he was, among other things, Colonial of the Militia, first mayor of Guelph by direct vote and Registrar of the County beginning in 1859.

When Webster died on February 6, 1869 he left a legacy of written material and artifacts to his children. From Mrs. Corcoran's files, we find that when James returned from a trip to Scotland in 1837 he brought a large number of refinements with him from his ancestral home. The list includes silverware and china, oil paintings and several large tapestries. Among the larger items shipped were two riding horses, six cows and carriage, a large sideboard and a dining room suite.

Life must have been very sophisticated in Webster's homes - the first at Kinnettles - the second the grand "Mansion House" on Gowrie Street which site today is the parking lot for Groves Memorial Community Hospital. "Mansion House" was known for its socials and fetes. Each year a Grand Ball boasted more than eighty people in attendance. The Webster family employed many servants - Deaf Moses Brown a.k.a. Deaf Moses Smith and Mammy Morrice, the children's nurse-maid being just two of them. Webster's children were privately tutored, the tutor living in a small cottage on the property. Other outbuildings included a large stable and carriage house.

Webster's philosophy brought him into conflict with Adam Fergusson. The feud involved a difference of opinion about who should be allowed to purchase land in Nichol. Fergusson demanded that no land be sold to undesirables which included the Irish and "others". Webster believed that all deserved the opportunity to own land. He was a staunch supporter of the black Pierpoint settlement just east of the village. The situation came to a head during 1838 when Adam Fergusson and family spent the summer in the village. It was during this period that a number of settlers decided "Fergus" should be called "Websterville" and got up a petition that they presented to Webster who soothed troubled waters by writing that the settlement obviously 'bore the name of "Fergus" lst King of Scotland". Obviously, no one acted further on the petition. In Y2004, "Fergus" is still "Fergus". Of course as we know, the area was known as "Little Falls" before Fergusson and Webster arrived on the scene.

In order to defuse the "Irish question" and to meet the needs of the emigrating Irish, Webster founded Arthur in 1840, and put his old friend and liberal thinker, Thomas Young, in charge as land agent. Webster and Young were with Sir Casimir Gzowski's party when, in 1844, they explored the Saugeen River. He personally bankrolled a number of Highlanders who homesteaded in the Bruce.
One of the most telling accounts of Webster's popularity comes from an account of a farewell banquet, held on January 21, 1853. The account appeared in an old Guelph paper.

"On Friday last the inhabitants of Fergus entertained our respected townsman, Mr. Webster, at a public dinner in that village, to mark their respect for one who had taken the most active part and had been the chief mans of establishing the village, and settling the neighbourhood, on his leaving that place to take up residence in Guelph. Considerable preparation had been made, the centre storey of the Fergus Mills was fitted up very neatly, and plates laid out for 140, every one of which was called into requisition.

A number of company proceeded from Guelph, Nichol, Garafraxa, Elora and Pilkington, contributed to swell the number, and a large and enthusiastic gathering was the result. A.J. Fergusson, Esq M.P.P. presided, supported on his right by the Guest of the Evening, and on his left by Mr. Sheriff Grange. The foot was occupied by Thomas Mair, Esq., an old resident whilst the seats of honour at the side tables were occupied by Charles Allan, J. L. Smith, John Watt and James McQueen, Esqs.

Mr. Keheler of the St. Andrew's Hotel provided on the occasion. The assembly appeared happy in having an opportunity of thus testifying the feelings of respect they entertained for one whom all loved, and in private life, esteemed most highly. The usual toasts, having been gone through, next came to the Army and Navy. Col Kingsmill, Sheriff of Niagara, replied in a lengthy and eloquent speech, which was received with feeling and approbation. The Chairman gave the Ahealth of James Webster, Esq., in glowing terms, relating their early acquaintance and after associations in this country, and spoke of him in terms of the highest respect.

It's interesting to note that, according to Mrs. Corcoran, Adam Fergusson was not invited to this farewell dinner. The family was represented by A. J. Fergusson, M.P.P. who was more liberal in thought than his father. He and James Webster were friends and shared the love of well bred riding and jumping horses. Mrs. Corcoran, as gracious and kind as her grandfather, said that the family always felt that James Webster had been a little short-shafted when people spoke of Fergus and its history. All tended to forget that there were, in reality, two founders. She was thrilled to be invited to take the place of honour in the sesquicentennial parade. She rode at the head of the parade with her son in an open carriage, emblazoned with proper and correct signage.

She was probably no more thrilled than I was when invited to enjoy tea with the lady - and she used a tea set that came from "Balruddery" as part of that large shipments of household goods in 1837. Now that's tangible history!



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