“A Food, not a Fad:” The life and times of Edwin Delevan Tillson of Tillsonburg, Ontario

A typical Tillson Company Limited advertisement. Anon. “Tillson Company Limited.” The Canadian Grocer & General Storekeeper, 13 May 1892, 19.

Yours truly would like to begin this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee with an apology. Contrary to the gentlepersons agreement agreed to many moons ago, I did not include an agricultural topic among those published in April 2022 in said blog / bulletin / thingee. I hereby remedy this failure on my part with what follows. Please rest assured that the what follows in question is actually quite interesting. Really.

Edwin Delevan Tillson was born in March 1825, in Normandale, Upper Canada, today’s province of Ontario. A virtual ghost town in 2022, Normandale was a booming community two centuries ago. Indeed, one could argue it was Ontario’s first steel town.

Tillson did not grow up in Normandale, however. Nay. He did so in Dereham Forge, Upper Canada, where his father, George Tillson, owned, well, a forge which employed several of the local inhabitants. And yes, you are quite correct, my reading friend, Dereham Forge became Tillsonburg in 1836, or 1834. And yes, the name was also spelled Tilsonburg, and this as early as 1854, if not earlier.

A brief digression if I may. I am told that the 30 or so metre (100 or so feet) wide main street of Tillsonburg is the widest in Ontario and, perhaps, Canada. Broadway, as it was / is called, was made that wide to allow the drivers of large logging wagons to turn without endangering themselves and their cargo – and the odd pedestrian.

Tillson, the son, not the father, had a fairly conventional childhood and youth. For several months in 1845, he was in Norwalk, Ohio, where he attended Norwalk Seminary, a protestant liberal arts college which seemingly became Norwalk Institute in early 1846. That very year, Tillson worked for a few months, as a teacher, in Upper Canada, at the so-called Dobbie settlement in Bayham Township, near Tillsonburg.

Dare I say (type?) that, just like history and philosophy, teaching leads to everything provided one gets out of it? (Hello EP!) I should not? Very well. I will therefore not dare.

The sum of money the young man earned was put to good use. Tillson used it, and a comparable sum earned from the sale of lumber cut on land he owned, to form a partnership with a gentleman who lived not too far from Tillsonburg.

The dynamic duo bought the water rights for a stream from Tillson’s father. And yes, the stream in question flowed near Tillsonburg. Tillson and his partner constructed a fairly primitive sawmill on the stream. As funds began to run out, a third gentleman joined the team. From the looks of it, business began to pick up. Indeed, Tillson used his share of the profits to buy his own sawmill, with the help of his father, in 1851. From the looks of it, business continued to be good. Indeed, in 1858, Tillson junior bought the various mills owned by Tillson senior. He also bought his father’s water rights.

Business continued to be good. By 1861, Tillson was the proud owner of a sash and door factory, a gristmill, a planing mill, a sawmill and a general store. When his father died, in March 1864, he became wealthier still through his inheritance of a good portion of Tillson senior’s remaining possessions.

At the time, the United States were in throes of a deadly civil war. Demand for agricultural products grew, primarily to feed the soldiers of the United States Army, which was right next door, which was a good reason to be nice and cooperative given the, dare I say (type?) revolting sympathy of certain British elites for the Confederate States of America. As a result, sizeable pieces of land in the Tillsonburg region were cleared for cultivation. In turn, this led to a reorientation of the regional economy, from forestry to agriculture.

In 1865, for example, Tillson financed the construction of a pea mill and an oat mill. As time went by, he financed the modernisation of these facilities. Yours truly would like nothing more than to provide you with the name of Tillson’s firm but that name has so far eluded me. Curse you, World Wide Web! Sorry.

Would you believe that, in 1864, Tillson dug in his own pockets to pay for the grading of Tillsonburg’s Broadway? Well, you should. The previous year, he had done the same to invest in a small firm involved in oil exploration. Yes, yes, oil. Do you not know that the first commercial oil well in North America was seemingly in Canada West, today’s Ontario, in the province of Canada, in Black Creek, a village later known as Oil Springs? That first well was drilled in (September?) 1858, but I digress.

Would you believe that Tillson was the main promoter of the incorporation of Tillsonburg, in 1872? Indeed, he was the town’s first mayor. Mind you, Tillson was also the postmaster of Tillsonburg for more than 30 years. He got the job around 1869. And yes, Tillson managed the construction of the town’s waterworks system and of its first high school. Completed around 1872, the Rolph Street Public School was built on land he had donated in exchange for a nominal sum. And yes, at one point, Tillson owned two thirds of the stores located on Tillsonburg’s main business thoroughfare.

As interesting and profitable as the various ventures presented in the previous paragraphs may have been, they were not / are not the main reason why Tillson made it into the history books. Nay. That gentleman was / is best remembered for, among other things, the development and marketing of a patented food item, namely Tillson Pan-Dried Oats.

According to family lore, Tillson fell ill at some point in the late 1860s or early 1870s. Even though he recovered from said illness, which happened to be typhoid fever, which was no joke, Tillson seemingly suffered from bowel issues. His doctor pondered this matter for a moment and suggested that he consumed oatmeal on a daily basis, to boost his fibre intake. There was, however, no oatmeal mill in or near Tillsonburg. What was Tillson to do? Build his own mill, of course, which would provide that Scottish food staple to the entire area. Tillson’s oatmeal mill was constructed in 1873. Severely damaged if not destroyed by fire in 1878, said mill was replaced by a larger building which produced a brand-new type of oatmeal.

You see, Tillson was not all that fond of the steam-dried rolled oatmeal produced in the mill completed in 1873. You see, again, the fumes and smoke released as part of the process messed up the taste of that food item. As straitlaced as he was, Tillson did have taste buds. There had to be a way to improve the taste of the product, he thought. And so it was that Tillson came up with the so-called dry kiln approach to oatmeal preparation. Sure, that approach was more expensive than steam drying but the end product had a far more palatable, nutty taste. The new approach even improved the processing of the product, which was gravy to Tillson’s, err, ears.

In 1882, Tillson turned over control of his businesses to his three sons. Tillson Company Limited seemingly came into existence at that time.

A slightly odd digression if I may, my reading friend. Do you by any chance remember an American situation comedy entitled My Three Sons, broadcasted between September 1960 and April 1972? I remember watching some episodes of the made in Québec French language version of that television show, Mes trois fils, which was broadcasted between October 1962 and August (?) 1972. End of digression.

As time went by, the list of customers which knocked on Tillson’s door, Tillson the company, not the man of course, grew. According to some, Tillson’s pan-dried oats gradually became the most popular breakfast cereal in Canada. It even earned Tillsonburg the nickname of Pan-Dried Town.

By the early 20th century, if not earlier, Tillson’s breakfast cereal could be found throughout Canada and beyond, in European countries like the United Kingdom, the German Empire, and Norway for example, not to mention South America. It was seemingly quite popular in South Africa as well. It was even said to be popular in… Scotland. The reasons for that success, which came in the face of increasing competition from newfangled cold or ready-cooked cereals? Simply put, Tillson Pan-Dried Oats was a good product well marketed.

The brain behind that good marketing was the founder of J.J. Gibbons Limited of Toronto, Ontario, a 22 or so year old American Canadian advertising genius by the name of John Joseph Gibbons. Yes, yes, 22 or so year old. Gibbons was seemingly born in 1880. He had entered the trade in 1898. At the time, Gibbons was selling column space in Canadian newspapers to advertising agencies based in New York City, New York. He quickly realised that these agencies knew, I mean really knew, how to advertise products. Nothing comparable existed in Canada at the time.

Gibbons soon packed his bags and created Canada’s first true advertising agency, the aforementioned J.J. Gibbons. The budding entrepreneur hired, in several cases poached, talented artists and writers. Convincing well established Canadian firms that their advertising, well, sucked, without using that word of course, was not always easy. Gibbons’ young age did not help. Still, some businessmen gave him a chance. They were not disappointed. The advertisements created by J.J. Gibbons were well thought of. They masterfully combined texts and illustrations to capture the attention of potential buyers. They sold the products. J.J. Gibbons’ climb to greatness had begun.

Do you know which firm played a crucial role in launching J.J. Gibbons’ climb to greatness? And yes, that was indeed a rhetorical question.

You see, things were not very rosy in Tillson’s main office in 1902. The firm’s management watched with concern as a well-known American firm, Quaker Oats Company, inaugurated a large mill in Peterborough, Ontario. The following year, a new Canadian firm, Frontenac Cereal Company Limited, set up shop in existing facilities located in Kingston, Ontario. One of the big wigs of that firm had seemingly worked for some years for another well well-known American firm, Kellogg’s Limited.

Another brief digression if I may. Did you know that one of the gentlemen behind Frontenac Cereal was none other than George Armstrong Richardson, an influential businessperson and father of James Armstrong Richardson, the father of Canadian commercial aviation according to some / many, another influential businessperson and founder of Canadian Airways Limited of Montréal, Québec, the largest privately owned air transport company in Canada between the two world wars?

And yes, the magnificent Junkers W 34 on display in the fantabulastic Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, carries the colours of Canadian Airways, but back to Tillson and its double, double toil and troubles.

Indeed, many Canadians increasingly seemed to prefer the breakfast cereals offered by Kellogg’s and other firms to Tillson Pan-Dried Oats. Preparing a bowl of oatmeal took time, a lot more time than preparing a bowl of corn flakes. The Tillsonburg firm needed help to restore its fortunes. It turned to J.J. Gibbons. The young agency did not disappoint its new client.

A typical Tillson Company Limited advertisement. Anon. “Tillson Company Limited.” The Toronto World, 25 November 1902, 4.

Indeed, the marketing campaign launched in late 1902 was quite something. Centered upon an active Scotsman of a certain age, a bonny lad with a hearty appetite who could be seen tobogganing, snowshoeing, skating, ploughing, hunting, fishing, curling, or chopping wood, said campaign stated quite plainly that Tillson Pan-Dried Oats was “A Food, not a Fad.” It was not vitrified, vitalised, predigested, precooked, peptonised, ossified, medicated, maltified, glutenised, flaked or faked – and served cold. Nay.

Our stomachs are not dyspeptic and our nerves are not shattered, shouted Canadians in anguish. We do not want cold fads, we want something old fashioned, good, well-made, nutritious, pure and wholesome for breakfast. Yea. Begone, ye Yankee poppycockles! We want Tillson Pan-Dried Oats!

Yours truly is of course paraphrasing the content of the many advertisements put out by Tillson, via J.J. Gibbons.

By the way, the expression “A food, not a fad” was not coined by J.J. Gibbons. Nay. The same expression, without the comma however, was used to sell the macaroni of the American firm Marvelli Company no later than 1901.

It went without saying that the Tillson advertisements in daily newspapers were followed by colourful advertisements on Canadian walls and streetcars.

Did the marketing campaign work, you ask, my concerned reading friend? Did it ever. Even J.J. Gibbons was surprised. Would you believe that Tillson’s bonny Scotsman became a national figure in English Canada? The expression English Canada is quite appropriate here given that said Scotsman did not seem to appear in French language newspapers of Québec. This being said (typed?), the bonny Scotsman could be seen on the walls and streetcars of Montréal, Québec – Canada’s metropolis.

In any event, the work that J.J. Gibbons did for Tillson was a turning point, if not the turning point, in the fortunes of the young agency. Deemed to be as good as that of the best American advertising agencies, that work caught the attention of the Canadian business community to such an extent that Gibbons and his team would not have to worry about not being able to pay the bills anymore, but back to Tillson, the man and not the firm.

As significant as the year 1882 was in the life on Tillson, it did not signify an end to any and all activity. Nay. In 1890, for example, he set up a firm to build a short railroad track between the site of the family business and the main line of Great Western Railway Company, which went from Windsor, Ontario, to Niagara Falls, Ontario.

During the 1880s, Tillson supervised the construction of a new house, near Tillsonburg, located on what became the Annandale model farm, a farm seemingly named after his beloved spouse, Mary Ann Tillson, born Mary Ann Van Norman.

Incidentally, Tillson’s father and Van Norman’s father had been business partners between 1823 and 1825 or so. Joseph Van Norman was the main co-owner of a small and somewhat primitive ironworks located in the aforementioned hamlet of Normandale, but I digress.

Tillson’s new home was no primitive hovel, no siree. The most modern conveniences could be found within its walls, conveniences like steam heat and gaslight, conveniences which were not exactly common in a small Ontario town of the time. For some reason or other, Tillson’s new home took 7 or so years to complete. The $ 30 000 construction cost of that residence would be equivalent to about $ 1 100 000 in 2022 currency.

Much of the money spent on the house went into gorgeous and slightly extravagant hand-painted ceilings, inlaid floors, mantels, stained glass windows, etc. Not the sort of thing one might expect in the house of a straightlaced, no nonsense person like Tillson.

You see, his spouse, who was not quite as straightlaced despite, one presumes, her corset, sorry, sorry, had been present, and most impressed, in May 1882, in an uncertain Ontario location (Woodstock? Stratford?) when an Irish playwright, novelist, poet and writer of some importance, you may have heard of him, you know, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, delivered a lecture on the practical application of the principles of the aesthetic theory to exterior and interior house decoration.

The Aesthetic Movement, or Aestheticism, was a radical English art movement, very popular in the 1870s and 1880s, within certain circles, which privileged the aesthetic value of art, literature and music over their socio-political functions. The people, women and men, who promoted and supported Aestheticism, people like Wilde, strongly disliked, dare one say despised, what they saw as the crass materialism prevalent in the United Kingdom of the time.

And no, Wilde did not cross the Atlantic Ocean to deliver one talk in one Ontario town. He actually left England in December 1881 to tour the United States, another bastion of crass materialism if I may say (type?) so, and returned home almost a year later. Wilde spent most of the intervening time south of the Canada-United States border but he did speak in several Québec and Ontario locations in 1882. One only needs to mention Montréal and Québec, Québec. And yes, one could argue that Canada was yet another bastion of crass materialism.

Would you be surprised to hear that all right-thinking people, or is that wrong-thinking people, in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada strongly disliked, dare one say despised, the Aesthetic Movement and what it stood for?

Of what use are forests if one cannot mow them down to make toothpicks and cigarette paper, or grow tobacco, or dig underneath them to extract gold, diamonds, coal and asbestos? Of what use are the seas if one cannot pull nets across them to catch all sorts of creatures, many of which get thrown back in, half dead or worse, because no one will eat them? How about whales? We use their oil for lighting our posh homes and the baleens in their mouths to make the baleens of the corsets worn by our mistr…, err, spouses.

Sarcasm? Maybe. Nothing to see here, Mr. Big Brother, nothing to see… And why is the light on my computer’s camera blinking like mad, in Morse code, all of a sudden?

And no, Wilde seemingly did not tell a custom officer in New York City, in January 1882, that he had nothing to declare except his genius. Still, there is no doubt the man was brilliant. Would you mind if yours truly inserted a few Wilde quotes at this point in the history of the Milky Way galaxy? No? What do you mean, no? Just for that, I will type more quotes than I had originally planned to.

“When we are happy, we are always good, but when we are good, we are not always happy.”

“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.”

“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.”

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

“Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”

“Man is many things, but he is not rational.”

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

“There is no sin except stupidity.”

Yep, the man was brilliant and still right on topic, which goes to prove that humankind is as screwed up in 2022 as it was in 1882, or 22 500 years ago, or 150 years from now, provided that “civilisation” does not collapse, but back to our story.

By the way, did you know that the Third World War of the Star Trek franchise is scheduled to start in 2026? Dare one say (type?) that progress is being made in that direction? No precise date is known for the big bang of 2026 though, which is a tad sucky.

The model farm Tillson created was both well constructed and well managed. As was the case with his posh residence, said farm incorporated the most modern conveniences, farm conveniences of course. The staff was especially proud of the selective breeding program implemented to improve its Holstein cattle. The quality of the work done at Annandale did not go unnoticed. Respected publications like The Canadian Grocer & General Storekeeper, published in Toronto, and Farmer’s Advocate and Home Magazine, published in London, Ontario, the leading agricultural magazine in Canada at the time, were lavish in their praise.

Indeed, the model farm proved so well constructed and managed that several / many people of importance compared it to the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, Ontario, an institution affiliated with the Toronto Normal School of… Toronto.

As the months became years, Tillson gradually turned over the administration of the model farm to younger hands. He left this world in January 1902, at the age of 76. In turn, Mary Ann Tillson left this world in November 1911, at the age of 81.

At some point after Tillson’s passing, in 1910 from the looks of it, Tillson, the firm of course, joined a milling cooperative, Canadian Cereal & Milling Company, whose 7 Québec and Ontario members had grown increasingly concerned by the growing might of milling interests of Western Canada.

Incidentally, the managing director and secretary of one of the firms which gave birth to Canadian Cereal & Milling, Flavelle Milling Company Limited of Lindsay, Ontario, was one John D. Flavelle. One of his younger brothers was none other than Joseph Wesley Flavelle, general manager of Willliam Davies Company Limited of Toronto, the largest pork packing firm in the British empire. And yes, that is why Toronto the good was / is also known as… Hogtown.

Is there a point to that digression, you ask, my slightly annoyed reading friend? Yes, there is. You see, Flavelle, the younger brother, was chairperson of the Imperial Munitions Board (IMB), a British body created in November 1915, during the First World War, by the British Ministry of Munitions and Canadian businessmen to oversee the production of war material in Canada. As such, he played a role in the creation of the first Canadian aeroplane manufacturing firm worthy of the name, Canadian Aeroplanes Limited of Toronto.

And yes, the Curtiss JN-4 Canuck on display in the fantabulastic Canada Aviation and Space Museum was manufactured by Canadian Aeroplanes.

And yes again, yours truly inserted Flavelle Milling into our train of thought in order to say (type?) a few words about aviation. What can I say (type?), I am a wing nut, but back to our story.

Oh yes, the IMB was mentioned in April 2018, June 2021 and February 2022 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Canadian Aeroplanes, on the other hand, was mentioned several times therein since April 2018.

Faced with the destruction of its large mill in Peterborough, December 1916, the aforementioned Quaker Oats went looking for a facility which could handle its Canadian production need. In February 1917, it announced the acquisition of Canadian Cereal & Milling’s large mill in London. Quaker Oats also announced it had acquired the rights to produce Tillson’s pan-fried oats.

Quaker Oats may, I repeat may, have gradually phased out production of said oats in favour of one of its own products.

As regards the Tillsonburg mill, which was apparently inactive in 1917, I have the sad duty to inform you that a fire caused very serious damage to it in October 1920. This disaster was all the more difficult to accept because it came shortly after the end of a costly renovation linked to a modernisation of the tooling.

The mill was still inactive when a businessman from Tillsonburg, the owner of the Royal Hotel, acquired it in March 1925 at an auction sale. In January 1930, R.B. Moulton sold the mill, apparently still inactive, to Joseph F. Fidler, a well-known American businessman whose name, curiously enough, was seemingly not mentioned in the American press at the time. The mill seemingly did not reopen. Pity.

Saved from demolition in the early 1980s, by a group of concerned local people, Annandale House, as it was known, was thoroughly restored. It became a national historic site in 1997. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognises that magnificent building as the best surviving example of Aestheticism in Canada.

Sadly enough, crass materialism was still very much with us as of 2022. Dare I suggest that Mother Nature should come down to Earth for a few years, not to save the Earth for us but to save the Earth from us – words inspired by the disappointing 2008 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, an adaptation of the 1951 classic science fiction motion picture by the same title?

Said words were not the in original movie, by the way, but a lot of things had changed between 1951 and 2008.

And why is the light on my computer’s camera blinking like mad, in Morse code, all of a sudden?

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Rénald Fortier