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Observer founder/editor dreamed of Tillsonburg becoming a city

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When the Town of Tillsonburg celebrated its 100th birthday in 1972, the Tillsonburg News published a special 150-page edition in July to commemorate the centennial.

Celebrating an even older birthday was the Tillsonburg News, through its forerunners, The Tillsonburg Observer (1863) and the Tillsonburg Liberal (1877).

It all started with the Observer and founder William S. Law, who came to Tillsonburg at the request of E.D. Tillson, the town’s first mayor.

Law, who was born in South Leith, on Firth of Forth, near Edinburgh, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1833, arrived to Tillsonburg 30 years later.

At the age of eight, he was apprenticed to the printing trade in Edinburgh. In his seven years of service he learned thoroughly every branch of the trade, and developed into an exceptionally expert workman, capable of handling difficult jobs that few of his fellow employees could be entrusted with.

Denied an education in the schools at that time, the young lad devoted every spare moment to storing his mind with useful information on many topics. He was a voracious reader throughout his long life – 83 years – and obtained a deep knowledge of numerous subjects in this manner. Later in his commercial and social life, few of the men he associated with were so well informed as he was.

Despite the handicap imposed by little schooling and the necessity of giving much of his time to arduous work, he became a forceful and convincing writer and speaker. He learned to speak and write French and German. He learned to read and transcribe music and to play the flute acceptably. And to draw with facility.

He acquired more than a superficial knowledge of chemistry and medicine and political economy. He became an expert accountant, and in later years of his life spent many hours in the study of higher mathematics. Few men, even in the teaching profession, had a broader knowledge in these subjects.

The opportunities for advancement being limited in the homeland, and being ambitious and fearless, when he was about 20 years of age he decided to come to Canada. In 1853, after a long voyage in a storm-tossed sailing vessel, he landed in Quebec.

He quickly secured employment with the Government printing office in that city, and remained there until 1857 when he came to Upper Canada where he ran a press in Kingston for a time (now known as the Kingston Whig-Standard).

He later located in Toronto, being employed with the Government printing office and also in the office of The Leader, one of the first morning papers published in that city, but now long defunct.

Finding the night work injurious to his health, he decided to seek employment on a weekly paper and went to Brantford, but remained there only a short time before he went to Woodstock to take the foremanship of the Review (now the Sentinel-Review).

He remained in Woodstock several years, then went to Ingersoll to become foreman of the Chronicle.

Having accumulated some money, he became anxious to get into business for himself, and went to Clinton and established a newspaper and book store in partnership with a Mr. Laycock. This venture proved unsuccessful, and he returned to the Chronicle in Ingersoll.

Soon afterward, he thought he saw in the hamlet of Tillsonburg an ‘embryo’ city, and he accepted the invitation of E.D. Tillson in June 1963 to publish The Observer, of which he became proprietor until his death on Nov. 17, 1916.

For 25 years previous to his passing, his son John had been associated with him.

The Observer office was located in the house on the northeast corner of Oxford and Harvey Streets. Not only was it a printing and newspaper office, but also it was a book and stationery story, musical instrument agency, a tombstone and marble monument agency, a lending library of 200 volumes of standard novels, and also fitted spectacles.

The following is the preamble to an advertisement in The Observer, dated Oct. 15, 1863:

“Hurrah for Tillsonburg! New Book Store! Cheap Books and Stationery at The Tillsonburg Observer Book Store, in the large brick building adjoining the residence of Dr. Joy.”

At the time of the establishment of the Observer, most of the houses were located in the hollow where the Tillson Mills flourished so long. Nearly all the business places were situated on South Broadway near Oxford Street, in the earlier days.

The Observer moved to a fine new building, erected for Mr. Law, on the site now occupied by the Royal Bank. From there it was removed to the store used by Tillsonburg Hardware (in 1972), the proprietor using the upstairs as living quarters.

In company with Mr. William MacDonald, Law built the store where Hogarth’s Men’s Wear was located (in ’72).

Some time later, the Observer moved again to locate in the building across the street, a long-time home of The News, later occupied by the Mocca Restaurant.

Writing in the Canadian Printer and Publisher for Janunary 1928, “E.B.” (a former employee of the Observer) says:

“Mr. Law was a versatile genius. He would attempt anything at all in any of the then-known branches of the graphic arts, whether it involved type-setting, press-works, stereotyping, chalkline cuts, ruling, book-binding, or any other department. When he had not the machinery necessary to produce the work he improvised it with the assistance of local mechanics.

“He undertook when occasion required, every bit of the work himself, including all the mechanical phases. He also edited the newspaper, and ran his own business office.

“These being insufficient to fully occupy his time, he added a book, stationery, and general novelty store to his other activities.

“He introduced the first steam printing plant in the district and his Wharfedale press, imported from England, was the ‘wonder of the countryside.’”

When Law came to Tillsonburg, the place had only a few hundred inhabitants, and was a portion of the Township of Dereham. Its only means of communication with the world outside was a stage coach running between Port Burwell and Ingersoll.

Law became almost immediately imbued with a desire to make Tillsonburg a city, and for many years thereafter he laboured incessantly to accomplish this, often making heavy sacrifices of his own interests for this cause.

Many of the plans thought out through sleepless nights failed to secure the approval of his fellow citizens, and therefore were not carried out. But he was ever optimistic and never gave up hope of seeing Tillsonburg become one of Canada’s largest industrial centres.

Soon after he came to Tillsonburg indications of oil were found in and near the village, and he set about promoting companies to drill wells and interesting American capitalists in the field.

A number of wells were sunk, but oil was not found in sufficient quantity to make the enterprise profitable.

When railways began to replace the stage coaches in Canada, he quickly realized the advantages that would accrue to the town from having the new method of transportation and set about getting the Canadian Southern and Air Line Railways to touch Tillsonburg.

He was successful, but soon realized that better connection with Toronto and a Lake Erie port was essential, and he undertook to secure a railroad from Brantford to Port Burwell, through Tillsonburg.

With the aid of men in Brantford and Norwich, he secured the charter and got the road built between Brantford and Tillsonburg. When the company’s resources were exhausted, the completion of the line to Port Burwell had to be abandoned temporarily.

Several years later he set the plan for a line from Port Burwell to Tillsonburg and secured its construction.

He spent much more time and money getting the charters, obtaining subsidies and bonuses, and superintending the construction of these lines than he could afford, and the enterprise proved disastrous.

Nevertheless, he never regretted the work he had done for the town, and for a number of years, until the infirmities of old age compelled him to stop, he spent every available hour on planning a system of electric-roads from Tillsonburg through the country south and east of town, going so far as to lay the routes and secure the charter.

In connection with his railway schemes, he saw the value to Tillsonburg of having a good harbour at Port Burwell and gave generously of his time and ability to help secure the government funding that made it one of the best harbors on the north end of Lake Erie.

Law foresaw the development of the beet sugar industry in Canada, and spent a great deal of time and money trying to get a factory in Tillsonburg. But he could not convince others that sugar could be made successfully from beets, and failed to secure the capital ($300,000) necessary, and the undertaking was abandoned.

From the day he became a citizen of Tillsonburg until his energies began to decline, he took an active part in every movement that promised to benefit the town, in any way, giving material assistance in establishing the public library and high school, in waterworks, the erection of the town hall, the improvements of the streets, and the organization of agricultural and horticultural societies.

His plans were myriad, his enthusiasm unbounded, and his energy tireless on behalf of the town.

Law was also occupied in the office of Town Clerk, and was Town Treasurer for more than 20 years.

Due to Law’s ardent support for the Conservative cause, and his personal friendship with Sir John A. MacDonald, a rival paper with opposite political leanings was established in 1877 by William McGuire, known as The Liberal. The two papers were amalgamated in 1920 to form The Tillsonburg News.

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