Without pretending to do justice to the duty of giving a full account of the splendidly successful career of Mr. John Cowan, we will venture to outline some of the more prominent features of his interesting and useful life.
In the town of Fenton, about seven miles from Armagh, in the County of Tyrone, Ireland, his fathr was engaged in a mercantile business, and here in the year 1828, Mr. John Cowan was born. The promises of brighter prospects in America, induced his father to pay a visit to the new world. and after inspecting many places in the United
States and otherwise, he decided to settle down in the city of Toronto. So after an absence of three years, in 1841, he sent for his family, and met them at New York city. They crossed the ocean in a sailing vessel, which landed in the harbor in Mr. John Cowan remained in Toronto until 1866, when his brother purchased an interest in the Cedar Dale Works, and induced the subject of this sketch to attach himself to the enterprise as its financial manager. In giving his consent to remove from Toronto to Cedar Dale, he was particularly influenced in his choice by the natural scenery of his new surroundings, the splendid’ row of trees leading to the works, the dam, the music of the water, the hills and the valleys, all appealed to him. Under the name of Whiting & Cowan the firm continued for five years to manufacture such accessories of agriculture as scythes, hoes, forks, axes, etc. With a master of details in the office, such as Mr. Cowan had proven himself to be, it is not a matter of surprise that the reputation of the firm, and the character of the business, immediately made such progress, that the goods were in great demand in every part of the country. ‘This initial success in a new venture gave confidence and courage to the management, and induced the Messrs. Cowan to undertake the great work of establishing the Ontario Malleable Iron Co. in Oshawa. This was accomplished in the year 1872, and Mr. John Cowan was selected as its first president, a position which he occupied for 43 years, and only relinquished when called from his labors by death. When one remembers that from these ventures, though large in themselves, other industries, such as the Malleable Steel Range Co. and the Fittings, Limited, have directly grown, we then see how much the industrial life of Oshawa owes to the life of the late Mr. John Cowan, who always conducted a business as though its reputation was its best asset.
Not alone as a captain of industry have we learned to value his useful work, but in the realm of finance he has possibly done even greater things for Oshawa than in the sphere of manufacture. For many years he was a Director of the Ontario Loan and Savings Co., and throughout the life of the Western Bank, from 1874 to 1908, he was its president. It is safe to say that no other institution played such an important part in the evolution of the industrial fabric of Oshawa as this Bank, under the able and efficient management of Mr. T. H. McMillan, with the late Mr. John Cowan as its official head.
One would imagine that such a weight of business would allow little time for devotion to public duties, but we find that at the time of his death, he was trustee of the Children’s Shelter, and a member of the Oshawa Hospital Board. For several years he served as a member of the Board of Education, as trustee of the public library, and as a director of the South Ontario Agricultural Society. In 1887 he occupied the chair as Mayor of Oshawa.
In religion he was an Anglican, and his devotion to the church of his choice finds testimony in the artistic renovation of St. George’s chapel, carried out mainly through his efforts and munificence, shortly after his arrival in Oshawa. At a later date the unique Sunday School associated therewith, Bishop Bethune College and St. George’s Hall in Sunnyside. found in him the same generous friend. He was a prominent member of the Synod of Ontario, where his work on Mission Boards and in other spheres of church work was highly appreciated. As a private philanthropist, he confined himself to no division of creed or condition ; wherever age or want, or distress cried out for help, he extended an open hand, and accomplished the end in a most courteous and unostentatious manner. Naturally of a quiet and retiring disposition yet he carried with him a serious and dignified bearing, which gave character and prestige to any assemblage of men which could count him among its numbers. His last appearance in a public gathering in Oshawa was at the armouries November, 1914, to organize a local branch of the Canadian Patriotic Fund, and although he had the least to say of any man present, yet the donation of $5,000 from the Cowan Family next day, indicated the interest he felt in his country and in the dependents of the soldiers at the front. His attitude towards public meetings indeed, was a fair index to his life; he was always there when he had a duty to perform, he expressed himself in the clearest possible manner, and with the least possible expenditure of words ; he was never known to be late and he never lingered to talk about conclusions. As a conversationalist he was at his best in his own home, surrounded by the best books, from the best authors in the world ; an intimate acquaintance with which justified in him the reputation of being one of the best read men in Canada. A deep interest in his adopted country was learned from the splendid collection of local histories, which graced the shelves of his immense private library, and the regular visits paid to Ireland in the latter part of his life showed, with equal force, his peculiar attachment to the land that gave him birth. His sense of duty to society, and his love of country, were only excelled by that devotion to his family, so characteristic of the Irish race. During the quiet moments of his last illness, by way of pleasantry in conversation, his nurse remarked, “that it is a wonder, Mr. Cowan, when you are so fond of home, that you never married.” Pointing to a picture which hung beside him on the wall, he said : ‘There is the reason ; had I not loved my mother as I did, perhaps I might have married.” It is indeed, a rare occasion upon which one is permitted to record so much of humanity, and so much of culture, mingled with an unusual capacity to handle the cold problems of business.