Enterprising Alfred Hunt launched private bank
By J. Patrick Boyer
Early Muskokans were cash strapped.
"There is little money in Muskoka,” wrote a settler at Barlochan to her family in England, repeating a common refrain. Perhaps that explains why, even by the 1880s when settlement, commerce and manufacturing were strong across Muskoka, not a single “national” bank had a branch in the District. Those banks, protected and privileged since Confederation as Schedule “A” banks under the Bank Act, enjoyed easier profits elsewhere and failed to see Muskoka’s potential.
Fortunately, that era’s self-starting Muskokans refused to let others decide their fate. Homesteaders, frustrated at not getting a government bridge over the Muskoka River, built it themselves. Farmers, unable to grow crops on rocky fields, instead pastured milk cows and grazed sheep on them and prospered supplying Muskoka’s dairies, cheese factories, woollen mills, leather tanneries and meat markets. That same “can do” spirit inspired Bracebridge’s Alfred Hunt to open a private bank for the community’s unmet financial needs.
By the 1880s, Bracebridge boasted more than a thousand inhabitants. The village hummed with small factories. Services ranged from livery stables to print shops, mills and transshipment operations to hotel accommodations and stores, one of them a general store owned and operated by Alfred Hunt and James Clerihue. Most of these businesses needed assistance with financial requirements but for bank service, owners had to journey to Orillia, Barrie or Toronto. From at least the early 1880s, these twin money problems in Muskoka – lack of currency that created a barter economy which constrained commerce and neglectful absence of the hinterland by Canada’s big banks – led Alfred Hunt to extend personal loans to individuals he judged to be making sound investments in the community which in turn provided jobs and contributed to economic growth.
By 1884, he formalized these financing services by opening Muskoka’s first bank on Bracebridge’s Manitoba Street. Prominent in a red brick building on a principal thoroughfare, Hunt’s Bank did more than provide essential service. Customers valued the convenience of local banking and the security of not having to transmit money through the postal service.
The Government of Canada, under sway of the Schedule A charter banks from opening day of Confederation, had taken a pass on establishing convenient and reliable post office banking service, in the pattern of European countries, despite its existing network of local post offices throughout the country. Muskoka’s only bank, this private one used by farmers and logging companies, millers and contractors, was thus vital to the District’s surge in industrial and economic development.
Hunt’s Bank was as welcoming a place as his general store. He and his bank clerk T.H. Pringle knew customers by name. With Bracebridge also Muskoka’s capital, the land registry office, District Court and other government services brought lawyers, conveyancers and those with public business to town. They, too, made good use of Hunt’s Bank, including its safekeeping service for valuable documents. Muskokans confidently opened accounts, made deposits, obtained loans, secured money orders and lodged documents in the safe.
As his bank grew busier, Hunt moved into larger premises. He left the heavy safe in the basement of his first bank building, not because he was giving up safekeeping operations, but expanding them. In his new 1893 purpose-built structure at 34 Manitoba Street, a large walk-in safe was built into the basement bedrock.
It was more than fitting that a piece of land should be nicknamed for Hunt. He was dealing in real estate all the time, alongside Bracebridge’s other major property players, Hiram McDonald and William Holditch. When property values were assessed to compute municipal taxes, these men crowded the court of revision. One year, Hunt launched 21 appeals against his assessments – most on technical grounds of some error in description or ownership, but pretext enough to get the assessment reconsidered and, in the process, reduced.
Alfred Hunt didn’t just show up in the Town Hall to seek assessment reductions. He was often present at the council table and, at times, in the reeve’s chair or the mayor’s office – as of right. The merchant, banker, musician, realtor had first been elected a Bracebridge councillor in 1877. He was again on council in 1882.
In that era of effective democratic accountability, citizens across Ontario voted on their municipal councils’ performance every 12 months – each year’s council elected, fittingly, on New Year’s Day. On January 1, 1884, the same year he launched his private bank, Alfred Hunt was elected reeve, an office to which he was also re-elected in 1885.
In 1889 with growing Bracebridge now incorporated as a town, and for the next three years, he’d easily won re-election as a councillor. He was so popular and so connected with the community through his bank that in 1893, Hunt ran for mayor and won. Though re-elected mayor in 1894, and again in 1895, demands of his banking business and real estate transactions caused him to gear down to a seat on council in each of the next three years, while Singleton Brown, owner of a shingle mill in town and a Hunt Bank customer, occupied the mayor’s chair instead.
Alfred Hunt was politically active in the community and when it came to provincial and federal elections, he sided with Conservatives. Back in 1878, when F.T. Graffe and Harry Oaten launched a newspaper called the Muskoka Herald, their weekly not only emphasized a district-wide focus as its name made clear but, unlike the Gravenhurst Banner, Bracebridge Gazette and Huntsville Forester, it alone supported the Conservative cause.
First copies of the Muskoka Herald came off the press on Thursday evening, April 11. Many Tories showed up to support a paper they could believe in. Sam Armstrong, businessman and later mayor, auctioned off two or three dozen of the first Muskoka Heralds as they came off the press – the first to Alfred Hunt on his bid of $25. (At the time, his stipend as Bracebridge treasurer, for the entire year, was $15.) Other bidding reached $15 or $10, large amounts which only the bravura of an auction among close acquaintances was capable of generating. That night’s haul, for a paper selling on the street at 2¢ a copy, helped Graffe and Oaten keep the Muskoka Herald afloat through its start-up year; it would not fail with Alfred Hunt around.
Another way Hunt imprinted himself on the Muskoka community was the picturesque way he meshed farm and town life. Poultry in a large shed behind his home not only provided a source of eggs and chickens for family eating but fed his fervour as a competitive breeder. Under Hunt’s leadership, the Bracebridge Poultry Association became an active concern. Its annual highlight was a December bird show in the Town Hall.
Poultry Association members and their show birds converted the council chamber into a chaotic barnyard scene of feathers, sawdust, straw, cages, prize ribbons, crowing and loud clucking. Additional breeders arrived from Midland, Orillia and Huntsville with caged poultry of exotic varieties enlarging this gaggle of exhibitors and heightening levels of excitement and noise in Bracebridge’s municipal headquarters.
Alfred Hunt, instigator of it all, was an ardent competitor in this field. Year after year, he consistently entered far more birds than anyone else, not hard because his hatchery and hen house were but three blocks away. One year he had 43 birds in the show, netting many red, blue and white ribbons.
On the 1897 bright spring morning of May 27, bank clerk T.H. Pringle arrived at Hunt’s Bank to open for the day. Stepping in the doorway, he was stunned to be greeted by the strong odour of gunpowder. The building had been entered during the night. Racing to the basement, he found the vault’s heavy steel door open. A hole had been drilled through it and the combination lock blasted off.
The blood drained from Alfred Hunt’s face as he soon stood beside Pringle, evaluating a professional withdrawal from his bank. Stolen from the vault were $1,000 in bills, several gold watches, some notes of exchange, Mickle Lumber Company orders, and $9,000 worth of the town’s most recent waterworks debentures, issued to Richard Lance of Beatrice, who’d left them with Hunt’s Bank for safekeeping.
Across town at the same time, Thomas Magee was discovering tools missing from his blacksmith and wagon shop. His stolen brace, sledgehammer and crowbar – stamped with his initials, TM – had been abandoned inside Hunt’s Bank. Constable Armstrong questioned Magee and clarified he was another victim, not the real culprit, but kept TM’s tools as exhibits for the trial. The investigation petered out. Nobody was ever brought to justice for a brazen robbery, clearly based on close knowledge of the town.
Hunt’s solicitor, Arthur A. Mahaffy, sought to persuade his client that the bank remained fundamentally sound and should be kept open. In Huntsville, respected J.R. Reece had now begun managing a loan and savings agency next to the post office, in conjunction with his telegraph and telephone services and implement sales. Vital communities needed local financial services, said Mahaffy.
But Hunt, focused on the bank’s sizeable problems rather than its basic soundness, remained shaken all year long by the unsolved heist and its uncompensated victims. Feeling angry, violated, humiliated and sick with money stress, he at last overrode Mahaffy’s counsel and in desperation assigned his assets for the benefit of the bank’s creditors. He directed the Mahaffy & Ashworth firm (which was paying him rent for office space in one of his buildings) to initiate liquidation of his assets and the bank.
On the weekday morning of May 25, 1898 – almost a year to the day after the robbery – the doors at Hunt’s Bank remained closed and locked. Consternation spread among Bracebridgites and other Muskokans. What did the bank’s failure mean? Rumours spread that the Dominion Bank would take over Hunt’s bank. Representatives of Dominion had been spotted in town. Despite preliminary negotiations, that did not ensue.
Instead, Muskoka’s private banker proceeded to assign his extensive business interests, except for his home on Hunt’s Hill and a property in his wife’s name, to Muskoka’s sheriff James Bettes. The following week, a hundred of Alfred Hunt’s creditors gathered in the Herald Hall, the second-floor meeting room of the Muskoka Herald newspaper building at 27 Dominion Street. Arthur Mahaffy, as the bank’s solicitor, chaired proceedings. Sheriff Bettes read a financial statement reporting assets of $73,696.77 and liabilities at $53,717.23. Hunt himself explained that his financial embarrassment began with real estate investments in Toronto, seven years earlier, which lost $38,000, then continued with losses of $15,000 due to business failures of lumbermen and others to whom he’d advanced cash.
Through Muskoka’s weekly papers, Sheriff Bettes publicly advertised Hunt’s assets for sale: 33 vacant properties in Bracebridge, lakeside properties, and farmland in Macaulay, Brunel and Stisted townships. There were town lots and properties in Gravenhurst, and a timber limit in Parry Sound’s Armour Township. There were store and house properties in Bracebridge: three brick buildings occupied by Merrill, McEachern, Thomas & Booth, and Mahaffy & Ashworth; his own brick bank building at 34 Manitoba with offices above rented to the provincial government; a laundry; nine lots with houses; stores occupied by Tillson & Whitten, J.W. Ney, Macready & Company, J.O. Phillips, and the store south of the Dominion Hotel. Quantities of lumber were also put up for liquidation sale.
Initial sheriff sales enabled Bettes to announce by November an initial 20 per cent dividend for Hunt creditors. Solicitor Mahaffy’s view of the bank’s operations being basically sound was born out. As Hunt’s assets were liquidated, bank creditors recovered close to 100 cents on the dollar for all their stolen assets.
Alfred Hunt, though still a member of town council for 1898, attended no further meetings after May that year. Nor did he ever again run for elective office. His operations contracted to things like brick veneering the British Lion Hotel across from the new District Court House on Dominion Street in 1903. He died in 1917, in the bleak depths of a cataclysmic world war.
In the wake of his bank’s demise, the financial needs and opportunities in Muskoka which private banker Alfred Hunt had shown existed sparked the big banks to swiftly fill the vacuum. First to set up shop was the Bank of Ottawa, which on June 2, 1898, hurriedly opened a branch in the Manitoba Street building of tailor Robert McEwen, who himself went out of business and relocated to Vancouver.
Joining the parade in 1904 was the new Crown Bank of Canada, chartered only the month before it opened a Bracebridge branch on July 18 on the west side of Manitoba Street. Some directors of the Toronto-based Crown Bank were Muskoka summer residents who saw the need for a branch in the district. One of Crown’s major accounts was The Bird Woollen Mill Co. Limited, pillar of the Muskoka economy, which had banked with Alfred Hunt.
In 1908, Crown amalgamated with Northern Bank of Western Canada to become Northern Crown Bank and relocated its Bracebridge branch into another main street building once owned by Alfred Hunt. In 1918, when Northern Crown and Royal Bank of Canada merged, the local branch displayed its next name, Royal Bank.
More national banks, with changing names from corporate takeovers and mergers, opened local branches across Canada, including in Muskoka’s towns and villages, like common franchises of an increasingly monolithic operation whose design, decision- and direction would increasingly lie beyond local control.
In 1919, when the Bank of Ottawa merged with Bank of Nova Scotia, the Bracebridge branch simply changed its name and kept operating in the same fine premises.
In addition to Bracebridge and Huntsville, other Muskoka communities began getting banking service. In 1901 the Dominion Bank, which had been sniffing around Bracebridge, set up shop in Gravenhurst instead, in a rented building before moving into its newly-constructed facility at the south-east corner of Muskoka and Royal streets. Port Carling was another. In June 1920 the summer-busy village got a pop-up Bank of Nova Scotia, under direction of Bracebridge’s branch. Two years later, enjoying steady boat-builder business, it became a full branch operating not June-September but year-round.
By 1919, the Dominion Bank finally appeared in Bracebridge. From 1906 to 1914, Dominion’s interests had been represented locally by Henry Warren, financial officer of J.D. Shier Lumber Company, who returned to his former position with the bank as a manager in Toronto. When the Bracebridge branch, with Warren’s lobbying, materialized after the war, he came back to town as its manager, occupying Alfred Hunt’s former bank building at 34 Manitoba Street.
This Bracebridge heritage building has been boarded up in recent years, its basement steel vault standing open, about the way bank clerk Pringle discovered it on that ill-fated morning of May 27, a century and a-quarter ago.