Whenever I say I’m from Tillsonburg, one of the first things people respond with is “Tillsonburg? My back still aches when I hear that word!” If you didn’t get this reference, I’m talking about a song that Stompin’ Tom wrote called Tillsonburg in 1967 about toiling away in the tobacco fields of Tillsonburg. If anything put Tillsonburg on the map- this song was it! While the tobacco industry has helped Tillsonburg’s economy since the 1800s, its major boom period was in the 1950s and 1960s as the Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Marketing Board was in full swing.
If you come to Tillsonburg, almost everybody has a tobacco connection. Although the crop is dying out now, almost everybody has a close relative who farmed the cash crop, a relative who worked on the board or both of these. For me, both sets of my grandparents ran tobacco farms. My aunt still works at the Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Board (which was established way back in the 1930s) and my grandpa was a member of the tobacco board for 29 years, sitting as chairman for 14 of these years. His time as chairman which extended much of the 1960s and 70s saw big changes for the industry and was a large part of my mother’s upbringing. It meant a lot of time with her dad gone away on business trips selling Canadian tobacco to foreign countries, the announcement of his election at the high school and even a couple bomb threats on the family home. It wasn’t just small town politics. In the 1960s the town (and outlying towns, most prominently, Delhi) revolved around the tobacco industry and George Demeyere was at the heart of it.
A photograph of my grandfather (George Demeyere) inspecting a tobacco field with his sharegrower, Dan Doneff, 1965.
Photocredit: Doug Galbraith, Simcoe Reformer
A couple of summers ago I interviewed my grandfather for a Living Memories project through the museum and it was clear from this interview that tobacco was still a huge part of his life. He still expresses a bit of bitterness towards the Ontario government which he felt phased out Ontario tobacco in the wrong kind of way- making it harder for local farmers to work their way into the market but opening it up freely for tobacco from other countries. This was an interesting thought as most of our focus with the tobacco industry is about health. It made me think twice about how we could continue to support Ontario farmers while simultaneously phasing out cigarettes. It is a research topic waiting to be explored. You can see a video that CBC has in their archives here on the topic.
From left to right: George Demeyere, Sir Alexander Maxwell, Lady Maxwell. Inspecting tobacco leaves in the Tillsonburg Auction Exchange Building. Date, photographer and newspaper unknown.
Looking back at Tillsonburg’s tobacco history proved very interesting but what was more fascinating to me was the politics of it all. For a small town, Tillsonburg had mega influence worldwide in the industry. This is only the start of it though. Tobacco changed the social culture of Tillsonburg in many different ways which I hope to explore further. It has been knit into the personal history of almost every resident.