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DRYDEN, JOHN, farmer and politician; b. 5 June 1840 in Whitby Township, Upper Canada, son of James Dryden and Elizabeth Marsh; m. 1867 Mary Lydia Holman, daughter of a New York publisher, and they had three sons, two of whom died in infancy, and five daughters; d. 29 July 1909 in Toronto.

James Dryden was a native of Sunderland, County Durham, England, and in 1820, at the age of 14, he immigrated with his mother to Whitby Township. By the time of John Dryden’s birth, he had become a successful farmer and had turned his 200-acre property near the village of Winchester (Brooklin) into a local show-place, which he named Maple Shade Farm. In politics he was a reformer who had supported William Lyon Mackenzie*’s attacks on the tory establishment but who had rejected his republicanism and violent methods. In the 1850s he was a reeve and deputy reeve of the township. He was also prominent in business, having become president of the Port Whitby and Port Perry Railway and a director of the Ontario Bank. John came to share his father’s love of farming, liberalism, and business interests. After an education at the Whitby Grammar School, he took over management of the family farm. On his father’s death in 1881, he bought out the other heirs and became sole owner of Maple Shade.

Dryden expanded it to 420 acres and eventually became an expert breeder of sheep, horses, and cattle, preferring to produce pure-bred stock rather than attempt to market larger quantities of scrub animals. His advocacy of quality brought him recognition from the agricultural community and he held office in many organizations, becoming a president of the Dominion Short-horn Breeders’ Association and the American Shropshire Sheep Association and a director of the American Clydesdale Association. In business he was a director of the Whitby, Port Perry and Lindsay Railway.

Dryden’s political career grew naturally out of his family background. When in his early 20s, he was secretary-treasurer of the Whitby school board. He won election in 1863 to township council, where he would serve for seven years; in 1866 he was deputy reeve and in 1869 and 1870 reeve. In 1879 he was elected to the Ontario legislature as Liberal member for Ontario South, and he would retain this constituency until 1905. He soon made his presence felt and in 1880 he was appointed to the Ontario agricultural commission, which made a searching investigation of the province’s agricultural prospects [see John McMillan (1824–1901)].

Dryden’s prominence in agriculture, combined with his political ability, led Premier Oliver Mowat to make him minister of agriculture after Charles Alfred Drury was defeated in the election of 1890. The department’s responsibilities were exceptionally broad and, in addition to agriculture, included, at different times during Dryden’s ministry, immigration, factory inspection, mines, roads, and a bureau of industries that compiled useful statistics, many of them on agriculture in Ontario. As well as its own reports, the department published the reports of the wide array of agricultural organizations that operated under its aegis, among them farmers’ institutes and bodies devoted to entomology, dairying, bee-keeping, fruit-growing, and the raising of poultry and livestock.

Although Dryden did not support government financing for most agricultural enterprises, he continued the administration’s policy, instituted before confederation, of assisting local and provincial agricultural societies. Under Dryden’s guidance more societies were aided and the amount of the subsidies was increased. These associations served to educate farmers and popularize new agricultural techniques. And, increasingly, Dryden emphasized education and innovations in dairying. To implement this educational policy he would bring the troubled Ontario Agricultural College and Experimental Farm in Guelph under his personal direction and begin instituting techniques to train farmers throughout the province.

Dryden’s department financed the OAC but his relationship with it was at first stormy. Attached to the college was a farm that was intended to develop new techniques and demonstrate them to the province’s farmers. Although required to do so, Thomas Shaw, the farm’s opinionated superintendent, refused to accept the supervision of college president James Mills*. The resulting quarrel created divisions among the faculty, damaged the college’s reputation, and provided the Conservative opposition with ammunition for its perennial criticism of the OAC. In 1892 Dryden intervened, instructing Shaw to submit his financial accounts to Mills. When Shaw refused, Dryden set up a commission of inquiry the following year, which condemned Shaw’s conduct but also criticized Mills for his inability to control his subordinate. Shaw resigned before he could be dismissed and embarked on a ferocious campaign of vituperation, charging Dryden with corruption in connection with the supply of animals to the demonstration farm. None of the charges was proved but the affair was an embarrassment to the government, which faced an election in 1894. To avoid a repetition of the incident, Dryden began to supervise the college closely. Shaw’s supporters were eased out and men loyal to the minister were appointed to the faculty. By 1894 Dryden was making most of the appointments to the college and was able to tell a newly hired instructor that “Mills thinks he is head of the College. He is not. I am.” Dryden’s involvement in the Shaw affair did not damage him politically: in 1894 he was returned with a larger majority than in the previous election.

With the college firmly under control, Dryden was able to concentrate on his program of agricultural training. Much of this effort was aimed at dairy farmers, many of whom clung to outdated methods that made inferior products and tarnished the province’s reputation in the export market. With the imposition of American tariffs, especially the McKinley tariff of 1890, Ontario’s exports to the United States were reduced. The alternative market was Britain, where there was intense competition from high-grade Danish products. The problem of quality thus became urgent. Part of Dryden’s solution was conventional: he set up a summer dairy school at Guelph. A more original approach was the travelling dairies program, initiated in 1891, under which a portable dairy, mounted on a horse-drawn wagon and operated by experts from the OAC, toured rural Ontario to bring instruction to farmers. A few dairymen opposed the program because it promoted the establishment of cheese and butter factories and thus threatened to destroy the family-operated creamery. But most dairy farmers supported Dryden’s efforts, realizing that factories would provide a better market for their milk. Dryden also established dairy schools at Strathroy and Kingston in 1895. The quality of dairy products improved during the 1890s, in part because of his achievements as minister.

As a loyal cabinet minister and enthusiastic promoter of “Empire Ontario,” Dryden supported the government’s policies of development in the province’s northwestern region. On a trip to the prairies in 1895, runs a story that may be apocryphal, he saw clover growing luxuriantly by the railway and deduced that fertile land existed in the northwest. Whatever the case, to test conditions Dryden set up an experimental farm that year near Wabigoon Lake. Mixed farming proved to be feasible and the farm was able to show a small profit. It was closed after the Liberals came to power in 1905, but by that time a village had grown up in the vicinity. Although the future of this community lay more in forestry and mining than in agriculture, Dryden’s role in the development of “New Ontario” was recognized when his name was given to the town, which was incorporated in 1910. A township near Sudbury was also named after him.

Dryden was a strong supporter of the temperance movement and a committed Baptist. Although his maternal grandfather had been a Baptist, his parents belonged to no church and he was not baptized as an infant. In 1852 his mother, whose memory Dryden revered, had nursed him and his siblings through an attack of typhoid fever before succumbing to the disease. His father then married a Methodist, Mary Stephenson of Pickering, who introduced John to her church. When the question of his baptism arose, Dryden read everything he could find on the subject: “I read the Bible and studied the lexicons and . . . it became clear that to baptise meant immerse and immerse only.” Rejecting his father’s irreligion and his stepmother’s Methodism, he joined the Brooklin Baptist Church. He soon became the superintendent of its Sunday school, an office he retained even after he became a cabinet minister. Later he was a director of the Home Mission Society and a board member of the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec. When the Toronto Baptist College was founded in 1881 [see William McMaster*], Dryden was named to its board of trustees and, after the institution became McMaster University in 1887, he continued on McMaster’s board of governors. As a member, and eventually chairman, of that board, he brought a practical approach to the management of the university’s affairs. The McMaster connection also extended to Dryden’s family life: at least two of his daughters, Mary Elizabeth and Jessie Elsie, were graduates.

Despite his support of higher education for his daughters (and presumably other women), Dryden’s views on suffrage were those of a typical late-Victorian patriarch. Although he was not known as an orator and rarely spoke in the legislature, in May 1893 he made a long speech in opposition to a bill sponsored by fellow Liberal John Waters, which would have given women the vote in provincial elections. His argument leaned heavily on his interpretation of the Bible, which he accepted as of divine origin and hence incontrovertible. Women had been placed in a subordinate position by divine authority, he maintained, so it followed that they would best fulfil their destiny by accepting their lot and obeying man and God, rather than by voting and entering public life. Dryden then turned to more political matters. Linking the Waters bill with the temperance movement, he argued that most people supported female suffrage only because they thought that women would vote for prohibitionary laws. In spite of his own temperance views, he believed that such legislation would prove unworkable because men would not obey laws passed by women. The remainder of his speech consisted of warnings about the effect on the family if women became mired in party politics, confident assertions that women did not really want the vote, and attacks on suffragists, whom he saw as “the lowest type of true womanhood.” Dryden singled out Huldah S. Rockwell [McMullen] as “the lady who seems to stand at the head of this movement in this country.” He concluded with a call to the members of the house to join in the defence of women, home, church, and society by setting the bill aside. After a brief comment from Mowat, who felt that public opinion was not ready for female suffrage, the bill was given the six-month hoist.

Dryden was the only minister who retained his portfolio through the change from the Mowat administration to the governments of Arthur Sturgis Hardy (1896–99) and George William Ross* (1899–1905), a testimony to his political skills. However, his last years in politics were troubled by scandals. Complications arising from the distribution of political favours often preoccupied Dryden and he had become accustomed to criticism from the opposition. But in 1897, when the office of registrar of Ontario County became vacant, his problems originated with fractious Liberals. There were many candidates, all with good Liberal credentials, and the appointment of Dryden’s brother, George W., created an uproar. The Conservatives also made damaging allegations. According to William Smith, a defeated Conservative candidate in the federal election of 1896, Dryden had promised the position of registrar to several people in return for money which was spent on the Liberals’ campaign. Calling the charge “an infamous slander,” Dryden sued Smith for damages. At a sensational trial in May 1897, his lawyers suggested that Smith had been drunk when he made his accusations, and when Smith was unable to show any proof, he was forced to withdraw his charge.

Dryden was vindicated but the case bruised his reputation and contributed to his defeat by Charles Calder in Ontario South in the provincial election of March 1898. Refusing to resign – he had been an mla for almost 20 years – he successfully challenged Calder’s election in the courts and won the resulting by-election. Calder in turn protested and unseated his opponent, precipitating a third election, in December 1899, which Dryden won. Encouraged by Conservative leader James Pliny Whitney*, Calder made still another effort to dislodge Dryden, but a lack of funds compelled him to drop the action. Once again Dryden had survived, but the contretemps, accompanied by rumours that he had bribed Calder to withdraw his protest, further sullied his reputation and that of the Liberal party. In spite of all this political turmoil, Dryden continued to maintain a high profile in North American agriculture, winning executive office in organizations such as the American Breeders’ Association. And as minister of agriculture he retained the respect of his contemporaries. He won re-election in 1902 but, along with his corruption-tainted party, lost in 1905.

After his defeat, Dryden moved from Brooklin to Toronto, establishing his residence near McMaster University. He remained active in its affairs until his final illness. As well, he was president of a number of insurance and savings companies, and in 1906 he was appointed to the imperial royal commission on agricultural conditions in Ireland. Dryden died in 1909 and was buried in the old Baptist cemetery north-east of Brooklin. He was survived by his wife and six children; his son, William Arthur, inherited Maple Shade Farm.

As a politician, John Dryden was notable for his longevity: he represented Ontario South for 26 years, 15 of them as minister of agriculture. His political success was largely due to his personality and character; even his antagonists could occasionally find kind words for him. As a Baptist he attended to his obligations to church and society assiduously. His foes suspected political motives and saw him as a sly opportunist who pretended more virtue than he possessed and whose piety was mere sanctimony. As one of them put it in the Oshawa Vindicator in 1897, “He can do the prayer meeting smile and engineer as slick a political deal as anyone.” But such partisan opinion can be discounted in the light of Dryden’s contributions to the Baptist church and McMaster. Furthermore, his encouragement of innovation in agriculture and his efforts to improve the quality of products were frequently praised in the press, sometimes by his political opponents. Dryden was thus a strong and effective minister of agriculture who deserves credit for devising and implementing policies that helped carry Ontario through the shock induced by American protectionism.

Ian M. Stewart

As commissioner of immigration for Ontario, John Dryden produced a revised edition of Ontario as a home for the British tenant farmer who desires to become his own landlord (Toronto, 1892) with David Spence, secretary of the Dept. of Immigration. Dryden’s publications also include three articles in the Ontario Agricultural College Rev. (Guelph, Ont.): “The future of sheep husbandry in Ontario,” 3 (1891–92): 65–68; “Breeding as a business,” 17 (1904–5): 9–14; and “What will the agricultural college do for the average young farmer?” 17: 275–79; and an address on the Canadian honey industry in the Annual report of the Bee-Keepers’ Assoc. of Ontario (Toronto), 1898: 47–49. His speech of 10 May 1893 opposing women’s suffrage appeared in the Globe for that date, and was also issued as a pamphlet, Womanhood suffrage . . . (Toronto, 1893).

AO, F 73; RG 22, ser.305, no.22214. Baptist cemetery (Whitby, Ont.), Tombstone inscriptions. NA, MG 29, D61: 2634–40. Evening Star (Toronto), 7–8 Sept. 1897. Farmers Advocate and Home Magazine, 5 Aug. 1909. Globe, 30 July 1909. A[rchibald] Blue, “John Dryden,” McMaster Univ. Monthly (Toronto), 2 (1892–93): 305–9 and photograph facing p.305. Canada and its prov. (Shortt and Doughty), 18: 572–75. Canadian annual rev. (Hopkins), 1903–5. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). C. L. Cleverdon, The woman suffrage movement in Canada, intro. Ramsay Cook (2nd ed., Toronto, 1974). J. A. Cooper, Men of Canada: a portrait gallery . . . (Montreal and Toronto, 1901–2). CPG, 1891. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charleworth), vol.1. J. E. Farewell, County of Ontario; short notes as to the early settlement and progress of the county . . . (Belleville, Ont., 1973), originally pub. with Ontario County, By-laws of the council . . . (Whitby, 1907). C. W. Humphries, “Honest enough to be bold”: the life and times of Sir James Pliny Whitney (Toronto, 1985). Illustrated historical atlas of the county of Ontario, Ont. (Toronto, 1877; repr. Belleville, 1972; also [Port Elgin, Ont.], 1972). L. A. Johnson, History of the county of Ontario, 1615–1875 (Whitby, 1973). D. A. Lawr, “The development of Ontario farming, 1870–1914: patterns of growth and change,” OH, 64 (1972): 239–51. Legislators and legislatures of Ont. (Forman). McMaster Univ. Monthly, issues for the 1890s-early 1900s, esp. 6 (1896–97): 1, 5; 10 (1900–1): 40, 116. Ont., Chief Election Officer, Hist. of electoral districts (1960); Legislature, Sessional papers, 1890–1905. Ontario agricultural commission, Report of the commissioners (4v., Toronto, 1881). Places in Ontario: their name origins and history, comp. Nick and Helma Mika (3v., Belleville, 1977–83), 1: 577–79. G. E. Reaman, A history of agriculture in Ontario (2v., Toronto, 1970), 2. A. M. Ross, The college on the hill: a history of the Ontario Agricultural College, 1874–1974 (Vancouver, 1974).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Ian M. Stewart, “DRYDEN, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dryden_john_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dryden_john_13E.html
Author of Article:   Ian M. Stewart
Title of Article:   DRYDEN, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   December 2, 2023