John Miller/Thistle Ha’

Sources: Past Years in Pickering by Rev. William R. Wood. Published by William Briggs, Toronto, 1911.
County of Ontario – Short Notes as to the Early Settlement and Progress of the County and Brief References to the Pioneers and Some Ontario County Men who have taken a Prominent Part in Provincial and Dominion Affairs by J. E. Farewell. Published by Whitby Gazette-Chronicle Press, 1907.
Pickering 1911 centennial medal from Thistle Ha’ private collection.

This is the bicentennial year of the municipality of Pickering.

In 1791, British parliament divided the province of Quebec into two provinces named Upper Canada [Ontario] and Lower Canada [Quebec], and a surveyor was hired to mark townships east of Toronto along the north shore of Lake Ontario, including ones named Edinburgh [Whitby] and Glasgow [Pickering]. There is a record of a meeting held in March 1803 to choose town officers for Whitby and Pickering. For Pickering township alone, its first meeting was held on March 4, 1811.

Pickering’s first elected municipal council met in 1850. John Miller/Thistle Ha’ was very active in Pickering politics. He was elected deputy-reeve of Pickering for the years 1868-1873, and was Pickering’s reeve for the years 1875-1876, 1878-1882, 1888, 1890. He served as warden of Ontario County in 1876. The number of municipal council meetings was far fewer than today; in his 1870 diary, John Miller recorded seven Pickering township council meetings, usually held on Saturdays. He also had two Ontario county council meetings. Given the traveling distances for some members, county council met for several days at a time in Whitby.

This year, Pickering has planned numerous bicentennial events. There will be a display featuring the Miller family in the main Pickering library during the month of June, and Thistle Ha’ will participate in Pickering’s inaugural Doors Open event on October 1.

M. H. Cochrane

Senator M. H. Cochrane Photo credit:
William James Topley
© Public Domain
Library and Archives Canada

Matthew Henry Cochrane was a wealthy Montreal entrepreneur. In 1854, he founded a footwear manufacturing business, which quickly became one of the largest in Canada, with 300 employees and an annual revenue of approximately $8 million (in 2010 dollars). In 1864, he bought Hillhurst, a 750 acre (300 hectare) farm in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, near his childhood home of Compton, just north of the Vermont border. He used his wealth to stock his farm with the best purebred cattle, horses and sheep he could find in Canada and Great Britain, often paying unprecedented prices. Active in politics, Cochrane was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 1872. In search of the best livestock, in 1866 Cochrane attended the Provincial Exhibition in Hamilton, Ontario (later permanently located in Toronto and renamed the Canadian National Exhibition). There he purchased two first-prize Shorthorn cattle, including the heifer Snowdrop from John Miller/Thistle Ha’. Hugh Miller/Thistle Ha’ used to tell the story of John Miller’s trip to Hillhurst, but Duncan Marshall’s version is more detailed.
Source: Marshall, Duncan,
Shorthorn Cattle in Canada, pp. 71-72, Dominion Shorthorn Breeders’ Association, 1932.

After the [Provincial Exhibition 1866] show Mr. Cochrane visited Thistle Ha’ and stayed overnight.

When John Miller got up to light the fire the next morning, he heard some one chopping at the wood pile and went out to discover Mr. Cochrane splitting wood. To Mr. Miller’s query he replied that he usually got up early and liked some exercise.

Mr. Cochrane then bought a second heifer, Princess Luan =4360= [Canadian pedigree number], but in doing so he insisted that Mr. Miller go down to Hillhurst with the heifers and consult with Mr. Cochrane about care of his cattle. Mr Miller made the trip and when Mr. Cochrane took him out to the stables to see the beasts most of the mangers were half full of straw and meal, some of which was packed down and had soured. A Scottish cattle feeder like John Miller couldn’t abide such a condition and he informed Mr. Cochrane that the feed troughs of cattle should be kept clean and sweet, and if a beast failed to clean up its feed the residue should be removed, and less feed given at the next meal. Mr. Cochrane was always prompt in his actions and he immediately got a fork and shovel, gave one implement to Mr. Miller and the two of them cleaned out all the mangers before they quit. Evidently Mr. Cochrane was in favor of getting immediate action.

After some further discussion about the Shorthorns, Herefords, and Ayrshires that Mr. Cochrane then had on hand, the proprietor of Hillhurst remarked that what he needed was a capable man in charge of his herds, one who knew cattle and how to care for and feed them, and asked Mr Miller if he knew where he could find such a man.

John Miller promptly recommended Simon Beattie who was then working for [John Miller’s uncle] George Miller at Riggfoot [farm in Markham, Ontario], but who John Miller knew was capable of taking charge of a large enterprise. Little did he know, however, what the far reaching effect of his recommendation would be, as Simon Beattie’s knowledge of cattle provided the complement to Cochrane’s enterprise and command of credit to make purchases…

Simon Beattie moved to Hillhurst in 1867. Based on Beattie’s advice, Cochrane began a campaign to import the best Shorthorns available in Britain, paying a then world-record price of 1,000 guineas (approximately $100,000 in 2010 dollars) for one cow in 1868. Cochrane-Beattie were soon legendary in the livestock industry, but that’s another story.

John Miller often travelled with Cochrane and Beattie during livestock buying trips to Britain in the 1870s. Although he had the utmost confidence in Beattie’s judgement, Senator Cochrane clearly still valued a second opinion from John Miller.

Source: Pickering Township Oral History Project Interviews. Audio Reel
RG-17-44-0-10. Copyright 1972, Archives of Ontario. Used with permission.
As told by: Hugh Miller.

Stan Whiston and David Nasby of the Pickering Township Oral History Project interviewed Hugh Miller on June 21, 1972 about the houses built at Thistle Ha’. This recording is several copies removed from the original reel-to-reel tape, so the sound quality is poor.

It is said that John Miller remembered snow on the bed blankets on a few winter mornings when living in the log house.

Hugh Miller dug a 14-foot hole for the current cistern beside the east wall of the house. Curious about the depth of the stone foundation, he also dug an anchor-post hole beside the wall at the bottom of the excavation. He failed to reach the footings. So the stone wall extends at least 18 feet below ground.

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