The Hon. Lorne C. Henderson

The Hon. Lorne C. Henderson served as Ontario's Ag Minister under Premier William Davis.

Henderson championed farm drainage

Among the many to have made their mark on agricultural and the rural communities of Lambton County, few have left a more indelible imprint than the Hon. Lorne C. Henderson. 

With a long and distinguished career of public service at both the local and provincial levels, Lorne was the consummate grassroots politician.

Armed with a prodigious memory for people’s names, birthdays, anniversaries and family connections, he was known for having the unique ability to set aside partisan political differences to work in the best interest of all his constituents and for the benefit of all farmers across the province.

While best known for his role as the long-time MPP for the provincial riding of Lambton and his time as Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture and Food, Lorne was first and foremost a farmer and remained in this vocation his entire life. All who knew him could attest that he loved people, loved his province, and certainly held a special affection for Lambton County.

Lorne Charles Henderson was born in Enniskillen Township, the youngest of three children born to David and Elizabeth (Robinson) Henderson. When Lorne was a month old, his parents moved the family to Lot 8, Concession 5, Enniskillen, the farm on which he grew to manhood, later farmed, and where the Henderson family continues to reside today. Lorne attended the local one-room school and while he advanced no further than grade-8, education was always of great importance to him.

But as former Lambton MPP Marcel Beaubien noted: “Lorne's formal education was at the elementary level, but when it came to politics, he certainly had the equivalent of a PhD.”

Lorne began farming on his own account during the dark days of the Great Depression and got his start in the fall of 1937 when he entered a share-crop agreement with the owner of a farm on the Eighth Concession.  He once recounted that his income from the first year of that venture was $50 and two loads of hay.  The following year he fared a little better with the take being $100.

Lorne later took over the family farm and like others in the South Lambton area at that time, was largely engaged in livestock farming, primarily a cow-calf operation.

This was largely because the heavy clay soil in South Lambton, which for the most part, was poorly drained and did not lend itself to the production of cash crops. Consequently, most farmers in the area restricted their farming operations to growing hay and pasturing cattle.

However, a neighbouring farm did have four runs of tile across it and at an early age Lorne recognized the value of tile drainage, taking notice that the land above the tile drains maintained better soil structure, was less compacted, and generally grew far superior crops.  As a consequence, Lorne became an early supporter, and one of the province’s most vocal advocates of farm tile drainage. 

In January 1946, Lorne was first elected as a councillor on Enniskillen Council and served in that capacity until 1950 when he was elected Deputy Reeve.  In 1952 he was elected Reeve and in 1957, Warden of Lambton County.

Lorne firmly believed that once a municipal politician achieved the office of Warden it should be the culmination of his or her municipal career.  Consequently, he did not stand for re-election the following year and spent the following four years out of elected office. 

In the summer of 1963, Lorne was encouraged to seek the nomination for the Conservative party in that fall’s provincial election and on Sept. 25, 1963 he was elected with more than 50 per cent of the vote.  He was returned to that office in the elections of 1967, 1971, 1975, 1977and 1981, increasing his majority of the vote each time.  In all Lorne served 23 years as the MPP for Lambton.

In 1975, he was appointed Minister Without Portfolio, in 1977 served as Chairman of Cabinet and in 1978 was appointed Minister of Government Services.  Lorne proved to be as skillful at networking at Queen’s Park as he was on the back roads of Lambton County and he soon made valuable connections on both sides of the house.  It was about this time that a Toronto daily newspaper referred to him as “the most powerful politician in Ontario.”   

 

However, in 1979, Premier William Davis gave him the job of his dreams when he appointed him Minister of Agriculture and Food.  However, it really couldn’t have been a worse time to be Minister of Agriculture.  

With interest rates at the time eclipsing 20 per cent and commodity prices in a slump, there was a flurry of farm bankruptcies and the Minister of Agriculture received most of the heat.

David Henderson recalled: “Pig and cattle farmers were going broke by the handful and every morning there were calls for father’s resignation from the floor of the legislature,” he said.  “They were difficult times for everyone.”

Nevertheless, Lorne was re-elected in 1981 with more than 63 per cent of the vote and the following year was appointed Provincial Secretary for Resources Development. However, after suffering some ill health, Lorne resigned from cabinet in 1983 but completed his term as MPP for Lambton.

In 1985, he retired from provincial politics and returned to the farm where he remained highly active in the local community until the time of his death in 2003.

When it comes to community involvement, few could match Lorne Henderson’s record.

As the late Sarnia MPP Jim Bullbrook once commented in the 1970s, “Lorne is the past master of everything that ever went on in Lambton County.”

As a former Agriculture Minister and Food and an active member of so many local agricultural organizations, Lorne’s contribution to the farming community are manifold. However, his greatest contribution may have been before he was agriculture minister.

On June 30, 1972, Lorne was appointed chairman of the Select Committee on Land Drainage. While controversial at the time, the committee was charged with essentially evaluating the costs and benefits of land drainage and a review of the Drainage Act, which had not been amended since the 1800s.

The committee travelled to 40 different locations within the province and beyond to hear briefs and presentations and to make independent studies of drainage problems and programs. There was great interest in the rural areas as evidenced by the number of briefs presented at these meetings. The committee made its final report with recommendations in June of 1974 and as a result many amendments were made to the Drainage Act that brought substantial benefits to agriculture across the entire province.

As his son, David Henderson, pointed out, the committee re-wrote the tile loan system and allowed farmers to borrow money at 4 per cent. 

He added that during the early 1980s, a time when interest rates were out of control, that allowed many farmers to drain land that, at the time, was considered marginal pasture land. 

He noted that the proof of the committee’s value stands in the heavy clay soils of South Lambton that today outgrow the sand and lighter soils of other areas.

It has taken 30 years to prove its value but the Municipal Drainage Act on Tile Drainage Installation was a document well before its time,” he said.

It should be noted that today more than 86 per cent of the farm land in Lambton County is tile drained.

Lorne Henderson died Feb. 7, 2002 and is interred in the family plot at Oil Springs Cemetery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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