DAVIDSON, JOHN ANDREW, pioneer, businessman, jp, office holder, and politician; b. 19 Aug. 1852 in Thamesford, Upper Canada, son of Isaac Davidson and Chrystann (Christie Anne) Cameron; m. 20 March 1878 Sophia Ellen Hamilton in Palestine (Gladstone), Man., and they had two sons and three daughters; d. 14 Nov. 1903 in Neepawa, Man.
John Andrew Davidson and other members of his family were part of the first contingent of Ontario settlers who went to Palestine, Man., in July 1871. He, his father, and at least one of his brothers took up land in Township 14, range 11 west. In 1873 Davidson served in a volunteer company raised in the area to face a threatened Sioux attack. That year he established, at age 21, one of the first two general stores in Palestine; the other was owned by his future brother-in-law Corydon Partlow Brown*. Like most early storekeepers he accepted grain and other farm produce in exchange for goods because the railway had not yet arrived and marketing arrangements for such products were primitive. In addition, he engaged in the fur trade, in partnership with John Alexander McDougall and “an old Hudson Bay officer, Mr. Mcgillivray.” This venture was short-lived and unprofitable.
Quickly becoming an established figure in the community, by 1876 Davidson was a justice of the peace, a commissioner for taking affidavits, and a trustee for the Protestant school board. One of his most important posts was secretary of the Palestine Baseball Club, for the early settlers from Ontario took their baseball seriously. In 1877 he served as secretary of the committee seeking the incorporation of Westbourne into a rural municipality which would include Palestine. Municipalities were able to offer railways cash bonuses, and the incorporation of Westbourne was designed to induce the Manitoba Western Railway Company to build its line through the area. Despite his work in securing municipal status, Davidson came at the bottom of the polls in the first municipal elections.
In 1880 he left Palestine (which had been renamed Gladstone), and with his new partner Jonathan Joseph Hamilton moved to Beautiful Plains (Arden). On the land they purchased in Township 14, range 15 west, they established not only a store but a new town which was to be called Neepawa. In order to attract settlers, they built – in addition to a brick building for their own store – a hotel, a steam-driven flour-mill, a blacksmith’s shop, and other businesses. The store proved to be successful, as did the mill and a real-estate agency they had started. Davidson became president of the Neepawa Mining Company, the Register Printing Company (which published the Neepawa Register and Beautiful Plains County Advertiser, originally the Neepawa Canadian), and the Neepawa Curling Club. An older Davidson had shifted his interests from baseball to curling, the other great favourite of the early settlers from Ontario. As one of Neepawa’s founders, he was elected to the town council as soon as the municipality was incorporated and he remained a member for the rest of his life. He would be mayor from 1895 to 1900. In 1882 the people of Neepawa gave the Portage, Westbourne and North Western Railway a bonus of $16,000 to have it pass through their town, considerably less than the amount disbursed by Minnedosa, their neighbouring rival, the following year. Minnedosa moved ahead of Neepawa in population and business enterprise until 1886, when the heavy expenses of competing for hinterland trade led to its financial collapse. By the early 1890s Neepawa had outdistanced Minnedosa in size and volume of business activity.
In addition to his local commercial and political endeavours, Davidson was involved in provincial politics for much of his life. An active member of the provincial Conservative party, he was for years a member of its executive. In 1881 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for the new constituency of Dauphin, a seat he retained in the general election of 1883. Nominated for Beautiful Plains in 1886 and 1888, he was defeated on both occasions. He finally won that seat in 1892 by the slim margin of 16 votes. He lost it in 1896 and failed to regain it in 1899. Although not a member of the assembly, on 10 Jan. 1900 he was appointed provincial treasurer and minister of agriculture and immigration in the administration of Hugh John Macdonald*. After the Liberal member for Beautiful Plains was persuaded to resign, Davidson was elected in his stead in March. He remained at his post when Rodmond Palen Roblin* took over as premier on 29 October. Davidson undertook a thorough overhaul of the finances of the province, and within the first year of his administration retired the deficit that had been built up by the Liberals under Premier Thomas Greenway. Thereafter his budgets showed a growing provincial surplus, created not only by careful administration but by a tax he had introduced on corporations, including railways. His death in 1903 came after a long spell of ill health. A special train was run from Winnipeg to Neepawa, to carry any members of the assembly or the civil service who wished to attend the funeral, which was conducted with full masonic ritual. Roblin himself was among the pallbearers.
John Andrew Davidson’s political career was based on his business activities, which were largely concerned with the rapid commercial development of new agricultural settlements in what was then northwestern Manitoba. His success exemplifies the close connection between rural politics and business promoters in early Manitoba.
Man., Dept. of Natural Resources, Lands Branch (Winnipeg), Crown Lands Registry, Historic holders index, J. A. Davidson (mfm. at PAM). Provincial Arch. of Alberta (Edmonton), Lovissa McDougall papers, 1878–87. Manitoba Gazette (Winnipeg), 13 April 1875, 27 March 1876. Manitoba Morning Free Press, 28 March 1878, 14 Nov. 1903. Morning Telegram (Winnipeg), 11 Jan. 1900, 14 Nov. 1903. Neepawa Canadian (Neepawa, Man.), 1 March 1884. Neepawa Herald, 15 Sept. 1892. CPG, 1881–1903 Directory, Man., 1876–77. Heritage, a history of the town of Neepawa and district as told and recorded by its people, 1883–1983 ([Neepawa, 1983]). Margaret Morton Fahrni and W. L. Morton, Third crossing; a history of the first quarter century of the town and district of Gladstone in the province of Manitoba (Winnipeg, 1946). Barry Potyondi, “In quest of limited urban status: the town-building process in Minnedosa, 1879–1906,” Town and city: aspects of western Canadian urban development, ed. A. F. J. Artibise (Regina, 1981), 141–46.
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