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Webster - Co-founder of Fergus
February 21, 2004
While 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.
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
"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.
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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