The McLaughlin’s were a powerful family, that much is certain. Their history is filled with triumphs and sorrows, just like any other family. The same can be said of their home, Parkwood Estate.
Today Parkwood is used as a tourist attraction, as well as a place to film movies, such as X-Men and Billy Madison.
But before that, it was home to one of the most influential families in Oshawa’s history: the McLaughlin family.
Robert Samuel McLaughlin, the patriarch, and his wife Adelaide, along with their five daughters, resided at the sprawling estate located near what are now Simcoe and Adelaide streets.
According to the family’s official website, Sam, as he preferred to be called, only joined his father’s business, alongside his older brother George, after he had spent time outside of Oshawa.
According to the Parkwood website, during his time away, Sam gained experience in the “manufacture of vehicles, working in Watertown, Syracuse, and Binghamton, New York.”
Upon his 21st birthday, Sam and his brother were made partners at McLaughlin Carriage Works, which had become the largest carriage company in the British Empire. Sam was then named the chief designer of all carriages and sleighs.
However, Sam’s attention was pulled elsewhere, as the automobile had begun to make its rise in popularity.
“He and his brother George persuaded their father that the future of the firm lay in motor car production,” the Parkwood website reads.
In 1908, Sam sold his company and was named the president of the Canadian operation, and vice president of the parent corporation, with his brother, George, being named vice president of the Canadian operation.
In their first attempt at making a unique and original motorcar of their own, the McLaughlin Motor Car Company failed due to the chief engineer on the project falling ill.
Fortunately, their second attempt at making a unique vehicle that was all their own was a success, and the McLaughlin-Buick began production in 1908.
The vehicle itself was made and designed in Canada, and it used an engine that was supplied by American company Buick.
“The arrangement was brokered through an agreement with Sam’s friend William Durant, one of the original ‘architects’ of General Motors,” reads the website.
It was then in 1915, that a similar arrangement was reached to begin production of Chevrolets.
After the deal with Buick reached its end, the thriving McLaughlin Motor Car Company suddenly had no way to replace them. It was then they decided to join forces with the brand new General Motors (GM) Company, and an Oshawa legend was created.
The move ensured the long-term success of the McLaughlin Motor Car Company, and guaranteed that production would remain in Oshawa for some time.
Sam would remain president until 1945 when he stepped down and was named chairman of the board, a position he held until the day he died in 1972.
However, Sam was a businessman, and people often forget that, according to Samantha George, the curator of the Parkwood Estate.
When GM workers went on strike in 1937, it was not taken kindly by the company.
“Sam was a business figure, and like many of his contemporaries, he didn’t want unions in General Motors of Canada,” George recalls.
George says this was a fact that was long ignored, as she says, “For years and years, Parkwood failed to chat about the 1937 GM strike and Sam’s role in trying to bust the strike and union. That is not something that we should shrink away from.”
“It’s historic fact too, and offers insight into labour history as well as telling the richer story of Oshawa society at the time,” she says.
The 4,000 workers who participated in the strike were asking for an eight hour work-day, better wages, better working conditions, a seniority system, as well as recognition of their union, United Automobile Workers. This final demand was what caused the strike.
Despite the strike, “[Sam’s] efforts to keep organized labour out failed,” says George.
GM’s Canadian headquarters still remains in Oshawa to this day, and is, in fact, a unionized work place. It can be found at 1908 Colonel Sam Drive.
Before the strike, and before he joined his father’s company, Sam met Adelaide Louise Mowbray in February 1898. The two were married on the Mowbray family farm, and then honeymooned in New York.
Adelaide herself was born in 1875 in Kinsale, Ontario to Ralph Mowbray and Victoria Nutting.
Adelaide’s mother was able to trace their lineage all the way back to the famed ship, the Mayflower.
Adelaide would attend teachers college in Ottawa, and after graduating, Adelaide would go on to become a schoolteacher in Whitby.
One day while attending church, a chance meeting would change her life forever when Sam noticed her singing in the choir.
According to the Parkwood website, when asked about the day he met his wife, Sam said, “The only person I really saw in the church that day was a vision of beauty in the choir.”
After only two dates, Sam and Adelaide were head-over-heels in love and he asked her to marry him. They were married in 1898, and subsequently moved into their new home on King Street. Adelaide would leave her job as a schoolteacher behind.
They were quick to start a family with their first daughter, Eileen, born in 1898.
Eileen would then be followed by Mildred in 1900, Isabel in 1903, Hilda in 1905 and, finally, Eleanor in 1908.
At the time of their marriage, Sam was still working for his father. However, 10 years later, Sam and George began the automobile business alongside their father.
However, Adelaide would not simply be outdone by her husband and let him do all of the work.
“Women like Adelaide were not satisfied to stay at home,” reads the website. “She used her skills and societal influence in creating ways to benefit society through charitable work.”
While her husband was a businessman, Adelaide was a philanthropist.
The Oshawa General Hospital was very important to her, as she helped in seeing the hospital opened in 1910, only two years after giving birth to their youngest child, Eleanor.
Adelaide also became the first president of the hospital’s Ladies Auxiliary, and she would hold onto that position until her death in 1958.
She would use a fundraising technique that was called the ‘Talent Dollar project’ according to the website. With this technique, she would take one dollar from the treasury, and she would give it to a member of the Ladies Auxiliary and tell them to “make it grow.”
The website says that the profits from this would range anywhere from one dollar to $90.
Adelaide was also very active in the Girl Guide Association, an organization that still exists to this day and helps young girls to feel empowered in a safe environment.
Together, Sam and Adelaide donated the white Guide House to the association in 1948, which it owned until 2014.
According to the Oshawa Museum, Adelaide was also a big supporter of several other organizations, such as the YWCA, the Ontario Historical Society, Women’s Welfare League, Victorian Order of Nurses, and many others.
Adelaide also served as the honorary president of the Canadian Home and School and Parent-Teacher Federation.
However, Adelaide’s life wasn’t all about charity work, as she also adored golf. She was the president of the Canadian Women’s Golf Association from 1937 to 1956. She was also a lifelong member of the Toronto Ladies Golf and Tennis Club, as well as the Seigniory Club in Quebec.
Adelaide also enjoyed beating her husband at billiards, and would spend her nights either doing needlepoint, or playing Scrabble and bridge.
“She was a fierce competitor who insisted on collecting any bets – no matter how small,” reads the Parkwood website.
Another aspect of the world that Adelaide adored was flowers. Over her life, she studied them and grew to become an expert on them.
Due to her love of flowers, some Parkwood rooms that were particularly important to her were the gardens and greenhouses on the property.
Adelaide was the hostess of the annual Chrysanthemum Tea at Parkwood Estate, an event that would attract approximately 800 people every year.
Adelaide died in 1958 at the age of 83, while Sam died when he was 100. Their five daughters, who have all since passed, survived them. Isabel was the last surviving child of the pair and she died in 2002 at the age of 99.
“Several generations of locals revered and almost conferred sainthood onto Sam McLaughlin, forgetting that although he was generous and a remarkable figure, he was human, and both sides must be interpreted,” says George.
From George’s point of view, it must be remembered that, while Sam had a positive impact on Oshawa that is still felt to this day, he also made questionable choices, such as his decision to not support the workers during the GM strike in 1937.
Sam and Adelaide’s presence is still felt in Oshawa to this day. There are public schools named after them, as well as streets and museums. And GM is still a mainstay in the Oshawa community and economy.
The Parkwood Estate still stands to this day as well, and will be explored in part two of this series next week.
BEHIND THE WRITING
By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express
When I started writing about Parkwood Estate and the McLaughlin family, I have to be honest, I knew absolutely nothing about them.
I’m not from Durham, and right now I live in Pickering, so for myself, the McLaughlin’s were simply the ones who owned the mansion where the first X-Men was filmed. Which in itself was still pretty cool.
Originally this was only supposed to be a one-part story, but when I started reading and learning about them, the McLaughlin’s became infinitely more interesting to me, and I realized that it needed to be split into two.
See, I have a Bachelors in history, and when I start learning about anything of historical significance, I can get a little lost in it.
When I found out that R.S. McLaughlin had tried to squash the strike in 1937 I was shocked, but then I remembered when it took place and how business owners at the time were doing it everywhere. It was how it worked at the time.
However, for me the most interesting part was learning about Adelaide.
When you talk to people around Oshawa and the rest of Durham, you always hear about how much Sam did for the city and the region, but you don’t always hear about Adelaide.
When I found out that she had a hand in opening the city’s hospital, along with so much other charity work, I wanted to tell her story. Everything she’d done was just as important for the City of Oshawa, but in the end it’s overshadowed because she was a woman.
Her story deserves to be told.
I ran into some trouble while writing the story because they’re filming a movie at Parkwood Estate, so I wasn’t able to visit and take photos.
Fortunately, Samantha George, the curator at Parkwood Estate, was gracious enough to send me photos of the building and of the McLaughlin’s themselves.
For the history buff in me, learning about the McLaughlin’s is an adventure I’m looking forward to as I now begin to explore the history of the place they called home.