The Picnic King

March 1, 2000 by James M. Whalen

In September 1924, more than 3,000 excited children gathered at Exhibition Park in Toronto to meet a kindly gentleman who was known across Canada as the Picnic King, the Summer Santa Claus or the Orphans’ Friend. Each child who visited the park that day received an orange, some peanuts and candy, a large scoop of ice cream and a thick slice of cake. The children also came away from the picnic with a nickel and a “shin-plaster”. The latter was the name given to a Canadian banknote that was worth 25 cents.

The amount of money that was given to each child may not seem like much by today’s standards, but at the time it represented a small fortune to the children who were mostly orphans or from disadvantaged families.

For many of the youngsters the highlight of the afternoon was the wild scramble for pennies that began when the same gentleman threw handfuls of coppers into the lively crowd. The penny scramble, which the gentleman had employed at other picnics across the land, was described in a Saint John, N.B., newspaper as follows: “The worst football scrum never had so many struggling arms and legs all mixed up together or produced so much elation in the triumphant capture of the desired object.”

The identity of the Picnic King was no secret. He was Canadian millionaire philanthropist James Daniel O’Connell.

Born on June 23, 1860, O’Connell was raised on a farm in Thorn Brook, N.B., approximately 35 kilometres northeast of Sussex. He was one of at least seven children born to James and Joanna O’Connell. The couple worked hard to keep food on the table, but with so many mouths to feed it was a daunting task. Young James and his siblings learned early on that sharing was the best way to survive.

When O’Connell was 12, he collected bits of scrap metal from around the farm. He took his collection of broken stove lids, pots and old horseshoes to an itinerant junk dealer who paid him eight cents for the load. The weigh scale “trembled and there was visual evidence that it would come to rest at a point indicating a weight of metal of the value of 9 cents on the spot. But the junk dealer…brought it down to 8 cents plus…,” wrote the New York Times in a May 1925 story on O’Connell.

The boy put half of the money into a piggy bank and spent the rest on a picnic for more than 30 children. He got his brother to buy four cents worth of gumdrops, but when he realized there weren’t enough gumdrops for every youngster at the picnic, he cut them into pieces and provided a small bit to each child. O’Connell and his friends also picked some strawberries which were added to the picnic fare, along with fresh cream from the O’Connell farm and some cool drinking water from a nearby spring.

The so-called Gumdrop Picnic was such a success that O’Connell never forgot the joy he felt from the experience, nor the excitement that it generated among the children.

With little formal education, O’Connell left home at age 20 and, like many other Maritimers, went to the United States in search of work. He found his first job in Boston, Mass., in the egg-testing department of the North Packing Company. It wasn’t long before he took over that company and added to it the manufacture of a dressing for glove leather that was made out of egg yolk.

In 1892, he founded the O’Connell Milling Company with branches in the states of Washington and Idaho. Four years later–at age 36–he sold the milling business and returned home to New Brunswick where he operated a large sheep farm. He also speculated in land, sold building lots and laid out some streets in the town of Sussex. In 1903, O’Connell left New Brunswick and went to Cuba where he thought a fortune might be made in the production of sugar cane. An inducement for North American businessmen was that Sir William Van Horne, builder and later president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, had just completed the construction of a railway across eastern Cuba.

Entrepreneurs, including O’Connell, acquired numerous land holdings in Cuba. O’Connell bought property near Hatuey, about 30 miles from the city of Camaguey which was the railway headquarters and main business centre in eastern Cuba. Camaguey is situated in southeastern Cuba.

By growing sugar cane and raising cattle, O’Connell became even more wealthy than before. However, he suffered a setback in his fortunes in 1917 when his property was damaged by rebels. Three years later, he and other Cuban sugar producers were severely affected when the price of sugar collapsed. Nonetheless, he managed to cope economically and continued to spend several months each year in Cuba until his death there in 1943.

But the temporary economic reverses he faced in Cuba were nothing compared to the personal loss he suffered in 1908. Less than a year after he married, his wife, Elizabeth Cronin of Boston, died in Cuba of complications from childbirth. The couples’ newborn son also died.

Although distraught, O’Connell accepted their deaths with a Christian attitude. “I bow to the will of the Almighty and will endeavour to lead an active and useful life,” he wrote to the Sussex newspaper in March 1910. Indeed, the tragedy marked a turning point in his life. He hired an agent to run his business and went into semi-retirement. He wintered in Cuba, but from then on travelled regularly throughout North America devoting the bulk of his time and money to philanthropy.

The Halifax Herald wrote: “Instead of becoming bitter and narrow, and concentrating on acquiring still more money and more power…he decided then and there to bring what happiness he could to children.”

The best way to do it, he figured, was by giving picnics to orphans such as the one he had given to his family and friends in New Brunswick.

Although he had hosted a number of children’s picnics before, he had not held any with any regularity. So, he started a chain of free annual picnics for orphans in towns and cities throughout North America, Central America and Cuba. In order to finance them, he established a trust fund with the city council in upwards of 50 municipalities. Half the income derived from the trust was designated for an annual O’Connell picnic for orphans residing in the particular municipality concerned and the remaining half was to be distributed equally among the children at Christmas.

The income from O’Connell’s trusts ensured the continuance of annual picnics and gifts to orphans for many years. In Halifax, for example, the O’Connell picnics lasted at least until 1963–a full 20 years after his death. In Sussex, the O’Connell picnic is still held once a year.

The annual picnics were held whether O’Connell was present or not. However, they were a lot more lively when the Picnic King showed up. At times, the children seemed to regard him as a modern-day Pied Piper. At Saint John in 1922, the Telegraph Journal reported that between 200 and 300 children trooped down “to the Royal Hotel following their good friend and surrounded him in the lobby, continuing their hearty cheers and making a din so lusty that the peaceful occupants of the hotel were neigh well deafened.”

In order to guarantee the success of each picnic, O’Connell planned each event well in advance. For example, he asked the mayor of a particular town or city to solicit volunteers to help with each event. For O’Connell, it also meant extensive travel. “He left home in Camaguey, Cuba, early in the year, visiting first the cities of the Central American republics, following with a tour of the French and British West Indies, returning to Cuba where 16 of his affairs were staged covering every section of the island,” reported the Halifax Herald in 1923. “From there he crossed to Key West, Fla., and began a North American series…in Jacksonville, Fla., on May 20. Travelling north and west, he continued through south and central United States to the Pacific northwest coming to Canada and held his first affair…at Vancouver on July 14. Then, he came east on the Canadian Pacific and brought joy to loads of children along the way.”

Besides Vancouver and other municipalities, O’Connell picnics were held in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Saint John, Halifax and Charlottetown.

The Picnic King continued with his charitable work even after he suffered a paralytic stroke in Cuba in 1937. Although it took him over a year to recover, he gradually regained his fighting spirit and in 1939–with his legs partially crippled–the 79-year-old philanthropist returned to the Canadian picnic circuit and appropriately hosted two picnics in Kings County, New Brunswick, where the whole idea had started. He held one in Sussex and the other in Havelock.

In addition, O’Connell travelled by air to Halifax, Toronto and Winnipeg where he hosted picnics for thousands of children. However, his amazing comeback was short lived. His health deteriorated and his last visit to New Brunswick was in 1941.

O’Connell’s philanthropy was also directed at other charitable causes that helped children. In 1928, he purchased property in south Edmonton for $25,000 and then established a girls orphanage. The O’Connell Institute–as it was known–was turned over to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, although O’Connell put up the money for its administration and maintenance.

During the Great Depression, he gave away to the needy 20,000 bushels of wheat grown on his farm near Killam, Alta.

But O’Connell was especially good to the place that became his home–Sussex, N.B. Almost every summer throughout his life, he returned there to host a picnic, the only one that was not solely for orphans. He also provided money for the purchase of a park near the town’s centre, donated some 30 acres at the top of O’Connell Ave., and donated the land that the town’s Roman Catholic church sits on.

His philanthropic work was recognized in Saint John in February 1943 when the Freedom of the City–the highest civic honour that common council is empowered to award–was conferred on him. By then, he had given $11,000 to the municipality as well as hosted his picnics for orphans.

It was in Saint John during WW I where he reminded orphans that there were children in war-stricken Europe who were perhaps less fortunate than they were. When an appeal went out for North Americans to contribute to the relief of Belgian children whose country was occupied by the Germans, O’Connell made it possible for the young picnickers in Saint John to give to the Belgium Relief Fund by handing out 30 cents to each child and then asking them to give up to five cents of it back again. In this way, in 1916 and again in 1917, the orphans contributed about 10 dollars in each of those years to Belgian children in an extraordinary example of generosity of the poor towards the poor.

In Cuba, O’Connell was honoured by being made an adoptive son of Camaguey for supplying food and raising money to feed the unemployed and needy. In addition, he established an orphanage in Cuba and hosted annual picnics there for orphans. In one year alone there were 16 such outings.

Besides supporting charities, he supported the temperance movement throughout his life and worked actively for prohibition.

The Picnic King died on Oct. 13, 1943, and was buried alongside his wife and child at Camaguey. After his death, several newspapers in Canada paid tribute to his philanthropic work and business acumen. Mainly due to his generosity, the total probate value of the estate of the man who was said to have made more than a million dollars was surprisingly low at just over $5,200.

The generous nature of this self-made Canadian businessman of humble origins who gave so much time and money to orphans can be summed up in his own words as reported by the Vancouver Province newspaper in July 1923. “I have the warmest spot in my heart for unfortunate kiddies and gladly share my good fortune with them.”

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