Guest Notebook: (1) Local News One Farmer at a Time, The Rise of George McCullagh
by Mark Bourrie
George McCullagh, the child of Irish immigrants in the tough industrial town of London, Ontario, would become a mid-century media mogul who shaped Canadian politics for a generation. He began at sixteen in the summer of 1921 by selling newspaper subscriptions to rural farmers, because Toronto’s most prestigious paper, the Globe, would not give him a job as a reporter.
McCullagh’s challenge was to sell long-term newspaper mail subscriptions to the people of backwater towns and farm concessions of southwestern Ontario. This was a farming community peopled by descendants of 109 impoverished Scots who had immigrated to Canada in 1853 and settled on the frontier. Their community was connected to the outside world in 1873 when the Wellington, Grey and Bruce Railway built a line to Lake Huron. The hub of Ripley had a couple of grist mills, a lumber mill, a stockyard, and a grain elevator. The teenager’s job was to convince the local people that they needed to read the Globe to keep up on national issues. That meant the young man had to be able to talk politics with people of his parents’ generation. There were important issues to master: liquor prohibition, electrification, the spread of communism from Russia, Canadian labor unrest blamed on communism, problems faced by returning veterans, and the economic downturn that lingered in Canada.
McCullagh’s timing was quite good. Current events mattered to people. Canada had never seen a more desperate time. Some sixty-seven thousand men had died in World War I. More than 120,000 had been wounded, mostly by artillery fire. The six hundred thousand veterans who had been discharged from the army, navy, and small air force were trying to readjust to civilian life during the worst pandemic in generations. There were only about nine million people in the country, and more than one in five had either immigrated to Canada or been born in the country in the previous ten years. The Parliament Building burned down in 1916 and the House of Commons and Senate were meeting in a museum. (The dollar bills in circulation showed the Library of Parliament standing forlornly on the flattened ruins. It’s probably the saddest and most defiant image ever printed on Canadian money.) Inflation was rampant. Thousands of people were out of work because wartime industries closed. The war had caused so much pain and social disruption and forced so many people—men and women—to rethink their ideas of safety and security. People wanted the war to mean something, and they wanted the new world that they believed they’d been promised. Their old world was gone, along with so many of their young men. And the tens of thousands of maimed men, people missing arms, legs, sometimes even faces, reminded everyone of the horror.
In those postwar flu pandemic years, Canada was polarized between the extreme right and extreme left, with new and powerful radicalism growing on both ends of the spectrum. Union activists and communists were firing up industrial workers. At the same time, the Ku Klux Klan was recruiting in parts of rural Canada. Immigrants, Black Canadians, and Indigenous people were ground down by discrimination that often had the force of law behind it. Canada’s old minorities, French Canadians who opposed the war and conscription (the drafting of men to fight overseas), still seethed from being ganged up on by English-speaking Liberals and Tories who, they believed, had formed the wartime coalition government against them. The wartime cooperation between many Liberal members of Parliament and Sir Robert Borden’s Conservative government was finished and a generational political change was underway.
During these decades farmers were the most radical people in the country, and there were enough of them to decide the outcomes of elections. Farm organizations across Canada that started as social clubs and mutual aid groups for rural women and men became politicized in the decades before the war. In 1914, farmer federations coalesced into the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO). Rather than just lobby governments for a fair deal for farmers, the UFO ran candidates, picking up its first seat in the Ontario legislature in a 1918 by-election on Manitoulin Island. In the 1919 provincial election, the UFO surprised everyone, including itself, by winning the most seats. The party had no leader. Its members met at Massey Hall in Toronto, right in the belly of the sin beast, to pick Ernest Drury, who didn’t even have a seat in the legislature, to be premier. These were not conservative, “get-government-off-our backs,” anti-tax farmers. We would call them progressive populists, and many of them were sympathetic to the demands of urban industrial workers.
The UFO government brought in sweeping welfare reforms. It established new forestry programs to replant the land in central Ontario that had been clear-cut for the lumber used to build North America’s cities. It spent public money to turn old portage routes into highways and connected villages and farms to the electrical grid. Electric lights began replacing coal oil lamps in the houses along Ontario’s farm roads. While being tight with government funds—UFO members of the legislature turned down raises and pensions—the activist government pumped money into agricultural and medical research, paying for the University of Toronto lab that gave the world insulin. The government enticed Theodore Loblaw to set up a chain of cooperative food stores. It brought in workers’ compensation for people injured on the job. It established a minimum wage for working women. It also waged a brutal and sometimes bloody war on booze.
McCullagh was able to sell a lot of newspapers. Sometimes he talked the locals out of their money by discussing politics. Other times, he bet farmers he could plow a straighter furrow than they could. McCullagh had a knack for horses. He couldn’t afford one, but he knew what made a good horse. He watched them as he walked those country roads. He talked to farmers about them. By the time he was in his late teens, he was an expert.
By his own brains and hard work, McCullagh was able to defy the odds against a young stranger in a cheap suit selling a city newspaper to farmers in a backwater. In Ripley he’d learned that the people who delivered the mail in town and along the concession roads earned a special commission from the newspaper company if they also delivered a Globe. It wasn’t very much money, so few of them bothered to try to sell subscriptions. The eager teenager would make it worth their while to introduce him to the people along their route. Suddenly, the young stranger had a chance for a ride and a way to break the ice. At the end of his first week, he sent home sixty-seven dollars in commissions, the company’s ten-dollar bonus and the five-dollar prize from the regional manager. (That pay had the buying power of at least $1,100 in today’s money.) A year later, he had the manager’s job.
After he was finished in Ripley, McCullagh began working the small towns and gravelled concession roads of Huron, Middlesex, Oxford, Perth, Waterloo, Elgin, Kent, and Lambton counties, hunting down mailmen and chatting up farmers. He did this in the heat and the rain and the snow, which gave him a lot of time to think. At seventeen, while managing subscription salesmen and filling his own order books, he came up with the idea of the “Just Kids” Safety League, a sort of club that had just one requirement for joining: clipping a coupon from the Globe and sending it to the newspaper office. In return, kids got a membership card, some pamphlets on traffic and water safety, and a flier on the menace of addiction to comic strips. At a young age, McCullagh had realized the power of interactive marketing. People want to be engaged, to be part of something. Newspapers wanted the names of potential subscribers, which they collected from coupons sent by kids who’d bought the paper at newsstands. The idea was so brilliant that other papers quickly picked up on it. More than three hundred thousand children across North America signed up to safety leagues started by newspapers in Canada and the United States.
[Stay tuned for Part Two!]
This post is adapted from the forthcoming Big Men Fear Me: The Fast Life and Quick Death of Canada’s Most Powerful Media Mogul, by Mark Bourrie. Mark Bourrie wrote for the Globe and Mail from 1978 to 1989 and for the Toronto Star from 1989 to 2004. He is the author of thirteen books, including The Fog of War: Censorship of Canada’s Media in The Second World War, and editor of Fighting Words: Canada's Best War Reporting. He is a consultant on propaganda and censorship at the Canadian Forces Public Affairs School.
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