People: Scots of Windsor's Past
Donald Cameron (1826-1909):
"The eager young Scot [Donald Cameron] was the personification of integrity."
~ Angus Munro [Windsor Daily Star, 18 April 1960]
Born in Lochielside-Lochabar to a long line of public servants and soldiers, this Highlander worked as a teacher in his local community for three years before getting a job with a draper's (dry-goods) store in Glasgow at the age of twenty-one. He moved to Nottingham, England, at the age of twenty-five to complete three more years of his apprenticeship, and married Catherine Campbell of Inverary at twenty-six. In 1854, the couple, which had only been married for two years, immigrated to Upper Canada. Cameron opened a small store with his savings in the little village of Blytheswood in Mersea Township, where he soon became the settlement's first postmaster.
Cameron came to Windsor in 1860 and opened a general store on the southeast corner of Ferry and Sandwich Streets (now Riverside Drive West). The sign he hung out front read simply, "D. Cameron, dry-goods." This one-man operation would eventually grow to become Windsor's most famous department store, Bartlett, MacDonald & Gow, and would remain in business for over a hundred years. Cameron, however, had another ambition, and would follow in the footsteps of his ancestors by becoming a public servant.
The American Civil War strengthened Cameron's devotion to British institutions and his sense of Canadian identity. He began his political career in 1865 when he was elected to Windsor's town council, and the following year he was elected to the school board. He served in this dual capacity as councilman and trustee for four years; his service on the school board extended an additional seventeen years, lasting until he returned to Scotland in 1887. His increasing interest in public affairs led to his ascension to the office of mayor in 1870 at the age of forty-four. The five years he spent in office taught him many lessons, including the city's dire need for a waterworks facility. On 12 October 1871, a fire broke out in William McGregor's livery stable and consumed the Windsor business block. Many establishments, including Cameron's drygoods store, were devastated; but the city could not afford to finance a project of such magnitude. So when Cameron made his annual trip to Scotland the following spring, he secured personal loans with his business partners there to fund a waterworks project for Windsor. The residents of Windsor celebrated his return from this trip with a lively parade.
These accomplishments, however, hardly speak to the kind of man Cameron was. Honest to a fault, his contemporaries held him in the utmost esteem. His integrity inspired others to demonstrate the best in their characters, and around town his word counted for more than another man's bond. "One man may, in his lifetime, so impress the people with his inherent honesty that they are willing to trust implicitly in his judgment and extend every-increasing patronage," remembered Windsor Star writer W. F. Duggan. 1
Cameron's personal demeanor guaranteed the store's wild success. Barely a year had passed before he found it necessary to take in a partner. John Thorburn, another Scottish immigrant, joined the operation in 1862. They moved the store next door to Windsor Castle and reopened under the name of Cameron & Thorburn. The two partners did business together for nine years until the Great Fire of 1871 devastated the store and much of its inventory. Cameron temporarily housed his store in the auditorium of the old town hall while he built a new store on the ruins of the old and reopened, but Thorburn elected to withdraw and instead opened a grocery store next door. Cameron operated the business alone until 1877, when he made George Bartlet, a senior clerk who had been with the firm since 1862, partner. Falling to ill health in 1887, he sold his remaining interests to Colin MacDonald and returned to his native Scotland. Cameron was given a large civic farewell in the town hall, which all municipal officials and community leaders attended "to pay honor to one of the town's most distinguished citizens." 2 He spent the rest of his years in Bridge-of-Allan, Stirlingshire, with his second wife and the extended family he had left behind almost half a century earlier.