Adam Beck was born in Baden, Ontario on 20 June 1857. He was the son of Jacob Friedrich and Charlotte Josephine (Hespeler) Beck. His grandparents, Frederick and Barbara Beck had had moved from Baden in Germany in 1829 to New York State and then to the German community of Doon, Ontario. They settled on a farm and built a sawmill. Their son, Jacob, had stayed in New York State to work in the mills and locomotive works of Schenectady, joining them in 1837. Jacob opened a foundry in Preston, now part of Cambridge, Ontario. In 1843 he recruited an iron moulder from Buffalo, John Clare. In 1845 Jacob Beck married Charlotte Hespeler, sister of the later mayor of New Hope, the town which ultimately bore his name and now is part of Cambridge, Ontario.
Jacob Beck suggested moving their company closer to the planned line of the Grand Trunk Railway, but Clare refused and the partnership was dissolved. Beck bought 190 acres ten miles west of Berlin, now Kitchener, Ontario on the route of the railway and laid out a townsite which became Baden, Ontario. He built a foundry, a grist mill and a large brick house. It was here that their son Adam was born.
Adam’s early life was spent exploring the millpond and poking about the foundry with the workers, as well as horseback riding with his sister. He was sent to the school of William Tassie in Galt (Cambridge) where he showed more interest in riding than in learning. He continued on to Rockwood Academy near Guelph, Ontario. When he returned home, his father, abhorring laziness, made him a moulder’s apprentice.
When the family business failed, the father started over again as a grain merchant in Detroit. He took his wife and the younger children with him, while the older son, William remained in Baden where he had started a cigar box manufacturing business. Adam returned to Canada to work as a clerk in a foundry in Toronto and then as an employee of a cigar manufacturing
company. By 1881 he was a partner with his brother and his cousin of a cigar box manufacturing company in Galt, Ontario. Eventually Adam became the sole proprietor of the Beck Manufacturing Company Limited.
Beck’s plant was really a veneer business. He imported cedar logs and specialty woods from Spain and Mexico. They arrived by rail and were stored for seasoning in his plant. Then they were peeled in strips to make cigar boxes, cheese boxes and veneer for furniture and pianos. By 1919 Beck had 127 employees and until he was forty he was considered simply as a man of
business. After 1897 he turned the business over to his brother and offered himself for public office. He took up riding for relaxation and this led to his becoming a breeder of horses. In 1898 he married Lillian Ottaway who was 23 years younger than he. After a honeymoon trip to Europe they settled into the most ostentatious house in London, Eliston House. He added his
and hers stables and renamed it Headley. Lillian sang in the choir of the Cathedral. Their house and grounds were the envy of the city. Winston Churchill stayed with them during his lecture tour of 1900-01.
In 1898 Adam ran as a Conservative losing to the liberal candidate. He immersed himself in his interest in the Victoria Hospital Trust. In 1902 he ran for mayor and won. He promoted city beautification and offered his personal prize in a garden competition. He persuaded city council
to take over the operation of the London and Port Stanley Railway. He became involved in the Union of Canadian Municipalities and brought their convention to London.
Once again he ran for the provincial legislature in 1902 and won although his party lost the election. For the next two years he served both as mayor of the city and as a member of the legislature. During this time he came into contact with the activists from Waterloo County who were trying to bring electricity from Niagara to their heavily industrialized area. They were
concerned that power development should not be left in the hands of private businesses. Beck became convinced that a commission should be formed to study this question of public ownership. He discovered that any real progress for the study would require the authority to insist that the hydro electric companies surrender the necessary information.
In 1905, Whitney and his Conservatives were victorious and Beck won his seat with a majority of 566 votes. Now in power Premier Whitney immediately cancelled a water power concession given by the previous government and appointed Beck to head a hydro electric power
commission of inquiry to take a complete inventory of available water power sites and gather information of existing companies and their costs and prices, and then to recommend any appropriate provincial policy. It is thus that Beck’s name has ever since been associated with the power commission.
In spite of some opposition, a three member crown corporation was formed with power to build or lease facilities, financed by government bonds. Beck was appointed head of the new commission. He began a series of dramatic presentations around the province to show how electricity would prove advantageous in both barn and home. His demonstrations were often
derided as circuses, but they were effective in convincing the public of the value of bringing electricity to the entire province. London received its first power from Niagara in 1910.
It was in the field of public health that the Becks made their greatest contribution. When their daughter was diagnosed with tuberculosis they sought out the best resources. They also recognized that many families who had equal needs were without their resources. So they established The London Health Association to build a Sanitarium, raising $10,000 to this end.
In 1913 Beck’s contribution to the city was recognized in a glittering dinner in which the Anglican and Roman Catholic Bishops recognized him as “incorrupt and incorruptible”. The ladies looked on from the balconies as the head table guests were served their dinner by a small electric railway. The following year Beck received a knighthood in the King’s June honours list.
During the First World War, Beck organizational skills were recognized and he was placed in charge of ordering horses for the Canadian army and ultimately for the British army as well. He became chancellor of the University of Western Ontario and was granted an honorary degree
from that institution.
With the increasing need for electricity to power the production of war equipment the commission undertook the construction of a diversionary canal to provide a flow of water for the power plant at Queenston, Ontario.
On 15 August 1925 Sir Adam Beck died of pernicious anemia in his 69th year. His death saw a pouring out of shock and sorrow. City halls were draped in black, hydro shops were closed and business in the city of London stopped for an hour as thousands lined the streets as his funeral
cortège passed. The entire Toronto city council attended his funeral.
Monuments were erected to his memory but it is hydro electricity delivered by a crown corporation power commission that remains his most significant memorial.
see “Beck, Sir Adam” by H.V. Nelles Dictionary of Canadian Dictionary
By Fred Habermehl
Interview with Brooke Blackburn
Fall Film Series: Heroic Journeys – Black Histories on Screen
The J4BL Book Club
Fall Film Series: Heroic Journeys – Black Histories on Screen