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MILLS, JAMES, educator and office holder; b. 24 Nov. 1840 near Bond Head, Upper Canada, son of John Mills and Ann Stinson; m. 6 July 1869 Jessie Ross (d. 1919) in Cobourg, Ont., and they had five daughters and two sons; d. 4 Dec. 1924 in Ottawa.

The eldest of ten children of parents from County Fermanagh (Northern Ireland), James Mills worked on his father’s farm until the age of 20, when he lost his right arm in a threshing machine accident. With physical labour out of the question, he began his education. He went to the Bradford grammar school, graduated in 1868 from Victoria College in Cobourg with the Prince of Wales Medal for proficiency, and became a teacher. In 1871, during his time as classical master at the Cobourg Collegiate Institute, he earned an ma from Victoria. It was at Brantford High School, which he served as principal for six years and raised to collegiate status, that his excellence as an educator became evident. When the position of principal at the Ontario School of Agriculture and Experimental Farm near Guelph became vacant in 1879, the government approached him.

Mills accepted, but the school was a troubled institution: it had had three principals since its founding in 1874 [see William Johnston*]. Drawing no respect from the farming community and fractured by a division of responsibility between the experimental farm and the school, it was barely surviving. Mills undertook the job with a great capacity for work  he also taught English literature and political economy and ran the library. After the school’s formal incorporation in 1880 as the Ontario Agricultural College and Experimental Farm, by which change Mills became “president,” it began a period of growth, due largely to his activism. In speeches and articles he tirelessly promoted agricultural education, especially its introduction into public and normal schools. In 1904, on his retirement and succession by George Christie Creelman, the Farming World and Canadian Farm and Home (Toronto) would recognize his contribution in safely piloting the OAC “through many and trying difficulties” over a 25-year period. Although Mills had instituted many changes during this time, three accomplishments stand out.

By making the farming community aware of the college’s values, Mills won a degree of agrarian support and defused criticism in the agricultural press [see William Weld*]. About 1884, at the request of the Council of the Agricultural and Arts Association, he prepared a program of study for farmers’ sons. In 1885 he established the Farmers’ Institute system, through which experts from the college took information straight to the farmers. In addition, the institute lobbied for the greater recognition of agriculture at Queen’s Park, specifically for the creation of a department of agriculture [see Charles Alfred Drury*]. Mills would run this system until 1894, when the government took over responsibility. In 1891 he put in place the mechanisms for the travelling dairies conceived by agriculture minister John Dryden*. Mills believed in instruction through experience, but as an educator he emphatically argued, unlike the agrarian press, that farmers needed more than manual training. He championed the merger of scientific and practical agriculture, to which end a degree program had been initiated in 1888 following affiliation with the University of Toronto. One graduate, future premier Ernest Charles Drury*, recalled that Mills “impressed upon us that our part was to go back to the farm and there to become leaders in our communities in the introduction of advanced farming practices.”

The second achievement was overcoming the fractured relationship between the college and the experimental farm. When Mills assumed the principalship, William Brown, a professor of agriculture, was in charge of the farm and he reported not to Mills but to the government. Though it tried to give Mills overall responsibility in 1887, the shift was not enforced: Brown’s successor, Thomas Shaw, openly ignored the attempt. Mills managed to make this almost impossible situation work; he even collaborated with Shaw in producing a textbook, The first principles of agriculture (Toronto, 1890). The issue came to a head in 1893, when, as Mills put it, “the Government finally had the courage to give the President full control” [see John Dryden].

Mills’s third accomplishment was the establishment of a school of domestic science for young women at the OAC. Interested, as a father of five daughters, in education for women, he had stated as early as 1880 that he had no objection in theory to educating boys and girls together. When Sir William Christopher Macdonald* of Montreal announced that he wished to establish a domestic science school in Ontario, Mills pressed the wealthy philanthropist to endow his college but failed to achieve this goal. Undaunted, he asked Adelaide Sophia Hoodless [Hunter*] and others to intervene, and in 1903 the Macdonald Institute of Home Economics opened its doors.

During his time at the OAC, Mills had many interests, most of which focused on education and science. He belonged to the Guelph Choral Union and the Guelph Scientific Society during the 1880s, and was a member of the Norfolk Street Methodist Church. From 1890 to 1910 he was a regent of Victoria University, which awarded him a lld in 1892; for 16 years he sat on its senate and on that of the University of Toronto. Elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1895, he followed agricultural education internationally and travelled extensively to study colleges in the United States and Europe. In 1899 he was named to the commission formed in Ontario to examine the problem of the San Jose scale insect, which attacked fruit trees [see James Fletcher*].

In January 1904 Mills was appointed to the newly created Board of Railway Commissioners in Ottawa [see Albert Clements Killam*]. He had little knowledge of transportation and regulatory problems, but it was believed that he could speak for the farming community. He learned as he criss-crossed Canada on hearings. Unafraid to render vigorous dissenting opinions, often based on broad, anti-monopolistic views of the public interest, he served until 1914, when his age forced him to step down. He nonetheless continued to aid the commission unofficially as its librarian and supervisory officer until his death. While living in Ottawa, Mills also took part in reunions of OAC graduates and gave speeches at agricultural events. Beloved by those with any attachment to the college, he died in 1924 and was buried in Guelph.

Margaret Derry

James Mills’s reports as president of the Ontario Agricultural College and Experimental Farm for the years 18801903 appear in Ont., Legislature, Sessional papers. An address by Mills, “The Ontario Agricultural College and Experimental Farm for a quarter of a century,” was published in the annual report of the Agricultural and Experimental Union of Ontario for 1899, in Sessional papers, 1900, no.15: 6374; other addresses by Mills appear in the reports of the livestock associations of Ontario, in Sessional papers, 1910, no.39: 14445 and 1912, no.39: 4043.

AO, RG 22-354, no.12003; RG 80-5-0-2, no.1488. Univ. of Guelph Library, Arch. and Special Coll. (Guelph, Ont.), RE1, OAC, A0095 (ex-students of OAC, 187499); A0852 (Takeo Nomura, corr. concerning N. Kobayashi, 199193). Ottawa Evening Journal, 56, 8 Dec. 1924. Christopher Armstrong and H. V. Nelles, Monopoly’s moment: the organization and regulation of Canadian utilities, 18301930 (Philadelphia, 1986). J. E. Bryant, “The Farmers’ Institute system of Ontario,” Farming (Toronto), November 1896: 190212. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). A career of eminent service in education and agriculture, in spite of a serious handicap and many discouraging circumstances: a few facts gleaned from the life and career of James Mills, m.a., ll.d., October, 1917 (Toronto, 1917). Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.1. Farm and Dairy (Peterborough, Ont.), 19 Jan. 1911: 12; 14 Dec. 1911: 1202. Farming World and Canadian Farm and Home (Toronto), 18 Dec. 1900: 372; 15 April 1903: 208; 1 Sept. 1903: 58283; 1 Feb. 1904: 9495; 15 Feb. 1904: 135; 1 March 1904: 174; 2 Jan. 1905. D. A. Lawr, “Development of agricultural education in Ontario, 18701910” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1972). O.A.C. Rev. (Guelph), July 1891; December 1895; November 1900; January 1902; February 1904; January 1905; January, June 1908; December 1909; December 1911; March 1913; March 1915; August 1918; January 1925; June 1928. Ontario agricultural commission, Report of the commissioners (4v., Toronto, 1881), 4, app.P: 314. A. M. Ross, The college on the hill: a history of the Ontario Agricultural College, 18741974 (Vancouver [and Guelph], 1974). A. M. Ross and T. [A.] Crowley, The college on the hill: a new history of the Ontario Agricultural College, 18741999 (2nd ed., Toronto, 1999).

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Cite This Article

Margaret Derry, “MILLS, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mills_james_15E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mills_james_15E.html
Author of Article:   Margaret Derry
Title of Article:   MILLS, JAMES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   October 1, 2023