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Remember This? From farmer to cabinet minister

James Lyons left his mark on Sault Ste. Marie through his businesses and his political accomplishments
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2002.9.84
A sign on the side of a barn advertises Lyons Hardware. Sault Ste. Marie Public Library archive photo

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

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Remember This? . . . The Honourable James Lyons

James Lyons was born on August 26, 1878 in Virginia, Ontario near Lake Simcoe to James and Sarah Ann Horner. He was the eldest son in a family of 13 children. He began school at the age of seven but he had to quit when he was nine, after only attending for two years, so that he could help with the family farm and butcher shop.

In 1898, Lyons married Angelina Hodgson. By that time, at the age of 20, Lyons was already the manager of a 400-acre farm. According to a Sault Star article from 1947, Lyons moved to Sault Ste. Marie in 1900 because he learned that “a man could get $1.50 a day for 12 hours. (He) was determined to hit for the Sault and make (his) fortune.” At the time, Lyons was working much more than 12 hours on the farm and was making $325 for a whole year.

Lyons’ first job in Sault Ste. Marie was in the Lake Superior Corporation’s newly formed pulp mill and he worked there for three months. Finding the conditions very wet and warm, he requested to be transferred to another area of the mill but the management chose to fire him instead!

He got a job in the steel plant as a mason’s helper and spent the next two years learning everything he could about the trade. In 1903, he began to work on the construction of the new Reduction Works. He then went on to work for the company and within three months became Superintendent of Operations. Unfortunately the company closed in 1904 due to financial problems experienced by its’ financial backers.

Between 1905 and 1912, Lyons bought and sold several businesses including a Steelton butcher shop, a grocery store, a men’s boot and shoe store, and an insurance, real estate and loan firm. With this extensive business background Lyons established the Lyons Fuel and Supply Company Limited in 1912. It included a hardware sales firm and a building and contracting firm and Lyons continued as both president and general manager until he died.

Lyons began his political career when he was elected alderman for Ward 1 in the town of Steelton and served from 1906-1908. In the next election he successfully ran for mayor of Steelton and served from 1908-1911.

When he became mayor, the town of Steelton was experiencing some financial debt. After getting permission from the town council, James Lyons met with W.H. Plummer. It was reported that after a 10 minute meeting, Mayor Lyons was able to sell $25,000 in debentures to Mr. Plummer. He received the money from this sale and deposited it into the town’s bank account, immediately bringing Steelton into a much healthier financial position!

During his four years as mayor of Steelton, the town made many modern improvements including municipally-owned water, an electric lighting system and the first concrete pavement in Northern Ontario.

After the amalgamation of Steelton and Sault Ste. Marie in 1918, Lyons served as a Sault Ste. Marie City Council Alderman in 1922 and 1923. He was elected as a Member of the Ontario Legislature under the Conservative Party in 1923 for the Sault Ste. Marie riding. Within a month he was appointed to be the Minister of Lands and Forests.

In his role as Minister, he was able to bring many changes and improvements to the area. Some of these improvements included the re-routing of the Trans-Canada highway through Sault Ste. Marie, the development of gravel highways around the Sault area, the installment of a large storm sewer in Korah Township, the construction of roadways in the mining area north of Sault Ste. Marie, the passing of an act which enabled the Department of Lands and Forests to pay fifty percent of the cost of any road going through a Northern Ontario town and the establishment of a government air service to detect forest fires.

He resigned as Cabinet Minister in March of 1926 due to his role as president of Lyons Fuel & Supply Company creating a conflict of interest for him.

He was elected mayor of Sault Ste. Marie in 1932 and served the city as mayor until 1934. During the 1930s James Lyons erected a dining hall and tents on his cottage property outside of the city. Groups of boys from area schools and churches were given the opportunity during the Depression years to have a summer holiday.

Lyons was a member of Keystone Lodge A.F. & A. M., Bessemer Lodge, I.O.O.F., Morning Star, L.O.L. and C.O.F. He was also a member of the John Street United Church.

James Lyons died on September 10, 1947 at the age of 69, leaving behind six children, Harry C. Lyons (who also went on to serve as a Member of Parliament), William H. Lyons, Earl J. Lyons, Winfield Lyons, Hilda M. Lyons and Phyllis L. Lyons. In 1957, the Board of Education named a school (James Lyons Public School) after him in recognition of his many contributions to the Sault Ste. Marie area.

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Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at www.ssmpl.ca and look for more Remember This? columns here