James Mills

James Mills

1840 - 1924

James Mills was born in 1840 near Bond head in the county of Simcoe to parents of Irish descent. He was the eldest of ten children. Mills was a figure who was committed to the improvement of agricultural education in Ontario, and his name is one that will forever be associated with the Ontario Agricultural College, for which he served as president and instituted a number of important reforms.

Mills contribution to rural Ontario began at a young age. Although he lost his right arm in a farming accident when he was a young adult and was restricted from a further role in farm labour, he did not let this hamper him in his dedication to improving the rural community of Ontario, instead taking up a career in agricultural education. He enrolled in the Victoria College, graduating in 1868 with a Prince of Wales medal for proficiency, and shortly after he began teaching in high schools in Ontario and Quebec before becoming the principal of Brantford High School, a position he held for six years.

However, it was his career at the Ontario Agricultural College that truly brought him to prominence. He took over as director/ principal of the institution in 1879 (then the Ontario School of Agriculture and Experimental Farm) and retained the position for twenty-five years. He took control during a time when the institution was in serious disarray- it was struggling with a decline in reputation since the resignation of its first president, William Johnston, and suffering from a divide between the Experimental Farm and the school itself, which were operating as two separate entities. Continuing the work of Johnston, Mills did a lot to develop and expand the facilities of the college, enhance its reputation, and rebuild its ties with the community.

During his time at the O.A.C., Mills brought about several key changes that shaped the future of the institution. He launched the Farmer’s Institute of Ontario in 1885 as an experiment in adult education. In this system experts from the college took information from the college straight to farmers. The institute also lobbied for the greater recognition of agriculture at Queen’s Park, specifically for the creation of a department of agriculture. Additionally, together with Adelaide Hoodless, he overcame financial difficulties and vocal opposition in establishing the Macdonald Institute of Home Economics in 1903 as Ontario’s first college for women. Mills, the father of five daughters, recognized the importance of educating females on the farm and sought to extend this throughout the province.

He also championed the merger of scientific and practical agriculture, believing that farmers needed more than manual training, which culminated in the creation of a degree program in 1888 following an affiliation with the University of Toronto. Furthermore, he improved the appearance of the campus and constructed several new farm and academic buildings that would become very important in the development of the school- Massey Hall, Macdonald Hall, and Macdonald Institute.

But perhaps most importantly, he bridged the divide between the Experimental Farm and the school, an issue that had been plaguing the school since its creation. In 1893 he successfully convinced the government to give the president full control of the entire institution, something he had been fighting for since he took up the office. This allowed for a smoother and more cohesive operation of the institute.

Throughout his time at the O.A.C., Mills demonstrated a commitment to ending the pall that had hung over rural Ontario at the time. He worked to establish a way for farmers to reach their greatest potential by making them aware of the college’s values. His main goal was to establish a “love for agriculture” in the young men of Ontario, and as president of the O.A.C. he frequently lobbied for better agricultural education, particularly for its introduction in private and normal schools. He was known for his tireless workrate and his high moral standards, which he also expected from all of his students.

After resigning from the O.A.C. in 1903, he was appointed to the Board of Railway Commissioners, a position he held until 1914, during which time he acted as a voice for the farming community of Canada with regards to railway development. However, it is for his work at the O.A.C that he will be most fondly remembered for. His legacy is enshrined in the University of Guelph residence building that bears his name, Mills Hall, constructed in 1921. He was inducted into the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1989.

Celebrating 150 Years of Canadian Agriculture