Family Gift Establishes Rural History Professorship

Farm papers enhance U of G’s rural history archives

Ruth Redelmeier and several members of her family were on hand Oct. 15 to announce the creation of the Francis and Ruth Redelmeier Professorship in Rural History at U of G. From left: Charles McLaughlin, U of G president Alastair Summerlee, Ruth Redelmeier, Thomas Redelmeier, Virginia McLaughlin and Peter McLaughlin. Photo by Martin Schwalbe

Ruth Redelmeier and several members of her family were on hand Oct. 15 to announce the creation of the Francis and Ruth Redelmeier Professorship in Rural History at U of G. From left: Charles McLaughlin, U of G president Alastair Summerlee, Ruth Redelmeier, Thomas Redelmeier, Virginia McLaughlin and Peter McLaughlin. Photo by Martin Schwalbe

Ruth Redelmeier and her late husband, Francis, travelled to libraries and archives across North America to find information about the original owners of their family farm near Richmond Hill, Ont.

In the University of Guelph’s McLaughlin Library, they found a wealth of archival material about the pioneering Patterson family and discovered a home for their own extensive farm records. Files accumulated during the 60 years that the Redelmeiers raised dairy cattle on Don Head Farms and later The Patch Farms are now part of the University’s rural history collection.

An event was held in the library Oct. 15 to celebrate the Redelmeier family’s donation of archival material and to announce their support for a new College of Arts (COA) Francis and Ruth Redelmeier Professorship in Rural History. Prof. Catharine Wilson will be the first historian to hold the position.

Don Bruce, dean of COA, described the new professorship as recognition of the quality of the research being done by arts faculty, particularly in rural history, and said it will allow the college to pursue new areas in research and teaching. “We are thankful to the Redelmeier family for enabling U of G and the College of Arts to grow and diversify in new ways.”

Ruth Redelmeier added: “This is an exciting and gratifying event for my family and for me.” She attended the celebration with two of her three children: Virginia McLaughlin, who is president of Ontario-based Helmhorst Investments Ltd. and a member of the U of G Board of Governors, and Thomas, a 1982 Guelph graduate in agriculture and a biochemist who runs Northern Lipids Inc. in British Columbia. Ruth’s son Ted Redelmeier was unable to attend.

Other guests included McLaughlin’s husband, Peter; their children Charles and Katie; and Katie’s husband, Mike Mills.

U of G president Alastair Summerlee welcomed the Redelmeier family as well as a large group of University administrators, faculty and students.

It was Ruth Redelmeier’s father-in-law who purchased the 500-acre Don Head Farm in 1940 from the estate of John Patterson. Farming was a new venture for the Redelmeiers, who had emigrated from Holland a year earlier.

“It followed that the Redelmeier family established a rich and close relationship with the faculty of agriculture at Guelph, animal husbandry being the focus of their concerns,” said Ruth. “Francis found his lifetime vocation and avocation in agriculture and received his ‘aggie’ degree in 1945.”

After she married Francis and moved to the farm, Ruth Redelmeier developed a passion for the history of the family of Peter Patterson, who had purchased the homestead property in 1855. She learned that Peter became the managing partner of Patterson Brothers & Co., a company that started by making fanning mills, plows and stump pullers. By 1857 the firm was also advertising reapers and mowers.

In addition to the factory complex built on Peter Patterson’s property, he built a number of houses to accommodate his employees and established a post office to serve the resultant village of Patterson and surrounding farms.

Patterson Brothers became known for producing a full range of implements at a time when other companies were specializing. The manufacturing business moved to a much larger facility in Woodstock, Ont., in 1887 and amalgamated with Massey Harris Co. in 1891. Patterson company records are included in the extensive Massey-Harris collection housed in the U of G archives.

Together Francis and Ruth researched the extended Patterson family, travelling across the continent in search of information and developing a deep appreciation of the importance of preserving and documenting printed material from days gone by.

Peter Patterson’s property in Vaughan Township was retained by the family after the business moved to Woodstock. His youngest son, John, assumed ownership in 1924 and purchased neighbouring farms to increase his holdings to about 500 acres.

John named his property Don Head Farms after the tributary of the Don River that ran through it. He imported purebred stock extensively – Southdown sheep from England and Aberdeen Angus cattle from Scotland. This was the property that Francis’s father purchased in 1940.

The Redelmeier family purchased the farm along with its herds of Aberdeen cattle and Southdown sheep. Virginia McLaughlin says her grandfather added Jersey dairy cows and her father also became committed to the Jersey breed. Armed with a degree and many connections from his days at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC), Francis built a premier herd of Jerseys. He was an active member of several breed associations, including serving as president of both Jersey Ontario and Jersey Canada. He became an international advocate for the breed and won numerous breeding and production awards in Canada, the United States and internationally.

Francis was also recognized for his leadership and astute financial management during the establishment of the Ontario Milk Marketing Board, which he served as vice-chairman, and the modernization of the Canadian Livestock Records Corporation.

He died in 2001 and was admitted posthumously to the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2004.

Ruth was honoured by her alma mater, the University of Toronto (U of T), in 2006 with an Arbor Award recognizing her contributions to the institution. She was a mycologist and lecturer at U of T before she married.

During the recent Guelph event, Virginia McLaughlin said her father, like her grandfather, tried to stay at the forefront of advanced agricultural technologies. Francis also developed his grandfather’s habit of meticulous record-keeping.

“We have trouble throwing anything away,” she quipped as she described the Redelmeier habit of keeping detailed records of every calf, cow and bull on the farm, as well as milking records, sales and purchases – all hand-typed in multiple copies on onion-skin paper with sepia-coloured ink. “In the fullness of time, the family needed to find someplace for 60 years of accumulated material in the dairy breeding business.”

More seriously, McLaughlin added, “We hope the story of one farm and one family and the records kept will inform generations to come.”

The Don Head Farm records are indeed a valuable resource for future research, said Wilson, adding that the professorship will create new opportunities for the Department of History and its students. Greater participation in conferences, rural history panels and partnership projects “will push our historical analysis to new levels,” she said. “Undergrads and graduate students will be hired for archival projects and will have the opportunity to develop their own historical research.”

The professorship in rural history is only the latest of many gifts that Ruth and Francis Redelmeier have made to the University of Guelph. Their primary focus has been the library’s Archival and Special Collections unit, supporting its work to acquire, preserve and provide electronic access to the rural history collection. “In my mind, the archival collections are singularly important to the growth of the University and to the history of Canada,” said Ruth.

“I believe the establishment of the Professorship in Rural History is a fitting tribute to my husband, Francis, who made Canada his home. He was a man who had vision, a strong sense of justice, a passion and determination to give back to the land, the country and the university that nourished him.

“He became my supportive research assistant…had the wisdom to draw a picture of the social and economic history in broader terms than I could. He would wholeheartedly endorse the establishment of the Professorship in Rural History.”