Edward A. Partridge

by Ralph Hedlin

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1958-59 Season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The farmers of old Ontario were scarcely rebels. But seventy-five years ago they shipped their sons to the prairies and the young fellows stirred up a fuss that has never been equalled in the plains country. These scions of the St. Lawrence Valley, who settled along the C.P.R. from Winnipeg west toward Regina, would regard their prairie descendants as a sissy lot.

Edward A. Partridge

It all centred around the big, heavy set, booming-voiced ex-school teacher from Simcoe County-Ed Partridge. With little besides a profane and biting tongue, a liberal education, a creative mind and the heart of a rebel, E. A. Partridge altered the economic organization of Western Canada and modified the political face of the nation. A wheat surplus that was a tenth of the surplus of today was the lever with which he gained purchase.

An unsuccessful farmer, an unsuccessful businessman and an unsuccessful editor, he created a mammoth business and a national farm magazine. Never a politician, he rocked the Roblin Government and he helped create the National Progressive Party. Never a socialist, he forced the Governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan into Government grain elevator ownership and support, and prepared the ground for the birth of the C.C.F. party. Impatient of the opinions of other men, lie pulled from obscurity men with the talent for business creation and national cabinet rank. And when he had done it all, he died in a little room in Victoria, B.C., asphyxiated by fast-flowing gas.

Partridge and his two brothers left Simcoe County, Ontario, in 1883 and settled on a homestead a few miles north of the tiny prairie village of Sintaluta, in what is today south-western Saskatchewan. They spent the first winter in a tent and by the next winter the brothers had a sod shack. In 1885, Louis Riel was rebelling up in the northern part of what was to become Saskatchewan and Ed joined the Yorkton Rangers and drifted off. He was not gone long. And for the twenty years following, he worked his homestead and read widely. He showed little evidence of the fight and fury that was to come.

At the turn of the century, the anger of the prairie farmers was directed against the railways and the elevator companies. Elevators were plugged and farmers could not ship their wheat. When the sixty-two million bushel crop of 1902 piled up in bins on top of the undelivered remains of the 1901 crop, the C.P.R. and the grain companies were cursed from every platform and at every siding.

John Rankin, a farmer of Ninga, Manitoba, thundered his protest to a meeting in the local town: "We've been looking into the whole business pretty closely," he told his audience. "It looks to us as if Lord Mount Stephen and Lord Strathcona have controlled the vast sums of money that should have been used for equipping the C.P.R., and had gone off to the old country to pay the debts of broken-down church institutions and endow hospitals. They might establish a ward for indigent farmers who could be supplied with books from Carnegie's library, and the thing would be complete!"

The farmers of Minto, in south-western Manitoba, inclined toward more direct action. They had grain, but no railway cars in which to ship it. When a Canadian Northern freight train chugged into town, the farmers streamed to the attack. Three cars were seized and the farmers prepared to winch them away. Railwaymen charged in, but were beaten back. While they planned a new strategy, the farmers began to fight among themselves for possession of the cars; they were not prepared for the counterattack and the railway repossessed its cars.

In neighbouring Elva a farm meeting passed a resolution which said the federal grain act, which controlled the allocation of cars, had been conceived in deceit and hypocrisy, shaped by hands traitorous to the interests of the farming community. And in nearby Carberry the railwaymen left fourteen empty boxcars on a siding, planning to ship them further west the next day. But the cars were pirated, and when the railway hooked up to them to roll them west they found they had been filled with wheat belonging to Carberry farmers, and were billed east to market.

While Carberry farmers shovelled grain in the dark of night, a farmer at a neighbouring town told his cheering audience that all possible methods had been attempted to secure relief from the oppression of, "this publicly endowed railway company and the extortion practised by its favourite partner in spoil, the grain elevator system."

But a new vehicle of protest was being built. In 1901, in Indian Head the Territorial Grain Growers' Association was formed under the presidency of W. R. Motherwell. Motherwell was destined to be federal Liberal Minister of Agriculture and ultimately to be defeated in his riding through the intervention of his old neighbor, E. A. Partridge.

Ed Partridge had no patience with the proposed association. "A study in futility," he said. "Talk, just talk."

In late 1904, he met with a number of his neighbours on the windswept, dusty main street of Sintaluta. "They're wrestling the railway," Partridge said of the Association. "They've got the wrong party - it's the Winnipeg Grain Exchange that's bleeding us. It's the Grain Exchange we should be looking at."

The six farmers in the little village decided that they would "look at" the Grain Exchange, where immense fortunes were made and lost, and with which were financed wealthy homes on Winnipeg's top-priced Wellington Crescent. They collected a hundred dollars and sent Partridge to Winnipeg. He was to stay until his money ran out and then come back and report.

Late in the evening of January 7th, 1905, Partridge interviewed the landlady of a Main Street boarding house and engaged a room for thirty days. Sir Wilfred Laurier, busily administering the affairs of the young Canadian nation, had never heard of Partridge. Sir Rodmond Roblin, the Premier of Manitoba, knew that the Manitoba border lay east of Sintaluta. And over on Notre Dame Avenue in Winnipeg that very evening the local Liberal leaders - D. W. Bole, M.P., Thomas Greenway, provincial Liberal leader, and J. W. Dafoe, Manitoba Free Press editor - were opening the new $50,000 Liberal committee rooms, and painting vivid pictures to the assembled faithful of the glorious prospects of the great Liberal party. All were destined to feel the sting of the rough farmer who was checking into the down-at-the-heel Main Street boarding house.

For a full month, Partridge looked over the grain trading in the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. On his way back to Sintaluta, he stopped in Brandon to speak to the annual meeting of the Manitoba Grain Growers' Association.

As Partridge spoke, his blue eyes flashed, he tossed his mop of dark hair and his handle bar moustache bristled. Six feet tall and chunkily built, his hands flashed in and out as he spoke. "An easy mark is a great temptation to shoot," he told his audience, and went on to say that a few companies were controlling the price that was paid to farmers for their wheat. "Twenty-five years ago smut and other blemishes were removed with the bran. Now it is the custom to skin the wheat, also the farmer that grew it!"

The farmers themselves must form a company, he said. A thousand dollars each from two hundred and fifty of the richer farmers on the prairies-men that got checks from the Old Country or down Eastwould be enough to start a co-operative elevator company and introduce competition into grain handling.

The farmers shrugged their shoulders. The man was a dreamer. They named a committee to look into the idea and then moved on to the next order of business. The Manitoba Free Press filled a half column telling its readers that a forty year-old Hamilton priest, Father O'Hanley, had eloped with twenty-two-year-old May Finch-Noyes. The rugged farmer rated a paragraph.

Partridge took his ideas up with the neighbours at Sintaluta who had originally sent him to Winnipeg. In the spring, he had referred to the commission houses, who sold farmers' wheat for a charge of a cent a bushel, as being of no use to the system. Now, he proposed a farmers' commission firm. He had recognized that the grain business could be entered very easily through forming a little, and almost costless commission firm.

The beginnings were small. In October, 1905, five farmers met with Partridge in Wilson's Hardware Store in Sintaluta. They agreed to form a company and decided to offer shares to farmers at $25.00 each, one tenth to be paid in cash.

In January, 1906, a general meeting in the town hall in Sintaluta formally agreed to proceed with the formation of a company, to be known as the Grain Growers' Grain Company. The owner of Wilson's Hardware Store smilingly rented space for a desk to the young company for one dollar, cash. Partridge roughed the company name on a piece of cardboard and leaned it in the window.

The company was still nothing more than one of the many Partridge plans that rose and fell on the prairies. It might never have taken on substance if Partridge had not been joined by an enthusiastic convert from Swan River, Manitoba. John Kennedy, also from old Ontario, decided that Partridge had generated a good idea, and for the next thirty years Kennedy dedicated his life to furthering it.

Partridge was an idea-man, a dreamer and prophet, an idealist, a man who was short of temper and impatient with the small ideas and the slow movement of others. Kennedy combined a bland geniality and a bulldog perseverance with sound administrative capacity. He became the self-appointed manager of Partridge's idea. Individually the two men were one impractical idealist and one unimaginative plodder; combined they became a juggernaut.

The desk in Wilson's Hardware Store became a centre of activity. Farmers who were peddling the company shares dropped in to report and to gossip. But they sold few shares. Farmers were reluctant to part with $2.50 on this kind of a speculation. When Kennedy reported in, he had sold as many shares as all the other salesmen combined, bringing total sales to over a thousand shares.

On July 26th, the first shareholders' meeting was held at the agricultural fair in Winnipeg. In the shadow of the merry-go-rounds and fair barkers, E. A. Partridge was elected president and John Kennedy vice president. A tiny office was rented in one of the upper floors of the Tribune Building in Winnipeg. On September 5th, the Grain Growers' Grain Company declared itself open for business.

"The commission man is no use to the system," an angry Partridge had told a cheering farm audience in Brandon in 1905. But now, in 1906, Partridge was a commission man himself. Farmers billed their carloads of wheat to his little company and he sold it for them on the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. He was also a member in good standing of the institution he had dubbed "The House with the Closed Shutters," the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. Share sales had not provided enough money to pay the $1,500 fee for Grain Exchange trading privileges, but several of Partridge's old neighbours at Sintaluta had used their credit to borrow the needed money at the bank. Partridge traded grain shoulder to shoulder with his old enemies.

The wheat farmers extended unexpected support to the little cooperative and dozens and soon hundreds of carloads of grain were billed to it. And then, the Grain Exchange posted a notice withdrawing all trading privileges from the company.

This could mean disaster. The company could not sell grain except by individual barter. Their stocks of wheat mounted. The need for credit doubled and doubled again. They peddled wheat everywhere, and sold enough to cover only their most immediate obligations. A furious Partridge fanned a fire of feeling on the prairies. Farmers deluged Premier Roblin with a steady stream of wires, letters and phone calls demanding that the Grain Exchange be forced to restore trading privileges to the company. Partridge stormed up to the Legislative Buildings and held before the eyes of the provincial premier the prospect of electoral defeat in every rural riding. Earlier, the Laurier Government had been bullied into naming a Royal Grain Commission and Partridge appeared before it to censure the Exchange.

Roblin took fast action. "I will call a special session of the legislature and remedy these grievances by legislative amendment of your charter," he threatened the Grain Exchange. The trading privileges were restored but at the next session of the legislature Premier Roblin decided to limit the powers of the exchange. He told the legislature that if they failed to pass the limiting legislation he would resign and call an election.

The legislation passed. Five days later the Exchange suspended operations. For the next nine months, there was no organized grain trade in Winnipeg and million dollar grain deals were made on street corners and over cups of coffee in Winnipeg cafes. In November, the Exchange reorganized on a voluntary basis which would free it of government control.

The future of the young company was, by chance, tied closely to a conversation between David Dunn of Silver Creek (now Silverton) and a tall, angular, strong-willed young farmer, T. A. Crerar, who was making a modest living on a quarter-section farm in the district.

Crerar was born in Perth County, Ontario, and had moved to northwest Manitoba with his father. He had abandoned school teaching for farming and now in 1903, Dunn asked him to take over the management of a local farmers' elevator in Russell.

"I don't know anything about grading or buying grain," replied young Crerar.

"You can lain and, by baggery, we know you're honest," said Dunn. Crerar became manager.

Kennedy knew Crerar and Ed Partridge knew his father. In 1907. Crerar received a note from Partridge asking him if he would come to a farmers' picnic to be held at Shoal Lake. Crerar replied that the Russell baseball team would be playing at the tournament there, and, as he played second base, he would be at the picnic.

Partridge was waiting near home plate as Crerar came in from the field at the end of the ninth inning. The two men chatted about baseball and grain marketing.

"I'd like to see you come to the Grain Growers' annual meeting in Winnipeg in July," said Partridge.

"Sure, I could do that all right," said Crerar. "My wife and I haven't been to the city for quite a while and we'd been planning to get in some time. I'll drop in at the meeting."

Crerar dropped in and was amazed to hear his name proposed when directors were being nominated. When the new board met that evening, Partridge himself moved that Crerar be named president.

"I don't know anything about this business," he said.

"You'll learn," said Partridge, and John Kennedy nodded.

Crerar asked to have the night to think it over and the next morning had made up his mind. "If you'll take a chance on me I'll see what I can do," he said.

Partridge by this time was full of a new idea, and the presidency of the company had hampered his freedom. He was anxious to launch his new Partridge plan, the government ownership of elevators. In the meantime, Crerar had conceived the idea of a magazine owned by the company and Partridge slid easily into the editor's chair to become, for one issue, the militant critic of everything except farm organizations and the co-operative movement.

"Though not looking for trouble, the Editor is prepared to attack any wrong however entrenched and defend any right however exposed to assault ...," he wrote in the first issue.

Partridge's friends could have told him that he had no future as an editor. He could attack and defend, but he could not conciliate or consolidate. He lived for the fast phrase and polished invective. He was inspired to both by the roars of an appreciative audience. The remote lecturings of an editor did not suit him. Nor did his philosophies suit the new commercial attitudes of the company he had created. It had been started by the harsh whip of farm anger, and Partridge would have held the anger at top heat.

The other directors said it couldn't be done; they favoured the easing of anger, and the building of business through loyalty to an efficient service.

The break came over a disagreement with Kennedy and Crerar over who should publish the magazine. They insisted that it should be the Manitoba Grain Growers' Association, and not the grain company; they feared that if something libelous were printed the little company might be sued and put out of business.

With Partridge it was a matter of pride that his grain company should be publisher. He stalked across the floor in the little offices in the Henderson Block (Princess St.) behind the Winnipeg City Hall, hurled Crerar's door open and told Crerar that he was through.

"Get some tame cat in here to edit it who will make it no good to God or man," he thundered. Crerar quieted him down, but Partridge was still firm. "I'm irritable," he said. "You'd better get Roderick McKenzie in here from Brandon to do this job."

Partridge went back to his office and John Kennedy stepped in. "He was pretty warm, wasn't he?" asked Kennedy.

"John," said Crerar, "he was burning hot."

"Wire McKenzie," said Kennedy.

"I'll write him this afternoon," said Crerar.

"Wire him," insisted Kennedy. "Tell him to be in tonight. Ed will have changed his mind by morning and he can't handle the magazine. Better wire."

Crerar wired, and closed a deal with McKenzie that night. When Partridge had, in fact, changed his mind the next morning it was too late.

He was, in any case, too busy with his new Partridge plan to be bothered with editorial writing. He travelled to Ottawa and had a shouting battle with Sir Richard Cartwright on the question of the government taking over the grain terminals at Port Arthur. Under the Partridge plan the role of the provinces was to be that of ownership of the country elevators and the role of the federal government was to be that of ownership of the mammoth Lakehead grain terminals.

Under Partridge's prodding the farm organizations pressed the provincial governments. Premier R. P. Roblin of Manitoba met with Premiers Walter Scott of Saskatchewan and A. C. Rutherford of Alberta. They made alternative proposals to the farm organizations, not in writing but delivered verbally by an intermediary.

The farm organizations were furious. "This is, no doubt, according to the best traditions of diplomacy, state-craft and the game of flim-flam," thundered Partridge.

The Premiers suggested that they should not, in fact, go into the business of elevator ownership. Instead they would intercede with the railways to encourage the building of more elevators at the prairie sidings.

"The mountain has laboured and brought forth a mouse," stormed Partridge. "What loss would any man who works for his daily bread, either on the farm or in the factory, suffer should any one or all of these gentlemen disappear from public life? I cannot conceive of any."

The possibility of disappearing from public life may have crossed the mind of Sir Rodmond P. Roblin. In February, 1909, he was handed a petition signed by 10,000 farmers asking for government ownership of elevators. In the fall a member of the Grain Growers, who favoured provincial elevator ownership, won a "safe" government seat in a by election at Birtle. In December, Sir Rodmond agreed to go into the business of elevator ownership.

In the election that followed, Sir Rodmond's Conservatives won twenty-seven seats to fourteen for Norris's Liberals. Within two years, however, the Manitoba Government had decided it did not wish to continue handling grain. It had purchased one hundred, seventy-four elevators, at prices inflated by government bidding, and then had mismanaged them. Heavy financial losses were suffered. But Partridge did not lose: the Grain Growers' Grain Company leased the government elevators and later bought them. Partridge's little commission firm now owned a line of country elevators.

In the meantime, Partridge put a spoke in the wheel of the Laurier Government. One of the founders of the Canadian Council of Agriculture, the first national farm organization, Partridge helped to convince the membership of the national organization of the desirability of freer trade. The nation-wide farm declaration in favour of reciprocity and the five hundred-farmer delegation in Ottawa in December, 1910, pressing the same cause, clearly influenced the Prime Minister in his Washington negotiations for a limited reciprocity with the United States.

On the evening of September 21st, 1911, when he found that he had been soundly defeated, Sir Wilfred Laurier might well have used the phrases of Sir Rodmond Roblin when he found his government elevators were failing: "I took the voice of the demagogue for the voice of the public, and consequently I made a mistake."

Partridge himself was having a difficult time during these years. Two or three years before, he had been cutting wheat on his farm at Sintaluta and straw had plugged the sickle. He went in front to remove it and the horses, taking fright, had rushed forward hurling him onto the flashing, cutting binder blades. His badly hacked foot had to be amputated and a year later a re-amputation was necessary. From then on one of the hallmarks of E. A. Partridge became a heavy limp and a knotted black stick.

He had long since incurred the ill-will of governments all the way from Ottawa to Edmonton. In the summer of 1912, he fell out bitterly with the company that was the product of his own imagination and determination.

Partridge had frequently branded the Winnipeg Grain Exchange as a "gambling hell" because members speculated in grain. In late 1911, one of the top executives of the Grain Growers' Grain Company, Alec Blackburn, bought oats futures on behalf of the company in the expectation of a rise. Crerar was not aware of it. The company actually made some money out of the speculation but Partridge insisted that Blackburn should be discharged. Crerar said the man had been warned, it would not be done again and refused to fire him. At the next meeting of the Board of Directors, Partridge moved that Crerar himself should be discharged on the grounds that he was unfit to be the president of the company.

Several of the directors supported Partridge, but a majority supported Crerar. Partridge served notice he would reopen the matter at the approaching annual meeting of the company.

The meeting was held in the low-ceilinged Trade and Labour Hall on Main Street in Winnipeg. Crerar read his president's report. When he finished, Partridge sprang to his feet. "We will not accept this report. We reject and repudiate the President that prepared it." He was followed by another director, George Langley, who was a director of the Grain Growers' Grain Company and also of a newly formed co-operative grain company in Saskatchewan. Their case for Crerar's dismissal was based on his support of Alec Blackburn.

Alec Blackburn had quit the company voluntarily after the incident. Crerar had later met him on the street and Blackburn informed him that Langley had been one of four people who had recently waited on him and asked him to become general manager of the co-operative in Saskatchewan of which Langley was a director. Crerar permitted the attack to rage on from morning until sunset and then sprang his trap. Langley and Partridge were undercut. All the fire went out of the tired critics.

Partridge was re-elected to the board, but refused to serve. He stalked out and attempted to organize a competitive co-operative-the Square Deal Grain Company. Farmers did not share his disillusionment and did not support the new company. Partridge could not meet his liabilities. Crerar arranged for the Grain Growers' Grain Company to take over the Square Deal Grain Company at the value of its book debts. Partridge was permanently out of the grain business.

For the next fifteen years, Partridge alternately struggled to alter the political philosophy of Canada and to restore his own personal fortunes. In both attempts, strangely, he was helped by the old company upon which he had tried to declare war. In 1916, the company directors sent him a check for $5,000 and in 1924, when further baling out was necessary, supplemented it with a further $1,500. For the last five years of his life, he received a monthly pension of $75. from his old farm company colleagues.

In the ten years before the National Progressive Party blossomed (in the early 1920s), Partridge was preparing the way for its arrival. In 1909, he wrote that he had seen nothing but ignominious failure attend all third party efforts and he urged farmers to attempt to dominate the Liberal and Conservative parties, and to work through them. Farmers were to become class conscious and elect loyal members of their own class. He demanded that governments establish the initiative and referendum, so that the public could initiate legislation and, in a popular referendum, support or reject it. He pressed for fixed dates for elections. And he insisted that the constituency should be able to recall their members if they became dissatisfied with them.

He proposed these political philosophies for the Liberals and Conservatives. He opposed third parties. But, when his ideas were taken up, it was by Canada's first major third party and Partridge enthusiastically supported it.

It was T. A. Crerar, whom Partridge had promoted from the elevator at Russell, who led the vanguard of the third party. In 1917, a handful of western farmers were elected to the House of Commons and Crerar became Minister of Agriculture in Sir Robert Borden's Union Government. He resigned in 1919 in protest over the high tariff features of Sir Thomas White's budget, and moved into opposition.

In October, a by-election was held in E. A. Partridge's home territory of Assiniboia. Hon. W. R. Motherwell, ex-president of the Territorial Grain Growers' Association and ex-Minister of Agriculture, was the Liberal nominee. For the last time, Partridge and the old promoter of the Partridge plans, John Kennedy, fought shoulder to shoulder; they campaigned together to defeat Motherwell. When the votes were counted their candidate, Oliver R. Gould, had defeated Motherwell by 5,224 votes. The third party, which Partridge had condemned, was, with the help of the ex-president, the vice-president and the president of the Grain Growers' Grain Company, Partridge, Kennedy and Crerar, on the march.

Partridge himself made a bid to join the invasion forces bearing upon Ottawa. On November 3rd, 1921, the federal nominating convention of the National Progressive Party was held in Wolseley. Partridge was one of the twelve who contested the nomination. He was defeated by a margin of twelve votes by John Millar of Indian Head who, twenty years before, had been secretary, under Motherwell's presidency, in the Territorial Grain Growers' Association.

During the campaign that followed. Crerar and Sir Arthur Meighen fought bitterly with one another, and Partridge fought with both of them. Meighen was in favour of a prairie-wide voluntary pool for marketing farmers' wheat which Partridge told him, at a stormy Saskatchewan meeting had fatal weaknesses. Crerar favoured co-operatives. Partridge, on the other hand, favoured a wheat board-a system that came into being a decade and a half later and, with some exceptions, has been the system used for marketing prairie wheat since.

Meighen's Conservatives were wiped out on the prairies and the National Progressive Party, with its sixty-five members headed by Crerar, became Canada's first third party and the forerunner of the C.C.F. and Social Credit.

Partridge's attention had been again distracted, however, and he was now busy writing his book War on Poverty, which was to be the bible of his new Co-operative Commonwealth, a co-operative organization of society that would usher in good will and the age of co-operation and usher out big business corporations and competition. Businesses and governments would disappear, not to be replaced by what Partridge had called "the hard materialistic doctrine of State Socialism with its implied subordination to taskmasters" but by a loose federation of self contained co-operative communities.

The aging battler wrote as a man who dreamed of happier, better days. He filled the pages of his book with quotations from Tolstoy and Ruskin, authors half-forgotten since they were studied in his years of school teaching in 1883-84 and reread in his early years on the homestead. He scribbled bits of doggerel:

"We think it, we will it, we wish it, we try; and lo! It is here in the flash of an eye ..."

Between the quotations and the poetry he packed in his dream of an organization of society where every man would be his brother's keeper.

Few started to read the book, and fewer finished it. J. S. Woodsworth was one of the latter, and he caught enough of the dream to carry a memory of Partridge's Co-operative Commonwealth to the C.C.F. organization meeting in Calgary in 1932. And so the title of Partridge's idyllic community was attached to the party that advocated the philosophy that Partridge rejected; the hard, materialistic doctrine of State Socialism.

Perhaps Partridge took too seriously the advice given by a Kansan to farmers in that state to "raise less corn and more hell." Certainly he raised little corn. In September, 1931, his personal fortune consisted of the memories of events shaped and battles won and lost, and a monthly $75.00 cheque from the Winnipeg office of United Grain Growers Limited - the mammoth modern version of the little Grain Growers' commission house that he had organized aeons before.

As the gas fumes thickened in the little room in Victoria, both pension and memories were obliterated together. Nothing remained but a national, multi-million dollar company, a national farm magazine, men who had been pitch forked into national prominence as a product of his judgment, legislation on statute books of nation and provinces, and a generation of politicians who remembered E. A. Partridge with bitterness in their hearts.

Page revised: 22 May 2010