FARM '17 - McGavin history helped to shape Huron agriculture
BY DENNY SCOTT
The McGavin family’s history with agriculture in Huron County and the surrounding communities goes back generations.
It’s likely that anyone in the agricultural field in southwestern Ontario is familiar with the family, who, more than 80 years ago, made their mark on the Huron County landscape when they opened McGavin Farm Equipment in Walton.
The family consists of patriarch Neil and matriarch Marie McGavin; husband and wife Brian and Shelley and their children Brandon, Abby and Tyson; Heather and Bryan Kelso and their children Hayden, Jessica, Jared and Ella; husband and wife Jeff and Shannon and their children Jacob, Mackenzie and Teegan and Cathy Melady and her husband Pat and their children Brent, Alex and Shayna.
As far as the McGavins in Canada, the story starts in 1837 when William McGavin left Ireland and made his way to Huron County via New York, New Jersey and Michigan.
William worked digging wells until he could afford a farm on shares, after which he married Elizabeth Graham of Bayfield and had sons William, John, Isaac and Albert and daughters Annie and Sophia. The family soon moved to McKillop Township.
John James, or J.J. as he came to be known bought the farm that would eventually give birth to McGavin Farm Equipment.
J.J. and his three brothers lived all close to home, within a mile and a quarter of the original family farm. J.J. would wed Estella Jane Berry, also of McKillop, with whom he would have two children, Jennie Elizabeth (wed to Wilburt Turnbull) and William John Gordon, who would be known as Gordon.
The McGavin farm was one of firsts for the area, according to family records, as J.J. was the first farmer in the area to own an automobile, a tractor and an indoor toilet. He had a passion for horses, and judged competitions. He worked for United Farmers Co-operative shipping livestock and later continued in that profession for the general market in Toronto until he was 80 years old.
Not long into his life, Gordon became interested in plowing and became prolific in the competition circuit, winning the Canadian Championship. He wed Florence Elizabeth Stewart from Brussels, who would become the McGavin family historian, and took over his parents’ farm after his mother passed away. J.J. continued to live on the farm until he passed away in his 95th year.
Gordon and Florence had three children, John Stewart, Gordon Neil (who, like his father, would go on to be known by his middle name) and Elizabeth Anne.
The McGavins have always been involved in agriculture on this side of the Atlantic Ocean However, it wasn’t until Gordon started what would be McGavin Farm Equipment by renovating a small shed on the farm he had grown up on to repair and sell machinery in 1936 that the family name would become synonymous with agriculture.
Within 14 years, the business outgrew the home farm and was moved to a building in Walton near the intersection of County Roads 25 and 12.
In 1963, as part of a decision to build a new school in Walton, Gordon purchased the former S.S. #11 Morris Township school house, moving the company to the area that would become the home of McGavin Farm Equipment through to the present.
Gordon oversaw expansion of the business as a large repair shop was added. He continued to work at the company until 1973 when his health required him take a step back. He retired to Seaforth in 1973 and passed away in 1976. Florence passed away in 1983.
For decades, Gordon had built the company, however it was now time for his Neil and his family, including wife Ruth Marie Johnston of Bluevale and children Brian, Cathy Jeff and Heather to take the reins.
In 1978, a service centre was added to the site, and, throughout the following years, Neil’s children joined the team, with Brian and Jeff following in their father’s footsteps before going to school and Cathy and Heather helping out in the parts department before focusing on futures that saw them pursue other opportunities. Cathy pursued an education in occupational therapy, received a Bachelor of Science degree from McMaster University and Heather graduated from the business marketing program at Fanshawe College.
Brian joined the business officially in 1984 after graduating from the Ontario Agricultural College and Jeff followed in 1992 after earning his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Guelph.
With the two generations running the company, it continued to grow with new, expanded facilities being added in 1996 and a new facility for McGavin Compact Equipment in 2008, bringing the company infrastructure to what it is today.
For decades, Gordon, his son, and now his grandchildren have kept the company successful, growing into a well-known agricultural supplier not only in Walton, but beyond.
The company has won many awards for the service it provides including, at its 80th anniversary celebration last year, the President’s Club Award from New Holland. The award has been given to less than 10 per cent of the 800 New Holland dealerships across the country for performance in sales, marketing and service.
Much of the family history is on-site at McGavin Farm Equipment. The upper floor of the schoolhouse is filled with photos, binders, books and artifacts from the family’s history, going all the way back to J.J. McGavin.
Gordon was named to the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2012 and added to the list of local inductees at the Huron County Library in Goderich.
Aside from buying and selling farm equipment, the McGavins are also well-known for their involvement with agricultural programming events both here at home and across the world, with members of the clan involved in 4-H clubs and competing in national and international plowing competitions.
Brian, Cathy, Jeff and Heather all participated in 4-H programs, according to the family history, starting in 1982 and Brian and Jeff have both continued that, being part of the Sodbusters group and keeping competitive plowing available to youth in Huron County.
Both Brian and Jeff have plowed competitively through the Huron County Plowing Match and higher levels of competition, as have their sons, including Brandon who competed at the World Plowing Match and Jacob who has excelled at past Huron County Plowing Matches.
Plowing in the McGavin family can be traced back to Gordon who competed at the 1926 Canadian Plowing Championships in Niagara Falls.
“It’s something we grew up with and that’s in our blood,” Brian said.
With such a pedigree, it’s little wonder than the family is one of the driving forces behind the 100th International Plowing Match (IPM) set for Walton this year.
Plowing has been an important part of the family for years, as Neil explained to The Citizen in a past interview. He said that, after his father had won the national championship in 1926 he continued on with plowing, joining the Ontario Plowmen’s Association, an organization he would serve until 1960, including a stint as president from 1942 to 1946.
Neil has also held the office of president, starting in 2000, as well as being a director for several years.
“By the time [Gordon] finished with the association, he figured he spent more than a year of his life at plowing matches or in meetings,” Neil said. “He lived and breathed plowing.”
Gordon even attracted national attention for his attempt to keep the Ontario Plowmen’s Association and International Plowing Match going after World War II.
“[Gordon], as president of the Ontario Plowmen’s Association [after World War II] was determined to get the plowing match going again [after the war],” Neil said. “The result was the Victory Match of 1946 which offered a special plowing class for veterans.”
Thomas Kennedy, the provincial Minister of Agriculture in 1946, lauded the move, at the time saying the match would provide a great opportunity for farmers to see new and improved equipment and modernize their farms.
For the next few months, approaching the IPM in September, the family will be living and breathing plowing just as Gordon did as they are all going to be involved with the competition in some way as it will be held in the family’s home community of Walton.
Brian, Jeff and Cathy are all part of the executive bringing the event together while Neil and Marie, who have extensive experience with the organization of previous plowing matches, will also be contributing to the event, helping where necessary. Brian, Jeff and Cathy’s children are all expected to be involved in one way or another as well.
**To view The Citizen's 2017 Salute to Agriculture, click here**