Chez Perron, tout est bon: A giant of Québec and Canadian horticulture, Wilfrid-Henri Perron (1897-1977)

Wilfrid-Henri Perron. Claude Asselin, “Une encyclopédie québécoise pour les horticulteurs.” Photo-Journal, 3 to 9 May 1971, 12.

I have a terrible confession to make, my reading friend. I do not have a green thumb. Far from it. This being said (typed?), I like plants and flowers. It is in this context that I would like to excrete a brief text on a giant of Québec and Canadian horticulture, Wilfrid-Henri Perron.

Our saga began in April 1897 with the birth of Perron, in Saint-Philippe-de-Chester, now Chesterville, Québec. His childhood and youth were quite uneventful, except that his passion for growing flowers and vegetables, inside the family home, sometimes annoyed his brothers and sisters. The Perron family was one one of the few protestant (methodist) families in the region.

And yes, Perron owed his first name to Prime Minister Henri Charles Wilfrid Laurier, the first French speaking prime minister of Canada (1896-1911) and a gentleman mentioned in July 2019 and November 2020 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Incidentally, the second francophone to get the job was Louis Stephen Saint-Laurent, more than 50 years later (1948-57). St-Laurent was mentioned in July 2019 and October 2020 issues of that same blog / bulletin / thingee.

Perron obtained a certificate specialising in French from McGill University in Montréal, Québec, in 1917. He taught English and French for a few months in 1916-17.

In 1917, Perron enlisted in the Canadian Field Artillery, a service of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) created to fight overseas during the First World War. He trained in the United Kingdom until the signing of the Armistice in November 1918.

It was during his stay in the United Kingdom that Perron acquired his first solid notions of horticulture. Indeed, he took at least one course offered by the Khaki College of Canada, or Khaki University of Canada, a group of 15 to 20 or so teaching centres created in 1917 in military camps and hospitals with the help of one or more Canadian branches of the Young Men’s Christian Association. More than 50 000 Canadian soldiers regularly attended courses in various fields (agriculture, commerce, languages and practical science), presented in the form of lectures, between 1917 and 1919. Approximately 230 000 Canadian soldiers, more than a third (!) of the CEF, attended one or more lectures.

Would you believe that Irish political activist / critic / playwright / polemicist George Bernard Shaw was among the speakers involved in this much-appreciated initiative? Let me also mention George MacKinnon Wrong, director of the Department of History at the University of Toronto, in Toronto, Ontario, and Frank Hawkins Underhill, professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan, at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who after the war became a well-known social critic / essayist / historian / journalist / political thinker.

One of the founders of the Khaki College of Canada was Colonel Henry Marshall Tory, the president of the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, before the First World War and founding president of Carleton College, now Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. Tory was mentioned in a February 2021 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

The Khaki College of Canada / Khaki University of Canada occupies a significant but somewhat forgotten place in the history of higher education in Canada.

And yes, Perron took the opportunity to visit some of the major British horticultural centres.

Perron returned from Europe in 1919 and began studying horticulture at McGill University’s Macdonald College, in Sainte-Anne-de Bellevue, Québec. He paid for his education by babysitting, mowing lawns, selling subscriptions to Montréal dailies (Le Devoir, The Gazette and La Presse), supervising staff at Macdonald College’s horticultural research farm, writing short articles on horticulture, and working for a market gardener.

Perron obtained his bachelor’s degree in agricultural science in 1923. Better yet, he won the prize awarded (annually?) by the minister of Agriculture of Québec, at the time Joseph-Édouard Caron – the first farmer to occupy the position since 1867. The mind boggles.

A brief digression if I may. Would you believe that the Montreal Aviation Museum occupies at least one building on the site of Macdonald College? Said museum was created in 1998 thanks to the efforts of Hubert Martyn Pasmore, the founding president of Fairchild Aircraft Limited of Longueuil, Québec – a well-known Québec / Canadian aircraft manufacturing company mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since August 2018. And yes, Pasmore was mentioned in a May 2021 issue of that same publication, but back to the main character in our story today.

Perron landed a job with a major seed producer in Montréal, Dupuy & Ferguson Limited, in the fall of 1923. Many market gardeners in the Montréal region were quick to discover the many talents of this young graduate, which led to an increase in the sales of Dupuy & Ferguson. Indeed, Perron became sales manager in 1927.

That same year 1927, Perron obtained a 2-year scholarship thanks to a recommendation from the principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University, Sir Arthur William Currie, the commander of the Canadian Corps, the main unit of the aforementioned CEF, between 1917 and 1919. Said scholarship allowed Perron to go to France and, more precisely, the École nationale d’horticulture and, later on, the École théorique et pratique d’arboriculture, located in Versailles and Saint-Mandé, not far from Paris.

While Perron took the opportunity to visit important Belgian, British, French, German and Italian horticultural centres, he did not neglect his studies. Nay. Would you believe that he completed his 2 year course in 1 year? Better yet, his diploma was marked “very good.”

Back in Montréal in 1928, Perron asked the management of Dupuy & Ferguson to grant him a salary increase. It refused. Perron wasted no time in resigning. He wanted to start a business on his own. He actually had some savings and friends who were ready to help him.

In November 1928, a trio of Montréal lawyers, Maurice Dugas, Léon Faribault and Gordon M. Webster, founded a firm with multiple activities related to plants, W.H. Perron & Company Limited, known a little more informally under the name of W.H. Perron & Compagnie Limitée.

Interestingly, this latter name seemed to appear for the first time in the Gazette officielle du Québec in 1974. At that time, the firm had been located in Laval, Québec, for about 20 years.

A highly skilled landscape decorator, Perron directed the activities of the eponymous firm towards the sale of seeds and garden accessories, as well as landscape decoration services, all aimed at a clientele of amateur and professional gardeners.

W.H. Perron’s first seed catalog, then written in English only because its potential clientele was predominantly English-speaking, appeared in the fall of 1929.

The first in a long series of bilingual mail-order catalogs published and distributed free of charge by W.H. Perron appeared in 1930. Perron wrote the texts himself, on the kitchen table of his residence. The seeds sold by W.H. Perron then came from abroad (France, Netherlands, United Kingdom, United States, etc.).

Would you believe that well before the late 1930s over 100 000 copies of this work were published? Said copies are found in Canadian (New Brunswick, Ontario and Québec) and American (New England) homes.

Said catalog, one of the most complete in North America and the only one available in French and English, introduced several generations of Quebecers to agricultural production techniques. It was no later than 1935 that these people first saw or heard the firm’s well-known slogan: Chez Perron, tout est bon (At Perron’s, everything is good).

By the way, Perron (financially?) encouraged one of his younger brothers to undertake studies at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. In 1937, Louis Joseph Perron became the first French-speaking landscape architect with a diploma in Québec, and Canada. Employed by his brother for many years, and this since around 1927-28, he opened his architectural office in 1948. Both modest and brilliant, Perron was one of the pioneers of Québec and Canadian town planning. His accomplishments numbered in the hundreds, in Québec and Ontario, but back to his older brother, the Perron who concerns us today.

Postal orders received by W.H. Perron, already very satisfactory during the 1930s, increased considerably during the Second World War. You obviously know, history buff that you are, my reading friend, that very many people living in the cities and towns of Canada sowed more than 200 000 vegetable gardens, known as Victory Gardens, during this terrible conflict. How did these people get the necessary seeds? By mail, you say? Right answer. You are entitled to a golden star, and… One golden star, not three! Sigh…

Would you believe that the federal Department of Agriculture did not look very favourably on the creation of this multitude of vegetable gardens from coast to coast? It feared that the inexperience of the budding gardeners could lead to a waste of resources, be it seeds or fertilisers. It was not until 1943, after many protests and once the risk of shortages had passed, that the department gave its blessing to the Victory Gardens, but I digress.

From 1959 on, clients of W.H. Perron could buy trees, shrubs and perennials produced on land belonging to the firm. This being said (typed?), the firm may have operated a nursery before that date.

A brief digression if I may. Yours truly has no idea of ​​the place occupied by Perron between 1928 and 1969. Was he one of the leaders or the sole leader? Did that status change over the decades? Who knows…

Perron retired in 1969. His eldest son, the agronomist Henri Wilfrid Perron, took up the torch. This being said (typed?), Perron senior continued to cultivate, experiment, graft, plant and transplant in a small house located on a nursery of the family firm. He also began writing a book he wanted to leave as a legacy to gardeners and horticulturalists, as well as to his family.

In early May 1971, a major Montréal publishing house, Éditions de l’Homme Limitée, launched the Encyclopédie du jardinier horticulteur written by Perron senior, a profusely illustrated (color and black and white) brick of over 400 pages intended for hobbyist / budding gardeners and horticulturalists. Critics of the time were unanimous in praising the quality of this quality work, written by one of the Québec / Canadian experts in the field. Indeed, the plants mentioned by Perron senior in his encyclopedia, his first and last work, were all found on Québec soil.

The Encyclopédie du jardinier horticulteur was the first work of its kind intended for the general public since the publication of the book Embellissons nos demeures by the abbot and landscape architect Gérard Bossé, in 1947 – a detail that Perron senior mentioned to at least one journalist who had visited him for an interview.

In fact, would you believe that the subtitle of the Encyclopédie du jardinier horticulteur was “Embellissons nos demeures en approfondissant nos connaissances en horticulture” – in other words Let us beautify our homes by deepening our knowledge of horticulture?

Perron senior’s work was part of a collection launched in 1971 by Éditions de l’Homme. L’Encyclopédie de l’Homme apparently included 7 titles published between 1971 and 1979:

 - the Encyclopédie du jardinier horticulteur,

- the Encyclopédie des antiquités du Québec : Trois siècles de production artisanale,

- the Encyclopédie de la maison québécoise,

- the Encyclopédie des oiseaux du Québec,

- the Encyclopédie du Québec (2 volumes),

- the Encyclopédie de la chasse au Québec, and

- the Encyclopédie de la santé de l’enfant.

But I digress.

In 1975, a renowned professor of ornamental horticulture at the Faculté des sciences de l’agriculture et de l’alimentation of Université Laval in Québec, Québec, Roger Van den Hende, retired. Said faculty wished, however, to continue to develop research and teaching in this area. Aware both of this fact and of the general public’s enthusiasm for horticulture, Perron senior, members of his family and the family firm donated a large sum of money to the faculty in 1976, in order to create a chair which later became the Chaire en horticulture ornementale W.H. Perron. Said chair still existed as of in 2021. Its holder was professor emeritus Jacques-André Rioux.

Perron senior left this world in August 1977, at the age of 80.

A reorganisation of W.H. Perron may, I repeat may, have taken place in 1987. Indeed, the Groupe W.H. Perron Incorporé was created in January of that year. We should also mention that Henri Wilfrid Perron retired in 1989.

These events may have been linked to the fact that a group of employees and outside managers acquired the shares of the firm held by the Perron family, thereby taking control of the Groupe W.H. Perron.

The purchase of a major Canadian mail-order seed firm, Dominion Seed House Incorporated of Georgetown, Ontario, in 1993, marked the beginnings of the Groupe W.H. Perron’s expansion beyond the borders of Québec.

This being said (typed?), around 1993-94, the firm sold the W.H. Perron garden centres as well as the W.H. Perron trademark to a major Canadian mail order seed firm, White Rose Crafts and Nursery Sales Limited of Unionville, Ontario.

Lightened of parts its load, one of the most important Canadian mail-order seed companies thus saw the light of day in 1994: Norseco Incorporée of Laval. The divisions which posted said seeds were HortiClub in Québec and Dominion Seed House elsewhere in Canada.

Unfortunately, not all was swimming in liquid fertiliser for White Rose Crafts and Nursery Sales. The purchase of the W.H. Perron garden centres and of the eponymous trademark, not to mention the increasingly large space occupied by big-box stores, gradually wiped out the firm’s profits. White Rose Crafts and Nursery Sales had to seek bankruptcy protection in November 1998.

The recovery of the firm’s finances, which became White Rose Home and Garden Centres Limited in 1999, led to the closure of 10 of its 42 stores, including the 8 located in Québec – apparently considered less essential. Said recovery did not save the day, however. White Rose Home and Garden Centres had to declare bankruptcy in June 2002. In August, a businessman from Vancouver, British Columbia, acquired 24 stores which reopened their doors under the banner of White Rose Home and Garden Centres. Nine stores having closed their doors in January 2004 at the latest, the firm had to declare bankruptcy once again.

You are probably wondering what Norseco was up to all that time. Yes, yes, do not deny it. The point was, things were going pretty well, thank you very much. In 2013, as online orders gained in importance, HortiClub changed its name to (re)become W.H. Perron. Three years later, in 2016, the Dominion Seed House trademark disappeared, making W.H. Perron the only trademark of Norseco. In 2021, the latter was one of the largest mail-order / internet seed sales firms in Canada.

Would you have any objection to listening to the French language song Je ferai un Jardin (I will make a garden), dating from 1975, by Québec actor / humorist / screenwriter / singer / writer Clémence Irène Claire DesRochers – a great artist born in Sherbrooke, Québec, just like yours truly?

I must admit I rather like the version sung by Renée Claude, née Marie Suzy Renée Bélanger, a great singer mentioned in July 2018 and September 2020 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, and one of the leading figures of the 1970s in Québec, an era full of hope and freedom, an era during which Québec experienced a great cultural development

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Rénald Fortier