J.A. Mathieu starred in Atlantis

As centuries of mist were cleared away and New Atlantis stood revealed here in full perfection and shining in the sun, we also welcomed a local leader of men who came among us for almost another century—and made us glad he was here.
With all his achievements as well as some shortcomings, J.A. Mathieu was fully deserving of all the compliments paid him in the Times last week by Pam Hawley, our local museum curator.
That there were other outstanding attributes to this man does go without saying, but I’ll try here for a more rounded portrait.
J.A. was our chief benefactor as well as a striking-looking statesman who represented himself very well at Toronto and by doing so, carried the ball for the rest of us a great deal. As a foremost employer here and user of our natural resources, he showed that our lumbermen were not all robber barons as they are described sometimes in Minnesota.
Never averse to flattery, our “old Jimmy Whiskers” was always ready for more as when he was honoured in Wisconsin, home of other lumberjacks and log rollers.
Taken there by “Birling” Bill Fontana, J.A. returned with a short birch log inscribed to salute him. He showed it off out at his 10,000-acre Bonnieview estate south of La Vallee.
Fontana, who had set him up for the gift, never earned more appreciation although he had rolled a log before crowds while being challenged by his Dalmatian dog, “Peppy,” right around the world, appearing in U.S. sports shows, Europe, and Japan for years.
All of J.A.’s special treasures, including a grand piano and polar bear rug, were on view at his country home, Littlefork Lodge. There he also flaunted his own purebred livestock, deer, beaver, ducks, and geese, as well as peacocks and swans.
You see, he knew the steel tycoon, Philadelphian Cyrus Eaton, who bragged about his own livestock in New Brunswick, merely cattle and horses. Eaton was connected to Atikokan iron mining.
Eaton must have been J.A.’s idol at that because when I went upstairs to his Scott Street office, above old Wells-Hardware, I saw a long lineup of stock certificates on his desk. He was proud to explain, as if I could be any more impressed, that all those shares made him the leading Canadian investor in our local papermill company, then the Ontario-Minnesota firm also called Mando.
This fact would be similar to declaring our two rival banks, which have always glared at each other across Scott Street, had joined forces at last. Mathieu and the O-M had wrangled between their bush camps right along.
J.A.’s famous and formidably-built bush boss, Eli Johnson, probably more than any other factor, had kept the peace in the tall timber.
But Mathieu had ways that kept him in office as a politicians for years. For instance, when all the bush camps of our three companies were being emptied by striking loggers hoping for another dollar a day (and walking sometimes 60 miles out to Flanders for boxcar rides to Fort Frances in one of our coldest January’s on record), J.A. alone of the camp owners showed compassion.
As the loggers staggered out on frozen feet and coughing from pneumonia, he didn’t forget them. He told his teamsters to pick up any men they met on the road.
But he stood firm with his rivals on that $1 dispute, I’m told, and the camps re-opened eventually anyway. The year was 1936 and the world-wide depression left no room for arguments. Any job was still a job in those times.
The 3,000 men who made it into town were putting up anywhere they could find a bed, in the jail and hospitals, and in any excuse for a rooming house.
But J.A. could lose his temper, too. He told me he had expected his gamekeeper, Joe Wilson, at Bonnieview to shoot holes in an American boat when he learned that Americans had crossed the river and shot some of his swans in a attractive series of pools he maintained.
I got involved on Sundays with J.A. when he had lost his driver’s licence at 95 and figured, since I lived halfway between his town home by the high school and his lodge where he entertained, that I would drive him. He employed a chauffeur, Johnny Strachan, on weekdays.
After phoning his housekeeper to prepare a chicken for dinner, which I learned later had just been walking around in his hen coop, J.A. would want to lead you around his “farm”—over beaver dams and through uncleared land and his son Tommy’s golf course, but once was enough!
You see, he showed no respect for cars, as when strikers let all the air out of his big car parked at his home while jeering at their old employer. Mathieu went ahead and surprised them, though.
The story goes that he strapped on a revolver, walked through the crowd to his car, and drove it downtown with the wheels flat. He went into a hotel and made his stand there.
Did I mention that his white goatee, moustache, and hair made him resemble Buffalo Bill? And he usually wore a Stetson fedora. The wild western ways of his American background could always surface.
Coming to Fort Frances and the bush country around Flanders, he continued to build more sawmills after leaving Rainy River. There, his first Canadian home still stands as a white frame school. Later, he made friends with the natives of Couchiching reserve, where his Border mills were built and rebuilt after fires.
After the great depression, Mathieu was still toughing it through as lumber prices fluctuated and the railroad had to be paid to move the product to Chicago where his son, Art, was sales manager. His other son, Tommy, ran the sawmill and yard on Rainy Lake, which was actually a village.
Tommy had humour that came out while he presented prizes at a local bonspiel won by his rink. He said he had picked out the prizes beforehand but “If I knew then what I know now, I’d have bought Cadillacs!”
Tommy gave me a red lantern from the “Ely” tugboat or gator.
J.A. stayed in trouble at the banks right along, as everyone understood, sometimes having his credit sink pretty low. But at the last when the word got out that he died bankrupt, I got it on good authority that this did not actually happen.
This man’s story would have made a great book. Through J.A.’s biography ran a strong thread of decency—no matter what you may hear today. Somehow, he never quit finding money to give to those in need.
Atlantis is richer for having known him and his legend strengthens with each passing year!

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