HARRIS, JOHN, manufacturer; b. 21 July 1841 in Townsend Township, Norfolk County, Canada West, eldest son of Alanson Harris and Mary Morgan; m. October 1863 Jane Tufford of Beamsville, Canada West, and they had nine children; d. 25 Aug. 1887 at Brantford, Ont.
John Harris received his education at the Beamsville Grammar School and by working in his father’s sawmill at Whiteman Creek from an early age. When Alanson Harris sold the mill and in 1857 bought a small factory in Beamsville to manufacture farm tools, John was probably one of the five mechanics he employed. In 1863 Alanson took John into partnership as A. Harris and Son. A second son, Thomas, was to join the firm later.
As with the Massey family, it was the founder’s son who presided over the transformation of the firm from a primitive business into a large company manufacturing agricultural implements. In his history of the Massey-Harris firm, Merrill Denison* credits John Harris with establishing the association with D. M. Osborne and Company of Auburn, N.Y., which led to the Harris company’s manufacture under licence of the Kirby mower and the Kirby reel-rake reaper, its chief products in the 1860s and 1870s. An inventor himself, John Harris took out a number of patents on improvements to the firm’s machines. The most important of these were innovations in the design of self-binding harvesters. The Brantford binder (advertised as “The Little Brantford Beauty”) became one of the firm’s staple lines in the 1880s.
Having outgrown its Beamsville factory, the company had relocated in Brantford in 1872 and begun to use the trade name of A. Harris, Son and Company. By 1877 the firm’s capacity had to be doubled and in 1882 a new plant constructed. In 1883 approximately 4,500 mowers, reapers, and binders were produced; by 1887 the company was employing 300 men and was probably Canada’s second largest manufacturer of agricultural implements. Its agencies in western Canada dated from 1879 when branches were opened in Manitoba at Winnipeg, Emerson, and Portage la Prairie. It thus preceded the Massey Manufacturing Company in western expansion by a few years but in 1879 had only just begun to follow the larger firm into exporting.
As president of A. Harris, Son and Company (Limited), incorporated in 1881, John Harris became one of Brantford’s more prominent citizens. He was an alderman from 1881 to 1883, licence commissioner for South Brant for several years, and continually active in local Reform politics (at his death he was president of the Reform Association of South Brant, and it was thought he was on the verge of a political career). A devout Baptist, who at one time thought seriously of becoming a minister, he led one of the largest Bible classes in Brantford, served as president of the local Young Men’s Christian Association, and enjoyed discussing religion with his employees both on and off the job. The workers seem to have liked and respected the affable son, John, considerably more than the gruff, uneducated father, Alanson.
Already suffering from tuberculosis, John Harris contracted malaria while watching harvester trials in Texas in the spring of 1887. Two months later, in the words of a testimonial from his employees, “The Great Reaper . . . stepped in and silenced the active brain and life.”
Young men like Lyman Melvin Jones* and John’s son Lloyd were already active in the business and would become prominent in later years. But the loss of the managing heir to the company may well have influenced Alanson Harris’ decision to agree to merge with his larger competitor, the Massey Manufacturing Company, in 1891.
Massey-Ferguson Limited Arch. (Toronto), “A. Harris & Son Co.” (typescript, 1937); “In memory of John Harris . . .” (privately circulated memorial obituary, 1887). Brantford Weekly Expositor (Brantford, Ont.), 2, 9 Sept. 1887. Globe, 25 Aug. 1887. Merrill Denison, Harvest triumphant: the story of Massey-Harris (Toronto, 1948). The history of the county of Brant, Ontario . . . (Toronto, 1883).