History of the County of Perth, 1825-1902
William Johnston, 1903
Samuel Rollins Hesson, an old pioneer of the County of Perth, was born in the parish of Kilray, Co. Antrim, Ireland, Sept 25th, 1829. The family, with the idea of bettering their circumstances, came to America in 1831. After a long, tedious voyage, they reached Ogdensburg, remaining there about a year. The system of government obtaining in the U.S. was not in accord with the pre-conceived ideas of the elder Mr Hesson, and a return was made to the British flag, in the territory north of the St Lawrence. Arriving in Canada in 1832, they rented a farm between Hamilton and Dundas with the idea of making agriculture their vocation. A great misfortune overtook this immigrant family in the death of the father. In a strange country, without friends, with no great store of this world's goods, this was a sad calamity, indeed. Renting a farm was now an impossibility, and the widowed mother retired to Dundas with her seven children, of whom the subject of this sketch was the youngest. Mr Hesson's earliest recollections of school days (a period in young life when many happy recollections are stored up) was walking two and a half miles to a log school on the Hamilton road. His first recollection of trying to read was the motto on an old square sign swinging in front of a quaint, old-fashioned country inn. Impressions made in youth are lasting, and the motto on this old sign-board has been ever since remembered. It was a strange mixture of doggerel, poor rhythm, and, perhaps, truth, embodying the conditions for the entertainment of such guests as chose to honour mine host with their patronage, as follows, "The traveller's friend, the extortioner's foe; try me to-day, to-morrow you'll know. Peter Bamberger." Whether the bill of fare set up by the philosphic Peter was in accord with his announcement on the sign-board, or whether he conducted his advertising business on the principle that it is best to be impressive, even if it requires a little exaggeration, history sayeth not.
At the Dundas grammar school, under Dr McMahon, Mr Hesson received the little education he ever obtained. This was long before the period of free schools in Canada, and poor as the family was, they had to contribute $2.50 per quarter towards the salary of the teacher, or remain without education. During the short period he attended this seminary, he formed an acquaintance with another lad whose representations of the Huron Tract produced an impression on young Hesson which determined his future course of life. This lad was T. M. Daly, who came from Stratford to attend school that year. This acquaintance formed on that occasion was afterwards the friendship of a lifetime.
In 1843, therefore, the family came to Stratford on the 4th day of June. Mr Hesson says: -- "We left Dundas for the same reason we left old Ireland, because we were poor, like most of the early settlers." Ah! yes; like most of the early settlers. What a glorious thing for Canada that in old Ireland and other far off lands people were poor. And what of those early settlers who left their old homes because they were poor? It was a glorious thing for them that there was a Canada, where they could bring thier poverity [sic]. Aye, and their British spirit, and their energy, and their thrift, and their determination that the day would come when Canada would bring her best gifts to those deserving poor, and lay them like golden crowns at their feet. In the eternal fitness of things so it has been, and Canada, with the County of Perth, rejoices today that many left their old homes and came to her fertile shades in the olden time because they were poor. But this young fellow, if he was poor, was full of muscle and ambition, anxious to work, and he says, "I got plenty of it." What more does a poor man need; if he has muscle, ambition, and plenty of work, he is equipped like a giant, and the odds are all in his favour that at the end of the contest he comes under the wire far ahead of those who entered the race of life with what is considered superior advantages.
Having reached the Huron Tract, the family settled in the Gore of Downie, near No. 4 school house, where ample opportunity was soon afforded him to exercise all the muscle and ambition of which he says he was possessed. There was chopping and logging to be done; there was cordwood to cut, thereby enabling him to earn a little money to carry home to his mother. Near where the city hall now stands he chopped cordwood, walking four miles each way to his home, carrying a cold dinner, which he ate from the top of a maple stump, which, by the way, is an excellent substitute for a table. When the cordwood sold at Mr Daly's ashery, which occupied the site of the present Albert Theatre, or J. P. Vivian's brewery, for 87 1/2 cents per cord, the profit to this axe man was not great. Wood in the old virgin bush was easy to chop, and he was able to cut three cords per day, for which he was paid 31 cents, a small recompense surely for so much severe labour, but that was the period of small things in every department, except that of work. Even then his feelings were well expressed by the line from Burns -- "Who was contented wi' little, and thanfu' for mair."
In 1847 he assisted at the erection of the log school house in No. 4, or McEwan's school, and in which he became teacher for a term of three years. Teaching in those "brave old days" was not a remunerative employment, his salary being $10 per month; he had also to collect a rate bill of 20 cents from each pupil per month. Of course he had the privilege of boarding "round" amongst the pupils, an opportunity of which he did not avail himself, his spare hours being valuable and his home near the school. The School Act of 1841 made provision for the examination of teachers, and he made the journey on foot to Goderich, passing through the ordeal before the superintendent of schools for the United Counties. He succeeded in obtaining a certificate, however, and came home rejoicing, with the coveted document snugly tucked away in his inside pocket. This was in 1847, and it took four days on the trip.
Finding teaching and bush-whacking too slow, he bade adieu to the shanty and came to Stratford in search of employment. This he found with U. C. Lee, then a prominent merchant, thus taking up the business which proved to be that of his life. Mr R. H. Lee also came to Stratford, entering into mercantile pursuits, Mr Hesson being engaged in the management of the concern till 1856. Mr Sebring, the founder of the village a short distance west, feeling his health failing, Mr Hesson entered into negotaions for his stock-in-trade, which were finally concluded by his becoming proprietor of that portion of the Sebring estate. The year 1856 was one of importance to him; he had launched his barque into the stream of life for the first time with himself as pilot, and time alone would determine whether he had sufficient skill as a navigator to keep away from the rocks and shoals on which so many trim sails are dashed to pieces and lost. During this year he was appointed postmaster in Sebringville, and was also made a justice of the peace for the county. He continued to conduct this business for ten years with success. In 1854 he married Miss Margaret Jane Polley, and soon had a family growing up around him, and being desirous of securing for them a good education, he sold out his property in Sebringville, removing to Stratford. Here he again entered into business, which he continued to manage with success for over a quarter of a century, when he retired on a competency from active life to enjoy a well-earned repose.
During all the years he was actively engaged in his calling he did not disregard his obligations of citizenship, in discharging those public functions which all good men owe to their fellows. When asked to come forward and contribute of his knowledge and experience for the public good he was found at his post. He served the city as councillor for some years, and as mayor in 1876. On this occasion he was elected by acclamation. He was school trustee for some years, and chairman of the building committee in 1878, resigning that position to contest the north riding of Perth for the House of Commons. At this election he defeated Mr James Fisher. In 1882 he was again elected, defeating Mr Robert Jones, of Logan, and was again elected in 1886 over Dr Johnston, of Millbank. In the next contest he was defeated by Mr James Grieve of Mornington. The withdrawal of confidence by the electorate on this occasion arose entirely from his devotion to Sir John A Macdonald in supporting a certain measure which was considred inimical to the principles of a number of his supporters.
Mr Hesson was chosen chairman of the Trust Board under whose control were the funds for constructing the Georgian Bay & Lake Erie Railway. He has been a director of the Gas & Electric Light Co. since 1875, and president for the past three years; was appointed first license inspector when Stratford was incorporated, and gave the first license to the Old Albion hotel on Ontario street, then considered to be the acme in hotel construction and in the magnificence of its appointments.
Away back in the 'forties he was scrutineer for the Hon. Mr Cayley in the Cayley-Cameron election for the United Counties, before Perth had a separate existence. In those brave old days the polls were kept open for two days, and the qualification of a voter was a free deed. There was one polling place in Ellice, and only one vote for poor Cayley, who was a Conservative. This was polled by an English Tory named Pinder, who was, like the "Last rose of summer," apparently "blooming alone," and "wasting his sweetness on the desert air." Mr Cameron was elected.
Mr Hesson was president for a period of five years of the first brass band (organized in Stratford in 1851), and doubtless marched off with the boys behind the drum major, who with his baton led the way in all the excruciating dignity of a half-pay officer or a town beadle, girt with the parish sword.
During the agitaiton in the matter of good roads, over 50 years ago, he took an active part, and travelled over eight miles to the school0house north of Shakespeare to record his first vote in favour of so excellent a movement.
This old pioneer, who cut cordwood on the principal square of the city of Stratford, is still a youthful-looking and robust man. He saw the city when itw as yet a hamlet, and the surrounding country a wilderness. He saw it pass through the several stages to its present importance, and contributed his personal efforts to its commercial success. He sat in the high places, amongst her great men. Alone and without other aid this cordwood-chopper became a counsellor in the great council of the nation. What were the weapons with which this battle was fought -- that gained power an honour and prestige? Nothing but honest of purpose, a high ideal of personal worth and integrity, and an ever-present feeling that he who fights on honourable and just principes will eventually win. So it always has been; so it will always be. Mr Hesson's life, like others of the grand men of this county, ought to be an object-lesson to our youths who are preparing themselves to climb the hill "Difficulty" to honour and fame. To those without wealth, family connections, or influence, I say think of this wood-chopper and others of the old pioneers, and remember that though you are not equipped for the race with money or a great education, those are not the pearls without price -- they are only the settings, and not the gems. Let the goal you intend to reach be a high one, and if you never reach it (because few men ever attain their highest aspriations), you will at least by constant work ascend part of the way, your own manhood will be strengthened, and the world be the better of your efforts.
In conclusion, permit me to say that the life of this man is well worthy of emulation. It is a life of action, and of honest effort, directed and sustained by a consciousness of moral rectitude, which has brought its own reward in a self-approving conscience and a competency for a quiet rest in the gloaming hours which make up the term of our increasing years.
Meg Fuller Perth County Coordinator
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