A Story of Hon. John Bracken, of Manitoba

JOHN M. ELSON September 1 1922


A Story of Hon. John Bracken, of Manitoba

JOHN M. ELSON September 1 1922


A Story of Hon. John Bracken, of Manitoba


"SEE here, Collars-cuffs-and-birds’eggs, when are you going to help....?” The speaker was a hired man, wearing overalls and wide-brimmed hat, on a dairy farm in the eastern end of Ontario. The one to whom his strange words were applied was a youth, fonder it would seem, from the cynical pleasantry, of gathering birds’ eggs than he was of hoeing turnips and milking cows.

Quite a lot of water has flowed under the mills since those words were spoken, and Jack Bracken, to whom they were made, is still dressed in collars and cuffs, but instead of collecting the product of the feathered tribe he is standing to-day with both feet on the top of the public ladder. He is picking plums off the tree of honor in Manitoba.

To such titles as professor, president of an agricultural college, author of two standard books on dry farming and father to four sturdy sons, he has added, by way of variety, one or two more appellations such as “Honourable” and “Prime Minister.”

It is qu'le a long way from that dairy farm to the Prime Minister’s chair and it has been uphill all the way, but John Bracken, the Leeds County boy, has climbed it. He h«s got to the summit at the early age of thirty-nine, an age when most men are just beginning to cut their political wisdom teeth. He, too, of course, may be only starting to cut his, a matter upon which bearded time will pass judgment later on, but meanwhile he has arrived somewhere. It is important for the young to note that he has done more in those thirty-nine years than play marbles.

On the northern shore of the majestic St. Lawrence, where it widens out to embrace the beauty of a thousand islands, nestles the pretty little town of Gananoque. Into the town’s lap empties the Gananoque river whose dark waters wind and meander down from among the hills and valleys that stretch away to the Rideau lake region. Running back like a white ribbon, in the same direction as the stream, is a country road bordered on the east and on the west by farm buildings, scattered fields of grain, pasture lands where cattle graze, and rugged elevations from which granite outcroppings protrude their ragged noses. After eleven or twelve miles of varying course it climbs a hill, on whose brow stands a modest church with stone-marked mounds, and then it divides, one fork continuing northward to Seeley’s Bay, the other turning to the right past Ellisville and on to Lyndhurst. A short distance in this latter direction and the highway takes a dip into quiet lowlands where the heavy verdure is of a rich dark green and where the stillness of a summer evening is broken only by an occasional motor car or the screech of a bird in the forest patches.

Here, tucked away in one of the great pockets of Leeds county and among the rambling acres in which the Bracken family took deep root as far back as the middle of last century, stands a little, old, red cottage. It is so humble and diminutive as to‘ scarcely declare its existence, and yet within it for a while lived sturdy stock, beneath its roof a provincial prime minister was born.

THERE were three Bracken boys of those fifty or sixty years ago who took hold of the plow when their lamented father finished his furrow. They were strongly built fellows named William F., who is the eldest, Ephraim, the second son and father of the young premier, and George. These three fell heir to more than the four hundred acres that extended among the undulating granite formations. They were left a legacy also of stability and character.

Ephraim with his young wife lived for a while in the little red cottage, and it was there that John, now become a prominent figure, was born. Soon however a large and fine brick home was built just across the road and henceforth the little house was forsaken for the big one. Later still Ephraim moved again to a broad farm two Or three miles to the north and overlooking the tranquil sheet of water known as Seeley’s Bay. Around the latter homestead, and the public school serving it, are woven many memories which Premier John Bracken may often recall when he iBn’t balancing on the tight rope which Hon. T. C. Norris so recently abandoned.

Should he not have time between delega-

tions, council sittings, discussions with opulent callers and untangling agrarian knots, to refresh his mind with these early associations, there can be no objection if other people do it for him. The countryside still likes to think of him as the boy of many harmless pranks instead of the man in high office, for the little amusing incidents of life stick to a name like birthmarks to an Ethiopian.

“Johnny seems to have a faculty for landing on his feet right side up,” said one of his cousins to me, as he laughed over early incidents in which they all had taken some part. “You see that barn, over there?” he asked pointing in its direction. “Well, when Johnny was a youngster, he was running on a board across the silo when he struck his head on another he hadn’t noticed above him. He fell a good many feet to the bottom but he didn’t hurt himself beyond spraining his wrist. Lucky boy, I’ll tell you.”

“Yes,” joined another relative as one like suggested the next, “and do you remember how the hired man would

get out of humor when Johnny used to come out to the farm from school?”

There was a ready reply. “Certainly I do.” “Jack, you know, would be dressed up in his best togs, just as he came from high school at Brockville and he wouldn’t hurry about taking them off, either. Instead of getting into old jeans he often went gathering birds’ eggs. That annoyed the hired man who wanted him to help with the work and chores. So the old fellow took to calling Jack ‘Collars-cuffs-and-birds’-eggs’. I can hear him saying that as well as if ’twas yesterday.”

“And did young Jack get out of humor at this name?” I asked.

“Oh no, it didn’t fizz on him. He never seemed to get mad about anything. Cool as a cucumber. Just went on his way, but the hired man didn’t get him to do much work, just the same.”

There was another good-natured laugh among the men who sat around on the grassy knoll telling these stories of former years.

“Jack, I guess, liked study better than chores on the farm, was that it?” I enquired.

“Well I think likely! He could work when he had to and would do his share when he took a notion, but school affairs were more in his line.” The conversation rambled on from one little occurrence to another, throwing a clear, impartial light on the characteristics of youth. The old pond where an unreliable raft was shoved around and from which more than one childish mariner fell into dirty water, the hills where sleigh rides were taken, the open glades where more than one wrestling match was watched and many more spots were fondly recalled by friends and neighbors who without exception speak in the highest terms of the lad who went from among them to make a name elsewhere.

“He was the greatest chap you ever saw to play games and scuffle,” said his cousin. “He was teasing somebody all the time, just for nonsense and play. And he was a husky fellow, too. It took a pretty good man to handle him. You couldn’t say anything bad about him if you tried, for he took everything as fun and was so goodnatured about it.”

“I used to chuckle more than once,” added still another cousin, “when his mother, after he got a fair size, tried to punish him for being into mischief. He would pick her right up under his arm, put her dotvn in a chair and then laugh and tell her not to move. Of course she would melt and he wouldn’t get any thrashing.”

In these and other anecdotes are to be found the elements that in high school and college were rapidly developed into leadership. A good sportsman among students soon wins a following. “Jack” Bracken, as he was then known, is remembered by class mates as one of thebest allround men who ever passed through the O. A. C. In football particularly he was a star. And when a glance is taken at the names of the men who have since made their mark in agricultural learning it will be seen that the classes at the 0. A. C. in Bracken’s time had some pretty good mental talent. It is indeed a rather formidable list and includes such figures as Prof. R. R. Graham and Prof. Lawson Caesar of the 0. A. C. staff; Prof. Crow, formerly a member; Prof. A. H. MacLennan, recently appointed in charge of horticulture, etc.; Mr. R. S. Duncan, director of agricultural representatives in Ontario; Mr. F. C. Hart, director of the markets branch; H. R. McMillan, Ph. D., one of the big men in forestry: the late C. R. Klinck, plant breeding specialist in the 0. A. C. department of agronomy; Prof. D. A. Jones, in charge of the bacteriology branch of the 0. A. C.; Horace A. Craig, department of agriculture, Alberta: and W. A. Munro, superintendent of Dominion experimental farms, Rosthern, Sask. Not all were in Bracken’s class, but all were in attendance at the college during his course and recall what a splendid sportsman and student he was.

“As a half-back,” said Pro!. MacLennan in speaking of him, “he was perhaps the best and certainly one of the cleanest sportsmen that ever passer through the college. There have been other good ones, but Bracken was a prince of good fellows, a gentleman and a powerful player. 1 doubt if Varsity has pro-

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duced a better man.” If, as many persons say, politics is a game where considerable agility is necessary, the leader chosen by the Manitoba farmers should have more than ordinary qualifications, for there was scarcely a sport at the Guelph college in which he did not take part and become an influence. In baseball, basketball and other games he took a lively interest, but it was in rugby he won the reputation to which his old associates always make proud references.

“A man who is clean in sport is usually clean in his life,” said one of the professors.

After the first year he became captain of the football team in which he played

and s»emed to carry everything before

Those who fancy he has fallen into a premiership by accident and that in leadership he is a mere novice would do well to pause and study the compounds that go into a life. Facts indicate that unconsciously, as in the case of many successful men, events were all the time shaping him to be a big cog in some wheel or other.

It has happened to be the agrarian wheel but it doesn’t seem as though much filing would be needed to fit him smoothly into the proper place.

Leeds is known as one of the best dairy counties in Ontario. Ephraim Bracken ran one of its finest dairy farms, so that son got from parent a good grounding in administrative efficiency and in the meaning of farm production. As his father took an interest in municipal affairs and was at one time honored with the wardenship, young John imbibed also something of the spirit of public service. Desiring to broaden himself intellectually as well as to fit himself scientifically for farming, young Jack, then a well-knit fellow of perhaps five feet eight inches, with dark hair and eyes and a robust complexion, set out for Guelph with the intention, apparently, of returning to the farm when he received his degree. At college, however, all his endowments were given play, all that was in him had a chance to grow and express itself. He soon forged ahead, the principal figure in the various classes for sport and healthy social activities. He became president of the college Y. M. C. A., active in the Literary Society, an officer in the Athletic Association, captain of the football team and also gave zeal to other student interests. He made so good a record in his studies that he was chosen to be on the first judging team that went to Chicago in 1905, a team which brought back the renowned bronze bull put up by the International Stock Breeders, and which was won by O, A. C. boys for three successive years and is now a proud trophy in the possession of the college.

Coupled with these attainments his hard work as a student put him in the forefront amongst his companions so that when he graduated they all are reported to have said that the president should find him the best job there was going. Prof. Creelman, then head of the college, had no hesitancy in looking about for a position or in highly recommending his graduate.

THE story of John Bracken’s progress since is similar to that of scores of men who are prepared for opportunities when they come along and are capable of filling posts opened to them. He went to Saskatchewan and became,associated fora short time with farmers’ institute work, with seed development and other branches of agriculture.. The West was looking for bright. minds and aggressive temperaments, and opened one door after another to him. Becoming associated with the college of Saskatchewan, he soon became its head, and agricultural authorities are responsible for the statement that at Saskatoon he laid out one of the best experimental plots in America. When the Manitoba college was glancing around to find a suitable man to put into its presidential chair, it saw and decided on John Bracken. So effective has been his administration there and so wide the influence he has exercised on the agricultural development of the West that when the smoke of the recent political battle cleared away and the farmers of Manitoba found themselves victors with a lot of other party warriors strewn on the field, they scratched their heads and wondered who should be selected to have the Lieutenant Governor’s smile shed benignly upon him. The man who had been leading football teams, writing text books, organizing college staffs, and directing the education of men engaged in the basic industry of agriculture was chosen almost asnaturally as a kitten picks out its mother. It is now the “Honourable John Bracken, Prime Minister of Manitoba” and whatever other titles great and small attach themselves to the mantles of the mighty. In connection with the advancement of agriculture, there is a significant chapter in the new premier’s career to which he does not refer everyday and yetit has had far-reaching results. At one time he was a member of a small company which was ■ formed to introduce Marquis wheat into the West. He and his colleagues saw the possibilities of this grain, which has since proved of such wealthto Western Canada. ! They got farmers to sow it on what seemI

ed safe terms. Under these terms the company would buy back the yield. Soon the yield became prolific. There was a slump in the grain market and the young company was left with more grain under contract than bawbees wherewith to pay for it, with sad consequences to the company. The personal losses sustained by the young business men have long since been overshadowed by the great wealth which this wheat has produced for the Country. It was one of the instances in which much good to many came out of misfortune to the few.

TN TAKING hold of the wheel, at the 1 early age of 39, to guide Manitoba with its two millions of people,through political seas, Premier Bracken has become one of Canada’s most youthful provincial pilots. Fortune has, since Confederation, picked

out a few other unfurrowed favorites but not many. Among the half dozen or so which they number, Sir Louis Davies, now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, had only reached 31 when snug little Prince Edward Island called him to be its chief executive. On the extreme opposite side of the Dominion the late Sir Richard McBride made almost an equally good start, being under 33 when he subscribed to the oath of office. Hon. W. S. Fielding, now the veteran budgeteer in the Federal House, was under 36 when he first took office as Prime Minister of Nova Scotia. The late A. G. Blair hadn’t quite touched the 39th milestone when he received similar distinction in New Brunswick, while in Saskatchewan Hon. Mr. Dunning won the elevation at 36. It remains for John Bracken to justify the choice of youth, as these others have already done.