What is a trailblazer? There are many definitions of the word, some of them overly literal and others frustratingly vague, but the general consensus is this; a trailblazer is a person who innovates, invents, or improves the world around around them. Trailblazers impact their society in ways that others haven’t been able to. They are innovators, usually leaving the world around them a better place.
Three examples of trailblazers in Canadian history are Harold Henry Hilborn, the owner of the first Chevrolet dealership in Canada, P.L. Robertson, the inventor of the Robertson screwdriver (the square one), and Ernest Roy Best, who patented significant improvements to the potato harvester.
Robertson Screwdriver, DCMA Collection: A217-061
The above artifact a Robertson screwdriver. It is one of a large collection of tools and wooden tool chest that once belonged to Mr. Harold Henry Hilborn.
Mr. Hilborn was a farmer until 1902, when a threshing accident caused him to lose his right forearm. Although Mr. Hilborn was fitted with a prosthetic arm, it was difficult to continue farming. Forging ahead, despite obstacles, Mr. Hilborn ended up becoming a car salesman. On August 29, 1915 he opened the first Chevrolet dealership to Canada in Grand Valley, Ontario.
Mr. Hilborn sold anywhere from 16 to 50 vehicles in a year and held control over his Grand Valley Chevrolet dealership for 52 years, winning the award for Longest Running GM Dealership in Canada.
The following infographic shows growth in the automobile industry during the time that Mr. Hilborn owned and operated his Chevrolet dealership.
On top of running his dealership, Mr. Hilborn entered local politics in service of his community. Mr. Hilborn held a variety of roles throughout his political career such as Warden of Dufferin County in 1919, first East Luther Road Superintendent in 1925, and was appointed by the Dominion Governor to be the Official Registrar under the Farmer’s Credit Act in 1938. Mr. Hilborn oversaw 456 farms in the next three years; all while holding the title of Clerk of East Luther from 1929 to 1951, and overseeing his Chevrolet dealership.
In the face of adversity, Mr. Hilborn forged ahead, creating a prosperous future for himself and his family, putting Dufferin County on the map, and giving back to his community. For this reason, he is a great example of a local trailblazer.
One tool that allowed Mr. Hilborn to do his job, and serve his community was the humble Robertson screwdriver. A basic, but essential tool in Mr. Hilborn’s tool chest. It might surprise you to know that this humble tool has an important place in Canadian history.
Peter L. Robertson of Milton, Ontario was an inventor who is credited with improvements to cufflinks, braces, and even a mousetrap. It was an injury while demonstrating a spring-lock driver at an exhibition in Montreal that inspired Mr. Robertson to devise a safer and more efficient screw and driver.
The Robertson screw kit was patented in 1909 and immediately revolutionized the construction industry due to its design. Its use and popularity quickly became widespread throughout Canada, especially as the result of a government contract with the army during World War II.
Mr. Robertson’s design, however, remains distinctly Canadian as it is all but unknown to our neighbours to the South (the United States). Robertson had many potential buyers to his patent and many chomping at the bit (pun intended) to license his design, including the Ford Company. Robertson, however, was determined to maintain control over his design, patent and manufacturing. So, despite being called “The Biggest Little Invention of the 20th Century” by the New York Times, the Robertson screw and screwdriver set is uniquely Canadian and a design we call our own.
The Best Potato Harvester, DCMA Collection P-2389 I and J
Photos shown above is of Ernest Roy Best’s potato harvester, circa 1920. Roy Best was born February 22, 1894 to George and Mary J. Best (nee Henderson) of Whitfield, Mulmur Township. He married Catherine Welsh on July 5, 1922 and had one son, Frank. Roy, as he was known to everyone, dedicated his life to farming and his community. He passed away February 15, 1969 and rests in Shelburne Cemetery.
The Best family was not unique in their occupation; there were, and still are, many potato farms in Dufferin County. The potato harvester was an essential tool that allowed farmers to remove potatoes from the ground efficiently, reducing work time and increasing yield.
As useful as the potato harvester was, Roy Best was not satisfied, and sought to make improvements to the machine. His idea was to add an extension to the conveyor of a standard potato harvester. This attachment allowed the potatoes to be more effectively sifted to remove plant matter and dirt. This allowed potatoes to be bagged right in their field by way of an attached bagging platform. His machine supposedly allowed a harvest of 500 bags of potatoes per day (50-100 bags more than previous models). His machine was patented on July 25, 1944.
Dufferin County has a long history of farming, especially potatoes, making the potato harvester particularly relevant to the region. Dufferin County’s climate is ideal for growing potatoes due to warm days, cool nights and high elevation. The longevity of local farming businesses confirm potatoes are an enduring crop.
The history of the potato in Dufferin County dates to the arrival of the first European settlers. Potatoes were a familiar crop and in most cases, they found that potatoes were easier to grow and cultivate than other popular crops (i.e. wheat). As such, potatoes have played an important role in the agrciultural economy and food culture of Dufferin County residents.
Many early Dufferin County farmers, including Best and his family, were of Irish descent. Ireland had been quick to accept the potato for its ease of cultivation and its value in reducing famine — a common affliction prior to the potato’s introduction. Ironically, however, the Irish became so dependent on potatoes that the potato blight outbreak of the 1840s caused widespread famine. Crop failures combined with other factors such as a decline in the linen industry, left many people impoverished and in search of a better life. Many came to North America, bringing their knowledge of potato farming with them.
Native to South America, potatoes were brought to Europe by Spanish explorers. Europeans, however, were wary of the potato, believing it was the creation of witches and devils since it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. As such, for many centuries, the potato was considered unfit for human consumption, and was fed almost exclusively to animals.
Eventually, views began to change. The occurrence to food shortages caused people to give the potato a chance. In several European cities, government campaigns were established to encourage potato cultivation and consumption. Frederick the Great of Prussia ordered a potato patch be planted and then guarded to trick the peasants into believing they were valuable enough to steal and plant in their gardens; his plan worked. The potato began to spread in popularity.
Through European colonization, the potato made the journey to North America in the early 1600s, but it was about 100 years before potato patches were being regularly cultivated. The potato reached Upper Canada (Ontario) via French settlers and Loyalists during the late 1700s. Since its arrival, potatoes have become a staple Canadian food, providing nutrition and numerous health benefits. They are Ontario’s favourite vegetable and a lucrative billion dollar industry in Canada.
In addition to being a dietary staple, potatoes are useful in everyday life. They can be used to absorb salt, remove rust, and polish silver. Potatoes have become integrated in modern culture with the iconic Mr. Potato Head, and the ever popular potato chip.
In summation, Roy Best’s potato harvester demonstrates the importance of the potato to Dufferin County and Canada, both past and present. The potato has impacted the economy, culture, and ethnic origins of Dufferin County and Canada. The potato harvester was a significant advancement in farming technology, having allowed farmers to increase work efficiency and crop yeild. For this reason, it can be said that Roy Best, the potato harvester, and the potato itself are all trailblazers.
As trailblazers, H.H. Hilborn, Peter L. Robertson and Ernest Roy Best were innovators — inspired to go where others had not, invent or improve technologies. They made improvements that helped make their lives and the lives of others better. Their efforts have had a lasting and significant impact that is truly inspirational.