PEARCE, JOHN SEABURY, merchant, seedsman, author, and office holder; b. 1842 in Tyrconnell, Upper Canada, eldest son of John Pearce and Elizabeth P. Moorehouse; m. Mary Ann —; they had no children; d. 25 March 1909 in London, Ont.
John Seabury Pearce grew up on a farm settled in 1809 by his Pennsylvanian grandfather under the supervision of Thomas Talbot*. His farming experience was put to good use when he moved from Elgin County to London in 1873 to become a produce commission merchant. During the following decade he had a number of partners. In 1883 he took over William Weld*’s Canadian Agricultural Emporium, which sold new and improved varieties of grain and other farm and garden seeds to farmers all over Canada. Pearce and Weld’s son Henry ran the business as Pearce, Weld and Company until the latter’s death. From 1885 to 1901 it was conducted as John S. Pearce and Company, which became one of the largest wholesale seed firms in Canada. The business flourished at a time when dependable farm and garden seed, hybridization, and scientific farming methods were receiving greater attention from farmers.
Pearce became a respected member of London society and of the agricultural/horticultural community at large. He served on the Western Fair board and was a warden of St Paul’s Cathedral (Anglican). He wrote for farm and horticultural journals on a variety of topics, lectured for the Farmers’ Institute, and was an active member of the Ontario Vegetable Growers’ Association, the Ontario Association of Horticultural Societies, and the London Horticultural Society. Through these outlets he contributed to the major horticultural and agricultural issues of the day, such as the benefit of buying high quality, tested seed. This subject was hotly debated in farm journals, and Pearce’s voice was a dominant one. To serve his own customers better, he maintained a large trial ground where he tested approximately 700 varieties of field, garden, and flower seeds.
Another important issue in which Pearce participated was rural depopulation – how to stop the increasing migration of farmers and their families to cities and towns. To Pearce and many prominent officials and educators, part of the solution lay in educating the present and future generations of farm families in a love of the countryside, in a belief in the honourable calling of the farming profession, and in the practice of improved agricultural methods. Among the means of educating the farm community was Ontario’s school system, where, by 1904, school gardening had been added to the primary school curriculum, part of the educational reform movement headed by James Wilson Robertson* and philanthropist Sir William Christopher Macdonald*. Improvements to school grounds – the planting of shrubs, trees, and flowers – was one aspect of this program. A landscaped school, it was said, would not only promote better attendance, but would also become a centre for community events. A number of school gardens and school-ground improvements around the London area were supported by Pearce and others.
In 1901 Pearce had sold his business and begun acting as an agent for other produce companies. Named London’s park superintendent in 1903, he soon became a high-profile promoter of ideals and projects stemming from the City Beautiful movement, in which architecture and landscaping came together. A community would only benefit, he believed, from beautification through an aesthetic use of trees, boulevards, parks, and structures.
A believer in the educational function of parks, Pearce held a number of strong views on their management. He stressed that growing the best and most varied shrubs, trees, and flowers would have positive repercussions on a city’s appearance. The plant material and design would influence the design and content of private gardens, as well as create a positive attitude toward beautifying the city in general. His advocacy of the increasingly popular notion that parks were for the people and should be actively used placed him in the “athletic” group of park promoters, rather than among those who wanted parks used passively, for such purposes as strolling and listening to band concerts. Under Pearce’s control parks were devoted to such uses as sports, games, and picnicking, and all keep-off-the-grass signs were removed.
Pearce also lobbied for more power for the office of park superintendent. For example, seeing that the planting of trees along city streets, a common method of improvement before World War I, was often haphazardly administered, Pearce instigated the passage of a by-law that gave him the authority to say which varieties of trees should be planted and where. His brother William* was similarly minded. As president of Calgary’s planning commission, he espoused City Beautiful programs, including park systems and tree planting, and nascent environmental programs such as the reservation of land for national parks.
John S. Pearce served as London’s park superintendent until 1909, when he died. His sudden death was said by the London Advertiser to have cut short an ambitious program to expand the city’s system of parks and playgrounds.
Fourteen articles by John Seabury Pearce in the Farmer’s Advocate and Home Magazine are listed in Ontario rural society, 1867–1930: a thematic index of selected Ontario agricultural periodicals, compiled by Edwinna von Baeyer (pamphlet enclosing microfiche, Ottawa, 1985; copy at AO). Pearce’s contributions to agricultural and horticultural literature also include “Fall wheats in 1897,” Farming, 14: 775; “French market gardens and gardeners,” Canadian Horticulturist (Toronto), 32 (1909): 81; and “Cities and towns beautiful,” in the Annual report of the horticultural societies of Ontario (Toronto), 1907: 60–66 (a group photograph of him among the delegates to the societies’ annual meeting appears on p.8 of the same volume). His firm, John S. Pearce and Company, compiled and published The farmer’s hand book and guide (London, Ont., 1894).
AO, RG 22, ser.321, no.9723. NA, RG 31, C1, 1891, London, Ward 2. Farmer’s Advocate and Home Magazine, 1 April 1909. London Advertiser, 26 March 1909. Directory, London, 1872/73–1876/77, 1881/82–1888/89, 1891, 1896/97, 1898/99, 1909/10. S. A. Donaldson, “William Pearce: his vision of trees,” Journal of Garden Hist. (London), 3 (1983): 233–44. Edwinna von Baeyer, Rhetoric and roses: a history of Canadian gardening, 1900–1930 (Markham, Ont., 1984).