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Senator Billy Fraser: A Man with a Mission

author: Orland French

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As CFB Trenton celebrates its 85th anniversary, one man still deserves credit for the base being at Trenton in the first place. Billy Fraser was the town’s popular mayor in the late 1920s when he pulled every political string within his grasp to land RCAF Station Trenton. A colourful, controversial and hard-nosed political character, he wanted jobs for his community. Today, many hundreds of millions of dollars later, Trenton still enjoys the presence and the payroll provided by Canada’s most prominent military air base.

When the mayor of Trenton heard that the federal government was going to build a new air base somewhere in eastern Ontario, his mind went into overdrive.

“Jobs,” he kept thinking. “Jobs, jobs, jobs!”

Billy Fraser immediately determined that the base would be built at Trenton. He would make it happen. It was the mid-1920s and the value of air power was apparent. A major air base would be a godsend to an economically depressed community. A finely honed municipal politician, Fraser had a network of political connections with people in powerful places. He began beseeching everyone he knew to consider placing the air base in Trenton.

Fraser believed in growth and development and struck quickly to beat out his rivals. Deseronto, where two flight-training bases had been located during the First World War, was considered a prime location. The mayor’s intensive bombardment paid off. Of the 25 locations scouted out along the north shore of Lake Ontario, an 870-acre tract of farmland just east of Fraser’s town was identified as the site of Royal Canadian Air Force Station Trenton. As the local newspaper editor lamented in an editorial, “Deseronto’s Neros fiddled and Trenton’s Go-Getters landed the flying camp.”

The air base location was confirmed by parliament in October 1929. Fraser’s own assessment was more predictive than he could have imagined. He said, “The stupendousness of the announcement is hard to imagine. The amount of money involved is enormous. The benefit to Trenton can be imagined, but no one can anticipate to the fullest this wonderful news at the present time.” He had no idea how “stupendous” this project would become in the years ahead.

His dream of jobs, jobs, jobs fulfilled itself from the get-go. RCAF Station Trenton was born on the eve of the Great Depression. Even before the Depression, Trenton was a depressed area. Most of the men in this small hardscrabble town of 4,500 were out of work. As it turned out, hundreds of local workers were spared the worst effects of the Depression because of ongoing construction of the base. They were called 20-centers because they were paid 20 cents a day.

Oh, there were complaints at first. There always are. The sprawling base was going to eat up good orchards along the north shore of the Bay of Quinte, depriving farmers of incomes and scarring the rural landscape. These arguments are still heard today, as the base expands.

Billy Fraser may have foreseen the spending of a few million dollars on the base. But he could not have imagined expenditures of hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. When the Second World War erupted, RCAF Station Trenton became the hub of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. It grew and grew.

Around 1960 the base was converted to Air Transport Command Headquarters. Eighty-five years later, the base is the pivotal centre of Canada’s military and emergency aid missions all over the world. Foreign policies may be moulded in Ottawa but CFB Trenton applies the sharp point of the stick. The current expansion is close to a billion dollars.

All because Billy Fraser was quick off the mark.

Airplanes had not been invented when William Alexander Fraser was born in 1886. He was 17 when the Wright brothers made their first powered flight in 1903. By the 1930s, airplanes were well established as formidable weapons of war. The base would be no flash in the sky.

The lands around Trenton suited federal requirements almost exactly. They were flat, they were not extremely good farmland, and they were relatively cheap. The base would sit beside the Bay of Quinte, which was important because in the 1920s seaplanes were seen as the aircraft of the future and many large multi-engine aircraft in the 1930s were designed to operate from water bases.

Fraser played the game of politics as hard as anyone. His confirmation as a Liberal had come years earlier when a change in government in Ottawa cost Fraser’s father his job. Robert Fraser had been appointed by a Liberal government as collector of customs at the Port of Trenton. When the government changed and the Conservatives took over, Fraser Sr. was fired, according to the political custom of the day. Billy Fraser appealed to the local MP, Conservative E. Guss Porter, to spare Robert his job because his wife was ill. Porter was unmoved. “To the victor go the spoils,” he told Billy Fraser. The story is that when Porter was subsequently defeated, Billy Fraser arranged to have Porter’s nameplate pried off his parliamentary office door and sent to him with a note, “To the victor go the spoils.”

(In light of this political ritual, Trenton may be lucky that it got the air base. Preparations to build the base had been made under the Liberal government of Mackenzie King, but the Conservatives of R.B. Bennett came to power in August 1930, two months before the site of the base was formally announced.)

Fraser came from an unpolished, unspectacular background. He was born in Trenton in 1886, a year after the Northwest Rebellion, the hanging of Louis Riel and the opening of the Canadian Pacific Railway. His life would span two world wars and the entering of the Golden Age of Ontario. He was considered an average student at Trenton Public School and College Street High School. He began his working life as a labourer packing apples at the Trenton Cold Storage Company.

But, as his old friend Wayne Simmons put it, he was “an unusual individual. He figured out most things on his own. He was a very shrewd man. He was very much his own man, sometimes to his detriment.” He was self-made, although one of his first adventures was a disaster. Like many another young man, he left Ontario in search of gold, copper or other wealth in western Canada. He returned to the East riding the rails, disillusioned and with the realization that there are few work-free shortcuts to success.

He was given a job in 1902 by a family friend and future brother-in-law Eben James I, founder of Trenton Cold Storage (TCS). After James built the Trenton Cooperage Mill in 1907, Fraser was assigned a role as secretary of the cooperage mill. The cooperage job led to lumbering, and Fraser obtained timber rights in North Hastings. He worked in the lumber camps and actually joined in the running of logs downriver. While James was distracted as a recruitment officer in Kingston during the First World War, Fraser usurped control of the mill in a way that his biography describes as “a less than admirable manner”. After the war, he and James split their business arrangement and Fraser took over the cooperage.

Fraser was not a slick and polished towering figure. He was a down-to-earth sort, a short-statured stocky man, about five-foot-six, whose three-piece suits might have seen an iron the day they had left the haberdasher’s shop a few years earlier.

If he had money, he didn’t flash it around. Author Farley Mowat recalls in his book, Born Naked that the Mowat family was in desperate need of a house so his father visited Fraser, “the town tycoon and owner of the cooperage”. Fraser owned a large old house that was empty. He allowed the Mowats to move in and use scraps of lumber from the cooperage for heating. Mowat described the house as “a rambling old ruin” with “its paint peeling…its shingles falling away like scales from a scrofulous old dragon”.

Fraser married Blanche Agnes Macaulay of Trenton. They had no family but actively supported programs to assist under-privileged kids such as the Salvation Army’s children’s camp at Roblin Lake in Prince Edward County. Fraser took an interest in the educational welfare of a nephew and sent him to Ashbury College in Ottawa, then sponsored his education at Queen’s University. The young fellow didn’t do well at Queen’s, so Fraser dashed off a letter to the principal demanding to know why. After a while, he received a reply that in polite language suggested it was difficult to gain an education while balancing a textbook on one knee and a young woman on the other.

For more than a quarter century, Fraser was a Trenton-centric political powerhouse. As mayor, he served seven consecutive terms without being successfully challenged. Through his connections, he brought a number of new industries to Trenton. As an MP, he helped land the Bata Shoe Company factory at Batawa, just up the Trent River. One of his ventures was Central Bridge Company, which manufactured over 100 invasion tugs during the Second World War. Since the plant was some distance from the bay, the boats had to be tugged down to the water on a special railway.

Fraser attempted to move into federal politics by taking on the Tory candidate Milton Edgar Maybee in 1925. He lost. He had better luck in 1930, defeating Maybee by a thousand votes, and held the Northumberland riding until his retirement in 1945. In one of his favourite pictures, Fraser is seen near Winston Churchill while the great wartime leader addressed the House of Commons.

People fully expected Fraser to be called to the Senate after his retirement. In May 1949, Trenton Town Council asked Liberal Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent to appoint the popular fellow to the Red Chamber. The appointment was whisked through the halls of patronage and Fraser was summoned to the Senate a month later, on June 25, 1949. On September 28, he took his seat as Senator William Fraser.

That’s when Billy Fraser began to spread his political oats on wider fields.

Wayne Simmons, a 96-year-old retired pharmacist, knew Fraser well. Among his many occupations, Fraser was an apple farmer, operating orchards just west of Trenton. Simmons said Fraser’s political headquarters was the Cooperage Mill “shack”, as he called it, down by the Bay near the current Trenton Cold Storage location. “Just about everything political that happened in Trenton went through the cooperage shack,” said Simmons. The shack was the office of the cooperage mill that made barrels for shipping apples.

“One day I was in there to see Fraser, and he was on the phone with C.D. Howe from Ottawa. Howe was a very powerful minister (trade and development) in St. Laurent’s government. I could only hear half the conversation, but Howe was pushing the development of a gas pipeline from western Canada to the east. He was telling Fraser it would benefit both western and eastern Canada.

“I heard Fraser agree with C.D. – they were good friends – and then he said, ‘but it will cost you the election’.”

In telling the story, Simmons pauses for a moment and reflects. “You know, they were both right.” The Liberals got the pipeline but they were knocked out of power by John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives the next year – 1957.

Howe’s conversation with Fraser indicated how powerful the senator had become in eastern Ontario. He was a regional fixer. Howe was leaning on him to get the local Liberals in line to support the pipeline proposal. Fraser was responsible for delivering 11 seats to the Liberals, and the fact that he bragged about this got him in trouble with his Conservative opponents. And it led to his role as a newspaper publisher.

When the Tories won in 1957, the Picton Gazette crowed that the senator had had his wings clipped. The Courier-Advocate in Trenton reprinted the editorial, which claimed that the senator was dictating the outcome of local Liberal nominations.

Throughout the 1950s Fraser felt he was attacked too often by editorials in The Courier-Advocate. He made several offers to buy it but when he was refused he started another newspaper, The Trentonian, and put The Courier-Advocate out of business. The Trentonian still publishes. The Courier-Advocate doesn’t.

The senator’s name was not on The Trentonian masthead, although he was publicly acknowledged to be the owner. The publisher, whose name also did not appear, was Eben James II.

Eben James II, and his father Eben James I, had a rugged relationship with Billy. This was partly related to politics, but even more to marriage. Eben I had counselled Billy against marrying Blanche Macaulay, because they had nothing in common and Billy would always be “a stranger in his own house”. They married in 1913 but never had children. It is Eben James II’s belief that Billy found lots of time for politics because he had no home life.

Fraser, in turn, objected to Eben I’s courting of his sister Jeanie, because of the difference in their ages. But Eben I married Jeanie in 1921; he was 47, she was 30.

Eben James II, now 89 and chairman of Trenton Cold Storage, was Billy Fraser’s nephew. He came to bridge the rift between the two families. James was often the senator’s chauffeur when Fraser needed a car and driver for his appointments. In his comfortable office at TCS, Eben can hold forth with dozens of stories of the political exploits of Senator Fraser and his friends. Like the time Billy was running a carload of illicit booze through Trenton to an election rally when his roadster broke down. The first person to come along to help was the town cop and…but that’s another story.

Life as the senator’s chauffeur had its moments of colour.

James II recalls a meeting between Senator Fraser and a well-known local industrialist and politician. He witnessed a tremendous row between the man and his secretary. On the way home, he asked, “Senator, how could his secretary get away with saying all those things to him? How does she keep her job?”

“Uncle Billy didn’t say anything for a while, then he said, ‘Eben, let me give you some advice. Never sleep with the help.’”

There is nothing to indicate that Senator Billy Fraser pursued politics for his own gain. He used his initiative and connections to build and benefit his community. Eben James II, in the book Senator Billy Fraser, His Life and Times, described the senator as a “very hard-working, honest, public-spirited person”.

Harry M. Moore, a local publisher and writer, described Fraser as a spark plug who ignited projects that needed doing. One of them was the cleaning up of Trenton’s waterfront, where junk and garbage used to be dumped into the bayside and sewers spewed raw sewage directly into the Trent River and the bay. The beautifying of the waterfront began under Fraser’s direction. Fraser Park bears his name.

Moore wrote, “Senator W.A. Fraser, we would say your town was mighty lucky to have had you, for in truth your like will never come this way again.” Senator Billy Fraser died in 1962 at age 75.

Even The Courier-Advocate could acknowledge that the senator’s political skills had paid off for Trenton. When the federal government in the 1940s announced the creation of a new agricultural farm at Smithfield, eight kilometres west of Trenton, the newspaper summed up some of his achievements:
“Trenton is the home of doughty William Fraser, MP for Northumberland County. Since he entered the political picture, Trenton got one of Canada’s greatest airfields, which brought great prestige and wealth to that constituency. Now comes this new experimental farm. Few will be in doubt as to how Northumberland acquired these favours. Billy Fraser has been one of the staunchest tub-thumpers of the King government, a party worker of the real old guard.”

Fraser defended his operating style at a testimonial dinner in his honour: “I am proud to be a citizen of Trenton. I hope I’ve been able to do a little to improve the lot of the people of Trenton. I don’t care if people love me or hate me. I’ve got a job to do and I intend to do it.”

Never could he have imagined the number of jobs his perseverance and tenacity would produce in securing the air base for Trenton. Today 8 Wing/CFB Trenton employs a workforce of more than 4,000 (3,200 regular force, 600 reserve force and 500 civilian members) who live with their families in communities around the Bay of Quinte. By far the largest employer in the area, the base dispenses an annual payroll of $110 million into the Quinte community. The workers at the base are dedicated to supporting Canadian humanitarian and military expeditions around the globe, from the cold of the High Arctic to the heat of the most remote deserts.

If a man had to fulfill only one mission in life, Billy Fraser certainly met his goal. With time left over for others.

Information for this article was gathered from Senator Billy Fraser, His Life and Times, Royal Canadian Air Force websites, newspaper clippings at the Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County, interviews with Eben James II and Wayne Simmons. Photographs courtesy Eben James II.

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carl wiens

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meghan sheffield

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Meghan is a Cobourg writer, web producer and social media manager....

norm wagenaar

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