George H. Mills, who was mayor of the city of Hamilton in the year 1858, during his leisure hours in the closing years of his life prepared quite an interesting account of the growth and affairs of the city from that period down to 1886, which is valuable in a historical way. The book is now the property of Stanley Mills, to whom the Muser is indebted for a perusal of it. George H. Mills was a descendant of John Mills, a native Scotchman, who emigrated to the United States and settled on Staten Island, New York, about the middle of the eighteenth century. His father was born in Newark, New Jersey, in the year 1774. The family, being attached to the British crown, and not in sympathy with the spirit of the American revolution, they emigrated to Canada in 1793. James Mills, the U. E. Loyalist, was the father of George H. Mills, and was entitled to 200 acres of land, which he never got. He began life as a trader among the Indians, trading goods for raw furs, and the furs he shipped back to Newark, where he sold them. In 1800, he decided to settle in this locality, then called the Head of the Lake, and engaged in various occupations. He was a man possessed of far more than ordinary intelligence and education, and was frequently employed I settling differences between neighbors, preparing deeds of land and other contracts requiring a knowledge of the law. In 1803, he united in marriage to Christina Hesse, a sister of Peter Hesse, after whom Hess street was called. In 1816, James Mills bought 200 acres of land in the west end of the city, for which he paid two dollars an acre, of which he sold the east 100 to Peter Hesse. It was on that farm, now the west end of Hamilton that George H. Mills, the future mayor was born. One of his early teachers was Patrick Thornton, a Scotchman, who taught a private school, there being no public schools in those days. For a time he was a student in Victoria college, and afterward became a pupil of Rev. Dean Geddes in 1842, who pieced out his salary as a minister by teaching a select school during the week. There were no $3,000 and $4,000 pupils in Hamilton in those days; indeed, the ministers thought they were living in the lap of luxury if they were paid as high as $400 a year. George H. Mills was one of those fortunate, or unfortunate, young men who was not compelled to put forth any energy to make a living, for by the time he became of age, the old home farm became valuable as town lots, and the Mills coffers were overflowing with gold. When town lots got as high as $5 a foot front in Hamilton in the old days, the owners of farms began to subdivide them and turn them into money. Today the western city limits lie far beyond the Mills farm, and lots halfway out to Dundas are booming at $30 to $50 a foot. The story is told of a man who owned a farm out on the Dundas road who was approached by a couple of strangers not long ago, and asked to put a price on his farm of 100 acres or more. The owner thought he would stagger the strangers by asking a still price, and said he would sell for $75,000. Not another word was said by the strangers, but one of them pulled a roll of bills from his pocket, and counted out $1,000, which he tendered to bind the bargain. “Those strangers are dead easy,” thought the farmer, and after he had signed a contract to sell the land, he began to think there must be something behind all this. When George H. Mills was a boy, the owner of that same farm would have considered himself if he could have sold it at $10 an acre. There is lots of cheap land in Canada yet, but it is now within the sound of Hamilton’s church bells.
On the 13th day of March, 1855, George H. Mills went out to Waukegan, Illinois, and married a western Yankee girl, and after thirty years of wedded life, he paid this beautiful tribute to the mother of his children : “For thirty-one years, we have lived together, sharing joys, hopes, and sorrows. You have the best of mothers. She has faithfully and tendered watched over you in sickness, and in health she has, almost single-handed, shaped your lives: and if you have become respected members; and if you have become respected members of society, to her, far more than anybody else, you are indebted for your preparation and early training to fit you for the position.” In 1857, like Teddy Roosevelt, Mr. Mills shied his hat into the political ring, and offered himself as candidate for alderman in St. George’s ward. J. D. Pringle, a prominent barrister, being his opponent. Adam Brown, our genial postmaster, was a younger man then than he is now, and although he and Mr. Mills were warm, personal friends, Mr. Brown gave his influence to Mr. Pringle. The contest was hot and close, but Mr. Mills came out ahead by a very small majority. Evidently he was a man of ideas and he had the force of character to convince others to his way of thinking. At that time our present beautiful Gore park was a mud hole and the dumping ground for the refuse from the stores on King street fronting it. The old stagers will remember the ancient Gore, with the town pump on a high platform facing James street. This old Muser is not going to throw any stones at the old Gore, nor at the old pump, for the pump played an important part in the comfort of the old stagers during the cholera season in 1854. When nearly all of the wells in Hamilton were thought to be polluted from the back yard connections to the houses, and people were afraid to drink the water without boiling, that the old pump furnished pure, cool water and quenched the thirsts of thousands everyday. People would walk a long distance in the evening in the evening for a drink before retiring for the night. There should be a tablet erected to the memory of the old pump at the west end of the Gore.
During George H. Mills first term as alderman, he made the improvement of the Gore his special care and study, and in the council and in the newspapers, he advocated the planting of trees and the filling up of the mud hole, and by constant hammering at his hobby, he finally got a majority of the council to his way of thinking. There was a strong sentiment in favor of building an arcade on the strip, renting the lower floor to small shopkeepers and the upper stories for offices, and occupying a part of it for city hall purposes. Hamilton had at that time a number of leading men who worshiped at the shrine of the almighty dollar and the possible revenue that might be deprived from an arcade appealed more to the practical side than a square of grass and trees in the business part of the city. The result of Mr. Mills’ advocacy of trees, grass and flowers is to be seen today in the beautiful park between James and Hughson streets. To another alderman in later years is due the credit of the extension of the park down to John street. Fifteen years ago, this strip was about as filthy and disreputable-looking as almost any alley in the city – and to the discredit of Hamilton the alleys within one block of King street are as foul-smelling as they were half a century ago when there was no money to clean them up. William Findlay was a progressive alderman fifteen years ago, and had something to do with the public works, probably chairman of the committee, and that strip was not only an eyesore to him, but to every business man on both sides of the street. The cabmen occupied it as a stand, and it was a filthy sight in the center of an ambitious city. Ald. Findlay had a hard fight to get the consent of council to change the cab stand into a beautiful park, but he finally succeeded, and today, there is not a city in Canada or anywhere else that can show such a handsome picture. The present generation of aldermen and controllers are not quite so esthetic in their tastes, for instead of adding to the beauties of the Gore parks, they are going to burrow underneath and build a retreat for benchers in the park.
The dark days of 1857 not only overshadowed Canada, but closed up the factories and workshops in the United States. Those were the days of wildcat currency, when a bank note that was worth a dollar at night was not worth a cent in the morning. There was no stability to the banks as we have them now, when every dollar note is worth its face value in gold. Canada and the United States were buying everything they needed from foreign countries, and the money that should be kept at home to give employment to our own citizens was sent away to enrich labor in foreign countries. But we are not going to discuss the protective tariff in these musings. Hamilton’s worst black eye was received in 1858, when thousands of young men had to leave home and seek employment elsewhere. Mr. Mills refers to those days in the sketch we have at command. That man by acclamation, for his constituents approved of his progressive ideas. In those days the mayor of the city was selected by the board of aldermen from among their own number, and Mr. Mills was accorded the honor of election. The year 1858 will long be remembered by the old stagers as one of the most trying on account of commercial depression, that Canada ever experienced, not even excepting the dark and calamitous year of 1849, when many leading men could see no way out of the prevailing depression but annexation to the United States. Previous to 1858, many public works, railways and canals had been in progress, large armies of men being employed and large sums of money expended. Hamilton was then in the midst of its construction of the waterworks system, and owing to the scarcity of money and the abundance of labor unemployed, the contractors could get labor at any price, men working in the trenches as low as fifty cents a day, and glad to get work even at that. All of the public works in the provinces were substantially abandoned, and the men who were thrown out of work crowded into the cities. These people had not been provident while receiving good pay for their work, and the approach of winter found them nearly destitute. Men were glad to get work even on half time, and this old Muser can well remember that for long weeks he was glad to get employment on half time, setting long primer and brevier at 27 cents per thousand. Funds were low in the city’s treasury, and pressing applications for relief daily increased till the close of the year. Many days during the month of December, the city hall was besieged by strong men begging for work, asking for food, clamoring for some kind of municipal measures that might better their condition. Some days the number of applicants for relief reached as high as three hundred. It was a critical and serious time. The few factories and workshops we had in Hamilton were substantially shut down, and those in operation employed their men on half time. The city council opened a number of new streets to furnish labor, the number of applicants far exceeding the demand, especially as money was scarce in the city treasury. In order to divide up the labor among so many, lots were drawn and those who were fortunate enough to draw a lucky number were given three days work at a time at fifty cents a day. In this employment was furnished to the most needy. The opening of new streets and the construction of the waterworks system about furnished enough work to keep body and soul together. It is different today in Hamilton when men are getting fifty cents an hour instead of fifty cents a day as they did fifty-five years ago. While the men were clamoring for work in 1858 to keep their families from want, the corridors of the city hall were crowded with women and children besieging the mayor for help. In order to satisfy himself that the real needy ones should not suffer, Mayor Mills, accompanied by Donald Dawson, a city policeman, visited the homes of the people, and tyhis opened his eyes to the misery that was present. With what relief money that could be spared from the city funds, and such aid as the benevolent societies could render, no one was permitted to suffer for bread. Unfortunately, there was a class in the city who traded on the general misfortunes by asking and receiving aid when they were not really in need. At some of the houses visited by the mayor and Donald Dawson, they found families that had been making the poorest mouths, well-supplied with provisions, and many of them had money in the savings bank. Donald made a record of them, and henceforth they wisely kept away from the city hall. So heartsick and wearied was Mr. Mills with his official duties that at the end of the year, he declined to be a candidate for re-election.
Happily for Hamilton, the tide of prosperity turned in its favor when the civil war in the United States began, for when the American boys left the workshops for the tented field, a demand for labor sprung up and thousands of Canadians left their homes and crossed the border to fill the vacancies in the workshops. During the war over 50,000 Canadians became enthused with the war spirit, and they in turn left the workshops to shoulder arms for Uncle Sam. In 1858, Hamilton had a population of between 15,000 and 20,000, today it is nearing 85,000. Fifty-five years ago, there were but few workshops or factories in the town; today there are nearly 400 industrial establishments, giving employment to no less than 25,000 men and women. More than $13,000,000 are paid out yearly in wages, and the factories are turning out products that are valued at $45,000,000. These be the growing days for Hamilton when 25 feet frontage on King street sells for $100,000, that the owner of it thirteen years ago was glad to sell for $28,000. A big Toronto firm has been watching the growth, and now comes into the game, buying nearly a whole block in the heart of the city, three blocks from King street, and one from James street, for the purposes of erecting a large department store and workshops to supply its trade. The Head of the Lake is coming into its own even though it took a hundred years for Canada and the United States to find out its great advantages as an industrial center. Hereafter no Torontonian will dare belittle the mountain by calling it a hill; nor will the good women of Hamilton be running off to Toronto during the summer months to buy cheap goods that will cost them more than a better quality can be bought in the home stores. The past belongs to the old stagers, who planned and builded wisely; the future is a story yet to be told by some Muser that is to come.