According to a newspaper story at the time of his death in 1948, millionaire Bill Mason first arrived in Sudbury in 1907 when he was 25 with a young wife, 75 cents in his pocket and a ham sandwich.
Whether the story is true or legend, William Edge Mason, a name few would know today, became the most influential and perhaps most powerful and feared man in Sudbury.
When he died at the age of 66, Mason owned The Sudbury Star, The North Bay Nugget, CKSO Radio, Sudbury's Grand Theatre and six business blocks, the St. Regis Hotel in North Bay, and an island on Lake Panache.
As publisher of the Star, which had the largest readership in Northern Ontario in the 1940s, and owner of Sudbury's only radio station until 1947, he held a lofty position in the city's old boys' club.
Causes and politicians he supported were ensured positive coverage. Anything or anyone he didn't like was edited out.
"He was pro-business, pro-British, anti-union and anti-communist," wrote historian Graeme Mount in the book, Sudbury, Rail Town to Regional Capital. "The Sudbury Star had a monopoly that was never challenged, nor was Mason's command of its point of view."
Oiva W. Saarinen in Meteorite Impact to Constellation City: A Historical Geography of Greater Sudbury said Mason's "support for mining giants was unquestionable. Few references (in the newspaper) were made to sulphur fumes and nickel was never shipped to Germany."
Admired for his many contributions to the community, Mason was disliked by those who did not share his opinions. During his "reign," Sudbury was mostly working class, 35-per-cent French-speaking and about 10-per-cent new Canadians.
A Conservative Party supporter, Mason played a "backroom" role in federal and provincial politics.
Mason was also president of the Sudbury Cub Wolves when the team won the Memorial Cup in 1932. He served as president of the Board of Trade and as chair of the public school board.
Born in Walkerton in 1882, Mason's mother found him a position as a printer's devil (apprentice) with the Walkerton Telescope when he was 14. After his apprenticeship, he moved to Toronto to work as a proofreader and assistant printer at Saturday Night magazine.
Mason was earning $9 a week in Toronto when he sought a higher paying job as a printer at Sudbury Mining News in 1907. Two years later, Mason was hired as printing foreman at the new Northern Daily Star.
The Daily Star's founder, George J. Ashworth, was a member of a wealthy family from Newmarket. An adventurer, he was a captain in the 12th Battalion York Rangers during the Northwest Rebellion in 1885, spent time in law school, and dabbled as a reporter and mining stock broker.
Ashworth's daily, edited by a former actor, struggled from the start. Within a year, Mason became owner and publisher with the help of employees and investors. He renamed the newspaper, The Sudbury Star, and kept it afloat by cutting back to Wednesday and Saturday editions.
(Ashworth moved to Vancouver where he established a career as a journalist and later owned a resort on Savary Island.)
By 1922 competitors, Sudbury Journal and Sudbury Mining News, were out of business. The newspaper survived the Depression and was able to increase publication to three issues per week in 1935. In 1939, with news about the war in Europe occupying the front page, the Star began to publish Monday through Saturday.
Mason made front-page news himself in 1931 when he was charged with arson. John Slotinski claimed Mason promised to pay him $500 to set fire to the Sudbury Transit Company garage. Mason was the struggling company's secretary-treasurer.
During the four-day trial in the spring of 1932, Mason's defence successfully argued Slotinski, who worked at the company as a bus washer, and Kero Koleff, a former transit company manager who opened a competing business, wanted Mason's company "out of the way."
The jury deliberated for 35 minutes before finding Mason not guilty. Slotinski received a four-year sentence in Kingston.
Mason was back in the news in October 1939 when he accused Richard Sair, publisher of Toronto's muckraking tabloid Hush, of libel.
Sair alleged Mason was the "czar of Sudbury" and a member of fascist organizations such as the pro-Nazi Canadian Bund. He also wrote Mason was acquainted with "spies" working in the mines. Efforts were underway to unionize the workforce.
"There is not a word of truth in the article," said Mason.
Sair and his associates faced numerous other charges of libel and immorality. The province's attorney general ordered Hush and four other "filthy" tabloids to cease publishing in November 1939. (Hush was relaunched in 1941 with a new owner.)
In the spring of 1948, Mason ignored heart problems and worked overtime to get Sudbury PC candidate Welland Gemmell elected over incumbent Robert Carlin, a union organizer.
Mason collapsed the day after the election and was taken to hospital. He died two weeks later.
An estimated 1,000 people attended Mason's funeral. He is buried at Park Lawn Cemetery next to his wife, Alice, who died in January 1945. The couple had no children.
Most of Mason's estate, estimated to be $1,652,382 – the equivalent of about $20 million in 2022 – was left to a charitable foundation created in his name to support Sudbury hospitals, the Canadian Red Cross Society, the Sudbury library, Sudbury Community Arena. Later funds were used to help build Science North.
Mason owned prime real estate in the MacKenzie Street area where he planned to build a new newspaper building. He gave property to the library board and gifted land to the Royal Canadian Legion.
Historians have noted Mason, who hated unions, would not have been pleased when the Steelworkers Local 6500 purchased the Legion hall and property on Frood Road in 1965.
He had hoped CKSO could operate under the auspices of the Mason Foundation with profits going to charity, but broadcast regulations didn't allow for this type of ownership.
Business associates George Miller, James Cooper and W.B. Plaunt, purchased CKSO and, with James Meakes, the men bought the newspaper from the Mason Foundation. The Star was sold to the Thomson chain in 1955. The Nugget was sold to its employees, but later sold to Southam Newspapers. Both newspapers are now owned by Postmedia.
Mason's passing was reported in The New York Times and newspapers throughout Canada. A Canadian Press story described him as a "thick-set, white-haired publisher who loved a fight whether it was in the field of politics, business or sport.”
A former Star editor, James Y. Nicol, who had been fired after getting into a fist fight with the publisher, wrote Mason's obituary for the Globe and Mail.*
"He was cursed, respected, feared and admired," wrote Nicol, another legendary newpaperman, on June 23, 1948. "He could pick up the scent of a news story like a bloodhound on the rail. And he could keep a confidence."
Nicol described a "shirt-sleeved" boss who proofread the newspaper for "stupid, silly, childish" mistakes, smoked too much and had a reputation for firing reporters only to rehire them a few hours later. Mason was often seen in the pressroom putting "his baby" to bed.
Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. She is a former editor of Northern Life and Sudbury Living magazine, and has a special interest in local history. Then and Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.
* Maclean’s April 15, 1951, pg. 54
The Globe and Mail, (Feb. 8, 1932) Sudbury publisher denies giving order "to set the fire"
The Globe and Mail, (June 13, 1932) Mason not guilty of arson charge
The Globe and Mail, (Oct. 20,, 1939) Richard Sair is arrested on libel count
The Globe and Mail, (June 23, 1948) James Y. Nicol, Sudbury Star publisher William E. Mason dead