Sam McLaughlin, a great Canadian weaved in history

There’s a family joke that Sam McLaughlin was born with wheels in his head, and those wheels never stopped turning.

Colonel Robert Samuel McLaughlin, also known as Sam, was born in Enniskillen, Ont., on Sept. 8, 1871. He is regarded as an influential Canadian and businessman. He is also one of the most prominent individuals in the founding of the Canadian automotive industry and a key figure in bringing General Motors to Canada.

Eva Saether, local history and genealogy librarian at the McLaughlin branch, learned a lot of about him as she put together a slideshow for an older adults group at the library.

“This is a very large man who lived for hundred years plus a few months before he died. He lived large and he lived every single one of those years fully,” she said.

John McLaughlin, grandfather of Sam, came from Ireland and settled in present day Tyrone. He was approached to settle land here during the famine when a lot of people were leaving Ireland to come to Canada.

Sam’s father Robert McLaughlin started carving axe handles from the trees he cleared and was able to sell them for a higher price because they were so finely crafted.

“There’s also an inventiveness in the family, a curiosity, whether that’s inborn in them or it was just passed down from one generation to the next,” Saether said.

Robert McLaughlin built his first carriage with the help of a catalogue that had illustrated pictures of carriages and wagons. He studied the catalogue and built one of his own. He set up a carriage company at Enniskillen but later moved his business to Oshawa because it was a larger city with harbour and railway access that was necessary to grow the business. The McLaughlin Carriage Company was the biggest in the British Empire.

After working in his father’s carriage company as an apprentice and going on to becoming a journeyman, Sam went to the United States and started working with carriages in factories.

“Like his father and his grandfather, he was a very curious person and he wanted to see how everything was run,” said Saether.

Around 1905 the first automobiles were hitting the roads and that’s when Sam turned his attention to cars. This was a period of transition for the family as Robert McLaughlin wanted to continue with carriages because their carriages were much loved but Sam knew the business needed to go elsewhere.

It was fine for a while because car bodies were still being made out of wood but eventually it was replaced by metal and that’s when Robert McLaughlin stepped out and Sam continued. It was a good move because the carriage industry was in decline at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Sam’s interests led him to study the automotive industry. He started the McLaughlin Motor Car Co. in 1904, which evolved into General Motors of Canada in 1918. GM put Oshawa on the map because it became a large employer and contributed to the economy.

According to Samantha George, curator of Parkwood Estate National Historic Site, Sam helped create a bit of Canadian identity back then.

“Having a brand that was the McLaughlin brand that was synonymous with quality and good manufacturing to the point where the royal family actually drove McLaughlin Buicks,” she said.

She said what often gets overshadowed is his personal philanthropy.

“Every university across this country has McLaughlin hall, McLaughlin auditorium, McLaughlin college,” she said. “Nobody in Canadian history to date has been able to match or trump the McLaughlin philanthropic endeavours over the years. Mr. McLaughlin has been the most generous Canadian in Canadian history which still hasn’t been matched.”

A few years ago, George spoke to students at R.S. McLaughlin CVI in Oshawa-in a school of about 2,000 kids- and she says none of the students knew who he was.

“There was a portrait of the man in the hall and they thought it was their first principal,” she said.

The younger generation may not know who Sam McLaughlin is but Brian Keys sure does. He worked at Parkwood as a student gardener for five summers starting in 1965. He was stationed at the kitchen garden.

“A neighbor of ours was one of the maintenance men and he came and asked me if I had a job that summer and at the time I didn’t so I came and then stayed,” Keys said.

He came in the next Monday morning and got started on the job.

“Off we went to the potting shed,” he said. He was asked to move some pots but he dropped a couple and broke them.

“And I thought, uh oh, that’s the end of me,” but it wasn’t the case. The head gardener said they had many more.

He spent 50 hours a week there during the time he worked. Being able to learn about gardens and plants was the best part of his job and he continues to pursue that at his own home even to this day. A home garden has become a tradition for him. The style he plants in resembles what he learned at Parkwood years ago.

“I just learned a lot here and I’ve stayed for most of five summers and I’ve kept in touch ever since. I still come around here in the summers to play croquet. We have a croquet group so I am at Parkwood on a sort of regular basis,” he said.

When he worked there, Sam McLaughlin was in his nineties. Keys didn’t get much of a chance to meet him. He knew him as Mr. Sam, a man who made donations to many institutions in Oshawa.

Sam passed away in 1972 at the age of 100. Right up to the time he died, he was out there doing things. As a pioneer of the Canadian automotive industry, Sam’s influences are still felt today.